Dear Hull, our worries are existential

Artistic director Paul Smith writes about the need to support arts and culture in Hull, ahead of the opening of Baby, He Loves You

The cast of Baby, He Loves You

Dear Hull,

A few weeks ago, we announced our new show Baby, He Loves You and shared with it an accompanying blog post, which outlined the challenges around making and selling theatre right now.

One of the things we try to do at Middle Child is be transparent and open about the difficulties we face day-to-day as a charity who exist to produce theatre in Hull.

So, here goes…

A few weeks have passed and unfortunately, one week before opening we are not where we hoped we’d be in terms of ticket sales. We’re at 32% of our target.

This makes for a significant and terrifying impact on the future of Middle Child, if we do not reach our financial target of £19,500 ticket income on this show.* However, no-one gets into the arts to write blogs about balancing the books, so I wanted to write to you for a different reason.

I am doing this, of course, as the artistic director and CEO of Middle Child and a founding member of the company. More importantly I’m writing to you as someone who has an unwavering belief in the power, importance and potential of live theatre.

I am so incredibly proud of this show.

I’m incredibly proud of what it means to put this show into the world right now. I’m incredibly proud that Baby, He Loves You is a world premiere of a brand-new play by a Hull writer, Maureen Lennon, with a brilliant local team, at a time where big-budget revivals and celebrity names dominate our industry and the box office.

It breaks my heart to think that, at present, many people in this great city will not see this brilliant play made with them in mind. I hate leaving a rehearsal full of excitement at what we’re creating here to check sales reports and be met with disappointment.

I’m aware that a big part of this is on us. Us as in Middle Child, us as in the theatre industry, us as in the arts sector. Money is tight right now: we’re having to prioritise getting by in this (awfully-named) cost-of-living crisis. Clearly, and for a variety of reasons, live theatre isn’t always high on that list. We exist to change that perception and are doing everything we can to make the case that art, theatre, culture enrich our lives.

Times are tough too for art, theatre, culture. Audiences simply haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. Funding is more competitive than ever. Costs are going up much faster than our income levels. You know it, we know it.

Running an arts organisation has never been harder than now. Our worries are existential, if not immediately so. As we have already seen with fallen friends in recent times, companies like Middle Child are not guaranteed to be around forever. Unless things change, we will lose brilliant art and brilliant arts workers. We will lose those magical moments that bring us out of our houses and into one space together to witness something that challenges the world around us.

None of this is new information. These conversations are happening daily behind closed doors. Theatres and theatre companies nationwide are struggling in similar ways. We often feel ashamed to admit it. But clearly, we are in the midst of a very real fight for a cultural future and we have to be honest about that.

I lay awake at night unable to sleep questioning how we crack this puzzle.

Last year, we decided to refocus our work more directly on reaching the people of Hull and better serving our local communities. We did this because we believe in Hull, love this city and want to help make a difference here. Money that would have previously been put towards touring the show or taking it to London has been put towards doing it in Hull. Help us justify this and keep doing it long into the future.

The thing I realised I haven’t done is “say the thing”. So here I am, saying the thing in the hope that it galvanises something.

I want to say that:

– Hull has grown one of the most exciting, talented and bold playwrights in the entire country in Maureen Lennon. Her incredible, authentic, Hull-centric writing stands-up against that of any other writer in the country – I’d put my house on it.

– Hull grows brilliant actors. We all know about Isy Suttie, Tom Courtenay and Mike Jibson but that’s not all. This show alone includes three outstanding local talents, from Dan McGarry who grew up on Chanterlands Avenue and is now into his 25th year as an actor, to the fantastic Laura Meredith who I first met through Hull Truck Youth Theatre and Elle Ideson, a former Archbishop Sentamu student, who is exploding onto the professional scene as Lucy. These actors are the product of Hull and to see them perform on its stages is not only a joy, but also exactly what makes regional theatre so special. These actors know these streets, they know this city and some of them probably know you. Come and support their incredible craft, which was developed in the schools, colleges, playgrounds and after-school detentions of this city. Showing your support sends a signal to Hull’s young people with similar aspirations that their dreams are possible, that the city will help them to get there and come and clap and cheer for them when they come true.

– Hull knows how to put on a show. Most of our brilliant creative team live here and are having successful careers from within its borders. Careers are built here and have no limits. Your support shows the incredible people who already live here that they should stay, and that others should join them.

– We know there is an audience out there. You sell out our panto every year and we love you for that. We shed a tear every year when so many of you tell us how our silly little pantos have become a staple of your family Christmases. Take a chance on us. Live theatre and new writing can be as good a night out as panto, albeit with fewer knob gags. These shows are made by the same team, with the same amount of love, hard work and Hull spirit. We know loads of you already come but we’d love to look out and see even more our panto pals smiling back at us, though maybe with fewer boos.

– Funding to the arts is being cut across the country. We must show that this can’t happen here and that we value our art and our artists. New work is harder to justify than ever. While Shakespeare adaptations, syllabus plays and celebrity casting all have their place, we cannot allow them to become the only theatre that is viable to produce. What would then happen to stories about places like Hull, with people from places like Hull in them? If you don’t come, they won’t happen. Please show us that new work has value to you and that stories about your lives, where you live now, matter.

– I’m sorry. I’m sorry it’s come to this. That Middle Child, theatre and the arts haven’t made the case well enough for you to buy a ticket to our show yet. That the world is so tough right now that many of us are having to choose between essentials and things like theatre tickets. I really don’t want to write this blog and ask you so directly to come and see Baby, He Loves You; I’m only doing so because I believe so strongly in what we’re creating and know, deep in my soul, that if you come and see it then it will have an impact and prove our worth.

Hull proudly and rightly speaks of itself as a cultural city.

I implore you to come and support us, see this thing we made for you and I promise, you won’t regret it. The feedback we receive from our audiences is always gorgeous and we want to impact more people with our work.

The fact we have regular support from Hull City Council – who are huge supporters of the arts – and the Arts Council means we can exist at all. I’m also aware that I’m writing this at the same time we’re launching our incredibly exciting new playwriting festival, Fresh Ink. I just wanted to take a moment to say that is only possible thanks to major funding and wider support from our founding partners Wykeland, investment from the brilliant J F Brignall Trust, as well as trusts and foundations like the I Am Fund and Garrick Charitable Trust, who are directly supporting the commissioning of new plays.

This shows how we can and are thinking outside of the usual system to keep supporting the creation of new work, but we do also need to talk about ticket sales.

If you already have a ticket and are reading this, then I’d love you to think about how else you can support this hard-working team. Is there a friend who you know would love live theatre, but hasn’t tried it? Do you have a family member who is a huge advocate of the people of Hull and their unlimited potential? Do you know someone rich who can pay for all of the tickets so anyone in Hull can come for free? (A boy can dream). If so, please take 30 seconds to share this blog, talk about the show, share the booking link.

Thank you for reading. I write this not as a plea, but as a statement of unwavering confidence in what we are building and how it relates to Hull. I believe wholeheartedly in what we are doing, and I care passionately about fighting for the value of arts in Hull and further afield. I’ve dedicated my life, my career, my work to lessening the barriers to theatre I felt as a young working class kid in Essex and which have only widened in the 18 years since I moved to and fell in love with Hull.

Join us on this adventure. Let’s pack this show out and show that work by incredible artists from Hull such as Maureen Lennon have as much audience appeal as a bloke from Stratford who died many moons ago, or that fella from that Marvel thing.

*I should say a bit here about that money bit at the top. We have a £19,500 target for Baby, He Loves You, a £40,000 fundraising target and a £38,000 panto target this year alone. Failure in one or more of those things puts us in genuine and immediate risk, as it does for all arts organisations. Please, support local art.

UPDATE (17 April): We have been blown away by the response since this blog post went live. While there is still a way to go, sales have rocketed from 32% to 69%. We have also received a number of one-off donations, including from anonymous donors wishing to buy tickets for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to go. Thank you so much for your support, and to everyone who shared, bought tickets and donated so others can see the show for free. Thank you for supporting live theatre.