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Behind the Doors: Imaginarium Theatre

For Gaynor La Rocca the opening of the new £38m Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot in July was the realisation of a dream stretching back 30 years.

She is chief executive and artistic director of Imaginarium Theatre, a community arts organisation based just yards away from the Playhouse. And she is now immersed in what is a full-on economic and cultural renaissance in the historic town. But it wasn’t always this way.

Gaynor said: “Knowsley has been a cultural desert for many years. I am a Huyton girl born and bred. I studied performing arts at Knowsley Community College and ended up teaching there years later. But other than the Arts Theatre in the college and the old Huyton and Kirkby Suites, there were no other cultural venues.

“I remember 30 years ago the council were talking about building a theatre in Huyton Village. We’ve waited so long but the dream is finally a reality.

“I think it is so important that the new playhouse serves Knowsley people. Obviously, it will attract people regionally, nationally and internationally - it will have that kind of pull. Having such a prestigious venue that will bring in tourists and students and academics from around the world is wonderful. That will be of huge benefit to the town and economic regeneration.

“But what is really important to me is growing grassroots. It is vital the new Playhouse doesn’t just become somewhere where actors and artists from elsewhere come and stage performances. It has to be a training ground and a springboard for our own young people, local people and local artists.”

Founded in 2000 as Merseyside Arts Theatre & Education (MATE), Imaginarium Theatre rebranded in 2018 and is now an associate company of the Shakespeare North Playhouse. Originally based in Halewood, it moved into the Grade II-listed Cockpit House in 2014 with the help of Shakespeare North Trust and Knowsley Council.

The organisation stages spectacular outdoor productions of Shakespeare plays, new works, and adaptations of literary classics in parks, community gardens and great halls across the North-West. They also stage exciting work in theatre venues across the region, and bi-annually tour to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Moving into the Grade II-listed former clock museum was a catalyst for the expansion of their community and youth engagement work. However, Knowsley Council has now secured a grant to transform the building. So Imaginarium Theatre is moving to a 1,500 sq ft space at 4 Eccleston Street nearby.

“In 2014 I was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company on their Open Stages programme. We were about to deliver our first major community Shakespeare production, touring outdoors,” explained Gaynor.

“I was applying for an Arts Council grant, and I approached the council for matched funding. They said we would love you to partner with the Shakespeare North Trust. They introduced me to the directors of the Trust, and they invited us to move our operations to Cockpit House and build the momentum for the new theatre through our youth and community engagement.

“When we went in it had been empty for almost three years, the building had been vandalised, and there was a lot of rubbish and broken glass around.

“So, a group of volunteers and I went in and transformed the whole space into rehearsal rooms, craft and production workshops, costume store, event store, music studios, offices for creative and education staff, and a media suite.

“Cockpit House became a cultural home for so many local people and artists, and we enjoyed a wonderful eight years there. Situated next door to the Shakespeare North Playhouse we could watch the building progress through our windows. Our fire escape looked over what is now the Sir Ken Dodd Performance Garden.

“At our new home in Eccleston Street we are going to be developing a new small-scale fringe venue to support the influx of new work in the town. The Imaginarium Arts Hub will house a black box studio, rehearsal space, a new workshop space and costume store.

Since studying drama at Liverpool John Moores University in the 1990s, Gaynor has worked in the Liverpool city region’s arts and cultural sector. She was part of the Creative Communities team at the Liverpool Culture Company that delivered the city’s European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2008.

In many ways she sees what happened in Liverpool as a template for what can be replicated in Prescot. She said: “What Liverpool did, their approach from the word go, was about it being a catalyst for the regeneration of the city and to develop from the grassroots up.

“They proved the case. Liverpool has seen an extraordinary amount of regeneration that came from 2008. I think I saw the Shakespeare North project as very similar - as a catalyst for change and cultural growth in Knowsley.

“I watched something grow from nothing with Capital of Culture, something wonderful, and I was a part of that. If you look at the cultural landscape within Liverpool now it is unrecognisable from when I went to university back in the 1990s.

“Knowsley is one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. We haven’t got any sixth form provision for performing arts. And that is really key. I am in talks at the moment with Knowsley Family and Community Education and the Liverpool City Region Education Manager with a view to us delivering A-Levels and CTECs in theatre and performing arts at our new Eccleston Street Arts Hub.”

In 2019 Imaginarium Theatre took over the creative management of a new piazza opposite the Shakespeare North Playhouse. In the centre of the piazza is a green and white striped big top tent - the Imaginarium Roundhouse. This hosts performances, creative workshops, and community events throughout the year in partnership with sister company the Imaginarium Bistro.

The Roundhouse was originally supposed to launch in 2020, but COVID had other ideas. Gaynor explained: “We had all the staff in for a training day and were waiting for it to arrive. Then the tent master called and said, ‘I can’t make it today, my wife has COVID’. That was on the Monday and on the Wednesday the whole country shut down.”

In April 2021 the big top was finally up and running. It has hosted children’s theatre, stand-up comedy, music, spoken word performances, craft workshops, and more. Last Christmas it hosted Father Christmas Storytime in partnership with professional storyteller Gav Cross – four shows a day from mid-November to Christmas Eve, it was such a success he is coming back this year.

With the help of a St Helens business called Retro Chimp, the tent space was transformed with wooden panels, a floor, heating and lighting, and now it is available for use all year round by the theatre company and the local community.

“It’s just a wonderful space,” added Gaynor. “We use it for so many things. Now it is an amazing all-year round facility.”

Gaynor runs Imaginarium Theatre along with business manager Francesco La Rocca, who is also her husband. It employs six permanent part-time staff. However, it also offers employment to a range of artists and practitioners.

“We regularly employ musical directors, choreographers, fight directors, designers. During the school holidays we employ a team of creative practitioners to run our free creative playdays for children,” added Gaynor.

“We have five permanent youth theatres, all fully funded. And in each of those we employ practitioners to lead the sessions. We also run a broad programme of community workshops from drumming dance, singing, creative writing, and actor training.

According to Gaynor, she and Francesco sometimes “butt heads”. She said: “He is logical and looks for the problems. I am like ‘that comes later - let’s be free to dream the creative ideas and then we will find a way to solve the problems. But it is a partnership that works really well.”

As we move into the autumn Imaginarium Theatre is looking forward to staging new productions. In the Roundhouse tent in October there will be a original folk-rock musical called Pinocchio the Radical Robot Girl staged by the Bohemians Theatre Company.

The Bohemians is a young company of emerging artists, we are keen to support more work like this, both at the Roundhouse and at our new Arts Hub.

Gaynor is also hugely excited about their own community ensemble who will perform on the main stage of the Shakespeare North Playhouse in November: “We commissioned playwright Rob Brannan to write a brand-new comic play called Strange Tale especially for us.

“It is set in Prescot with a time-travelling Shakespeare and a talented community cast of 20-plus local actors and musicians. The production is our attempt to create a new mythology for Prescot and help people understand a little of why we have built a Shakespeare Theatre in Prescot.”

So invested in Prescot and its cultural re-awakening are Gaynor and Francesco that they are in the process of buying a house in the town, just yards from the theatre. It is a big step for Gaynor who has lived in Huyton all her life.

“It is beyond exciting,” she said. “The new house is literally about 10 steps from the Playhouse. That is how much faith and pride we have in Prescot. It is an amazing town.

“There is a real sense of community here. People are so supportive. It is one of the oldest communities in the North West and is rich in history. Prescot folks call themselves Prescotians.”

Because the Shakespeare North Playhouse project took so long to come to fruition, there were, said Gaynor, many “naysayers” who insisted it would never happen, She added: “My experience in Liverpool Capital of Culture stood me in good stead.

“I also had an understanding of Stratford-upon-Avon and what the Royal Shakespeare Theatre did for what was a dying town pre-1960’s.

“People of Knowsley are very used to not having much and will talk about things closing down.

“I am an optimist. If I have a dream I will find a way of making it happen. Artists are fighters and we survive and thrive when our backs are to the wall. When we don’t have money, we will invent.

“We will find ways of putting on something marvellous on a shoestring. But obviously we can do so much more when we are properly funded.”

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