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How Tara Arts breathed new life into its home

Tara Arts’ new theatre space during a performance. Photo: Philip Vile
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Tara Arts’ reconfigured base was made possible when Network Rail granted the south London theatre company a lease on a small plot of land adjacent to its existing home in Earlsfield. But there was a condition: the footprint of the building had to remain the same size. That was no mean feat when the new facilities included a rehearsal room, a green room and a 100-seat auditorium with an earthen stage floor.

The result is an attractive, welcoming and accessible building with a flexible auditorium. The surfaces are made of reclaimed brick and timber. As Julian Middleton, executive director of the arts team at architect Aedas RHWL, notes: “While this is a complete rebuild, the old Tara building is still present.”

Tara Arts was founded in 1977 and acquired its Earlsfield base next to the station entrance in Garratt Lane in 1983. It was built in the last decade of the 19th century as a draper’s and incorporated a mission hall. When Tara took it over, this end-of-terrace property comprised a commercial frontage with residential accommodation above and a church space at the rear.

Middleton describes the situation when Aedas RHWL became involved. “It included a small, low-headroom basement used for storage, a 50-seat studio theatre and small foyer space and audience toilets at ground level. The first floor and attic served as administrative spaces, green room and wardrobe, and props storage. Subsidence had caused a pronounced lean to the upper floor and front facade.”

The building combines modern facilities, such as a lift, with recycled materials, traditional doors, panels and artefacts sourced from India. Middleton and Tara artistic director Jatinder Verma describe it as “a cross-cultural dialogue between East and West lineage with a restored stock brick London terrace balanced with a ‘mud-clad’ box entwined with a tree motif”. These two elements can be seen most clearly in the outside of the building. Although convincingly original in appearance, the entire facade has been rebuilt with a mixture of preserved features and, where necessary, recreated plasterwork.

Tara Arts before (left) and after. Photos: aAdas Arts Team/Helene Binet
Tara Arts before (left) and after. Photos: aAdas Arts Team/Helene Binet

This mix of cultures is also true of the new double-height performance space. The well-appointed control room (with en suite toilet) would be the envy of many larger theatres, and shutters over the high-level windows are formed of recycled Indian roof panels. The operation of these by simply pulling a rope has been used to mark the beginning of a performance.

The auditorium seats 98 and the typical performance area is just shy of five metres by six. The walls are either exposed brick or wood. A recent workshop with singers and musicians from the Royal Opera demonstrated the theatre’s fine acoustics.

Theatre consultants Theatreplan advised on the technical systems and installation and were involved in workshops with the theatre staff early in the design process. Part of the brief was to ensure that the technical infrastructure would be a basis for the future, even if some elements might not be used for some time. For example, tie-lines from the control room to the performance space and throughout the rest of the building include lines for audio, video, ethernet, communications systems, cue lights and loudspeakers.

Theatreplan’s Mathew Smethurst-Evans notes that “one unusual challenge on this project was to provide up-to-date technical installations, while maintaining a ‘used and lived-in’ aesthetic to the theatre and public spaces”. To achieve this, Doughty Engineering produced a distressed look for the lighting bars, socket boxes and facility panels. Doughty’s Dan Philips adds: “Our kit needed to blend in seamlessly – and the way to do this was essentially to create a rust effect.”

A grid at 5.45 metres above the floor consists of four internally wired bars in one direction and four plain rigging bars in the other. The stage lighting board is an ETC ION controlling 60 2.5kW dimmers capable of being hard-patched through 84 15-amp circuits. Sound control is by a Yamaha MG166cx mixing desk.

Despite all the forethought, some technical challenges remain: the need to avoid fixing into the floor and walls; the get-in via the audience entrance; restrictions on storage. “There will be times when compromise may be necessary,” says Tom Kingdon, technical and operations manager, “but that is just like all buildings.”


Technical Specification

Maximum performing area: 7.5 metres x 8 metres
Seats: 98 in total: 36 fixed, 62 moveable

Grid height: 5.45 metres above theatre floor
Grid payload: 45kg per metre
Additional rigging: 1 beam on soffit for suspension of large scenic items and aerial performers
Intercom: TecPro single-channel beltpack system
Cue lights: 8-way GDS CueSystem
Assisted listening: Sennheiser infrared system
Other communications: Audio show relay and paging, music system front of house; video relay for back of house, rehearsal room and office

As Tara aims to attract more visiting companies to the theatre, Kingdon has prepared an impressive and comprehensive technical specification so that companies know exactly what to expect. “If they have a problem,” he adds, “then we will do our best to find a solution.”

Artistic director Jatinder Verma. Photo: Philip Vile
Artistic director Jatinder Verma. Photo: Philip Vile

A major talking point about the performance area is the compacted earth floor. Made from straw and red Devon clay, it has been sealed with linseed oil. This sealing has been very successful and the floor can be swept and vacuumed without damage. But even if it does need repair, Kingdon has a spare supply of clay that will easily fix it.

The basement area was excavated and substantially deepened. It now includes customer toilets and one communal dressing room, an actors’ toilet and shower, and a small wardrobe area. A staircase provides access to the performance area above through a trapdoor.

Above the foyer are a small kitchen area and the new rehearsal room. This space can also be used for talks or performances with a seating capacity of 30. It has full-height windows and one of the building’s recycled Indian doors. There is a permanent display of Indian drums and other musical instruments, which reflect the mix of cultures in evidence elsewhere.

The top two floors are administrative offices. These are also light and airy with large windows. Accessed by a spiral staircase, the top-floor room opens on to a small balcony with stunning views across London, from Wimbledon to Wembley.

One of the key elements in the design of the building was sustainability. All front of house and ancillary lighting is LED and recycled materials have been used wherever possible. Of special pride is the series of Indian doors that Tara Arts and the Aedas RHWL sourced during a research and buying trip to Delhi and Jodhpur. The building has two ‘green’ roofs with 16 solar panels, which are predicted to supply about 40% of the building’s electricity requirements.

Access to the railway land behind the building needed to be preserved through additional land leased from Network Rail. This area is now an attractive open-air space, which serves as part of the foyer when weather permits and provides a pleasant view through glass doors at other times. In keeping with the theatre’s environmental policy, the area is bounded by recycled railway sleepers.

Of the £2.7 million the project cost, 70% came from Arts Council England capital funding and the rest from trusts, foundations and individuals, including the Equity Charitable Trust and Equity’s local branch.

Profile: Tara Arts

Founded: 1977
Founders: Praveen Bahl, Ovais Kadri, Sunil Saggar, Vijay Shaunak, Jatinder Verma
First Production: Sacrifice – Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore’s anti-war play, staged on August 25, 1977, at  Battersea Arts Centre
Artistic director:  Jatinder Verma
Executive producer: Jonathan Kennedy
Technical and operations manager: Tom Kingdon


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