'We can't wait to be back' - new Sunderland Empire theatre director talks of reopening plans

It’s stood proud in the city’s skyline for more than a century, survived two world wars and seen its audience numbers rise and fall with the advent of television – but the pandemic may have been Sunderland Empire’s most difficult chapter yet.

The lights have been out at the biggest theatre between Leeds and Edinburgh since Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake on March 14, 2020. It proved to be a swan song for the theatre, which unlike other venues and stadiums, hasn’t been able to open its doors since.

Sixteen months is the longest the grand Grade II-listed theatre, which was opened on July 1, 1907 by music hall star Vesta Tilley, has remained closed to audiences but, with social distancing restrictions set to lift from July 19, its reopening is finally on the horizon.

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At the helm of the jewel in the crown of Sunderland’s cultural landscape is new theatre director Marie Nixon, who took up the role on March 9 last year only for the country to be plunged into Lockdown weeks later.

Theatre Director Marie Nixon from the Empire Theatre in Sunderland Picture: DAVID WOOD

While the rest of the staff were placed on furlough, Marie has worked at the empty theatre throughout the pandemic.

From her office window she’s seen the city centre gradually come back to life with bars and restaurants reopening and new additions, such as the neighbouring Auditorium, taking shape.

Thanks to the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund, the Empire’s other full time staff have been back at work since Spring and Marie says they can’t wait to welcome Wearsiders back.

"We’re working hard to get the building ship shape and have our audiences back, the staff are so passionate about the theatre and the contribution it makes to the city,” she explained. “We absolutely can’t wait to reopen, not just for ourselves, but to be able to bring people together for joy and entertainment and to give them that escape from the day to day.

The Empire hasn't been able to welcome audiences since March 2020.

"Theatre is such an immersive experience, which brings multi-generational groups and big groups of friends together to enjoy a shared experience.”

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Although the Empire is ready to reopen, and technically can do without social distancing from July 19, the exact date is due to be announced shortly as they finalise arrangements for a couple of rescheduled shows. Once that date is announced, the venue, which is operated by Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), will also be able to bring back more of the casual staff, such as the ushers and other front of house.

Marie says audiences have been understanding of the logistical difficulties of rescheduling shows and many have kept their tickets, rather than opting for refunds.

"Most shows are rescheduled, so most people will be able to see the shows they’ve bought tickets for,” said Marie. “Audiences have had to hang fire, but they’ve been very understanding, which is a huge vote of confidence in the theatre.

Field Music performing for the Ghostlight sessions
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"It’s so heartening that people have been so kind and accommodating, it’s been such a boost for us.”

Despite taking over the reins at such a tumultuous time, becoming director at her home city theatre is a dream job for Marie.

She’s long been involved in the arts and entertainment industry, from her time in the early ‘90s as one quarter of pop punk band Kenickie, alongside Lauren Laverne, to working in London for a company which managed artists such as Groove Armada and Destiny’s Child in the early 2000s to working across the North for the Arts Council, before her most recent post as chief executive of Sunderland’s Students’ Union.

Marie said: “I’ve always had a keen passion for music and I’m such a firm believer in the amazing talent we have in the North East, not just in the artists and musicians, but in the writers and technicians. It’s an absolutely brilliant place for creativity to thrive.”

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Speaking about the changing face of the city centre, which is undergoing huge investment with large-scale developments such as the £500m Riverside development on the former Vaux site, Mackie’s Corner and High Street West transformations as part of the Historic High Streets Heritage Action Zone, the Bishopwearmouth Townscape Heritage Scheme and the creation of the brand new £11m Auditorium, as well as a swathe of independents, Marie said: "What’s been lovely to see is the flourishing independent sector around the city, places such as The Little Shop, as well as all the new developments which have gone ahead.

"Some people won’t have been in the city centre for a long time because of the pandemic, but the city has really risen to the challenge of a difficult time.

"The Empire is a really important part of the city’s night-time economy and we can’t wait to be back playing our part in that.”

Ghostlight Sessions

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Until the Empire opens its doors once more, there’s still a chance to enjoy performances with a series of free online gigs.

Named after the theatrical tradition of leaving a single bulb lit on stage when a theatre is closed and unoccupied, the sessions run throughout July and feature some of Sunderland’s best musical talents, including Futureheads, Big Fat Big, Faye Fantarrow, Picnic, Field Music and The Lake Poets streaming at 8pm on Mondays and Thursdays across the Sunderland Empire social channels.

Sunderland Empire has seen some of the biggest names in entertainment take centre stage over the years from Charlie Chaplin to Laurel and Hardy, and from Kate Bush to The Beatles.

Music was on the programme from day one when the theatre was officially opened and thanks to funding received from the Cultural Recovery Fund is back on the bill.

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