“When we closed… we didn’t have enough money in the bank to see us through. We could have paid April’s wages… but we wouldn’t have been able to pay May’s.”

Writer and artistic director Henry Filloux-Bennett's digital journey back from the brink

The Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield has had a good Covid. But it needn’t have turned out that way.

“When we closed,” says artistic director Henry Filloux-Bennett, “we didn’t have enough money in the bank to see us through. We could have paid April’s wages for everyone, but we wouldn’t have been able to pay May’s.”

It was a grim time when some venues, such as the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, went under for good. Henry and his Board and senior management team at the Lawrence Batley Theatre decided that if the worst happened, they’d rather go out in a blaze of glory than slowly bleed to death.

“We accepted that if we were going to hit the wall, we were going to hit the wall telling stories and being exciting and doing stuff.”

Fortunately, according to Henry, the cavalry arrived.

“Kirklees Council have been absolutely astonishing, and I genuinely don’t think we would be here without them. They said: ‘We understand that there’s a place for theatre in a local community.’”

Together with the generosity of Huddersfield residents who he says increased their donations to the theatre by a factor of 10, it meant the Lawrence Batley has been able to survive without losing a single member of staff.

I ask him what he’s particularly proud of having achieved during the past 12 months.

“There’s two things. The first is that we did LBTV, a platform where we had new content created every single day during lockdown. For most of April, and into July, and then in November and December, and January, we created new content for free every day that people could access. And over 20,000 people did watch something or take part in a master class or a workshop or listening to the storytelling session.”

He’s also proud of finding new ways to work with other theatres to create shows that are born with digital in mind.

“We’ve been really lucky in that we’ve been able to make things… I don’t know what the name for them is, but we’ve been able to make projects that are stories that are told filmically but they are plays. I feel like we’ve managed to create this new way of creating stories.”

Co-productions between regional theatres have existed for many years, but the relationship tended to be commercial and more to do with sharing the financial costs and rewards of a large project. What emerged in 2020 was closer collaboration between creatives, technicians and administrative staff from different theatres across the country to create the show.

Take current production The Picture Of Dorian Gray, for instance, which Henry adapted from Oscar Wilde’s novel for a consortium consisting of the Lawrence Batley, The Barn in Cirencester, Oxford Playhouse, Theatr Clwyd and the New Wolsey in Ipswich.

“Our responsibility was writing it and casting it. And we were doing Covid security and leading on the education pack.”

I ask him how the show came about.

“We did a project in November called What A Carve Up! with the same team. We’d created this hybrid of film and theatre and audio plays and we wanted to explore what we could do again – if we could push that ambition. Tamara Harvey who’s the director and I had a conversation on Press Night about what we were going to do next.

“Primarily, although I think some people would call me a writer, I call myself an adapter of work because that’s the thing I enjoy doing most. I really enjoy taking a story that already exists and trying to tell it in a different way.

“There’s always been a list of books that I have on a shelf at home which is The List of the books that I’d like to do at some point in my life. Dorian Gray has always been on that list but I was never really sure what I had to add to it because it’s been done to death.

“So, anyway, I was talking to Tamara about what we would do next and one of her provocations has always been that we only do things if it makes sense to do them digitally and online. And about a week later I was watching an amazing documentary called The Social Dilemma on Netflix. It’s about the dangers of social media and what social media can do to a society.

“And then I started re-reading Dorian Gray and I thought ‘Well, if Dorian Gray was alive now and if he was, let’s say, a student then the bargain that he would be making, with whoever he makes the bargain with, or whatever he makes the bargain with, that would surely be about his online presence because that’s what people want nowadays. They want to look perfect on Instagram, they want to have a million followers… they want to be an Influencer basically.

“And I thought: ‘It could be interesting to retell Dorian Gray but flipping it so that Dorian Gray’s physical form starts to decay and his online picture and his Instagram thing, that’s always perfect.’ And that was the moment that Tamara and I realised that we could probably do something with Dorian Gray.

“But it’s very much set now, in the period of time between July last year when we started to unlock and probably January time of this year. He uses the mask to cover his face because his physical form is disintegrating, not because he wants to be responsible.”

The production has a formidable cast – Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead, plus Alfred Enoch, Joanna Lumley, Emma McDonald, Russell Tovey and Stephen Fry. Were they ever in the same room together?

“The maximum we had in the same area was two people. That was the person playing Dorian Gray and the person playing Sibyl Vane. They were together for one day. Everyone else was filmed individually, at The Barn. That made it logistically incredibly difficult to do but from a safety point of view we knew we had to do that.”

Henry has pulled off the double whammy of running a theatre whilst building a reputation as an adaptor.

So how does he juggle his writing and creative life against the bit of himself that gets things done and manages the budget?

“The easiest way to describe it is that my job is the chief executive of a theatre, and that’s what I do nine to five. My normal job is that. And a lot of people bake, or go for runs, or go for nice holidays -- I write for fun. It always has been a hobby, and I hope it always will be a hobby because I don’t think I could do it as a full-time job. There are vast periods of time where I just can’t do anything creatively. I don’t feel like I’ve got anything to say. And then for a very brief but intense period of time suddenly I know exactly what I need to write and it will happen.

“But it is always a hobby and it’s always the thing that I’ll do on a weekend or in an evening… never in a morning.”

For someone who is short of time, focusing on adaptation is a shrewd move, because the structure is already there.

“A hundred per cent. That’s why I like it. I might change my mind at some point, but I’m not sure I have the most interesting ideas originally. The thing that I enjoy is communicating a story that I have fallen in love with, in a different format.

“And also, frankly, with an original play, it can feel like quite a lonely experience while you’re writing it because you don’t have anyone to bounce off.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that all of the people, apart from Oscar Wilde, obviously, all of the living writers that I’ve adapted have been open to me picking up the phone or speaking to them. So, I’m doing it with the writer, relying on their source material and also able to call up and say: ‘Look, do you think this character would do this or do you think that this is wrong?

“I feel like I’m a much more collaborative writer. And perhaps that’s why I like adaptation – it’s because I like reinterpreting work. I don’t like it to be all me.”

Feet on the ground. Knows his own mind. If I was Kirklees Council, or a Huddersfield resident, I would trust him with my money too. I ask him about Bumbling Boris and his roadmap out of lockdown.

“I’m cautious. I don’t want to say sceptical or cynical but certainly not immediately jumping for joy. I think we saw what happened last year when we tried to unlock and it certainly didn’t go awfully well and we know that every single thing the Government have tried to do has pretty much failed.”

I agree. My mum still has half a freezer full of uneaten vegetarian ready meals because of the last-minute shambles over Christmas which meant my brother couldn’t come home.

“We’re not planning on opening in our theatre. We’ll do work outside but we’re not planning on opening the theatre for audiences until September.

“I’ve had lots of conversations with other organisations about where they’re at and some are thinking: ‘Yes, we’ll try and open in May like the roadmap suggests we can,’ and others are a bit more cautious, like I am.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel. I just think there’s still quite a lot of tunnel left.”

The Picture Of Dorian Gray runs until Mar 31, £12.