The New Theatre Royal Lincoln has been a jewel of the city’s live entertainment scene since the late 19th century. But times have not always been smooth for the cherished 128-year-old venue. A magnificent new hand-painted safety curtain pulled down over the stage commemorates the many obstacles that the theatre has overcome: a typhoid epidemic, two world wars, and now a coronavirus pandemic too.

Recent years have brought challenges of a different kind. When current owners Natalie and Mike Hayes-Cowley took over the theatre in 2016, it had sadly fallen into disrepute. They faced a huge task in restoring its prestige and building a new legacy. Four years later, after an incredible turnaround, the theatre received the Lincoln Civic Award in recognition of its vital role in the local community.

With a strong new foundation and a talented close-knit team in place, the theatre was not only able to withstand the impact of the pandemic, but it also underwent a transformation behind the scenes. Curtains closed through subsequent lockdowns and the whole industry was wracked with uncertainty, but Covid-19 did provide one opportunity: time.

Natalie, Mike and the team used this time to make a series of changes in response to audience feedback, add personable touches like the new safety curtain, and bring some new concepts to the stage. Now, as patrons return to the auditorium, the theatre is looking forward to a prosperous and independent future.

Natalie, the theatre’s artistic director, kindly took time out of her busy schedule to tell us the full story.

New Theatre Royal Lincoln safety curtain gods view
The handpainted safety curtain at the New Theatre Royal commemorates historical events it has survived

A lifelong passion for performance

When Natalie arrived at the New Theatre Royal Lincoln, she had already amassed decades of experience in the performing arts. The story began when her grandfather, on his deathbed, suggested she should be named after the actress Natalie Wood.

Natalie’s earliest memories of her love for theatre stretch back to a We Are The World charity event in Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s. “I represented England there,” she recalls. “I was singing my little heart out. Since then, all I ever wanted to do was perform. That was my life growing up.”

Taking the reins at the New Theatre Royal Lincoln

When the New Theatre Royal Lincoln went up for auction in 2016, it had gained a status of notoriety within the industry. Touring acts and staff could not even rely on receiving payment.

“It was blacklisted within the industry, and within Lincoln,” Natalie explains. She and Mike decided to buy it as a family, with a vision of restoring its former glory.

But the challenge was huge. Not only had the theatre’s reputation for doing business properly been run into the ground, but the furnishings had also been degraded.

“They’d ripped out all the Victorian features,” Natalie recalls. “It was very clinical. You would walk in the box office, and it was like walking into a doctor’s surgery. It was stripped of everything.”

Natalie recalls the skepticism that she and Mike faced when they took on the project. “Some people said, what can an actress and a property developer do with a theatre? They won’t be able to do it.

“And that made me more dogged to do it, and do it well.”

Natalie and Mike Hayes-Cowley
Mike and Natalie at the theatre’s 125-year anniversary celebrations

Bringing back the old magic

The new owners acted swiftly to begin rebuilding the theatre’s brand. Their first step was to reinstate its original name. “It was first named the New Theatre Royal in 1893 after a previous theatre had burned down, and so we thought it would be like raising the phoenix from the ashes to bring that back,” Natalie says.

“We also went about reinstating all of the Victorian features and the colour scheme. Hence why we went for red and gold.”

Another important matter was ensuring that business would be done properly. After taking over the reins, Natalie and Mike had to battle through the lingering legacy of the previous owners’ mismanagement.

The importance of personable touches

Inside the green room in the depths of the theatre building, a wall is adorned with hanging frames, each emblazoned with an array of signatures. These are the marks left by every single act that has graced the stage during this new era.

New Theatre Royal Lincoln touring act signatures
Everyone who performs at the theatre signs the exit post in the venue’s green room

The exit post, as it is called, represents a way of bringing a personable touch back to the theatre for Natalie. “Every man, woman, child, professional show hire, wedding, whoever it might be that hires the venue or performs on stage – we take a photo in the green room, and get them to sign the board,” she says.

“And it’s very personable. We’re all about personable here, because we are a family-run business,” she continues. “And we are a family. We are a small team. That was one thing we wanted to do, and it’s a wonderful thing for posterity.”

Dedication behind the scenes

Alex Jackson, digital marketing and communications officer at the theatre, is part of this close-knit team. She introduced me to the backstage staff, who were busy at work preparing for a comedy night.

It’s astonishing to see how much meticulous care and dedication goes into the preparation for a show. Ian, the stage manager – who has worked at the theatre for over 35 years – was busy at work with lighting technician Rob, configuring the rigging system and ensuring that every little detail was in place.

This is what happens day in, day out. But the passion for the end product never goes away. “It’s relentless, but we love it,” says Natalie. “When we experience an opening night for an in-house show, having seen it develop from a scrap of paper to seeing it on stage – it’s an indescribable feeling.”

New Theatre Royal Lincoln comedy night backstage
Preparations backstage for a comedy night at the New Theatre Royal Lincoln

The team suffered a sad loss amid the pandemic. Art Walker, who had been stage manager for many years, sadly passed. During his time at the theatre he had amassed a collection of memorabilia, and Natalie decided to keep his legacy alive.

“We managed to obtain his collection,” she says. “Slowly but surely, we are covering all the wall with his arts, capturing the full history of the theatre. And we will continue to do this with the full history of the theatre, including its present state.”

Recognition for the turnaround

The Lincoln Civic Award is given in acknowledgement of achievements that have brought positivity to the city. Previous winners have included the Red Arrows aerobatic display team, broadcaster John Inverdale, and the Cowley Brothers for their work at Lincoln City Football Club.

When the theatre received this prestigious award in 2020, it came on the back of another accolade. Its Robin Hood show, which was written, directed and produced by Natalie, had just been nominated at the Great British Pantomime Awards for the best pantomime under 750 seats.

“It couldn’t have come a better time, because it was just before Covid hit,” says Natalie. “We were feeling particularly burnt out, because the hamster wheel at that point had been relentless. Three years had felt like a very long time.

“And then to get that recognition was incredible for the team. I can’t even stress to you how bad the theatre’s reputation was, and so to be accepted for that award was just amazing.”

Natalie and Mike Civic Award
Natalie and Mike with the Lincoln Civic Award in 2020

The Lincoln Civic Award was not just a recognition of how far the theatre had come as a venue, but also for its engagement with the local community. Natalie, Mike and the team have strived to make an impact in the city through a series of initiatives, from hosting BBC Children in Need and participating in the Lincoln Imp Trail, to creating a stage school and bringing in volunteer ushers from the local area.

Unfortunately, the team was not able to receive the award in person at a ceremony, as spread of the pandemic prevented the event from taking place. The arrival of Covid brought a whole new era and a completely different world of challenges. As a result, the Lincoln Civic Award was extended into 2021 for the theatre.

Backstage changes during the pandemic

The theatre industry was among the hardest-hit by the impact of Covid-19. After the initial closure of the first lockdown, the uncertainty rumbled on with knock-on effects.

The only member of the theatre’s staff team who wasn’t furloughed was the programmer. “He worked through the pandemic, reprogramming all the touring shows,” Natalie explains.

“But we were literally regurgitating the same thing with new dates to customers over and over again. Because every time we did it, the government would say nope, not happening, and it would be another three months.”

However, Covid did bring one blessing for the theatre, and that was time. In the absence of the conveyor belt of daily shows, Natalie, Mike and the team could make changes around the building. To this end, they launched a ‘You Spoke, We Listened’ campaign to give patrons a chance to have their voices heard.

Coupled with this, the theatre was successful in applying for funding to implement the changes. “The application was like writing a dissertation for each question,” Natalie explains. “But we did it, and we were lucky enough to receive the funding in full. This was another pat on the back in a way, because they only give it to businesses that are doing it right.”

Welcoming to all

One major change was a significant improvement to disabled access. “This has been huge for us, because from 2016 we have marketed the venue as being accommodating and welcoming to all. But we couldn’t be, because we only had one disabled access seat.

“Now, we have made the necessary changes to our theatre to ensure we are accessible for all, including a new lift to the bar, a fully accessible toilet with a hoist, and more disabled access seating. It means so much to us that we can give everyone the joy of live theatre.”

New Theatre Royal Lincoln disabled access
Changes at the New Theatre Royal have included a range of improvements to disabled access throughout the venue

Also as part of the improvement works, the lighting bar was lowered to give a perfect view to the audience in the gods, and new surround sound was installed.

The hand-painted safety curtain provided a personable touch to give back to the audiences. It was designed by Duncan Parker, who is responsible for many creative features around the building, such as painting sets and touching up details around the stage.

“He does a lot of the work that nobody sees, so we wanted to do something that credits him,” says Natalie.

Bringing new concepts to the stage

The changes at the New Theatre Royal Lincoln during the pandemic were not confined to backstage and the auditorium. Natalie also used the opportunity to create the theatre’s first original touring show with a fresh idea.

The concept? Strictly Cabaret X, a ballroom-style show. “I got Ray Quinn as a lead vocalist, two incredible female singers, Kristina Rihanoff from Strictly, and other ballroom dancers,” Natalie says.

“It was a socially distanced show, and it wasn’t financially viable, but this wasn’t our aim. Our aim was to rebuild crucial confidence from our audience and reintroduce them to theatre after so long away. Now, we’ve got a show with costumes and sets, which we can take out on tour.

“I would never have the time to produce a show like that with all the other in-house shows we create. So having the time to do that has been brilliant.”

A future of possibilities

As we slowly emerge from the pandemic, might we now see a Roaring-Twenties-style surge of enthusiasm for theatre after a shared experience of hardship? Has living under restrictions brought a new appreciation for the value of live performance?

Signs suggest that the answer is yes. Over the 2021 festive season, the New Theatre Royal Lincoln staged a pantomime adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, written by Natalie during lockdown. Despite the lingering presence of Covid and fresh disruption caused by the Omicron variant, the show was a roaring success.

“It was the highest-grossing, highest-selling show we’ve ever had, with record-breaking full houses,” says Natalie. “What on earth, during a pandemic? It was bonkers. It was a very challenging time, but no matter what the pandemic threw at us, we got through it and completed the run!”

Having overcome another challenging chapter in the theatre’s history, Natalie hopes that the venue can build on recent progress and flourish in the future – but on a sustainable footing, without the need to be on full throttle 24/7.

“We were nearly there pre-pandemic,” she says. “We were absolutely storming. We were putting on sell-out shows and seeing full-house boards left, right and centre.

“Now it’s like starting from scratch again, but not like 2016 with the bad press from the predecessors. It’s about building up the confidence in people to get back in.”

While restoring old traditions has been crucial to winning back hearts and minds, innovations on the stage have brought new possibilities for the theatre’s future. The creation of its first touring show during the pandemic could be a sign of things to come.

“My hope for the theatre is to be more of a production house, doing more in-house shows and residencies,” says Natalie. “I just want to see this place thriving in years to come. I would love my grandchildren to be here and whoever takes on beyond me.”

The magic lives on

At the heart of it, for Natalie and the whole family team at the theatre, the ultimate reward is seeing joy and delight in the faces of audiences. When Strictly Cabaret X opened as the first show back after the second lockdown, the emotion was clear to see.

“Everyone in the audience was crying. Everyone on stage was crying too,” recalls Natalie. “You just can’t describe that. It was emotional and euphoric. Everyone has lost loved ones or jobs, or had heartbreak. To be able to give people a break for a couple of hours is quite magical.

“I challenge anybody to take a moment if they’re coming to watch a show. Just take your eyes away from the stage and just look around the auditorium. It’s quite a special thing.

“Everybody needs that little away time, that escapism for a couple of hours. And to give that to people is the biggest reward.”

You can find out what shows are coming up on the theatre’s website.

Read more insights into Lincoln’s local entertainment and hospitality businesses in our local story series.

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Natalie Hayes-Cowley, artistic director at the New Theatre Royal Lincoln, tells how the venue has rediscovered its former glory. #newtheatreroyallincoln #lincolntheatre #theatre

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