Setting the stage for a real debate on theatre’s future

Sheffield library theatre
Sheffield library theatre
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A list of potential new homes for Sheffield’s Library Theatre is about to be drawn up as the council finds ways to ‘fill the role’ played by the venue should proposals to create a five-star hotel come to fruition.

As talks continue about the idea of turning the Central Library and Graves Gallery building into a luxury place to stay, using Chinese investment money, culture bosses want to hire consultants to spend three months identifying the options for another drama stage that would replace the 260-seat hall in Tudor Square.

The project will pinpoint the ‘unique features and amenities which the Library Theatre adds to the city’, as well as the needs of the venue’s current users - including ‘those the current facilities do not meet’.

Consultants will also be asked to scope out the development plans being considered by the universities and organisations such as Sheffield Theatres, S1 Artspace, Classical Sheffield and Theatre Delicatessen to see if other new schemes would fit the bill. Consideration will also be given to finding room for performances in a re-used building, or a completely new library.

The Library Theatre is generally used by amateur acting groups, but has hosted many other activities including film screenings, dance, pop concerts, literature events and even, two years ago, a recording of BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time.

A petition launched by the Sheffield and District Amateur Theatre Association earlier this year, calling for the theatre to be retained, gathered nearly 650 signatures.

The association’s chairman, Phil Gascoyne, said: “We have four main needs that any new theatre has to meet - it has to be central, affordable, suitable and available.”

The idea of extending the Crucible was once floated, but ‘nothing came of it’, he added. “There’s no spare land anywhere. None of the potential things they have suggested are suitable.”

Roger Bingham, president of the Tudor Players, one of several societies that regularly use the existing hall, said he was ‘encouraged’ that the council was considering the venue’s future, but said the authority ‘absolutely’ needed to provide its own solution.

“We need to be in the city centre, and there’s nowhere else,” said Roger.

“We sell out the Library Theatre at 260 seats a night. You need a conventional theatre, be it in the round or with a thrust stage, of those proportions.”

He said the nearby Montgomery Theatre and Crucible Studio were more expensive to hire, and that the latter was ‘very limited’ in the productions it could cater for.

However, Sarah Sharp, producer at Theatre Delicatessen, which has moved from The Moor and will open in the old Mothercare store on Eyre Street in October, said the organisation would be prepared to step in, should the opportunity arise.

“We would be really excited to work with the council and other organisations in the city to fill the gap. We’re always looking for new collaborations,” she said.

“We have a policy where anyone can get in touch and we’ll ask them questions to find out what the benefits are of putting on their production for the wider Sheffield community. We’re always up for having those conversations with people.”

Theatre Delicatessen is poised to start a campaign to collect about £100,000 needed to pay for its move, having missed out on Arts Council money when the funding body’s new list of recipients was announced in June.

“We’d love investment from the council but we all know their budgets are tight.”

Roger expressed doubts that the Eyre Street venture could match the Library Theatre.

“Theatre Delicatessen provides a good service but it’s not a conventional theatre. We’ve always packed out the Library Theatre.”

Other venues were unsuitable for amateur groups too, he argued.

“The Sheffield University Drama Studio is full. They are oversubscribed. They don’t want any more outside groups. We’ve tried the Merlin Theatre, but they are only available in school holidays.”

The proposals for the library and gallery building, revealed last November, were for the site to be leased to the council’s development partner, Sichuan Guodong Group, not sold. The investor was to be granted a 12-month exclusivity deal to explore the scheme’s feasibility.

In March it emerged that Sheffield Town Hall was being considered as a new location for a city centre library.

If the hotel concept is not taken forward, the library would not move, as the council has ruled out leaving the building empty, despite it needing millions of pounds worth of repairs.

In both scenarios the gallery would stay, likely shifting to the ground floor.

Roger said the debate reminded him of Sheffield’s unsuccessful bid to become the UK’s 2013 City of Culture.

“One of the selling points, I always said, was that Sheffield had four theatre spaces in one square - the Lyceum, the Crucible, Studio and Library Theatre.

“If we can’t have the Library Theatre then there’s got to be provision for a proper civic theatre in a new building, with the library.”

He called on the council to tap into amateur groups’ knowledge.

“The people who do these things need to be involved.”

‘We need to look at our options’

Poor disabled access and design issues caused by the Library Theatre’s original purpose as a 1930s lecture hall mean the time is right to determine the venue’s future, the council has said.

Coun Mary Lea, cabinet member for culture, parks and leisure, said: “This work is very closely linked to our work on the Central Library building. We haven’t made any decision on the building but we need to look at our options for the future.

“We have a thriving cultural scene, with the largest theatre complex outside of London. “We want to make sure we have something to offer for large scale productions and something for smaller groups and shows.”

The venue was envisaged as a lecture theatre when the library was built in 1934. Wheelchair users are no longer able to visit, on the advice of the fire brigade.

“The theatre is in the basement of the library and this means there are problems for wheelchairs and buggies,” said Coun Lea. “It wasn’t originally designed as a theatre space.”