By chance I found myself sitting next to Sam Dixon, the leader of Chester Council, at The Beggar’s Opera, the official opening performance for the city’s spanking new arts centre Storyhouse. She’s been head of the council for just a couple of years and was still a tad nervous about how Storyhouse would be received by the good folk of Chester and the surrounding area.
This was understandable given only a slim Labour majority and the £37 million cost of a project they had nursed to fruition out of a commitment to putting arts and culture high on the civic agenda, as well as bringing cinema and theatre back to Chester city centre after a decade-long absence.
But all the evidence is that Dixon needn’t have worried. Even with the doors open for just a few hours, it was apparent that the combined theatre, library and cinema had already found a place in the hearts of the locals, and will surely go on to be recognised as an innovative international cultural centre alongside such near-neighbours as Manchester’s HOME and Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse.
The projections anticipate 600,000 visits per year, with 1,200 customers in the building at peak times, and Storyhouse open for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Ambitious, yes, but that opening weekend alone saw an impressive 10,000 visitors, 2,000 books checked out, and four sold-out theatre shows.
Home to a year-round programme of homemade and touring theatre, plus film along with a host of activities across its considerable public spaces, Storyhouse has been carved from the Grade II listed Art Deco 1936 Odeon cinema and a brand new state of the art glass extension.
Designed by Bennetts Associates, it boasts an 800/500-seat theatre, a 100-seat cinema, a 150-seat flexible studio theatre, extensive library spaces (including a Children’s Den), digital production and broadcast facilities, a café bar and a rather good restaurant.
“Storyhouse,” says surprisingly calm artistic director Alex Clifton, “aims to connect people through storytelling and seeks to create great art. It strives to innovate and democratise its work, in order to empower communities. It asks two vital social questions – who are we and how shall we live?”
At the heart of it all lies a cheering faith in people, exemplified by the way there are books everywhere – the library threads its way throughout the building – but with a wonderfully casual approach to the old-fashioned notion of checking them out and then bringing them back again. Clifton is insistent that “Storyhouse is open to the community to use in any and every capacity. Charities, schools, artists and local people have been consulted on both the programme and activities to suit everyone.” Moreover, those community groups (not him, as he wryly points out) have first call on the terrific 150-seat Garrett Theatre and its facilities at the top of the building.
Although it was much loved locally, the former 1936 Odeon cinema with its streamlined Art Deco interior had been disused for many years. When the team first visited the site in 2012, it became clear that although externally the 1936 Odeon was well preserved, inside the main cinema volume had been crudely sub-divided into five screens and many original features had been removed. Stripping out these sub-divisions and the redundant balcony structure revealed an enormous internal volume retaining much of its original streamlined Art Deco plasterwork.
With the seats removed and floor levelled, that main Odeon volume has become the focal point of the new cultural centre, containing the main café and bar at ground level with at its centre the new 100-seat boutique cinema housed in a glass-clad ‘lightbox’ suspended on the first floor mezzanine. The curved shape of the mezzanine edge follows that of the former cinema balcony, revealing the full scale of the proscenium plasterwork which once surrounded the former Odeon’s screen. With the screen removed, the foyer space now continues right through the old proscenium opening to reveal the brick-clad main auditorium of the new-build theatre. Red painted steel stairs and walkways giving access to the theatre and the studio theatre above are suspended like theatre scenery in the glazed gap between the old and new buildings.
At night, the foyer is animated with a film projection shown on a new screen flown into the old proscenium arch and theatre audiences pass through and under the cinema screen to access the main auditorium.
The main theatre seats 800 in a traditional proscenium format with a pit, circle and gallery. During the Summer months and over the Christmas season, a thrust stage will be built above the stalls, converting the theatre into an intimate 500-seat venue to house Storyhouse’s home-produced Summer festival programme of Shakespeare, new writing, chamber music and spoken word performance. Unlike many theatres, which claim flexibility but incorporate lots of expensive automated equipment that can actually reduce the flexibility, Storyhouse adopts a simpler, more direct approach.
“Better to provide a room which can be adapted and build a framework inside the theatre which can be changed and reconfigured by the creative teams producing the work, allowing Storyhouse to develop its artistic and creative identity and reflect the ever-changing artistic ambitions,” goes the argument.
Significantly, Storyhouse’s newly formed repertory company is the largest in the UK outside the RSC or National Theatre. The gender-balanced company is made up of 26 actors, two trainees and three musicians, with the opening theatre season seeing the company deliver four diverse productions – The Beggar’s Opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, and Alice In Wonderland – across both the Storyhouse main stage and the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre stage
“We want Storyhouse to constantly innovate and to keep pushing for the answers to the big questions our communities face. There is no better way to do this than by bringing in artists who will generate intriguing ideas and different viewpoints to keep us contemporary and relevant,” says Clifton, and an impressive programme of visiting shows has also just been announced for Storyhouse as well as the Chester Literature Festival running November 17-19. That’s being curated by Hollie McNish, who has been writing poetry since she was seven but first came to fame in 2011 after winning the UK poetry championship and coming third in the World Poetry Slam finals.
“Storyhouse is one of the most exciting places I’ve been to in years and I can’t wait to get to work,” she enthuses. “It’s also making me a little jealous of those who live in Chester. What a genius idea whoever thought up this building.”
By Kevin Bourke, Theatre Editor