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Backstage: Raising the standards at York Theatre Royal

York Theatre Royal. Photo: De Matos Ryan York Theatre Royal. Photo: De Matos Ryan
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When an architect stands in a theatre’s newly refurbished foyer – champagne chilling and expectant press waiting – and announces that “there’s not a bad seat in the house”, it’s easy to dismiss it as hyperbole. Yet, following York Theatre Royal’s £6 million refurbishment, it’s true, even if the venue had to lose 100 seats to do it. At the back of the balcony, you can still see almost the whole stage. It’s impressive.

In fact, the whole building is impressive, from its medieval origins to the more recent additions. There has been a theatre on this site since 1744, and, during the refurbishment process, the team uncovered more of St Leonard’s Hospital, the medieval hospital upon whose foundations the theatre was built. The building has been augmented and tweaked over the centuries, and in 1967 architect Patrick Gwynne (who also created the Serpentine Restaurant in London’s Hyde Park) designed a poured concrete extension to the building.

Throughout the renovation, a team from York Archaeological Trust worked with the architects and builders to record and preserve the building’s historic features. Ben Reeves, field officer for the trust, says: “The most amazing thing we found is a gateway at the back of the stage. When we first got here, we were under the impression that it was medieval, which puzzled me because it’s not in any of the records of the original theatre.

York Theatre Royal auditorium. Photo: Sirastudio
York Theatre Royal auditorium. Photo: Sirastudio

“There were things that weren’t quite right to my eye – and I’m not an expert – so we brought an expert in. He said that it was basically a folly, that the stonework was all wrong, that the arrow loops were facing the wrong way, there’s a medieval string course, but it’s upside-down… it’s kind of mock-medieval, it’s theatrical – like when you build a stage set, but built out of real stone.

“Some of the earliest graffiti we’ve found is getting on for a hundred years old, and there’s probably older stuff we can’t see. Around the building, there are walls with windows and doors we didn’t know were there – finding and recording them has been interesting. We’re gaining a better understanding of how the building has evolved to suit the theatre’s purposes over the years.”

For architect De Matos Ryan, these medieval artefacts had to be incorporated into its plans. A nice touch is that the terrazzo flooring front of house is patterned to represent where, in medieval times, corridors and pillars would have been.

Director in charge Angus Morrogh-Ryan told me that the uniqueness of this theatre was one of the reasons the firm wanted the job. De Matos Ryan is not a specialist theatre firm, although it has refurbished other theatres, most notably the foyer of Sadler’s Wells, and Morrogh-Ryan sees this as a positive.

A cross section showing the auditorium’s seating before (top) and after (below), showing the raked seating and the levelled stage

A cross section showing the auditorium’s seating before (top) and after (below), showing the raked seating and the levelled stage
A cross section showing the auditorium’s seating before (top) and after (below), showing the raked seating and the levelled stage

“Architects, in order to be good architects, need to listen and interpret carefully,” he says. “If you’re consistently a theatre architect, you might fall into the trap of rolling out a kind of template, and the circumstances of every site and client are very different. What we said is that we know about spaces, about quality of finish, about how to make space work.

“It’s almost as if you’re running Marks and Spencer, and working out how to make more sales, to maximise footfall – they’re more retail ideas than architectural. The reality is that the theatre has to make money. In order to be resilient, they have to get people to come to the theatre for other reasons than just to see a show.”

To this end, the bulk of the internal changes focused on front of house, although nearly half the overall money went on restoring and refurbishing the roof. Jude Cloke, head of production and buildings for YTR, says: “The emphasis this time was on sustainability, the public areas and on income generation. It was about making it a place the community can use.”

The refurbishment has improved access and added additional toilets. It also glassed in what was an outdoor Victorian colonnade, providing more seating and cafe space. “People use this as their sitting room in the city,” says Morrogh-Ryan, and encouraging this behaviour was a core part of their plans.

One of the bigger jobs of this refurbishment was to reconfigure the auditorium’s seating; the stalls have been re-raked and shifted up to reach the front of the circle, and the theatre now has an orchestra pit. The stalls have 103 fewer seats, but by shifting them upwards, the sight lines are better. This rejigging is intelligently done, and has also opened up additional front-of-house space under the circle, which previously only housed broom cupboards.

Project architect Raquel Borges says: “We spent a long time reorganising the seating. There’s a load-bearing truss which is not symmetric. The columns aren’t symmetric, either. I spent three weeks setting out the central line, deciding where it is. It was important for everything – the stage blocks, the lighting rig, the lighting bars, the orchestra pit, everything.”

Morrogh-Ryan adds: “Because the Georgians and the Victorians added bits to the side of the building and moved things around, the whole thing is off-centre. It was important for the demountable stage blocks that we found a central line. They’re on a power-floated slab, in amongst medieval things we can’t move, we’ve added steel columns… you would expect all of the blocks to be interchangeable and they’re not. They’re two to three millimetres off all over because of the way the stage is shaped.”

This stage had previously been something of a problem for the theatre: companies often put YTR at the end of a tour because the limitations of its steeply raked stage meant that scenery and blocking had to be adapted. Following the refurbishment, the theatre boasts a flat, modular stage, suitable even for dance.

Cloke is pleased: “We managed to dig out substage a lot more. Previously, there was only a small section underneath for access, but we’ve now opened out substage which enables us to have a modular stage. The perimeter is still timber on joists, but we’ve added 14 units of steeldeck which give us more options for entrances and exits etc – we can add a trap section or a staircase or whatever. Also, the substage space is more user-friendly – until now we always had to enable crossover behind the set; now we’ve got a crossover under the stage, so we can use the space more easily.”

The other big practical change, which both Cloke and De Matos Ryan mention, is that the theatre has replaced the main lighting bar with a motorised one. “No more hand winching from the roof, you just press a button and in it comes,” says Cloke. “We also have new dimmers. The old system wasn’t very flexible. We always made it work, but we just had loads of cable. Everywhere.”

With a new roof, increased and improved front-of-house space, and a more flexible auditorium and stage, YTR, which vies with Bristol Old Vic for the accolade of being the country’s oldest working theatre building, looks fit for purpose for many years to come.

Profile: York Theatre Royal

Stalls seats: Previously 290, now 187
Total seats: Stalls 187, dress circle 217, upper circle 179, gallery 179
Ticket prices: £10 to £33.50
Theatre closed for: 13 months
Funding: ACE: £2.8 million; City of York Council: £500,000; York Conservation Trust (roof repairs etc): £2 million; grants, donations from corporates, trusts and foundations: £780,000; individual giving: £215,000
Architect: De Matos Ryan
Theatre and acoustic consultants: Charcoalblue


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