Take a tour of the newly restored theatre with director Pauline Ross
Derry’s cultural life has reached a new high point with the re-opening of the extensively renovated Playhouse on Artillery Street. This towering building on the city walls is the highest on the west bank of the Foyle. It had been a convent school but had fallen into a sorry state of disrepair when director Pauline Ross first clapped eyes on it, 20 years or so ago.
Now it is a splendid sight, transformed at a cost of £4.6 million into a multi-disciplinary community arts resource, available to all. Ross vividly remembers her first sighting of its imposing but crumbling facade, rearing up above the walls like a cliff face.
'I’d just got my first job with Derry City Council as a community arts liaison officer at the Orchard Gallery, the city’s municipal arts gallery,' she recalls. 'When I would go to talk to teachers, youth workers, development workers, nurses and other groups they would say how much they wanted something in the city for dance or drama. That is why we had to have this centre.
'The day I was brought up to see it, I was aghast because it was so gorgeous. Although it had been lying empty for some time, we could feel the good energy in here. Every morning now, when we walk through those doors we get that same feeling - by the bucketful.'
Wherever possible, many of the original features have been retained, including the wooden cobbles at the covered entrance off the street. The old courtyard, which was previously regarded as a dead space, has been transformed into a plaza, a meeting place or what Ross calls 'the village square, where people gather to chat.
'This is the strength of the architectural plans,' she remarks. 'The old building has remained the same. It feels the same. It’s just more comfortable.' Even the new, open-tread stairwell has been constructed using much of the wood from the original staircase, lovingly restored and reinstalled.
'The theatre space is very high tech, but it’s still the same old theatre,' laughs Ross. 'The stage is the same, the seats are more comfortable and the familiar look is there for people coming in.'
On the way up to the dance studio on the fourth floor, Ross points out the intriguing glass panels, which are the work of Bangor-born, Edinburgh-based artist Paula Thompson.
'Paula was given one of the art commissions for the new building and, working with local historian Annesley Malley she has captured a flavour of the history of Derry’s social and cultural life in these windows. People love to come out here during the interval and look at them and remember the events recorded in them.'
At the top of the building the vast white-walled dance studio looks out over a spectacular panoramic view of the city. 'This is my favourite room in the house,' says Ross. 'Next year we’ll be looking onto the new foot and cycle peace bridge linking Ebrington barracks with Guildhall square. The light that this room gets is amazing through those beautiful windows. This is the first time in 40 years that the iron grills have been taken away to allow the daylight to stream in.'
Click here for your chance to see Preston Reed at the new Derry Playhouse on November 6.
The Playhouse facilities are available for use by contacting the Playhouse its website at www.derryplayhouse.co.uk or by telephone on 02871268027.