'We're cautiously optimistic': The show must go on for the historic Grand Theatre after an 18-month period like no other

The Grand Theatre in Blackpool cost local theatre manager Thomas Sergenson - known as 'The People's Showman' - £20,000 to build. The stunning venue eventually opened in 1894 with a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Ruth Eastwood, CEO of the Blackpool Grand Theatre
Ruth Eastwood, CEO of the Blackpool Grand Theatre

The theatre went on to experience many firsts, including being the first theatre in Blackpool to be totally electric, and a number of momentous events, such as hosting a lecture from Winston Churchill in 1902. It even survived demolition in the '60s after Jeffrey Finestone, a member of the Victorian Society, successfully applied for the building to be given Grade II listing.

But no hurdle has been quite like that presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the leadership of CEO Ruth Eastwood, the Grand Theatre has accessed more than £1m in financial support to help the business survive through things like the Cultural Recovery Fund. With some 57 employees, it was forced to rely on the furlough scheme and saw staff numbers reduced to just 15 at the height of the pandemic.

Blackpool Grand Theatre seating (credit Sean Conboy)

Shows were moved from March 2020 to May, then from May to September, then from September to January, such was the unpredictable nature of lockdowns and infection rates. To stay in touch with customers, they ran online workshops and classes and created a YouTube channel called At Home With You. And now they're reopening.

"Coming back has been joyful," says Ruth. "We're enjoying seeing each other face-to-face again and we're feeling great now that we appear to be coming out of [the pandemic]. The main characteristic of the past year was simply not knowing what was going to happen next; every plan you made had to be remade three or four times and that uncertainty was very frustrating.

"Reducing staff was very sad for an organisation like us that is not only well-loved but which has a loyal team," she adds. "It's difficult for people, but nobody blames anybody - no one's experienced a pandemic before and people have been amazingly resilient. And, for the staff who remained, we supported each other to get through it, which brought us closer together."

With staffing numbers back up to around 36 and plans in place to get that figure closer to 50 in due course, Ruth, who has worked at The Grand for eight years and will be stepping down from her role as CEO next year, says that the mood around the organisation at the moment is one of 'cautious optimism'.

Blackpool Grand Theatre stage (credit Sean Conboy)

"We've been optimistic all year and we've had our fingers burned, like over Christmas when we thought we'd be able to open our show Pandemonium and it was the dress rehearsal when the second lockdown came," she says. "All the performers were ready, the tech people were ready, and we suddenly had to stop.

"We turned it into a recorded production for online and people from all over the world watched it, but we nearly killed ourselves because it was such hard work to have the rug pulled out from you at the last minute," adds Ruth. "Emotionally, that was probably the lowest point for everybody."

Set to welcome audiences back for shows, including their first in-house production 'Around the World in 80s Days', later this month, The Grand's schedule for 2022 and beyond is looking evermore normal, providing hope that - should the successful vaccination rollout continue and infection rates are controlled - things could finally be on the up once and for all.

"The response from customers has been really good - people are ringing up just to say 'welcome back!'" explains Ruth. "I'm proud to be leaving the organisation in a really positive state so the next person can continue to grow and change and invest.

"The magic of theatre is that it's a shared experience," she adds. "I'm hoping we won't just be welcoming back people who've already discovered that magic but that more people will come out to discover something new."