Teenage Fanclub and The Snuts video shoots help Leith Theatre stay connected during lockdown
There are currently 31 buildings on the Theatres At Risk Register, Leith Theatre, just off Ferry Road is one of them.
The Register champions theatres of 'significant architectural merit and strong community value' that find themselves under threat. In the case of Leith Theatre also known as Leith Town Hall and, briefly, as the Citadel Theatre, the battle to save the building has been ongoing for some time.
Built between 1929 and 1932 when it opened, Leith Theatre has had a troubled existence. In 1941 the main auditorium was bombed in an air-raid forcing its closure until 1961. In the late-Eighties and Nineties it gradually fell into disuse and disrepair having played host to Edinburgh International Festival productions such as Rikki Fulton’s A Wee Touch o’ Class in 1986.Before that, it was also a favourite with gig-goers who rocked out to the likes of AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, Dr Feelgood, Slade, Mott the Hoople and even The Wombles there. Used as a Council storage facility for years, it was saved from being redeveloped into flats in 2004 with the formation of Leith Theatre Trust, whose ongoing mission is to refurbish the auditorium, which re-opened in 2016, as well as other backstage and front of house areas continues to this day.
Heading up the project is Chief Executive, Lynn Morrison, who comes to the building having managed some of the most iconic entertainment venues in the UK.
Originally from Galashiels, she reveals, "I've worked in venues for more than 30 years now, it's my passion, and I believe you leave a little piece of yourself in every one that you work in."
Those venues include the Capital's Cameo, twice, The Gate cinema in Notting Hill and The Ritzy, in Brixton.
"Beautiful, listed buildings very much in keeping with Leith Theatre," she reflects.
Lynn also oversaw the opening of Glasgow's Grosnover cinema.
She continues, "One or two of the roles I've had in the past involved Lottery funded renovation; I was at The Tyneside in Newcastle for a couple of years and that was a £7 million heritage cinema renovation. So the building angle that comes with being Chief Executive of Leith Theatre is very exciting for me, as is the fact that it's independent. It ticked all 'Lynn's boxes'; a community venue with huge heritage and people at its heart at the start of its journey. What a huge opportunity."
Consequently, it was a wrench when, in March last year, she found herself having to lock the building up as the pandemic struck ahead of what would prove to be a pivotal year for the venue.
"It was devastating when I locked the door and closed up after a three hour building check on March 20th last year. I was leaving something I thought was really vulnerable and never foresaw the lockdown would last for months and months. A quick head-shift in terms of what we could do was required. As we didn't have an established model that we were waiting to return to, as most venues do, we quickly applied for a grant from the Theatres Trust and were given £11,000. That funding has helped right through the pandemic.
Despite the injection of funds, redundancies reduced the theatre’s permanent staff to just two and a half people at one point; Lynn, her Funding and Finance Manager, and the venue's part-time Digital Co-ordinator. Together, that head-shift found them turning their focus to how the theatre could serve the local community during lockdown. One of those initiatives was by engaging with the charity Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts, to help fight food poverty in the city.
"To date, at Leith Theatre we have cooked and delivered 798,000 hot meals with more than 400 volunteers taking part," she says proudly.
Streaming gigs and filming also became an important lifeline for the venue during lockdown, with the Live in Leith brand proving particularly popular while showcasing local bands and musicians such as Retro Video Club, Connor Fyfe, Nova Scotia The Truth, Ransom FA, The Ninth Wave and Lucia & The Best Boys, although there are two Leith Theatre concerts Lynn admits she would love to have seen, one of which she was particularly gutted to have missed.
"A friend had a spare ticket for Young Fathers here in 2018 and I didn't know. So there was a ticket with my name on it and I missed it," she says, "And Kraftwerk, I would have loved to have seen Kraftwerk when they played here in the Seventies. Band member Wolfgang Flur visited us in 2019 and I gave him a tour of the building. He was just overjoyed to be shown around and had clear memories of playing here."
She continues, "Live in Leith is part of our future programme stream and I've been so fortunate. I think I have seen more gigs played just for me than anyone else. Teenage Fanclub filmed a video for their new album here and The Snuts filmed their video here too, that was an amazing day. Suddenly, we were showing off the auditorium and the opportunities film could have here in the future. Having film crews in helped to keep people connected to the venue."
However, Leith Theatre is not just about gigs and filming, as Lynn is quick to point out.
"We are a complex. The main auditorium is just one part of the building. The Thomas Morton Hall at the other side has long been at the heart of the community - weddings, birthdays, dances, fitness classes and cook-offs. It's interesting, because we almost have a local to international audience and yet we're still a secret, hidden behind the library.
"People's attachment to this venue is strong and, although it has been closed to the public, it has still been a hub in its closed state. By helping everybody through the pandemic, we help the theatre towards my long-term vision of having the doors open, lots of people visiting, no longer being on the At Risk register, and producing and hosting a cutting edge programme of work in a building that is fit for purpose."
As a community venue, you too can be a part of Leith Theatre's journey and revival.
"This is an up to £10 million refurbishment project, so the most direct thing people can do is use the donate button on the website but also they can follow our story on our Social Media channels and, when the doors reopen, come and support us," says Lynn, adding, “Leith Theatre is a heritage building, something people see as a treasure, and I want to story to become less about, 'Oh, my god! We need to save it,' and more about, 'Oh, my goodness, look what it can be...'"