When one door closes another opens, and that was certainly the case last October, when Margaret Connell found out the Lantern was seeking a new owner just as she had decided to take a redundancy package from her job at the time.
The previous owners had built up a small, well-respected theatre, but with the demands of a growing young family, couldn’t devote the necessary time and effort to the place. “It’s still a family-run theatre, which is what they wanted,” Margaret laughs. “We’re just a different kind of family!”
Margaret had just taken a severance package from Hope University, where she had been teaching drama. She decided to put her money into the Lantern. With a passion for fringe theatre, in her career she has also previously worked at Edge Hill University and run community and education programmes at the Liverpool Playhouse and the St Helens Citadel.
Margaret’s daughter Siobhan Noble was also looking for a change, and came on board too. She also runs Tatty’s Vintage Couture online. Margaret also has two sons — one of whom, Mike, has recently received glowing reviews for his role in Mudlarks at the Bush Theatre in London, and whose contacts down in the Capital are helping to spread the word of the Lantern’s facilities to young, up-and-coming theatre companies looking to tour.
“We saw this place and just thought it was great,” Margaret says. “Our vision for the Lantern was to be something very community-based, dedicated to developing audiences and championing new writing. I believe that is something that is very lacking in Liverpool. There is a huge gap for a small-scale community theatre that people can afford to take chances in.”
Work has just been completed on creating more space in the venue’s small, but cosy bar area — with the acknowledgement that bar sales are the only thing that could make the theatre profitable. It’s clear the Lantern is a labour of love.
“I had an idea I wanted this place to be very community based, and coming back into theatre, I’ve found a very different scene,” Margaret says. “I hadn’t realised how bad Liverpool had become for young performers. You’ve got LIPA, but there are not really any conservatoires or reps, and that’s something we would really like to encourage.”
New young theatre companies are beginning to discover the Lantern as an affordable venue to tour new work, and is this crossover potential for the venue that Margaret hopes will pay off. She cites the Kazimier as a venue with a similar fringe ethos, but says there is simply no joined up independent circuit in Liverpool like there is in other cities.
It’s not the most convenient of locations but getting new visitors out to the Blundell Street venue hasn’t been a problem, Margaret insists, with first timers often converted, promising to return. The continuing development of the Baltic Triangle area — which they didn’t initially account for when deciding to take over — is just a further stroke of luck that will only benefit the Lantern.
“I don’t think we’ll feel ‘out of town’ eventually,” she says. “Surrounded by things like the CUC development, Camp & Furnace, Elevator, and the Women’s Organisation, there’ll be more apartments, bars and cafes in the area soon and a real cultural quarter will build up.
“Audiences and companies come in and tell us they love the space, that it is really comfortable and they like the informality.”
The Lantern is already becoming something of a creative hub, running acting classes, and hosting a writers group and a fortnightly storytelling group run by Radio Merseyside DJ Roger Hill. A new comedy night has been well-received, and there is the possibility of regular music gigs, possibly folk or jazz, making it onto the busy programme.
The Lantern is also keen to develop regular children’s theatre productions as well as a youth theatre strand. Its first in-house production, Death of a Lady, was recently postponed due to illness, but will return in the new year; and festive shows will include Spike Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol, and a new production of Little Voice.
“The first year has been all about raising the profile of the Lantern and making the place attractive, there hasn’t been time for me to get back to directing, but in-house productions are definitely something we will be developing next year,” Margaret says.
But first of all, there’s the matter of making a mark as a vital addition to the city’s cultural fringe and commitment to its rising artistic talents..
“Liverpool has this reputation for amazing theatre — Willy Russell, Pete Postlethwaite… but it has turned into a bit of a wasteland, really. The other thing we’re lacking here is a regional voice, something similar to the Scottish National Theatre and that intelligent regional voice they have, that attracts a young, fresh audience that doesn’t go for the lowest common denominator.
“We want to remind people that theatre’s a really nice thing to do. And going out to see anything live is completely different to any other experience you can have.”