A first look inside Sunderland's state-of-the-art Fire Station Auditorium ahead of opening night

Two years in the making and a decade in the planning, the new Fire Station Auditorium will finally light up the city skyline when it opens its doors this weekend.

Thursday, 9th December 2021, 8:07 am

Ahead of the first gig on Friday night, the Echo had an exclusive first look around as the final preparations are made – and it’s already looking like a flaming good addition to the city.

What was once an underused car park is now the site of an £11million state-of-the-art auditorium, built onto the side of the existing Fire Station arts venue, with top grade acoustics to showcase local talent, as well as international artists.

A mid-size venue which bridges the gap in the city between larger venues such as the Stadium, the Empire and The Point and smaller venues such as Independent, it will hold 800 people standing and 550 seated for a broad range of music, comedy, theatre, dance and more.

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First look inside The Fire Station Auditorium with Brims Director Richard Wood.

"It’s been a real labour of love,” said Richard Wood, director at Brims, the Sunderland design and build firm behind the construction. Since ground was broken in October 2019, the construction team have had to navigate a pandemic and subsequent delays in materials, but Richard says it’s become a flagship build for the firm.

"In terms of being high profile, this and the Tombola building (in Wylam Wharf) are our flagship projects,” he added. “When we first started it was described as being like a mini Sage and now the final pieces have gone in, such as the timber panelling, you can really see it coming together. It’s a superb venue.”

The panelling is one of many acoustic features in the build, with the acoustic design undertaken by Idibri, international leaders in their field who have created one of the “most acoustically perfect” places to perform in the region.

Aesthetically, the concept design was undertaken by Jason Flanagan, design director at architects Flanagan Lawrence, who are also behind the iconic Sage in Gateshead.

View from the stage as final preparations take place for opening night

Inspired by its neighbours Sunderland Empire, the Dun Cow and, of course, The Fire Station, the terracotta colour scheme has been chosen to complement the nearby red brick Edwardian architecture. Meanwhile, its lighting is designed to blend in during the day, so as not to overshadow the other structures, whilst becoming more of a beacon at night.

The first strum of the guitar at the new venue will be by homegrown talent Martin Longstaff, aka The Lake Poets, who will be performing with Kathryn Tickell and The Darkening on December 10.

It sparks the opening programme for the venue, called Firestarters, which already features a host of top acts including Royal Northern Sinfonia, Mica Paris, The Firestarters Revue presented by Mercury Prize nominees Field Music, Smoove & Turrell, An Evening with Emeli Sandé, The Shires, Beth Nielsen Chapman and many more.

In summer 2022, audiences will also be able to look forward to outdoor performances in the new parade ground, a 600-capacity site with its own stage, which is under construction at the rear of the Fire Station. Once open, it will host a variety of performances, from mini festivals to outdoor summer theatre.

The Fire Station Auditorium Architect Jason Flanagan.

Once fully operational, the whole development will employ 100 people across various roles, with the auditorium hosting around 300 performances a year.

Linked with a shared entrance to the listed Fire Station which was given new life as a bistro and arts centre in 2017 after laying empty for two decades, the auditorium completes the rejuvenation of this corner of the cultural quarter.

A Bold Vision

The cornerstone development is operated by Sunderland Culture on behalf of Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust.

The Fire Station Auditorium.

A decade ago, Paul Callaghan, chair of the MAC Trust, took on the 1907 Fire Station site, which had been forgotten for years, with the bold vision of improving life for the people of Sunderland through culture.

“I remember showing people round the old Fire Station in 2012 with its holes in the floors and dead pigeons and I don’t think people could believe what it was going to be,” he said. “This whole project, both the Fire Station and the auditorium, is the result of the whole of the MAC Trust and Sunderland Culture teams.

"Brims have also done a fantastic job. They’re a Sunderland company and they were perfect for this build in two ways. One, they know how to build a complex building. And two, they know the importance of this project to Sunderland, and they pulled out all the stops.”

Paul added: "What we’ve created for Sunderland is a place for not only them, but future generations. We hope young people will come here, be inspired by what they see, maybe change their direction in life, and hopefully stay in Sunderland.

"It’s so very fitting that Marty Longstaff will be the first performer. This is an incredible venue for performers, but it’s also for Marty’s son and his children. The neighbouring Empire has been there for almost 120 years, and that’s what we envisage for the auditorium.”

The Fire Station Auditorium was developed thanks to a £6.25m award from Arts Council England‘s Capital: Large Grants programme, funded by the National Lottery, and a £1.38m grant from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund.

The first strum of the guitar at the new venue will come from Martin Longstaff, aka The Lake Poets

Further support came from Sunderland City Council, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Catherine Cookson Charitable Trust, the Foyle Foundation, the Wolfson Foundation, the Backstage Trust and the Sir James Knott Trust.

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12 pictures inside Sunderland's new £11million Fire Station Auditorium

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Paul Callaghan with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at The Fire Station in 2018, showing them how arts and culture is shaping Sunderland's future.
First look inside The Fire Station Auditorium.