How two theatres, a cinema and a library became Chester’s Storyhouse
Chester’s new storytelling centre features 7,500 sq ft of floor space across four levels. Catherine Jones finds out how ambitious plans translated into the multimillion-pound venue that rose up over a three-year build.
Creating a new theatrical space in an old building is not that unusual. Bennetts Associates and Charcoalblue, the architects and consultant team behind Chester’s latest arts attraction, did just that at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre not so long ago.
But designing an entire storytelling centre, encompassing performance spaces, a cinema, circulating social areas and an integrated library on the same site is another ambition all together.
That is especially true when that site involves a massive, brick-built 80-year-old former cinema, sub-divided into five gloomy screens, along with an eight-storey former office block – all standing on an archaeological treasure trove that includes not one but two Roman roads, with Roman and medieval artefacts a foot under the surface.
However, faint heart never won fair theatre, and the £37 million Storyhouse – the city’s first major, permanent theatrical space since the Gateway Theatre closed a decade ago – opened with a fanfare in May after a three-year construction.
The finished building boasts a total of 7,500 sq ft of floorspace over four floors, making it Chester’s largest public building ever, while what is colourfully described as 85 buses worth of steel were used in the construction of the new city-centre venue.
The site merges the shell of the original 1936 grade II-listed Odeon with a new build in steel and glass on the footprint of the adjacent – demolished – office building, to create what Charcoalblue’s Gary Wright describes as “a creative hub from front to back”.
Storyhouse chief executive Andrew Bentley offers a slightly different description. He says: “I prefer to think of it as a large retail operation.
“I think at the moment, we’re partly an attraction. Three thousand people a day are coming through the doors and 85% are coming for a cup of coffee and a look around.
“One of the tremendous things is having a library in the building, and not just in one bit but throughout the space. There’s a reason to go in there all day long.”
The library is open when the building is – from 8am when the cafe opens to 11pm when the theatre closes.
In the new build, Bennetts and Charcoalblue have designed two theatre spaces offering three very distinct staging options.
The main auditorium, a brick construction inside the glass and metal exterior, has the flexibility to work either as an 856-seat traditional proscenium arch stage – ideal for the big musicals and other touring shows heading Storyhouse’s way this autumn – or as a 500-seat intimate thrust stage to present the artistic team’s home-grown productions.
Lead architect Simon Erridge says: “I think that’s quite a new approach, what we’ve done, which is building the thrust stage inside the main auditorium space. And it works equally well in both formats.”
Meanwhile, above the three-story main auditorium, the designers have created a 150-seat studio theatre with retractable seating, supported by 20 metre-long, 10-tonne beams and an adjacent bar with views over the city rooftops, all encased in a gleaming copper box that sits on top of the new building.
Talking of views, for performers there’s an added bonus of green rooms that have what artistic director Alex Clifton calls the best vista in the entire building: their windows look straight out towards the Welsh hills.
The cluttered 1980s interior of the old Odeon was ripped out to open it up into a huge blank canvas – still boasting original plasterwork and ribbed ceiling – to house the cinema, library and social eating and drinking spaces.
The 100-seat boutique cinema is cocooned in an acoustically insulated, backlit glass box on the new mezzanine – previously the balcony level of the original art deco cinema’s cavernous single 1,600-seat screen.
The library’s book-lined tentacles spread out on two floors, from the original lobby almost to the doors of the new auditorium and through the large bar and restaurant on the ground floor.
Meanwhile, the foyer connecting the old and new parts of the site – and incongruously watched over by a pair of stuffed peacocks – has hidden technology including rigging, sound and lighting positions behind the cinema’s old proscenium arch and a cinema screen that can be lowered.
It creates an extra theatrical space for events and performances, including Julius Caesar, one of the productions in the home-grown Storyhouse season, which will start there.
The project, it appears, has been a valuable learning experience for everyone involved.
Bennetts Associates is also currently working on plans for London’s Old Vic and the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. Erridge adds: “Most of the theatre projects in reality that we’ve done have an element of existing building and new.
“And what you end up with is something you’d never have done if it hadn’t been for the fact there was an existing building there, pushing you in a certain direction.”
Designing a stage that can be transformed in a week
Between them they have worked on nearly every major theatre building project of the past two decades.
In essence, how to marry an 856-seat end stage with proscenium arch and an intimate 500-seat thrust stage in the same space. And have the flexibility to switch easily between the two.
The answer was to look outside Storyhouse, to see how Chester Performs – the artistic team running the site – worked in its natural, open-air habitat at Grosvenor Park and replicate that.
Charcoalblue’s Gary Wright explains: “It operates by building decking. It changes that as it sees fit on a year-by-year basis and it has simple but effective tools to make that work.”
An early decision was that, to make the room smaller, it should rise up from the floor, not be cropped down from the ceiling, retaining the balcony and proscenium, which, at its full height, is 8.2 metres.
But unlike the Dorfman at the National Theatre, for example, there is no expensive automation, just sturdy but lightweight scaffolding.
The first challenge was removing the stalls seats to provide a flat floor to build on. Seating is built on wagons, which are lifted, disconnected and rolled into storage areas around the theatre.
The bespoke framing system of robust and strong aluminium decking was procured from HOAC, a German company based near Dusseldorf.
It takes the Storyhouse team a week to transform the auditorium into a thrust configuration.
Decking is built up 3.5 metres from the stalls floor, meeting an extended pit lift, and on top of that flat surface the thrust stage itself is constructed.
The whole building has been designed to accommodate the temporary set-up.
Wright says: “In the end-stage format, there are doors to the proscenium that go nowhere. You open a door and you’re on a little perch balcony. It doesn’t make any sense.
“But it makes perfect sense when the thrust is built, because those doorways connect to the raised platform.”
There are two production grids, one for each stage configuration – the main stage grid being 17.5 metres high, while, uniquely, lighting bridges and rolling gantries accommodate both equally, lighting working down the same 45-degree sight line whether in end-stage or thrust-stage format.
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