Storyhouse, Chester’s brand new cultural centre, is bringing both a theatre and a cinema back in the city after more than a decade of absence!
by Julia Migné
Stepping inside Storyhouse, the brand new cultural hub in Chester, England, is like stepping back in time. From the vintage armchairs in the lobby to the flamboyantly posh red carpet leading to the first floor, everything reminds the visitors of the glorious past of this intriguing building which used to be an Art Deco Odeon cinema in 1936.
Opened in May, the international cultural centre is home to a library, a cinema and a theatre and has been buzzing with life ever since. It has also been acclaimed as a cultural renaissance in the northern town after the city centre was without any trace of cinema or theatre for more than a decade.
“The local authorities had plans to build a new theatre since the Gateway Theatre closed,” explains Nancy Davies, Storyhouse Marketing & PR Manager. “And then in 2012, Cheshire West and Chester Council ring-fenced the money to put towards an incredible cultural centre and the plans for it to become a library and a cinema were made along the way.”
The Arts Council England announced in 2013 a £3 million capital funding grant for the project, much to the delight of the arts and culture community. “The amount of money they invested is inspirational, there are not that many local authorities doing that in the world!” Nancy exclaims.
Each part of the massive building was meticulously designed with details that marry the contemporary and the traditional. The library spreads throughout the different rooms, allowing guests to smoothly dip in and out of the halls. Visitors heading towards the restaurant, for example, will be surrounded by cookbooks and travel books whilst people chitchatting around the café can grab classic, hardbound coffee table books.
If you follow the joyful laughter and burst of activities, you will almost certainly reach the magical realm of the children’s library also known as The Den. If you look at the top of the windows in this area, you might be surprised to discover leftover kids drawings from the opening day. That’s the type of place that Storyhouse intends to be – a place inclusive to all where it’s completely okay to draw on the windows, look into a telescope, or spend some time in the play area.
“On the weekend, you just can’t move in here because it’s just full of kids making arts,” comments Nancy. “We always try to connect what is in the theatre with what’s going on in the library. Underneath the staircase, there are lots of dressing up from our characters from Alice in Wonderland, so, for example, if we ever did The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we’d have a wardrobe with loads of fur coats like in the book.”
With a storytelling room echoing the look and feel of the theatre, Storyhouse is also looking at ways to include and welcome diverse communities present in Chester by looking into developing storytelling sessions in Polish or in British sign language.
Visitors heading upstairs to the cinema are greeted by a vintage couch from the 1930s. Found in a vintage shop, it was brought back to where it belonged. “We want people to get that sense of nostalgia and history,” explains Nancy, “So they know that when they are in this part of the building, they are in an old historic building that’s been brought back to life.”
In addition to releasing blockbuster movies, the new cultural centre also intends to give people a chance to discover and explore the cinematographic world by hosting indie films that people in Chester have not been able to see.
“We feel that absolutely nobody should be prevented from seeing or engaging in any sort of cultural events because of a disability or an access requirement.”
Having inclusiveness at heart, Storyhouse also organises family-friendly screenings where families can bring in their crying and screaming babies altogether, so there are no complaints. Dementia-friendly and autism-friendly screenings are also organised regularly.
“We feel that absolutely nobody should be prevented from seeing or engaging in any sort of cultural events because of a disability or an access requirement,” says Nancy. “We want to be as open as possible.”
Storyhouse also makes sure that they get to work with young, local people to develop the upcoming generation to be culturally savvy. Having been out to speak with young people, the team quickly realised that this new generation wanted to learn skills which would then help them gain employment.
“We set up a Young Leaders programme,” exclaims Nancy. “It gives young people the opportunity to work with us, to gain some experience, skills and insights. Everybody in our organisation has to act as a mentor to these young people. They can come in and shadow different members of the team.”
Sited all the way up in the fourth-floor of the new wing of the building is the Garret Theatre. Its bar offers an absolutely stunning panoramic view of the city, and also serves as a versatile studio space able to seat up to 150 guests.
“It is designed to be used by the community,” explains Nancy. “They manage it all themselves. They pay for the room hire, they sell tickets through their own systems, and they pitch to their own audiences. It’s a real autonomous space.”
The main theatre located right under can seat 800 people and can be converted during the Christmas season into a more intimate 500-seat venue. Hosting Storyhouse’s home-produced programme, this space is also perfectly able to host big touring companies, which can potentially bring in artists or comedians that travel the rest of the country.
The novelty of this cultural experience has certainly contributed to the place’s rapid growth. “People in Chester have not been able to go and watch a film in the city centre for ten years and haven’t been able to see a show in the theatre for longer than that,” says Nancy. “There hasn’t been anything like this in Chester before, this is the biggest public building ever here.”
Attracting an enormous amount of visitors during its opening weekend, Storyhouse went on to host the Women of the World Festival (WOW) only a week after its launch. Gathering women from all age and horizons, everyone there was at awe with the new cultural centre – praising its dynamism and a broad range of activities. “We’re getting a cross-section of society, which is what we always wanted so it’s been brilliant,” Nancy says.
“Our message has always been: ‘this house is your house’ so we want people to come in and take ownership of it and help us form our programme and all the activities that happen here.”