With theatres finally reopening this week, PETER BARRON raises the curtain on how staff have been playing starring roles in helping the local community to live through the pandemic

AS front of house manager at his local theatre, Tim Hollinshead’s job is to make sure every step is taken to give the audience a good time.

But during lockdown, Tim and his colleagues at Darlington Hippodrome have been playing a very different role in supporting the community response to Covid-19.

Working at the 114-year-old theatre requires teamwork, logistics, attention to detail, and people management. Who’d have thought all of those stage skills would have proved to be invaluable during a pandemic?

“It’s certainly a year we’ll never forget,” smiles Tim, as he sits in the empty theatre, looking forward to the time when it will again echo with laughter, music and applause.

Growing up in Chesterfield, Tim never dreamt that he’d end up with a career in the theatre. His mum, Margaret, worked in the box office at a large cabaret club, The Aquarius, but Tim thought he was more likely to follow in the footsteps of his dad, Mike, and become a plumber.

Instead, a holiday romance on the Greek island of Kos proved to be the turning point. He met a girl called Joanne, from Darlington, and they were married two years later.

Tim moved to Darlington and initially worked at a garden machinery company, Dick Lawson Ltd, before finding his way into the arts. Mum-in-law, Rosslyn, was receptionist at Darlington Arts Centre, and Joanne did some event stewarding.

Having grown friendly with the Arts Centre staff, Tim started filling in as a part-time events steward himself in the mid 1990s, and that led to him covering as duty manager. By the turn of the century, he’d left Dick Lawson’s to become full-time assistant duty manager at the Arts Centre, a role which also involved working at what was then The Civic Theatre.

He went on to work as box office manager for 14 years before a reorganisation led to his current role of front of house manager: organising staff rotas, liaising with payroll, ordering stock, and preparing the theatre for room hires and shows.

“It’s been an enjoyable life because I like helping people and nipping problems in the bud," says Tim.

It's been a "privilege" to get to know so many stars, though too many have passed away: Ken Dodd; Barry Elliott, from The Chuckle Brothers; and Graham Walker, from The Grumbleweeds, among them.

The job has also been handy for impressing friends. There was the time, for example, when Tim was able to arrange for a friend – a lifelong fan of Starsky and Hutch – to meet David Soul, and get his pristine annual from the TV series signed.

The glamour came to an abrupt end in March last year when the first lockdown was declared, and Tim and his colleagues were called into emergency action to assist with the community efforts to combat the pandemic…

ACT ONE: The theatre crew formed part of the covid support hub at the Town Hall, dealing with queries about food parcels, and medication.

ACT TWO: Once the initial storm had calmed, Tim was furloughed through June and July before getting the call in August to prepare the theatre to reopen for classic films to be shown, with social distancing, and track and trace in place.

ACT THREE: When the next lockdown was called at Christmas, Tim’s challenge was to become a team leader, supporting theatre colleagues in carrying out lateral flow tests at the Dolphin Centre. In one day, the team carried out 629 tests.

ACT FOUR: After Christmas, Tim – along with senior house manager Andy Hutchinson-Clish, house manger Natalie Welsh, and assistant house manager Clare Louise Hall – were tasked with opening up community venues for lateral flow testing, including Firthmoor Community Centre, Red Hall Community Centre, Middleton St George Community Centre, Heighington Village Hall, and the Head of Steam railway museum.

ACT FIVE: Most recently, Tim has been managing the distribution of a click-and-collect system for lateral flow tests from those community venues.

“It’s been amazing to see so many people, in all walks of life, adapting their skills during the pandemic, and we’ve been proud to play our part,” says Tim.

“In many ways, the lockdown has been great for building team spirit because people have come together from different areas of the theatre and got to know each other much better.”

Now, with theatres reopening, it’s back to what Tim knows best – getting Darlington Hippodrome ready to welcome back community groups and audiences.

“The Hippodrome is such a fantastic asset for Darlington and we’re so lucky to have it,” he says. “It means everything to be opening the doors again – we just can’t wait to return to some kind of normality.”

“On With The Show” is the theme for the months ahead but Tim Hollinshead and his theatre colleagues can look back on the past year as a performance to be proud of.

It's time to take a bow.

THE first show post-lockdown at the Hippodrome will be “Come Back Home” – performed by the brilliant Darlington Operatic Society – from June 24 to 27.

Tickets are on sale now for two hours of socially-distanced musical theatre, with hit after hit, and a fusion of live performances and video projection. Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Dear Evan Hansen, The Book of Mormon, Six, The Bodyguard and many more musicals will be featured.

Julian Cound, Darlington Operatic Society chairman, says: “The theatre is the cultural heartbeat of the town and, until people come back and take their seats, I don’t think they will fully appreciate how much it's meant to them.”

FINALLY, along with many others, I was saddened by the passing of Tony Richmond, who served Darlington admirably for 40 years.

As Mayor of Darlington, council leader, and Tory group leader, he was a credit to the town: always polite, intelligent, willing to listen to alternative points of view, full of good humour, just thoroughly decent.

The Northern Echo:

We shared a birthday and, in four decades, we never had a cross word. Even differences of opinion were exchanged with smiles.

When failing health forced him to step down from public life in 2019, he issued a statement, saying: “It has been an absolute pleasure.”

And it was an absolute pleasure to know you, Tony. Rest in peace.