A dramatic improvement! York theatre’s £3m transformation plan

Take your seat for some big Joseph Rowntree Theatre news. Photograph: Ian Grundy

The Joseph Rowntree Theatre doesn’t look bad for an octogenarian.

It might be 84 on its next birthday, but its listed Art Deco frontage and freshly spruced-up auditorium gives it a youthful glow that belies its years.

Originally built for the workers at Rowntree’s factory in Haxby Road, York, as somewhere to let their hair down after a hard day putting the snap into KitKats and inflating the bubbles in Aeros, it became a registered charity in 2003, run by a board of trustees.

Purchased by York St John University from Nestlé in 2012 it was finally bought by the board in 2017.


It is run entirely by volunteers. Around 150 of them take on every role from chair of the trustees to ice cream seller.

“People are always surprised that we don’t have any paid staff,” said Dan Shrimpton, the chair of the trustees, who joined the team as a teenage stagehand in 1993.

“We pride ourselves on offering a professional service, but we rarely actually use that word because it implies that we’re paid. Instead, we talk about our quality of service which, thanks to all our volunteers, is right up there.”

Major development

Not looking bad for an 84-year-old
The theatre has recently revealed it is in the early stage of an ambitious but achievable £3 million development project to improve the already impressive facilities.

This will include the theatre’s first bar/refreshment area, better toilets (always prominent on theatre-goers’ wishlists) and more space for audiences to enjoy pre-show and interval mingling.

Dan says:

  • We also want to make more of the building as a hub for the community, opening it up for more than just theatre productions; for meetings, perhaps, and small conferences.

    Realistically, we are talking upwards of £3 million. In terms of timescale, let’s say a year for planning, at least a year for fundraising and a year for construction.

    It’s not going to be a quick turnaround, but it will happen.

Booking fees from companies and performers who choose to stage their shows at the theatre currently provide enough money for its maintenance and annual upkeep.

Fundraising musical

Director of Kiss Me, Kate Kayleigh Oliver
Additional fundraising channels for the redevelopment include grant applications (almost a full-time job in itself), a new Friends scheme, which will offer three levels of affordable membership, the already popular annual Choir Festival, several Music Nights spread throughout the year and pop-up cafés and table top sales at St Crux in central York.

Kiss Me, Kate
  • Wed 6 Feb – Sat 9 Feb
  • Joseph Rowntree Theatre
  • £10-£16
  • More details

Another key component in the theatre’s future success in terms of fundraising and community involvement is the Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company, established in 2017 to raise money for the venue while entertaining audiences with innovative new productions of both classic and contemporary musicals.

Own shows, own style

The in-house company was founded by producer-director Kayleigh Oliver who, in ‘real life’ runs The York Makery on Gillygate.

She has support from assistant director Alex Schofield, an HR advisor at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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Free tours of Joseph Rowntree Theatre

Both have performed many times on the Joseph Rowntree Theatre stage and were keen to help build on its already enviable reputation as a quality, inclusive venue.

“We wanted to give back to the theatre as a thank you for the support it has shown performers and companies across the city for decades,” said Kayleigh, who graduated from the University of York with an MA in theatre writing, directing and performance.

“Most theatres have their own company and, once we put forward our case, the board decided to go for it. They’ve been very generous, giving us free rein to choose our own shows and our own style.”

Kiss Me Kate

The Kiss Me, Kate cast start blocking the opening number
The company launched in high-kicking, goose-stepping style with The Producers in February 2018, raising an impressive £4,500.

Its second production, Kiss Me, Kate, hits the stage next month (Feb 6th-9th) with an expanded company in an even more expansive staging of Cole Porter’s classic show-within-a-show.

Alex said:

  • It’s humbling to see so many incredibly talented people, with a range of experience, prepared to put themselves out there to perform for us.

    It makes us even more determined to ensure everyone gets a chance to shine.

And Kayleigh adds: “We wanted to put on a fresh, challenging show that would be as much fun to be in as to watch.

“Our aim is to continue making ambitious choices, to keep aiming high, to have fun and to raise as much money for the ongoing development of the theatre as we can.”