WiFi improvements approved for Sunderland Empire to help open up technology for theatre-goers

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Plans to boost WiFi access for audiences at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre have been given the green light by city development chiefs.

Sunderland City Council’s planning department has approved an application for the installation of new wireless data infrastructure at the Grade II-listed arts venue.

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Empire Theatre, Sunderland (December, 2023)Empire Theatre, Sunderland (December, 2023)
Empire Theatre, Sunderland (December, 2023)

According to documents submitted to council officials, the works would improve access to wireless data for both staff and visitors, as well as “improving the functionality of the venue”.

A design, access and heritage statement notes that current WiFi coverage within the building “can be sporadic” and would be “unable to handle the future demands of wireless data” at the theatre.

The report states that planned upgrades aim to “facilitate better experiences for audience members and ensure that the Empire remains an important and successful performance venue”.

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This includes “facilitating the rollout of a reliable and standardized hearing assistance technology that will improve accessibility and inclusivity for all patrons of the theatre”.

Those behind the scheme state it would “ensure that all patrons including those with hearing and vision impairments can enjoy the performances with amplified sound and audio description from anywhere within the auditorium”.

Improved wireless data will also allow the use of the ‘Gala Pro’ app, which provides on-demand captioning and audio description.

Theatre bosses state that those requiring access would be able to attend any performance rather than only being able to attend the ‘specific audio described/captioned performance’.

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The on-demand captioning service is also expected to benefit those speaking English as a second language, allowing audiences to “follow the dialogue for further understanding”.

Elsewhere, the upgrades would provide audiences with more reliable wireless data to access theatre services, including ticketing and ordering food and drinks, as well as allowing for audience participation in certain performances.

During a council consultation exercise on the plans, no public representations were submitted.

The Theatres Trust confirmed it was supportive of the plans and that the “limited harm arising from the additional installations” could be “mitigated by the public benefits of audience experience and the general operations improvements”.

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Sunderland City Council’s senior conservation officer said the planned improvements would also deliver a “clear public benefit” but requested minor amendments to “mitigate heritage impact”, which were later agreed.

After considering the planning application and assessing it against planning policies, Sunderland City Council’s planning department approved it on March 1, 2024.

A council decision report said the Empire Theatre is “one of the city’s most prestigious and recognisable buildings” and “one of the region’s most important cultural venues”.

The council report added the proposed works were “crucial to ensure the theatre can remain a primary venue in the city and help broaden the demographic of patrons including those who were deterred from visiting in the past due to hearing impairments”.

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Proposed wireless access points would cover both ‘back of house areas’ and ‘front of house’ circulation areas, bars and the auditorium.

Equipment is expected to be installed in “discrete locations whenever possible” and where visible, will be “fixed sensitively and in proportion with the surrounding architectural features”.

Supporting documents noted that all wireless access point units would be “fixed in a way that minimizes damage to the fabric of the building and allows for easy removal and replacement in the future”.

Under planning conditions, the works must be brought forward within three years.

For more information on the Empire Theatre plan or to track its progress, visit Sunderland City Council’s planning portal website and search reference: 23/02612/LBC