After 35 years in “the Biz,” John Topliff and Gina T. Frost decided to call time on their wonderful careers as performers and start a new journey in life as teachers. This didn’t last long in this current climate’s attitude towards the arts. Before they knew it, they were hauled up on the 3rd floor of Afflecks Palace, selling off 35 years worth of costumes and props. This led to an idea, an idea that flowered into a beautiful story of two unique people risking everything and coming out on top . . . well, just! Sitting with the two of them in their own theatre, on a warm Wednesday afternoon, they shared their inspirational story. Here it is in their own words.
We felt that it was very quiet on the 3rd floor of Afflecks; we didn’t necessarily get as many people in as we would’ve liked. So we thought we’d put an ad out on the “Arts News” section of the Arts Council website asking for short, three minute scripts to be performed in our tiny shop; it was worth a go. Little did we know that this would be the catalyst for a tsunami of replies from a host of budding writers, so what else do you do but put on as many as you can? We started presenting three minute plays every 30 minutes on Saturday afternoons and it was a big success. “Big” may be an inapt word here since we had audiences of 12, six sitting, but we knew we were on to something, as mad as it seemed. In fact, David Slack, organiser of the 24/7 Theatre Festival (very well known amongst the independent theatre goers in Manchester), described it as “bonkers.”
In April 2011, we took a huge step and moved in to a disused shop on the ground floor; this became the venue now know as “The 3MT.” However, this didn’t happen overnight. We needed three months to get planning permission to refurbish, all the correct licenses, not to mention cashing in our pensions to get the toilet installed! All the lighting and sound equipment came down from the attic; tables, chair and props are all donated or recycled; and the superb cinema style seating we have was donated by the now closed Aaben Cinema in Hulme. (Thanks to John Wojchowski.) This has incredible importance to us, as the most important items in the theatre are the chairs – after all if they aren’t filled, we don’t eat! We had our first 3MT festival shortly after the venue was ready.
The first full length play performed was Dream On by Lloyd Eyre Morgan, which has since been made in to a film with cinema and DVD release. The biggest surprise of the night, however, was the standing ovation at the end; it was at this point we knew we were on to something (in fact, I think our exact words were, “Shit. Is this going to happen every time?”)
Since then we’ve just continued to grow. We now host poetry, film events, workshops, music nights, comedy, social events. A few come to mind that should be mentioned, “Flim night” is a unique event in which the audience will experience the recreation of a popular film by poets, comedians, filmmakers, puppeteers, and musicians. The most memorable, for us, has to be Jaws as a puppet show – you’ll have to go a long way to see something quite like that again. Also Stirred is a feminist poetry collective; anyone is welcome for this, as long as you’re there with an open and understanding mind to appreciate and participate. It’s an exciting event that always has a meet and greet followed by questions with a well-known guest.
As we continued to grow, we opened ourselves up to other projects, such as the Manchester Shakespeare Company (MSC), which writes and performs adaptations of Shakespeare with a strong “Mancunian flavour” devised in a cabaret\Brechtian format. John will write the plays before they’re premiered here at the 3MT and then turned into 6 handers to tour libraries, churches, and town halls, etc. It’s about pleasing the audience, being entertaining, and making Shakespeare understandable to a generation who might not usually be attracted to it. The best part for me is that the actors get to go out, get paid and have a laugh. We always say, “Get out there and entertain that audience; if you can do that you’re an MSC person.” Gina has also been putting a lot of time and effort in to The Square Circle Theatre (SCT), which is aimed at people with invisible disabilities in order to help develop and support them – it’s something we’re very passionate about. Our current project is for older women with autism.
Running this venue is certainly the hardest thing we’ve ever done. We’ve been on lots of stages all over the world, but never owned one before – it was a massive learning curve. The licensee course, regulation codes – there was always something to learn or something that’s changed, but we have very complimentary skills. Our own selves had no idea how to run the business or make it work, and there were lots of mistakes in the first few years, but somehow we survived – sometimes just through the kindness of strangers. Someone actually paid the rent once! Dave Puller, the poet, just popped in and paid our rent on a whim when we were having a difficult time. We’ve learned to rely on providence; something will always turn up. Cash flow has always been the biggest issue. Accountant and brilliant writer, Geoffrey Hanham, has helped us out a lot. The most important thing for us has always been that we like to collaborate, we don’t like to compete.
We still feel we can keep going for another 5-10 years, health permitting, and the most wonderful thing is our grandson, Jake Latchford, has already made it clear that when the time comes, no one is selling this place. It will be his turn to take over and continue this wonderful journey.
Overall, it’s a very blessed feeling and it’s very lucky that it’s all worked out. We had to take the risk and the risk has paid off, not necessarily in pound coins, but in an enriching feeling as individuals. It’s a unique journey and the strength has been in our relationship. Our history as artistes has equipped us with the right back bones to deal with something like this. If we had to, we’d do it all again.