In September 2016, Off The Fence Theatre Company announced they were leaving their home at Upstairs at the Western for pastures new. We speak to David Bell and Jess Richards of new management Upstairs at the Western community interest company about taking on the much-loved West End pub theatre.

Off the Fence Theatre Company had carved out a name for themselves showcasing new writing in Leicester, building a platform for both local artists and touring companies and doing something that many theatres in the city weren’t; nurturing emerging talent.

So, last September, the company opened up applications for new management. And in November it was announced that the space would be taken on by David Bell, Jess Richards and Jessamyn Witthaus under a new social enterprise Upstairs at The Western CIC (Community Interest Company), with the aim of offering a ‘small multi-form suburban arts facility on the western side of Leicester’, whilst also developing new programmes specifically designed to help support emerging talent.

The new team is somewhat of a powerhouse of arts experience. David Bell is a planning, project and programme manager with 30 years of experience in the public and private sectors, as well as Chair of The Spark Arts for Children; Jess Richards is the Co-Director of Impulse Collective Theatre Company and Jessamyn Witthaus is an events and stage manager whose track record includes working with Handmade Festival and Dreaming in Colour Productions.

The trio had never met before, but came together after a public meeting about the future of UATW in October 2016. “So Jessamyn was at the meeting, and after that they announced the application process to take it over,” David explains. “We were given six days to put together two sides of A4 proposal. I asked around my art sector contacts and that’s where Jess Richards’ name came up.”

The process whittled down nine applicants to three, all of whom had to present a pitch to OTF setting out their plans for the theatre. “We had to go and do a Dragon’s Den kind of presentation,” David explains. “We got phoned up in very late October, and they said that we’d got it. That night was all champagne, and the following day was. ‘Oh my god. We run a theatre now.’”

The following months entailed shadowing OTF, learning how the theatre was run, and then the keys were officially handed over in January 2017. The theatre has so far been sustainable due to a team of loyal volunteers, working on all aspects of the theatre, from front of house to technical. They even have a voluntary cleaner. “He won’t accept free tickets, and comes in every Saturday and cleans the theatre, even if it doesn’t need cleaning! We’ve got those kind of fabulous volunteers.”

The commitment to keep it going is testament to its importance to the city’s arts scene. “I think the feel you get when you’re in there is so intimate, you kind of feel like you’re with the performer,” says Jess. “It’s not big, huge musicals with lights and fireworks. It’s raw, emotional performance.”

And UATW CIC is aiming to continue to expand the theatre’s reach, building a programme of events that includes interdisciplinary shows and go into niche areas. They’re keen to extend this openness to emerging talent, encouraging people to pitch their work to the theatre. “I would say, don’t think that you are not right for the theatre,” Jess says. “You might as well apply and give it a go.”

“We’ll be adventurous too, we’ve only got 40-50 seats to fill so we can do that,” David adds.

And ultimately, the exciting thing about UATW’s new management is its goals to expand the venue and offer opportunities to aspiring artists in the city. Ambitiously, David, Jess and Jessamyn are aiming to increase the annual number of shows from 50 to 150, increasing the length of touring companies runs and elevating the theatre’s profile.

“We see ourselves as a stepping stone venue. We’d like regular artists to outgrow us, where they have become so popular and successful in our venue that they can step up and get more audience members,” Jess explains.

With only one month of management under their belt, the future under David, Jess and Jessamyn is already looking bright. Their upcoming shows include local artists Jess Green and MrShay, whilst also presenting new shows from companies such as London’s Bread and Roses Theatre and Edinburgh 2016 success Grist Theatre.

“The arts community in Leicester is amazing, you could fill a whole programme just with local artists if you wanted to. So, we would like to do more with that.”

Check out Upstairs at the Western’s programme of events at www.upstairsatthewestern.com

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Natalie Beech is a playwright, freelance journalist and Deputy Editor of Great Central.

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