The Blue Room is one of Lincoln’s freshest and most imaginative performance spaces. First opened in 2017, it is set in a beautifully repurposed Georgian ballroom in a rooftop space above Stokes Lawn Café.

Venues like the Blue Room have been heavily impacted by the pandemic, with the creative arts sector among the hardest hit by lockdowns and restrictions. The team at the venue is now reinventing its programme to begin bringing audiences back to the stage in a fun, safe and entertaining environment.

One creative way that the Blue Room is adapting is by expanding into outdoor theatre, utilising the open green space at the Lawn complex. Stephen Gillard, artistic director at the venue, spoke with us about what’s going on behind the scenes, the long-term vision, and how the outdoor theatre initiative might develop into summer arts festivals in future.

Lincoln Blue Room stage music
The stage at the Blue Room Lincoln before a live music show in 2018

The Blue Room’s original vision

The inspiration behind the venue was to diversify the city’s entertainment scene and offer an alternative to the bigger stage. “When we set up The Blue Room, it was with the idea that Lincoln was struggling for small-scale performance spaces,” explains Stephen. “Somewhere that smaller groups could afford to take shows to, without massive financial risk, or limited audience numbers.”

The upstairs space at the Lawn complex, a former 19th-century asylum, was the perfect fit for the concept. Stephen has been a driving force behind the project from the very beginning.

“I was inspired by the smaller ‘studio’ theatres and wanted to combine the historical aesthetic of the Lawn Asylum with the modern equipment we were installing,” he explains. “Essentially creating a space with the character of a traditional ‘pros-arch’ theatre and the flexibility of a modern artistic venue.”

Stephen was born in Lincoln, and first became involved in the arts after returning to the city following a stint living in Australia. “I got involved with a local amateur dramatics group, the Lincoln Shakespeare Company,” he says. “Got handed a broadsword, poked onto the stage and never looked back!”

Aware of the vacant space at the Lawn when Stokes took over the complex, Stephen put the idea forward. “I went to my friend Simon Hollingworth, producer and former artistic director of the Drill Hall, and with his considerable support we put together a pitch,” he recalls.

“That pitch went to Nick Peel, managing director of Stokes, a patron of the arts and a dancer of considerable repute. Nick, incredibly, gave us the chance to put our plan into action.”

Blackadder Stephen Gillard Blue Room Lincoln
Stephen (right) in a performance of Blackadder at the Blue Room

The onset of uncertainty

The Blue Room was just beginning its second full season of theatrical planning when the pandemic arrived in March 2020. The venue had launched an in-house theatre company the previous year, the Asylum Players, and various other initiatives were also under way.

“We had built a number of mutually beneficial relationships with the local schools to help provide access for students to see the performances,” explains Stephen, “and we were on the verge of launching a brand new ‘Pay What You Feel’ series of events to encourage new writing opportunities around the city.”

“We were forced to come to terms with the idea that the space would not be open for its intended purpose for a long time to come.”

During the first lockdown, Stephen and the team began working towards a reopening in summer or autumn, as was the case in most theatrical venues. “The sense of ‘this’ll be over in a few months’ pervaded our decision-making process,” he explains.

“Shows were re-arranged for the autumn and a Christmas program was planned,” he continues. “Once we hit June, however, there was no sign that the pandemic was going to go away, and we were forced to come to terms with the idea that the space would not be open for its intended purpose for a long time to come.”

Although stage performances were not possible, the team found creative ways to make use of the space. In December 2020 it was repurposed as a ‘Winter Garden’, decked with flowers and plants, and opened as an extension of the Lawn Café. The initiative was hugely popular until a new lockdown in January 2021 forced the café to close.

Much Ado Players cast Blue Room Lincoln
Stephen with the cast of Much Ado Players at the Blue Room

Keeping the creativity flowing

Stephen used the time during repeat lockdowns to pursue some of his own projects. “My own experience became about opening up new avenues of artistic expression,” he says. “I established a small film company, Ignis Films, with Laura Turner and began learning how to shoot and edit short films.”

Their first film, In Umbra Eius Ignis, was shot on a mobile phone for a budget of just £100 and was nominated for awards at several film festivals.

During the second lockdown, Stephen also launched a monologue competition with sponsorship from Stokes. The campaign inspired over 20 people in the local community to submit entries, with winners having their monologues filmed and performed by actors.

Taking theatre outdoors at the Blue Room

With the uncertainty stretching well into 2021, Stephen and the team needed to consider some different options to begin staging performances again. The idea of expanding into outdoor theatre came to the forefront.

“During the lockdown, a chance conversation with Julie Fox, from Jamie Marcus Productions, led to our first ever outdoor theatre production,” explains Stephen. “We managed, in the space of two months, to design, cast, rehearse and perform two shows at the same time.”

“The outdoor theatre programming is planned to become a staple of our yearly plans going forwards.”

Far from being a short-term fix, Stephen believes that outdoor theatre productions could be a key part of engaging audiences at the Blue Room well into the future. “The success of those shows and the continuing nervousness of audiences to re-enter theatres has led us to plan even more outdoor performances and shows for the forthcoming years,” he says.

“The first of the events, Live at the Lawn, will be going out later this month on the 23rd and 24th July. We’re planning to build upon this, year-on-year, to create more of summer arts festival feel.

“The outdoor theatre programming is planned to become a staple of our yearly plans going forwards. Despite being at the mercy of the Great British weather, I think the audiences enjoy the whole experiential nature of the events.

“We’re also programming the first shows back in the space, with Othello planned for October.”

Midsummer Nights Dream Blue Room outdoors
A performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of the Blue Room’s first outdoor shows
Wind in the Willows cast outdoors
The cast of an outdoor production of Wind in the Willows

Can the creative arts industry bounce back?

Theatres and other arts venues have faced tremendous challenges through the pandemic, not least because of the inability to plan long-term with confidence.

“Theatre and the arts tend to rely on long lead-in time for the planning, rehearsing and construction of events,” says Stephen. “Ifs, buts and maybes tend to hurt the industry more than any form of certainties.

“We live very much in hope that history repeats itself and the arts begin a massive resurgence once we start to reopen.”

“The industry has never laid claim to any form of sole ownership of hardship, but we have found ourselves mostly forgotten about when it comes to future planning. There isn’t a venue in the country that hasn’t stared down the barrel of potential closure and some venues, such as the Lincoln Drill Hall, ended up with that possibility becoming a sad reality.”

But Stephen is hopeful that the sector can bounce back vigorously in the years ahead – and evidence from the past provides reasons to be optimistic.

“Historically theatre and the arts have come back stronger than before as these pandemics recede,” he says. “The plague gave rise to the reopening of the closed theatres, the ‘Roaring Twenties’ were a direct answer to the Spanish Flu.

“We live very much in hope that history repeats itself and the arts begin a massive resurgence once we start to reopen.”

Lincoln Blue Room rehearsal
Rehearsals inside the Blue Room

Hopes and dreams for the Blue Room

Stephen is equally optimistic about the future prospects for the Blue Room. And while times have been difficult, the venue has been adept at responding to the challenges.

“Because we were a new space, we were always in the process of developing new ways of delivering artistic events and attracting audiences,” he says. “So, while the lockdown definitely hurt us, I think we, as a venue, were positioned better than some to be flexible in our approach to the situation.”

While looking to the future with new ideas, the vision for the Blue Room remains true to its roots: providing a space for local and upcoming talent to flourish.

“I’ve always wanted to create a space that encourages and fosters new theatrical writing and creative work within the city,” says Stephen. “We spent time and energy building links with the university and the schools to offer students opportunities and professional experiences.

“I want the Blue Room to rebuild those links and expand. I would like to think that in the next few years we would be able to offer a space that helps writers and creatives find their voices and test out new work.”

Most major theatre productions have humble beginnings. One of Stephen’s big ambitions is for the venue to become a breeding ground for local creators to achieve success on a wider scale.

“My absolute dream scenario is that a piece of work is created and nurtured in the Blue Room that then goes on to hit the biggest stages in the UK,” he says.

“My great hope is that, once the pandemic recedes, audiences will find that it is the shared experiences they’ve missed the most, that’s how theatre will recover and, indeed, grow into the future.”

See our series of interview features for more stories about how local businesses in Lincoln are adapting to new times.

In another story, we document how the New Theatre Royal has undergone a remarkable transformation since Mike and Natalie Hayes-Cowley took over the reins in 2016.

If you’re planning a visit to the city, see our guide to things to do in Lincoln for activity ideas.

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The Blue Room Lincoln is bringing audiences back with a series of outdoor theatre shows. Artistic director Stephen Gillard tells the story. #lincoln #lincolnuk #theatreuk #blueroom

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