Lyric Theatre Hammersmith: ‘New ways of earning money is the future – not relying on subsidy’

Jessica Hepburn, the Lyric's executive director
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Education and outreach are increasingly central to the work of all arts organisations. Libraries are being encouraged to become a source of a wide range of activities and not just for lending books. There are those who argue that the future of arts provision is in the development of arts centres which can host a number of art forms rather than dedicated art-form buildings.

Few theatres have taken these challenges more seriously than the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith which, later this month, will officially open an impressive new extension which rises one single and one double-height storey above the next-door shopping centre. It will be known as the Reuben Foundation Wing, after one of its major private sources of funding.

The King Street elevation of the Lyric Hammersmith before the redevelopment. Photo: Rick Mather Architects
The King Street elevation of the Lyric Hammersmith before the redevelopment. Photo: Rick Mather Architects

Jessica Hepburn, the Lyric’s executive director, has been working on this for all of the nine years she has been in the job. The first three years were spent securing the £3 million from the Department for Education which allowed the planning of the £20 million works to start. “Our priority is young people and emerging artists,” she tells me, “but it is very important that there is a producing theatre at its heart.”

The Lyric building is no stranger to dramatic changes. Designed by Frank Matcham, the theatre opened in 1895 further along King Street from its current location. Demolished in 1966 when the site was redeveloped, the plasterwork of the auditorium was preserved and, in 1979, the reconstructed theatre reopened on the first floor of a new purpose-built modern building nearby.

The late Rick Mather was the architect in 2004 for an extension that enlarged and relocated the entrance and provided a rehearsal room and other facilities. It is his firm that has been responsible for the current works.

David Watson, the project’s architect, explains: “The Lyric was very clear about what they wanted and took advice from their partner companies and from technical experts such as Charcoalblue. The big challenges were to do with the fact that we were building on top of a shopping centre. Establishing the structural capacity and meeting restrictions on the positioning of windows were two of the biggest.”

King street elevation of the Lyric Hammersmith extension. Photo: Rick Mather Architects
King street elevation of the Lyric Hammersmith extension. Photo: Rick Mather Architects

There have been only minor alterations to the foyer, but the works have included improvements to the air management systems and have allowed for a large wardrobe store, a new production wardrobe room and a larger workshop with direct access to the Lyric main stage.

“We felt that it was important that we keep as many production facilities as possible on site,” says Hepburn.

She is also enthusiastic about the administration department’s new airy open-plan office with access to a terrace. “Being all together in one room is brilliant and we wanted it to be a pleasant environment since they are the people who spend all day in the building.”

But the main point of the new extension is the provision of facilities across art forms – theatre, music, dance and video. Leading this will be partner organisations that specialise in various kind of dance, music and disability arts.

“It was important that the partners all agreed on our objectives,” Hepburn explains. “We must not fail to connect with everyone else. We are not about exclusion and the focus is our constituency of west London. We got a grant from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation to cover business and partnership development to ensure that we would all work well together. All partners must agree to a scale of maximum charges, commit to 75% of their participants being from west London and that they will all register as Lyric members.”

Lyric Hammersmith extension The new rehearsal room as the roof truss is installed. Photo:  Jim Stephenson
Lyric Hammersmith extension The new rehearsal room as the roof truss is installed. Photo: Jim Stephenson

A wide opening off the main Lyric foyer leads to a large open space, which is the gateway to the new facilities and will be decorated with wallpaper of posters from the Lyric’s past. The big spaces in the extension are a dance rehearsal studio and a second rehearsal room that has scenery access directly from the workshop and replicates the size of the Lyric main stage. Already in use with a mock-up of the set for Bugsy Malone, this room has an easily replaceable floor and inner walls of ply so that scenic elements can be nailed down or bolted to the walls.

A recording studio is soundproofed to professional standards and includes an oversized control room to allow for group teaching. Also soundproofed are a band rehearsal room and two individual music practice rooms. An area described as a “digital play space” will combine the informality of beanbags with a range of computers and six very large interactive screens and projectors. This space is designed to provide for the development of games, apps, and perhaps for those interested in the increasing uses of video and projection in scenic design. A ‘green screen’ film and television studio and a video edit suite add to the digital facilities available.

And who would have thought you would find a 50-seat screening cinema in the mix? Even more unusual is a ‘sensory space’, principally designed for those with disabilities and which is equipped to provide what Hepburn describes as “a soundscape with light and colour”.

All this is supported by meeting/function rooms and office space for the partner companies and, next to the rehearsal room, for stage management.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 17.42.37But it has not been an easy ride. “Beyond hard” is Hepburn’s assessment. This was partly due to the change of ownership of the shopping centre after the development had been agreed in principle but before there had been a formal agreement. Party wall negotiations were extended and complicated and the owners of the mall engaged the party wall adviser to the Royal Estates as a consultant.

The project was run by the local authority, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which was also, with Arts Council England, the biggest funders of the project. There have been examples of difficulties when arts organisations have not been the client for their building projects but here the relationship seems to have worked well. “This was too big a project for the Lyric to manage,” says Hepburn.

The facilities will be run by an increased Lyric technical team, who will receive further training where necessary, with a rota to ensure that support is available at all times. Income will be provided by the partners and by commercial hires but the Lyric’s current £500,000 annual fundraising target will need to rise to £1 million.

With this experience now almost behind her, Hepburn has some strong views on running arts organisations and why arts capital projects tend to go over budget. “New ways of earning money has to be the future,” she says. “We need to be entrepreneurial and risk-taking. I do not tolerate theatres going into deficit. We should not be relying on subsidy.” Keeping arts building projects on budget is never easy. “Unique buildings will go over budget,” she says. “It is like building a home on a massive scale. We approach building in the same way that we approach creating art.”

When I visited a couple of weeks ago, most of the £1.75 million worth of equipment had still to be installed but the wing was already starting to feel busy with rehearsals and preparations for Bugsy Malone.

Like a house-proud homeowner, Hepburn has mixed feelings about her pristine new building filling up. “To see it being used fills me with joy – and also breaks my heart,” she says.