THE North-East's first theatre-in-the-round is to open in Newcastle next month. Daniel Thomson was given a guided tour of the unique building.
THE beauty of theatre may lie in the ability of the performers to ignite the imagination of those in the audience.
But as I was led into the labyrinthine depths beneath Lime Street, Byker, there was no need to suspend my disbelief to see the wonders before me.
The building I was exploring, a former flax mill designed by John Dobson in 1848, is known throughout the region as The Cluny, but will soon be home to the region’s first theatre-in-the-round.
“The stage is below ground level to insulate against the two enemies of theatre – light and sound,” Ben Fletcher-Watson told me as we descended below the Ouseburn Valley for an exclusive glimpse of The Round.
“Having seating all around the stage will create a much more immediate connection between the audience and the performer,” says Ben, the theatre’s outreach and education manager.
“It will be very intimate and interactive and a first for the North-East.”
The Round is an innovative 180-seat theatre slotted behind a listed facade in a courtyard space between warehouses on Lime Street. It hopes to revive a form of theatre dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, and later made fashionable in the US in the latter half of the 20th Century.
In three weeks the theatre will open to the public for a special preview event during the Ouseburn Festival – but there is still work to be done ahead of its official launch in August.
This much was obvious as I made my way through the flurry of activity, dodging workmen and stepping over snaking wires, to be greeted with a symphony of sawing, hammering and banging.
But just as clear was the potential of this space, which hopes to distinguish itself not only with its unique design, but with its line-up of innovative shows for babies, children and young people.
Ben says: “Flexibility is at heart of everything we’re doing. Bruvvers are our resident theatre company and the idea was to create a venue as adaptable as they are.
“The ethos is accessibility for all, with shows suitable from birth onwards, and we wanted to create a space, which could be turned to any use.
“Whether it’s theatre, comedy, cabaret, live music, magic shows, community events, workshops, children’s activities, or private functions, we’re willing to put it on. We’ve even got a wedding booked for next summer.”
Variety will be the order of the day at The Round when it opens on August 25 with everything from aerial trapeze for babies, bilingual plays for children, and Shakespeare for teenagers, planned in its first season alone, which will close on New Year’s Day with a pantomime by Bruvvers.
“Keeping with the theme of accessibility, all the tickets will be the same price wherever you sit because you should have as good a view from one seat to the next,” Ben adds. “Since we’re aiming a lot of our shows at children and young people we’re going to try and keep ticket prices around the same as going to the cinema.”
The theatre has one wall with a fixed block of 40 seats and three balconies, which may also be used for minstrel-style live music, with the remaining seats moveable according to the needs of each production. Ben says: “There is one main route onto the stage for the performers, but also a few secret passages to add an element of surprise.”
As well as the theatre itself, the four-storey building houses two dressing rooms, a bar and cafe, office space, and a stunning glass-covered atrium.
“It was a quirk of the building design we hadn’t fully anticipated. We wanted a space, which let in natural light, but we didn’t realize it would look so spectacular. Now we plan to make full use of it by opening it up as part of the bar and cafe area,” Ben says.
Walking around the soon-to-be-finished theatre, the care and attention that has gone into its design and construction is evident, but you would expect nothing less from the creative minds from which it sprung.
The Round was the brainchild of Bruvvers Theatre Company artistic director Mike Mould who bought the derelict Cluny building in 1982 with the dream of creating a theatre within its walls.
Bruvvers took up residency on level five of the building, but Mike decided to lease the rest of the property to a co-operative of artists and businesses, including The Cluny pub, which has become famous as a venue for live music in its own right.
Without a performance space, Mike temporarily shelved his plans for a theatre of his own and took Bruvvers on the road, where they have since become a popular touring theatre company performing to 50,000 people each year in the North-East.
Two years ago, Mike came up with an unconventional plan to revive his dream and sent out a letter to all his friends asking them to give £1 toward the cost of building his theatre.
When one of his friends, Bruvvers director and TV scriptwriter Julie Blackie, suggested a more realistic approach, Mike and a dozen of his friends got together and began the long process of raising enough money to build a theatre from scratch.
The group has now raised about £1.1m and is on the verge of opening the doors.
Ben says: “Every member of the steering group gave up their time voluntarily and has never been paid a penny. This really is a theatre built by the people for the people. We even had donations from 185 ordinary people who wanted to help.
“Julie Blackie has been a real powerhouse behind the scenes. She kept the group together and kept pushing them on. She offered to start fundraising for the theatre as a birthday present for Mike two years ago and here we are today.”
Mike lives in The Cluny building at 36 Lime Street with his wife, textile artist Ali Rhind, who is producing a new artwork for the main stairwell of the theatre.
The Round has taken 18 months to complete and has been funded by TyneWear Partnership, Newcastle City Council, Arts Council England, and the Northern Rock Foundation, among others.
It opens for the first time during the Ouseburn Festival on July 21 and 22 with a free performance of Chrissy at the Crossroads by Bruvvers Theatre Company at 2pm on Saturday and an art and music event from 4pm to 6pm on Sunday. The Round will open on August 25.