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Dominic Hill on Glasgow Citizens Theatre redevelopment: ‘This is no vanity project. It’s urgent’

Citizens Theatre artistic director Dominic Hill. Photo: Eamonn McGoldric Citizens Theatre artistic director Dominic Hill. Photo: Eamonn McGoldric
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As one of Scotland’s flagship producing theatres prepares for a change of scene to allow a multimillion-pound redevelopment of its home, its artistic director Dominic Hill talks to Thom Dibdin about what’s in store for the institution

It’s a dreary afternoon in Glasgow, just south of the River Clyde past the Sheriff Court and Central Mosque. The rain is blowing in across the patchwork of roads being laid out for new housing to replace the demolished inner-city high-rise flats – which themselves replaced the slums of Glasgow’s notorious Gorbals. It is here that the Citizens theatre is found. At its heart, a magnificent original Victorian auditorium – it is the second-longest-running theatre in the UK and younger than the Leeds Grand by only six weeks – fronted on to the street by a late 1980s brick-and-glass foyer and bar.

The upper foyer area, where I meet the theatre’s artistic director and co-chief executive Dominic Hill, should have been a cosy refuge from the elements. Instead rain drips through the roof on to the carpet – as it does throughout the building because of the decades of disrepair, as Hill points out. At least it is dry where we are sitting – below an overhang in a nook overlooked by a stained-glass window from the building’s second incarnation, the Royal Princess’s Theatre.

Soon, it will be gone. This newest part of the theatre is to be demolished, the most visible part of a £19.4 million refurbishment project that will see the company leave the building for two years.

Glasgow Citizens
External view of how the new building will look.

Elsewhere, crumbling walls will be restored, inadequate services upgraded, the stage’s rake reduced, historical stage machinery preserved and put on display, and the whole frontage will be replaced with a more welcoming, outward-looking design.

One of the reasons for the refurbishment happening now lies in the building site opposite, which will soon become hundreds of new homes.

Hill explains: “Our role as being in the centre of a community again feels very important and a lot of the way that the project has been designed is with that sense that this is for the community, for the Gorbals. So the idea of creating somewhere welcoming and accessible is crucial.

“A lot of the work that connects with that community, the learning work, at the moment takes place at the end of labyrinthine corridors at the back of the building, which are completely inaccessible, freezing cold. Rain pours in.”

In continuing that learning and community work, Hill says, much will take place at the front of the refurbished site. “It is going to be visible, it is not going to be tucked away again; everyone can be a part of it,” he says. “So that sense of all aspects of our work being open to everybody is very much part of what has made the project the way it is.”

Hill knew that refurbishment was on the cards when he took over as artistic director in 2011. On the briefing tour round the building on his first day he was shown crumbling bricks under the stage and saw that water was coming through everywhere – including under the stage.

Five facts about the Citizens

1. James Bridie, who founded the Citz in 1943, also wrote additional dialogue on at least nine Hitchcock films, and Hitchcock kept trying to lure him from Glasgow to Los Angeles.

2. Famous productions include Henry IV with a young Albert Finney, the world premiere of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and the British premiere of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui starring Leonard Rossiter.

3. The Citizens is the second oldest (by six weeks after Leeds Grand) Victorian Theatre in Britain, with an under-stage featuring the original Victorian machinery –one of only four theatres in the UK still to do so.

4. The Citizens Theatre still offers a hundred 50p tickets for every Citizens production and £2 tickets for local residents.

5. In 2013, artistic director Dominic Hill became the most recognised director at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland since their establishment. He has won best director five times and four shows directed by him have won best production.

“There has just genuinely been a sense of urgency about the whole thing,” he says. “It is not a vanity project, we are doing it because the building absolutely needs it in order to be fit for purpose.”

The auditorium, however, is being preserved intact, in all its Victorian glory. Hill describes it, with a real sense of affection, as “special” in terms of its architecture and what it allows a director, writer or performer to achieve.

“There is something about the proportions of that theatre,” he explains. “I don’t know any other theatre that is like it. It is just the perfect size: the stage is big enough to be able to do epic work but is not so big that small things get lost on it. When you are sitting in the auditorium, you feel really close to the action and there is an intimacy there. I think actors standing on the stage can feel that intimacy too.”

Hill loves the classical repertoire, he says, especially reinterpreting the plays for now, “and there is just something brilliant about being able to do them on that stage”. He continues: “It is to do with its shabbiness, it is not like an opera house, clean and shiny, it has a magic to it that feels sort of ‘other’. When I was a kid, I always imagined that theatre was like this special box and I think here has that feel to it.”

If the whole project was inevitable, it was stirred into action soon after Hill arrived by the announcement of a one-off capital fund from Creative Scotland, which became the catalyst for the whole venture. It has taken five years to get to the point where the building work can start. The current production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night will be the last on the main stage until December 2020.

The venue’s auditorium. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Initially the plan was to carry out the works while remaining in the theatre, but after a conversation with Glasgow Life, Glasgow City Council’s arms-length culture and sports charity, the idea of using the Glasgow Tramway as a major auditorium was proposed.

Soon the plans had developed so that the administration and learning departments will decamp to the nearby Scotland Street Museum – allowing them to open new links with other organisations and get to know different communities – while the production and the rehearsals side will move to the Skills Academy next to the nearby Bridge Street underground station.

“It is cheaper and it is safer if we all decamp,” says Hill. “So when this idea of working with Glasgow Life was proposed, we were thinking about what kind of work we would do and what the aims of those two years would be.”

He lays out the plans: “First and foremost is to keep the sense of the Citizens brand alive and also to potentially create slightly different kinds of work. I do think that the space to some extent dictates the kind of work we do, so Tramway offers a different opportunity in terms of that wonderful, equally magical, inspiring space. But it also appeals to the fact that we do like big, classic shows, kind of epic shows – not all the time but that feels quite ‘us’. Tramway seems to offer that opportunity as well.”

If the theatre building is dark, the Citizens company will certainly not be dormant. There are plans for small-scale work and touring large-scale productions to Scotland’s larger houses and creating co-productions. The first is a co-production with Edinburgh’s Lyceum and the National Theatre of Scotland of Edwin Morgan’s Glaswegian-Scots version of Cyrano de Bergerac.

And when they return? Hill looks round the currently empty space that doubles as a crush bar during performances: “A building that is a thriving home for lots of people, I think it would be just the opposite of this – this is dead.

“Lots of theatres are dead between 10am and 6pm in terms of their public spaces. So to have something that is not, that is alive and open and welcoming, that has classes on that are visible to people, is really, really crucial.”

Profile: Citizens in figures

Number of performances a year: 213
Audience figures: 65,000
Number of employees: 73
Turnover: £3.1 million
Funding levels: £1,111,000 – average annual funding under Creative Scotland’s Regular Funding programme

Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre will close for two years from this June. The newly refurbished theatre is scheduled to open in autumn 2020

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