Hilary Metcalfe (now Hilary Elder), was the Administrator of Half Moon Young People’s Theatre from 1989-1991.
[Hilary Metcalfe (now Hilary Elder), photographed on 12 April 2023 with Half Moon’s director Chris Elwell]
I arrived at the Giraffe House in April 1989, a fresh-faced 23 year-old from deep in the northern wilds, to take up my second job in arts administration. Carlisle born and bred, I’d been Arts Officer on my home turf at Cumbria County Council for the past two years. Now I was branching out into a world with many more people and much more arts but far fewer sheep.
The culture shock of the big city was exactly what I wanted, and I loved the YPT from the beginning. I can still remember the chalky scent of the Giraffe house as you entered, and how much I loved my desk, next to Norman’s. Being a non-hierarchical company was very different from local government, and working in a multicultural area and with a multicultural team was brilliant. I remember going ‘home’ to Carlisle at Christmas and being shocked that everyone was white.
What was unexpected was the discovery, a few months into the job, that the company was almost definitely going to fold. At that time, we had rather little to do with the Main House, who treated us with what I remember as benign neglect. They undoubtedly had high regard for what we did, but basically let us get on with it. I don’t remember being asked to report into board meetings about what we were doing, for example, and I don’t remember anyone from the main house ever popping across to the Giraffe House to see us for any reason. However, once the crisis came, it quickly became clear that there might be a chance of saving the Young People’s Theatre part of the company. If we could set up as a new legal entity and demonstrate that we could operate soundly both financially and with good governance, the funders might fund us. It was a lot of ifs, and no one could promise anything.
It was then that Deborah Bestwick and I attended a couple of Half Moon Board meetings. The company was deep in trying to save itself, or at least to fold in the best way it could, and was very gracious in giving its blessing for us to do all we could to save the YPT part of the operation, although it could offer no practical help – which we had not expected. Their benign trust in us held.
We then had to trust each other. We were mostly a young company and we really believed in the work we were doing. Everyone wanted to do our best to save the YPT, but there were no guarantees it would work, so it was a hairy few months. No one would have been blamed for jumping ship and there were moments when we had big arguments. It was mainly Deborah and me who met with legal people and funders to negotiate, and we would come back and report to the rest of the company. We would tell them everything, including that nothing was guaranteed and we couldn’t promise them they would keep their jobs, and they, sometimes, would accuse us of hiding things, which we weren’t; things could get difficult.
It was a huge learning curve, from small things like learning how to do payroll to crunch things like making sure our limited company with charitable status was correctly legal to bizarre things like understanding what it might mean that the lease on 43 Whitehorse Road was to include the air directly above the building (I think – I don’t think it specified for how high or whether we could charge birds or planes for flying through it).
In the end, we all held together. The YPT had excellent connections in its community and found a strong group of people to be its new Board. It had an impressive track record and all of the funders came in with full funding for the new company. We found new rented premises and made a budget that balanced and on one day in April, almost exactly a year after I arrived, we were made redundant; and the next day our new company employed us. It remains one of my proudest professional achievements, because the work has been able to continue, to grow and develop and flourish – and it could very easily have gone the other way.
Looking back, I think there were some key things that made it work:
My time at Half Moon YPT formed me in key ways and there are some values I hold that Half Moon helped to shape.