Playhouse to make a city proud


Now re-opened after a two-year, £4.6 million renovation, Derry’s Playhouse theatre and arts centre, housed in a former convent, has been hailed as one of the most vibrant arts venues in the country, writes JANE COYLE

‘WELL, WHAT do you think?” The question was asked by Pauline Ross, who, at that time, had recently left her post as director of the Orchard Gallery in Derry.

It was a cold, dank November day in 1991 when the two of us climbed up onto the city walls in Artillery Street – where, coincidentally, one of Derry’s first theatres, Talbot’s Theatre, was built in 1774 – to get a better view of the gloomy exterior of the former convent schools of St Joseph and St Mary, which for many years had belonged to the Sisters of Mercy. It took exceptional imagination to envisage this towering shell, which stands at a run-down interface with the loyalist Fountain area, and which is, in fact, a Grade B1 listed building, as having the potential to be a centre for the arts.

During the dark days of the 1980s, against all the odds, the cultural and artistic life of Derry was thriving. Thanks to the vision of Declan McGonagle, subsequently director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma), a number of major public art installations were finding their place and the municipal Orchard Gallery was a lively venue for high profile exhibitions, musical events and workshops. Field Day’s world premieres of plays by writers such as Brian Friel, Thomas Kilroy, Stewart Parker, Tom Paulin and Derek Mahon were attracting international media attention, in spite of being staged in the Council chamber of the Guildhall, for the simple reason that, for all its excellence in the performing arts, the North’s second city had no theatre.

Ross was one of many influential figures in Derry’s enterprising arts community, who had campaigned long and loud for the establishment of a theatre.

“When I got my first job with Derry City Council as a community arts liaison officer, I used to go out and talk to teachers, youth workers, development workers, nurses and other groups,” she recalls. “They would all say how desperately a place was needed in the city for dance and drama.

“I had an idea and a mission – to set up a community arts resource centre, with a dedicated performance space, within the walls and on a neutral site acceptable to all our communities. But it took me ages to find a building. In 1988 a friend brought me up here to Artillery Street. ‘Will this do?’ he asked. When I saw it, rearing up like a cliff face, I knew this was it.”

Brooking no refusals or doubts about the sanity of such a wildly ambitious undertaking, Ross fired off hundreds of begging letters to potential backers. Only one came through – British Enkalon, with a cheque for the princely sum of £300. This modest act of faith provided the incentive to get her started.

Characteristically, one of her earliest gestures of intent was to paint the rusty old-fashioned radiators gold, before the doors of the new centre opened in 1992.

Since then, under her inexhaustible guardianship, this neglected but much loved three-storey building – the tallest on the west bank of the Foyle – has blossomed into one of the most vibrant arts and play resource centres in Ireland and a network of contacts has been built up with artists in other countries across the world, which have experienced conflict. Out of that network has come Theatre of Witness, a peace initiative devised and directed by Philadelphia dancer and counsellor Teya Sepinuck, which has brought victims and survivors of the Troubles onto a stage for a powerful performance and is currently on tour.

Now the Playhouse is re-emerging into the light after an extensive two-year £4.6 million renovation programme. In 2004 it was a finalist in the BBC television series Restoration, an achievement which gave added impetus to raising the money for work to begin in October 2007. Among the major funders are the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (£1. 3 million), and Heritage Lottery Fund (£1.12 million) together with the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure/ILEX North West Challenge Fund and Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Last week, a packed gathering of supporters celebrated the official reopening, which was carried out by the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland. The distinguished patronage includes writers Jennifer Johnston and Frank McGuinness, actors Bronagh Gallagher, Gabriel Byrne, Roma Downie and Sorcha Cusack, and Field Day Theatre Company, whose influence and achievements Ross intends to honour on an annual basis.

The gold radiators may be long gone, but many of the original features have been retained in this stunning reincarnation, starting with the burnished wooden cobbles of the covered walkway, which leads off the street into a dazzling, 21st-century space. What was previously an empty courtyard is now a high-ceilinged plaza or meeting place, described by Ross as “the village square, where people gather to chat”. It incorporates the Context Gallery, which supports and encourages emerging Irish artists, as well as forging links with up-and-coming artists in other countries.

Ross praises Andrzej Blonski Architects for their sensitive use of materials from the old building and for retaining its spirit and positive energy. The modern open-tread staircase has been constructed using much of the original wood, lovingly restored and reinstalled. And while the theatre space may be re-equipped with state-of-the art technology and comfortable seating, it is still, as Ross describes it, “the same old theatre”.

“This is the real strength of the architectural plans,” she says. “From the moment I saw this building, I felt it was filled with good energy. Every morning now, when we walk through those doors, we get that same feeling – by the bucketful.” Especially eye-catching are the opaque glass panels on each level of the staircase, which carry images taken from the pages of local newspapers going back over the years. They are the work of Edinburgh-based artist Paula Thompson, who was commissioned to work with local historian Annesley Malley on a project which would capture Derry’s rich social, political and cultural history and offer a point of memory and reminiscence for the public.

A mezzanine corridor, quietly watched over by a restored stone statue of Christ, leads to the top-floor dance studio, a vast, white, mirror-lined room filled with natural light, with spectacular panoramic views over a city where change is constantly taking place.

“Next year, we’ll be able to look out over the new Peace Bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, which will link Ebrington Barracks with Guildhall Square,” Ross reflects.

“Our city has begun to normalise itself and the Peace Bridge will testify to the many bridges that its citizens have built and crossed since the Good Friday Agreement.

“These beautiful arched windows used to be covered with iron grills. It is another sign of change that, for the first time in 40 years, the grills have been removed to allow the daylight to stream in.” And with exemplary timing, the Playhouse has been given the perfect launch with the recent announcement that it has won the prestigious 2009 Bura (British Urban Regeneration Association) award for Best Practice in Regeneration, the first Northern Irish arts centre to do so.

“This award is the icing on the cake. It only seems a blink of an eye since the Playhouse opened in these wonderful buildings in 1992,” says Ross. “Although they have been bustling with activity ever since, they were in desperate need of major renovation. It’s been an incredible journey.”