Sunderland Empire strikes back - theatre celebrates year of reopening after covid, welcoming Ed Sheeran and 300,000 others through doors

More than 300,000 people have flocked through the doors of Sunderland Empire as it bounces back from the pandemic.

The region’s largest theatre remained closed for 18 months, the longest period since it was built in 1907, as the pandemic devastated the events sector.

Today, September 2, 2022, marks a year since the city landmark was finally able to reopen its doors with 303,889 regulars and newcomers visiting since then to see 65 musicals and one-night shows, munching their way through 52,961 ice creams and 28,155 bags of sweets.

After reopening with What’s Love Got To Do With It?, a tribute to Tina Turner, the venue has welcomed a host of big shows including Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Cher Show, Mamma Mia, Dreamgirls, the annual panto, Beauty and the Beast and many more. There was even a visit from Ed Sheeran who came to see his friend Brenda Edwards perform in Chicago.

Theatre director Marie Nixon cuts the ribbon as the Empire Theatre re-opens after 18 months. Picture by FRANK REID.

Vicki Medhurst, Theatre Manager, said: “Wow – 12 months today, and what a year it has been. After walking through an empty theatre for over 18 months, it has just been overwhelming to have visitors and production companies back with us.

"That first night of reopening will stick with me for years to come in terms of the atmosphere and the absolute joy that was felt by everyone to finally be back experiencing live theatre. Our staff all worked extremely hard to bring the theatre back to life, and we did just that.

"We’ve had an amazing year with absolutely spectacular shows, and we look forward to much, much more in the months and years ahead.”

Miss Rory, Sunderland Empire panto dame, said: “It’s a huge joy to be a part of people’s Christmas celebrations appearing in pantomime at Sunderland

Mamma Mia cast get ready for the show at Sunderland Empire Theatre

Empire but last year’s run was especially brilliant, after a long 18 months of our beloved theatre being closed.

"There’s no experience quite like live theatre, and there’s certainly no experience quite like panto and no better place to do it than Sunderland.”

As well as welcoming back productions to the stage, Sunderland Empire’s Creative Learning team have been working hard to continue their ever-popular classes, school initiatives, tours and even launched its first Theatre Summer School which was filled to capacity.

This past 12 months alone, Creative Learning at Sunderland has engaged with more than 22,000 children and has reached 14,000 Sunderland school children with the National Theatre’s tour of Jekyll and Hyde, many of whom had never seen live theatre before.

Ed Sheeran visited his friend Brenda Edwards in Chicago when the show ran at Sunderland Empire

Their important work during and post-pandemic has helped to bring confidence and social skills back to children across the region, as well as inspire future careers in the arts after a tough two years with at home learning.

Emma Tully, Drama Teacher at Oxclose Community Academy said: “The Sunderland Empire reopening truly brought life back into our Performing Arts curriculum. The arts in schools had seen similar restrictions and the opportunity to perform and have meaningful learning experiences had entirely disappeared.

"Our pupils headed back to the drama studio and practical lessons at the same time Sunderland Empire opened its doors, and it reignited the passion and drive to give our students enriching exposure to the arts.”

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She added: "Together with the creative learning team we have participated in backstage tours, artist workshops and the magic of live performance.

"The Empire is not just a theatre or a landmark in the city, it is the foundation of opportunity, creativity and aspiration for our young people across Sunderland.”

And there’e plenty to look forward to in the coming season including the mighty Les Misérables, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, White Christmas, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, The Book of Mormon and many more productions to be announced soon.

A special edition of the Echo for last year's panto
Sunderland Empire Theatre receive autism acceptance award. From left Theatre Director Marie Nixon, Creative Learning Director Steph Durkin and North East Autism Society Kerrie Highcock with NE Autism Society mascot and Wicked Queen Su Pollard.
It's a year since Sunderland Empire reopened its doors