There is no box office counter at Storyhouse. Nor is there a reception desk. There’s nothing and no one to stop people wandering in off the street and exploring – and that’s precisely what they hope people will do. Come in, sit down, use the building on your own terms.
Opened in May 2017, in an art deco Odeon cinema in the heart of Chester, Storyhouse is a library, theatre, cinema and cultural hub. Crucially, there’s no demarcation between those spaces. Nothing in the design tells you where one ends and the next begins. The sense that this is, above all, a library permeates the building. There are books everywhere – in the corridors, in the cafe. There is poetry on the walls. It’s a bustling space, but also one with plenty of nooks for sitting and reading (nooks being almost as important as books in any good library).
The lack of reception desk does not make the space unwelcoming, quite the opposite. There are friendly staff everywhere, but there’s no sense of having to justify your presence in the building. People come here for all different reasons. There is a storytelling corner for young children, housed in a curtained snug.
On the day I visit, there is a youth theatre session going on in a studio and, on one of the upper floors, a group of 14 to 17-year-olds on the Young Leaders programme – designed to offer an insight into different roles in the creative industry – are learning about marketing.
The cafe is full of young mothers and older people, with young people arriving with their laptops after the end of the school day to get some work done or just hang out. The space is popular with local book groups. A glance at the activities programme reveals gay and bi men’s meet-ups, bereavement-through-suicide counselling sessions, language classes and knitting groups.
Some people simply come here to sit because it’s warm and pleasant and they can. There is, stresses artistic director Alex Clifton, no expectation to spend money, an understanding you do not have to buy anything to use the space, and while some people will buy a coffee, others will bring flasks or foil-wrapped sandwiches and that’s fine.
There are increasingly few social spaces that do not require some form of transaction in order to occupy them. These seemingly small things can make a huge difference, especially in an area like Chester and its environs where there are pockets of real poverty and growing food bank use.
There are increasingly few social spaces that do not require some form of transaction in order to occupy them
For the current in-house production, a Chester-set update of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide, some scenes play out in the lobby area, allowing people who don’t have tickets to see a glimpse of the show. This is a neat way of demystifying theatre while making creative use of the building’s architecture. It’s worth saying that Storyhouse is gorgeous; the cinema is housed in an illuminated rainbow cube and the walls are adorned with art and unexpected peacocks.
So often multipurpose spaces can feel aggressively functional; victim of that counterproductive mode of thinking that if something serves a social purpose, it doesn’t need to be aesthetically appealing. This fails to take into account what an impact atmosphere can have – how things like sound levels, lighting and different types of seating, can make a huge difference to people’s sense of well-being and comfort.
Because there is no threshold between the library and the other parts of the building, this means the library cannot and does not shut until the building does. According to Storyhouse’s annual report, it has the longest opening hours of any public library in the country.
This country lacks spaces that are open in the evenings and that are not tied to a specific cultural activity or the consumption of alcohol. The European coffee shop model has never really caught on and pubs aren’t conducive to reading, studying or simply sitting with your thoughts. Libraries have the capacity to fill that gap, but since 2010, almost 800 of them have closed in the UK under austerity.
Storyhouse makes a great case for what can happen when you take the ethos of the library and allow it to percolate into every aspect of how a building operates. It also demonstrates, as chief executive Andrew Bentley explains, what can happen when you reconsider what constitutes a barrier and encourage people to make their own path through the space.
When Madani Younis, then artistic director of the Bush Theatre, was overseeing the redevelopment of the building, itself a former library, one of the things he spoke of was the importance of a window so people could see inside from the street; a building that might once have appeared forbidding was now transparent.
Tarek Iskander, artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre, speaks of his pleasure at the fact that the building’s front doors now open automatically. The vestibule at the front of the former town hall that used to house the box office no longer feels like a kind of airlock, but a gateway. It entices people inside. Sometimes the welcome you extend is as much about what’s not there as what is, be it a step, a sign, a wall, or a desk barring the way.
Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/