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Two struggling actors who opened their own theatre on a shoestring, doing everything from collecting the tickets to cleaning the toilets, have won a string of awards and are transferring two shows to London. And the theatre’s about to host its biggest event yet – their wedding reception.
There’s a job Joseph Houston and William Whelton shouldn’t be doing on the day I meet them in the shabby chic cafe that they’ve set up in the foyer of their theatre in Manchester.
It’s been 18 months since the pair cleaned the soot from the floor of the former cotton mill, and since Will’s mum tiled the bathrooms and Joseph’s grandfather gave the doorframes a lick of paint, after which they threw open the doors to Hope Mill Theatre.
They have just finally taken on a cleaner to give the loos a proper once-over. Except today the cleaner has called in sick.
“We still do everything,” Joseph says. “Last week was the first day we took on a cleaning service because we thought we would get them in one day a week and at least it makes it a bit easier for us.
“It’s only the second time and they’ve phoned in sick. They should have been cleaned today by someone, but now we’re going to have to do it.”
Joseph and William are used to multi-tasking – whether that’s scrubbing the loos, serving behind the bar, or talking to investors to raise funds to transfer their shows to London.
In October, their co-production of the classic musical Hair, which was seen at Hope Mill in 2016, will move to The Vaults underneath Waterloo Station for the show’s 50th anniversary.
Before that, their staging of Yank!, a musical about two gay US servicemen during World War Two, has transferred to Charing Cross Theatre, where Monday is opening night.
Better than Branagh
Shows like Hair and Yank! have helped Hope Mill make its name since it opened in October 2015.
Last October, Joseph and William beat Kenneth Branagh and National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris to win the theatre prize at the Hospital Club awards.
The venue also received two prizes, including a special achievement honour, at the Manchester Theatre Awards in March.
Joseph and William’s biggest celebration is still to come, though. This weekend, the theatre will be transformed into the venue for their wedding reception.
The couple met as actors, but their own dreams of West End stardom faded as they struggled to get auditions and as William needed vocal surgery.
After having the idea to open their own theatre instead, they spotted an ad for Hope Mill on Gumtree.
“I had proposed to Will on the UK tour of Pirates of Penzance,” Joseph, 27, says. “We were going through the process of trying to secure this [building], so we said, well, if we get the venue then we’ll get married there.”
‘Struggling’ in London
The couple had been living in London, working as waiters between acting jobs. “We were struggling to pay the rent, and there was not much happening,” 28-year-old William says. “So it makes you lose faith.”
Realising that it wasn’t worth staying in the capital just to attend occasional auditions, they moved to William’s home town of Macclesfield, 20 miles from Manchester.
As they got to know the city’s theatre scene, they realised there might be a gap in the market for a fringe venue where people could see full productions of musicals up close.
Hope Mill was modelled on London venues like the Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Playhouse and Union Theatre. The pair had worked for the Union’s owner Sasha Regan as actors, and she encouraged them to find a venue.
“We were like, ‘Well, we don’t really have any money,'” William recalls. “She said, ‘Just do it. You never will.’ That gave us the spark and the confidence.”
Joseph adds: “We genuinely didn’t have any money. We thought we’d just see what’s out there and worry about the money afterwards.”
So after finding the building to rent, they drummed up a £10,000 Business Finance Solutions loan, a crowdfunding campaign to buy the 120 seats and a loan from William’s mum (“Which we still owe her to this day”).
Their plans soon attracted the attention of theatre producer Katy Lipson, whose company Aria Entertainment has staged shows like The Addams Family musical, and who hails from Manchester. She went to meet the pair before Hope Mill opened.
“She came in one day and we were in overalls painting away,” Will says. “It was a total mess but she said, ‘What an incredible space.’
“She’s used to the kinds of spaces you get in London. Compared to that, this is quite big. She said, ‘I’d love to bring some work up here.’ In hindsight, she wanted to bring some work back to near home. She’d never produced work in Manchester before.”
William and Joseph’s ambition of staging full musicals like Yank!, Hair and Parade and taking them to London was part of a five-year plan, but with Lipson’s help it has all come to fruition much sooner than expected.
‘We were totally naive’
The next show the team are staging at Hope Mill is the Tony Award-winning musical Pippin in late August and September.
William and Joseph could never have started a venue like this in London, they believe.
“It would have cost way too much,” William explains. “The way we opened this place, we pretty much did it on our own with limited funds.
“It was totally naive and pretty stupid when we look back. It so could have gone terribly wrong. But we just soft opened and as money came in we carried on.”
The biggest challenge, Joseph reflects, has been learning how to work together.
Partners in work and life
“That’s been hard,” he says. “We’re a couple, so [we have been] learning what our roles are, learning how to leave work at work and not take it home.
“It doesn’t really happen,” William chips in. “We take work everywhere we go.”
But it’s all been worth it, and Joseph says it’s “incredible” to look back at their achievements over the last 18 months.
“We’ve had a lot of people who have come on board and really supported us and cheered us,” he says.
“But ultimately, Will and I have single-handedly set this place up. So there’s something very satisfying when someone walks in and goes, ‘Wow, this is beautiful’, or, ‘That show was incredible.'”
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