First look at £8m arts venue set to change face of Sunderland culture

First look at how the auditorium would look
First look at how the auditorium would look
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Here’s the first look at Sunderland’s £8.2million arts and entertainment complex which will form the centrepiece of a new cultural quarter.

Work has already begun on the £3million transformation of the Old Fire Station off High Street West into a restaurant, cafe, heritage centre and dance and drama studio due to open next autumn.

The interior of the proposed auditorium

The interior of the proposed auditorium

Now the people behind the site, the Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust, have submitted a second stage bid in its ambitious plans to transform this corner of the city into a thriving hub of arts and culture.

The trust has applied for £6million from Arts Council England (ACE) to build a 450-seater auditorium on to the Old Fire Station which would host local and national performers.

Earlier this year, ACE awarded the MAC Trust an initial development grant of £250,000 towards the overall costs of the project, which began with the restoration of the historic Dun Cow pub.

The MAC Trust hope the proposed auditorium will be the feather in the cap of the project.

Artist's impression of the Fire Station

Artist's impression of the Fire Station

Paul Callaghan, from the MAC Trust, said: “The bid document was very detailed and included a full year of programming at the venue as well as future budgets.”

Speaking about the proposed 450-seat venue, which will have retractable seating and will also be able to host more than 700 people standing, Paul said: “It will be a landmark venue of which the city can be proud, presenting local, regional, national and international artists to local audiences.”

The award-winning architect behind the design of the proposed auditorium is Jason Flanagan, who was project director for the iconic Sage building in Gateshead and as design director at Flanagan Lawrence is currently leading the Wembley Theatre scheme. His other previous work includes the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.

“Jason has been responsible for the design of some of the UK’s key contemporary cultural landmarks and our auditorium would certainly have the wow factor,” explained Paul.”

Dance City's Anthony Baker (left) and Director of the Fire Station, Helen Green

Dance City's Anthony Baker (left) and Director of the Fire Station, Helen Green

Meanwhile, after standing empty for more than 24 years, and following a £2.5million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the new look Fire Station will house a restaurant, café, heritage centre and dance and drama studios.

The dance studios will be the Wearside base for prestigious regional dance organisation Dance City, while much-respected Live Theatre will also have a Sunderland base in the new cultural hub.

The Fire Station will have both a café and restaurant, both of which will be operated by Fresh Element, the company behind the acclaimed Six restaurant at the Baltic and the Garden Kitchen restaurant in Eldon Garden, Newcastle.

Builders for the Fire Station project will be Keepmoat, who recently completed the renovation and restoration of The Old Orphanage, a historic Grade II listed building in Hendon.

Sunderland's Old Fire Station, off High Street West

Sunderland's Old Fire Station, off High Street West

Project managers for the Fire Station are local company identity Consult, based in Sunderland, while project directors for the MAC Quarter project as a whole are development consultants Buckley Burnett, based in Sedgefield, who have been involved with the MAC Quarter since its inception.

Paul added:“Our ambitious plan is to transform one of the city’s most historic sectors into an energetic and vibrant area where people will want to come to enjoy an affordable and exciting range of arts and culture. The Dun Cow restoration has proved a success and I’m sure the Fire Station will be equally as popular. The auditorium, however, would give the area an extra dimension and what the city would then have is a true cultural quarter.

“There is genuine momentum building on Wearside towards our City of Culture 2021 bid, and the ambition shown in the MAC Trust’s plans will be noticed. We need to show ambition, but we also need to show we have the assets in place to deliver a City of Culture programme – and both the Fire Station and the auditorium would certainly help in that regard.”

Jim Beirne, chief executive at Live Theatre, said: “The Fire Station is going to be a really exciting development for Sunderland and Live Theatre is delighted to be part of it.

“We’ve always tried to reflect the stories and issues of the North East in our plays, then taking those productions around the world - we currently have a sell out production at the Royal National Theatre – Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour by Lee Hall.

“Live Theatre is also looking forward to developing some of our youth theatre and creative writing projects, as well as new plays at the Fire Station starting in 2017.”

Some of the original details inside the Old Fire Station

Some of the original details inside the Old Fire Station

Who will head up the new development?

Should the auditorium go ahead, it will have a familiar face at the helm.

Helen Green, who until recently was artistic director at Arts Centre Washington, has been appointed director of the Fire Station and will be responsible for running the new venue as well as the Fire Station.

She said: “The auditorium would be a huge cultural asset for the city and an excellent venue for all live music genres, theatre, dance and comedy that will also showcase local talent and provide performance opportunities for local community groups.”

Speaking about the auditorium’s location next to the Empire, she said: “The auditorium would complement the Empire’s programme – we’re on a much smaller scale.

“The hope is that dance performers featuring the best in regional, national and international dance programmed by Dance City and performers from Live Theatre will be among those appearing. There’ll obviously be a very close relationship between what is happening in the Fire Station and the auditorium.”

She added: “The Fire Station will be a fantastic asset for the city and through hosting well established and respected organisations like Live Theatre and Dance City will have regional and national significance.

“We hope they’ll pass on their expertise and knowledge to local groups and organisations.

“If our bid for the auditorium is successful, we hope that people who learn and train in the Fire Station spaces will then perform in the new auditorium.

“It’s about participatory arts and encouraging, developing and promoting local talent on Wearside.

“Our ambition is that in five years time, when hopefully the city will be the UK’s City of Culture, Sunderland will be known as a base for prestigious arts companies, and a place that grows its own artists, musicians and performers. The development will certainly be noted by the City of Culture 2021 judges.”

Dancing the way to a new future

Leading the way for dance in the North East for more than 30 years, Dance City’s busy Newcastle-based building is a thriving centre for dance and dancers of all kinds – from public classes, to formal dance training, from dance productions in its theatre, to supporting locally-based dance artists.

At Dance City Sunderland there are plans to offer a varied programme of public dance classes and the studios will also be available to hire to community and private groups and for children’s dance parties. Dance City will also deliver some of its formal education activity from the building.

The new classes will take place in state-of-the-art, professionally-equipped studios, and will also be set up for aerial and acrobatic use. As with Dance City’s Newcastle building, the classes will be run by highly-trained, specialist dance teachers in a wide range of styles and will be welcoming and inclusive.

Anthony Baker, Dance City Artistic Director and Joint CEO said: “We are excited to be able to offer amazing dance opportunities in Sunderland through the opening of our new spaces there.”

Dance City Sunderland is due to open in autumn 2017. Individuals who wish to be kept informed about the new Sunderland classes programme can contact Dance City on 0191 261 0505, to be added to a special mailing list.