Hope Mill Theatre: a Manchester musical powerhouse
Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre had the odds against it when it opened, but two years on, Mark Shenton finds founders Joseph Houston and William Whelton celebrating London transfers and an eclectic mix in the pipeline
This week marks the second anniversary of Joseph Houston and William Whelton receiving the keys to a former cotton mill in Ancoats, Manchester. The Hope Mill Theatre is now one of Manchester’s most dynamic venues.
They found the Grade II-listed space – with seating for up to 120 people and its own adjoining cafe bar – on Gumtree and have now turned it into a powerhouse home for musicals.
This week their revival of the 1960s Broadway musical Hair transfers to the Vaults in London. There it will be re-imagined as an immersive theatre experience – and for one private performance, the audience will also be invited to join the cast in stripping naked.
Hair is the second of Hope Mill Theatre’s four in-house productions to transfer to London, following the UK premiere of the Off-Broadway musical Yank!, which transferred to the Charing Cross Theatre.
Hope Mill Theatre profile
Address: 113 Pollard Street, Manchester M4 7JA
Box office: 0161 275 9141
Artistic director: Joseph Houston
Executive producer: William Whelton
Audience figures: More than 20,000 to date
Annual turnover: £200,000 (2016)
Number of employees: Two full-time staff; Five or six casual staff
The pair also staged their most personal project at the venue when, three months ago, they married each other and held their wedding reception there.
So for Houston, 27, and Whelton, 28, who both graduated from London drama schools in 2011, this is a true passion project, both on and off stage.
They first met each other as cast members on the Australian tour of Sasha Regan’s all-male production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, which began life at the Union Theatre in 2012.
The 6ft 5in Houston played Ruth, and Whelton, only a touch shorter at 6ft 3in, was in the ensemble and covered one of the sisters. In 2015, the show was revived for a UK tour, for which they both returned.
“Sasha is a big part of where we are today,” says Whelton. “It was doing that tour, and talking to her about the Union and how it was set up 20 years ago, when we told her that we had just moved to Manchester and were thinking of doing something similar there. She said: ‘Just do it.’ ”
They had moved to Manchester partly for personal reasons – Whelton is originally from nearby Macclesfield – but also professional ones.
“The last year we were in London, we had really struggled,” Houston says. “Will had a polyp on his vocal cords that had to be removed, but he went back to work too quickly afterwards – doing a panto in Norwich. It came back and he needed an even more extensive operation the second time.
“I’d had four auditions the whole year and the only job I got was in Singapore. We were questioning what we were doing in London, where we were struggling to pay the rent.”
Q&A: Joseph Houston and William Whelton
What was your first job?
JH: Aged 16, working in the George clothing department at Asda; my first theatre job was in a production of The Wizard of Oz.
WW: I was a stable hand on Sundays: my first theatre job was the all-male Patience at the Union Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
WH: It’s a huge sacrifice in terms of the money and free time you have. I love having loads of things going on, but sometimes I can’t believe we brought it on ourselves.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
WW: Sasha Regan has been a big influence – she took a big risk when she opened the Union. Southwark was a place you wouldn’t open a venue then – people said the same thing about us and Ancoats.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
JH: It’s been fascinating as performers to sit on the other side of table – it’s an eye-opener to decisions that people make. Take ownership of your career and don’t be terrified of your agent.
WW: Be yourself. I used to want to be so polite – I apologised for my existence and thanked them for their time. That wasn’t my personality at all. You have to have the confidence to be yourself.
If you hadn’t been an actor and then run a theatre, what would you have done?
WW: I wanted to be a professional horse rider.
JH: An interior designer or florist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
WW: I’m a worrier. I touch wood all the time about everything in my life. I was so desperate for Hair to be successful that I said I’d get a tattoo. So now I’ve got one. I said the same thing about Pippin – I’ll end up with a theatrical tattoo collection.
They had both been juggling auditions with working in a restaurant. After it emerged a new branch was opening in Manchester, it planted a seed.
They began thinking seriously about relocating and setting up a venue. “I started looking up buildings on the internet,” Whelton says. “We needed a big enough space in a good location that was near transport links.”
He spotted Hope Mill on Gumtree, which for years had been used for storage. Subsidence meant the landlords had to renovate, which they did with a view to turning it into an exhibition space alongside existing artists’ studios. It was also minutes from a tram stop that could whisk theatregoers to Manchester Piccadilly station in five minutes.
The landlords were initially sceptical of a pitch by two 20-somethings to turn the space into a theatre. “Now that I run a business myself, I understand why,” Whelton says. “But we just knew. We had a joint vision that we could make it into something, although we didn’t know how hard it would be.”
Today, Houston remembers Regan asking them how it was going four months in. “We replied: ‘It’s so hard.’ And she said: ‘But if I’d told you how hard it was going to be, you’d never have done it.’”
They each took out a business loan of £5,000. “We borrowed £10,000 between us and I had a few thousand pounds in savings,” Whelton says. “I had a couple of grand from my last acting job in Singapore,” adds Houston. “I returned from that and we got the keys four days later.”
From the beginning, the pair tried to meet as many creatives in Manchester as possible. This included Royal Exchange Theatre associate artistic director Matthew Xia and Kevin Jamieson, senior producer of theatre at cultural venue Home.
James Baker, who had directed fringe musicals in Manchester, put them in touch with London producer Katy Lipson. She came to visit and suggested they work together.
And so their first initiative as a producing theatre was born. They had already hired the space out to other local companies – with Manchester’s first production of Jason Robert Brown’s musical Parade, which opened in May 2016.
Whelton says that as they first talked of the works they wanted to stage they had no idea of the risks involved. “It was a new venue. We had no audience yet, and no one had experienced musicals on this sort of scale in Manchester,” he says.
They had programmed the show for more than three weeks in a city where nothing would usually run for more than one. In the end it was so successful, they extended the run. “People really embraced it – the show, the venue, and the intimate setting,” adds Houston.
They were determined to do things properly from the start and pay their actors fairly, particularly because they had been performers themselves.
“At our first meeting, we agreed we would have to pay people as much as we could. We’d both worked for nothing and struggled to make ends meet,” Houston says. “I don’t think you could open a venue and get away with not paying. People expect it now and it should be expected.”
Whelton adds: “One of the reasons we wanted to do this was to provide actors and creatives with more work, and if you’re going to do that, it’s not functioning unless they are at least covering their costs and getting something out of it.”
At present, the fee structure is £200 a week for rehearsals and £300 a week during the run of the show.
After Parade – which they auditioned for only in Manchester; now, they also do a London round – they decided to stage the better-known Hair. The plan was to see what shows the audiences would come and see “and the kind of venue we would be,” Houston says. After Hair was embraced they went for Yank!, another project with Lipson.
Whelton says: “As Manchester is such a gay-friendly city, we felt it would be great to develop our audiences a bit further and in a different way. It was a show I felt we needed to put on.”
As well as presiding over the management side of the theatre, Whelton has regularly been the resident choreographer, working on Parade, Hair and most recently Pippin.
Houston credits him as “definitely the driving force behind the theatre”, admitting that he has found the business side challenging.
Whelton is a recipient of the Stage One Young Producers’ bursary for emerging producers, and last year they both won the Hospital Club Award for Theatre.
“I didn’t even know what it was until we were nominated – I thought the NHS had nominated us,” Whelton says. “But we’re very proud now: when you’re setting something like this up and trying so hard to make it work, recognition and support is even more important than money.”
CV Joseph Houston and William Whelton
Born: Joseph Houston – 1990, Paisley; William Whelton – 1989, Macclesfield
Training: Mountview (JH); Laines (WW)
Landmark productions: Parade (2016); Hair (2017); Yank! (2017); Pippin (2017)
Awards include: Hospital Club Award for Theatre (2016)
Hair runs at the Vaults from October 4 to January 13, 2018