Clapham Grand sets the stage for grand reopening

The Clapham Grand will reopen its doors on 18 May, after steering through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic by raising over £450,000 since it’s closure on 20 March last year.

Private crowdfunding, industry lobbying, and emergency public funding has guaranteed the 120-year-old venue’s survival, and it is set to return with increased capacity and build on the newly discovered success of live-streamed events.

Clapham Grand’s general manager Ally Wolf launched the ‘Save the Grand’ campaign on 6 May last year after realising the Grade-II listed Victorian building’s £50,000-a-month rent would accumulate until reopening.

Tapping into his 20 years of experience putting on live events, he transformed the Crowdfunder campaign into a spectacle of drag-shows, dance-a-thons, and live music which were all streamed for entertainment-deprived audiences under lockdown.

Celebration and historic preservation were the key themes throughout the campaign, and Wolf credits this sense of positivity for raising awareness and encouraging contributions.

He said: “I think people respond to that sense of positivity because they see hope and light rather than sadness.

“You give money to try and affect change and improve, you don’t give money to something that is going to fail.

“No one invests in failure, they invest in success.”

‘Grand-Aid’, headlined by Frank Turner, Beans on Toast, Gerry Del-Guercio, and Ciara Haidar, was a one-off live-streamed gig in support of the campaign on 26 June that raised over £22,000 and proved that with good promotion, and a good line up, there was an appetite for digital events.

The campaign hit the initial £50,000 target on 6 July, and a venue that had adapted to the coronavirus restrictions was beginning to emerge, one that could also connect with audiences beyond London through live-streaming.

After a long period of silence, government intervention arrived on 5 July with the announcement of a £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund for the arts.

The venue tested the feasibility of reduced capacity events by hosting ‘Grand-Aid: Live’, a government-backed socially-distanced indoor gig that would serve as a pilot for the wider industry.

It was the first indoor gig in the UK since lockdown began on 23 March 2020, and had both a live and digital audience.

Receiving an £80,000 emergency grant from Arts Council England and building on experience of ‘Grand-Aid: Live’, Wolf began preparing for future events with social-distancing in place. 

The upper circle that was left unused for 15 years was finally renovated into a seating space, increasing the reduced capacity from 280 to 380 people and allowing larger events to take place due to the huge size of the Grade-II listed Victorian building.

“It wasn’t cheap, it wasn’t particularly profitable, it was no-where near the business it was before, and it would have struggled consistently to deliver the revenue it needed to pay for itself, but it was the beginning of a new business that can work,” said Wolf.

Despite coronavirus restrictions, and thanks to live-streaming, 70 shows were put on between September and Christmas.

This new business will mean a look back into the past, with seated events catering to older audiences becoming more common whilst also adapting the stage for an increasingly digital audience, where the shows are live-streamed to audiences beyond London.

This sense of a subtle transformation has also been felt by Claire Street, a freelance dancer who has been working at the Grand for four years before its closure.

She helped with the ‘Save the Grand’ campaign, but the second lockdown meant she was forced to also adapt to the circumstances and began to provide dance lessons by Zoom.

She said: “It’s brilliant. It’s keeping me fit and earning me a nice bit of money as well. I should have done this the whole time. This lockdown has been the best one for me so far.

“I’m very much looking forward to the big reopening though – it’s a kind of nervous excitement as it suddenly seems so long since we’ve done it!”

The venue will also return as a fixture, bringing the local community’s school children for performances and rehearsals and encouraging their artistic development.

The Thames Christian School brings together local schools to watch an annual performance put on by its outgoing final year pupils at the Clapham Grand.

Deputy Head David Atkins said the musical serves to bring local children together, and nourish the artistic development of the pupils.

He added: “The Clapham Grand is a great venue to do that because it gives them a sense of performing in a historic venue with atmosphere.

“They get a first taste of what it feels like to put of a performance on a proper stage.

“It serves as a right of passage for outgoing students, and many were massively disappointed after not being able to perform last July.”

Although the venue will still continue its long tradition of being a palace of modern variety, it will have to operate in an environment that will prioritise established acts with the guarantee of financial success, rather than newer ones.

But digital audiences and more seating areas also opens up the range of events the venue can put on.

However, Wolf said there is one thing that will still remain the same: “Like cockroaches and Cher, The Grand will be here forever.”

Featured image credit: Sin Bozkurt

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