“One of the major problems that any city has at this time is the death of the high street and reasons to come into the centre of town – that I think that is what the Mercury is for.”

It is a statement Ryan McBryde, the creative director of Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, has stood by for the last five years. 

But he is now stepping down to pursue individual passion projects as well as much-needed rest after a five-year tenure which included a multi-million-pound restoration as well as the pandemic.

Ryan McBryde, who turned 46 last week, said he took over the position of creative director of the Mercury in June 2019 with the first task being a major renovation of the theatre.

An outside 800-seat production of Oliver, took place in the summer while the renovation took place “so not to lose our audience” with the plan to fully re-open in September 2020.

Ryan said: “But of course, this thing called Covid happened so it went from being one of the only theatre re-openings to becoming one of one of all of the world’s theatre re-openings.”

However, the “stressful” pandemic led to Ryan and the Mercury trying to find opportunities such as cyber plays, online readings, group-call choirs, and also connecting with local artists.  

Gazette: Director - Ryan McBryde Director - Ryan McBryde (Image: Newsquest)

Reaching people via zoom, is still reaching audience members, meaning over the last five years Ryan and the theatre-world have gained crucial audience insights.

Ryan said: “I think you’ve got to take people on a journey with you, by that, you have to make sure you are providing a good night out - good value for money - so my whole kind of ethos is creating ‘populist’ good night-outs.

It’s looking at the pantomime and thinking, okay, that is packed. People come to that, you now know, every year it’s insane, so I go, okay, well, why are they coming? What is they want?

“They think it's because they're getting something they know, they're gonna get a good time, they they're gonna have fun.”

The Christmas pantomime therefore inspired Ryan to establish a similar feel-good musical based show for the start of the summer, adding: “Midsummer is kind of like the classic example of that -  it's funny, it's got music.

“And hopefully, they should have a great a great time and come out with a kind of buzzing by the end, the same with Being Earnest, and Sleeping Beauty the panto."

Gazette: Inspiration - The success of the yearly pantomime, shown the ensemble of Sleeping Beauty in 2023, inspired Ryan to think of other seasonal events that with time would become popular fixturesInspiration - The success of the yearly pantomime, shown the ensemble of Sleeping Beauty in 2023, inspired Ryan to think of other seasonal events that with time would become popular fixtures (Image: Pamela Raith)

Getting “bums on seats” is important, but Ryan made clear that the purpose of the ‘Studio’ – the second 98-seat stage – is for “taking risks”.

Ryan added: “One of the things I set up was this thing called Mercury Originals - when I started the job we set up a playwriting course.

“And the idea was that they would do a nine month play writing course and at the end of the nine months, we would pick three of the shows, and give them the opportunity to stage their work in our Studio."

This course was aimed at people in the region to develop their writing skills with a critically acclaimed mentor. with Ryan adding that it has the additional benefit of “building up a new audience here for something different, something slightly more provocative”.

Ryan mentions second-year ‘Mercury’s Originals’ playwright Martha Loader whose play Bindweed – which is being co-produced by the Mercury – will now be going to the Arcola Theatre in London as well as touring.

Bindweed is a “modern piece” about a woman who has started a new job working with perpetrators of domestic abuse which Ryan says does “provoke”, is at times "comedic" as well as being a "shared experience".

I have seen two plays in the Studio at the Mercury which both had NHS consultants on the creative team as well often having post-show discussions on tour.

Regarding Hannah Walker’s Gamble, which is still very memorably funny, Ryan said: “The talk afterwards was just as interesting.

“And the NHS involvement adds a level of kudos and factual quality to it - it’s super important.”

This leads Ryan to talk more about Martha’s research, including interviewing people and domestic abuse charities who “fed back to her” with there also being a “well-being coach” to “catch everyone if the subject matter becomes too dark.”

Gazette: Growth - The Mercury Theatre, shown with its most recent extension, had its most successful year this yearGrowth - The Mercury Theatre, shown with its most recent extension, had its most successful year this year (Image: Submitted)

Ryan tries hard to expand the Mercury’s audience, from making sure the building is “full”, with clubs such as ‘Senior social clubs’, and by establishing a knowable bookable programme – a pantomime for Christmas, a musical for spring, a family show for summer, and a drama for autumn.

Ryan said: “The future issue is the reasons to come into centre of ‘town’ and I think that’s what the Mercury, the cinemas and First Site is for."

The theatre team does an end of show survey to push the good night out into “great night outs”, finding all get good value for money with “London production values” at a third of the price with an average yield of £19 – “pretty good for a very good night out”.

Ryan, who is very tight lipped about his future plans apart from relaxation, added: “As a director, you're trying to get a reaction out of an audience, and it’s really interesting because when you hear them laugh, that's like a drug.

“So, with Midsummer when they're laughing their socks off, you're like, you know that you're getting a visceral response to the writer’s ‘meaning’, means, yes, it's working.

“And the same with a tragedy. If they're crying at the end, then you're going, oh, wow, it's having an effect. They're in it.

“Listening to 500 people laugh or sob at the same time - It's kind of amazing.”