Steve Mannix is the Executive Director at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester and is also Co-Chief Executive alongside the executive producer. Theatre has long been a part of his life, having trained as an actor before working in the industry in a variety of roles on the management side, mostly in and around London with the likes of the Battersea Arts Centre, Hackney Empire and Albany Empire Deptford. We caught up with him to see how things have been going at the newly refurbished Mercury Theatre and to hear all about their plans for the future.
“It’s been the toughest year yet for everybody, but particularly for theatre and live events. We’re still not out of the woods yet, but there are some good signs, so let’s hope.” Steve comments.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Steve and his team at Mercury have been working hard behind the scenes for the past year, Steve explaining: “Overnight we had to set over 50 staff members up for working remotely; then we converted our usual live face-to-face program to online. We’ve done anything from youth theatre sessions, family sing-alongs, workshops, mentoring for local creative businesses, socially distanced VE day sing-alongs with local care homes and old people’s homes, and we’ve streamed various different plays, play readings, and our panto.”
Over the year, more than 450,000 people visited the Mercury online sites or engaged in those activities. Steve believes that it has really given the team a new direction, explaining: “I think when we eventually do manage to reopen; we’ll have a mixed economy or program of live and online events.”
He adds, “We’ve also done our bit to help in terms of the COVID-19 emergency. Our staff were making scrubs and masks for hospitals, volunteering for the food bank, delivering medication, and we had staff seconded to Colchester Borough Council to help in terms of marketing and communications. You name it, we’ve done it! What is it? In a crisis, it’s the mother of invention – it’s been a tough ride, but we’ve done it.”
This past year has meant a lot of adjustments in the arts industry, one of the biggest changes being the movement into online spaces for performances and the Mercury have certainly experienced this themselves. Speaking of digital events, Steve told us that, although he would’ve previously said everything had to be live, he’s grown to enjoy online events and plans to have a balance between online and live theatre in the future, wanting a combination of both.
Due to their dive into the digital world, the Mercury have been able to engage with groups they previously haven’t had access to and have even managed to share free recorded showings of their Panto for care home and children’s homes, some experiencing a professional Panto for the first time. In addition, the shows were even watched internationally in America, Canada, Hong Kong and more.
The Mercury Theatre was fortunate enough to receive grants from the Culture Recovery Fund so speaking on how beneficial such grants are Steve commented “It was a lifeline. I can’t tell you. During the year, as an organization overnight, we lost three million pounds worth of income and we would have had to make severe redundancies, if not the whole staff. But we need to bear in mind that it was a competitive process for the Culture Recovery Fund, it wasn’t just being handed out. I think it was also recognition of our work and our importance to the region and to the local economy, but it was a real lifeline.”
Looking forward, the theatre recently announced the new creative engagement program, which Steve says “It will be the biggest creative engagement program we’ve ever hosted here at the Mercury.” The new building will have space to accommodate newer prospects like dance classes, in the first professional standard dance studio in North Essex. The theatre also now has a proper rehearsal space, an education and learning space for young people, allowing them to expand their youth theatre program and there will also be a lot more activities for after-school provision and school holidays.”
Steve explained: “Historically, we were running activities in church halls, the Salvation Army, the scout hall and [at venues] across Colchester, so we’re going to be able to host that all on one site now. People will be able to come along and join a community choir or have musical theatre and dance lessons. It will be right the way across from youngsters to elders, and you don’t have to have any experience.”
The Mercury Theatre has spent 11 million pounds on the building but they’ve spent 10 million pounds of that in the local economy by using local companies to build the new theatre space – it’s built by local people, for local people. They’ve also brought in 9.5 million pounds into the region and to Colchester that wouldn’t otherwise have come, from funders like the Arts Council and major trusts and foundations.
Steve said: “Against all the odds, we’re going to open. Covid delayed us by nearly a year, but we will be back! We’re really grateful that we are part of, I hope, the recovery of the local economy.”
Provided the government’s roadmap goes according to plan, the Mercury Theatre is planning to reopen on the weekend of the 26th and 27th of June. They will be re-opening their new front-of-house bar area, and they’ll be able to give people tours of the new building that they can book in advance online. Then they aim to reopen for shows at the end of July, if social-distancing is lifted.
Until then, Steve advises to keep your eyes on their website for activities and that purchasing tickets for their shows is essential for the artistic community to recover. He added, “Where you can, if people are thinking about supporting, they might be able to make a small donation to ourselves, our work, or others; because it’s not only now we’ve got to think about, but we’ve got to think about the future to make sure that we all bounce back.”
Thank you to Steve for your time, and we can’t wait to see the Mercury Theatre re-open and visit the new building.
For more information visit www.mercurytheatre.co.uk.