A look at the redeveloped Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts
PUBLISHED: 09:59 29 November 2016
The former Gardner Arts Centre at the University of Sussex is back with its first full season. Duncan Hall took a tour behind the scenes at the newly opened Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts
When it was revealed Gardner Arts Centre needed an estimated £14m of improvement works in 2006 it was gone the following year.
The pulling of grants from both the Arts Council Brighton and Hove City Council in favour of projects in the centre of the city led to the Gardner board being left with no choice but to close the 38-year-old building, which since its creation in 1969 had welcomed visitors to the University of Sussex. Within a year the centre was on the Theatres Trust’s At Risk list. It was an ignoble end for the Grade II listed building created by Coventry Cathedral architect Basil Spence.
But that all seems a long way away now, as Sussex Life is taken around the redeveloped space by its new creative director Laura McDermott ahead of the launch of its first programmed season. The venue has been renamed as the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts (ACCA), in honour of the former University of Sussex chancellor Lord Richard Attenborough, who did so much behind the scenes to extract promises to ensure its survival. And the studio theatre under the main stage has been named after his daughter Jane, who was lost in the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.
As the builders carry out the last pieces of work on the zinc and concrete bar of the new Gardner Café, Laura’s enthusiasm for the building is infectious. “It’s a really visionary design,” she says. “It’s a beautiful space to spend time in. Basil Spence wasn’t a theatre architect – but he was definitely ahead of his time.”
Working with Historic England on the redesign and refurbishment, the centre has tried to keep to the spirit of Spence’s original vision. Curved furniture has been specially made to reflect the curves of the building, while the distinctive cuboid chairs and tables Spence created as part of his original design have been dusted off for the café and work spaces. New additions, such as the lift from the main entrance to the café and auditorium, feel like they have always been a part of the space.
Laura feels the centre’s position on the university grounds is important: “It’s the gateway, the meeting point between the town and the university,” she says. “Being so close to the railway station and bus stop the theatre provides a grand welcome entrance.” And that welcome is extended in the bright and airy atrium – lit by high skylights with the early October sunshine bouncing off the white walls. The floor to ceiling windows looking out over a reflective pond are a contrast to the usual darkness of a traditional theatre entrance.
In the auditorium the centre has worked with an acoustician to eliminate the problems regulars at the Gardner used to experience. New sound baffles have been added to the walls, and the seating has been rearranged. Spence’s specially designed “ears”, which looked impressive, but in reality meant anyone sitting on the edges of the auditorium felt apart from the performance, have been covered up. A captioning unit has been installed, with British Sign Language performances planned throughout the season. The space is now more flexible, offering a choice of set-ups from a 350-capacity seated audience to 500 people standing. There is a giant seven-metre projection screen with cinema quality sound. And an exciting new addition is a Steinway concert grand piano, donated to the centre by former University of Sussex aluminus Tony Banks of Genesis. “It’s an ex-hire piano and has been played by [concert pianist] Joanna MacGregor and [composer] Ludivico Einaudi,” says Laura. “It means we will be part of the Steinway family. We’re working on a recording studio as part of the facilities so we can take recordings from this room.”
Laura joined the centre 10 months ago having previously worked as a producer at London’s Battersea Arts Centre, and co-curated Birmingham’s Fierce Festival for six years. She insisted on installing the best possible lighting and sound equipment throughout. “It was about investing in key items and thinking in a sustainable way,” she says. “I didn’t want to buy cheap, buy twice. I have worked with artists for enough years to preordain the first things they would ask about when they came in.”
Similarly there have been huge improvements to the backstage areas – from the addition of lifts to allow disabled performers to get onto the stage to the addition of a loading bay, meaning touring companies no longer have to lug all their equipment through the front door and up the stairs when setting up a show. Even the rehearsal spaces are equipped with lighting rigs and projection equipment to allow artists to add technical elements from the very start of the creative process.
The centre received a full test as part of the 50th anniversary Brighton Festival earlier this year. In May the auditorium hosted performances by musician Beth Orton, theatre company Complicite in association with director/performer Simon McBurney and a pre-referendum debate on Brexit.
“It was good to collaborate with the Festival on their 50th year,” says Laura. “The range of performances was a good test. Brighton Festival sent their front of house team to work with our operations manager too.” It is set to be the first of many collaborations to come with Brighton companies and festivals including CineCity, South East Dance, Sick! Festival, Brighton Fringe and Brighton Digital Festival. “There are so many avenues to explore,” she says. “It’s about balancing that with audience development – getting people used to the rhythms of the building and what people can expect to see from an ACCA show.” She is being careful to keep prices affordable – each show will have 20 Pay What You Decide tickets available on a first come, first served basis.
The Gardner Café is set to serve locally sourced sharing boards from noon until late – with a choice of charcuterie, Newhaven seafood and Sussex cheeses. The bar will offer local bottled beer, cider and sparkling wine, as well as a cocktail menu designed by Robert Maynard from Hove’s The Ginger Pig using Blackdown spirits.
With the winter programme now underway she is looking to build ACCA’s reputation. “We want a programme which features dance, music, classical performances and digital artwork,” she says. “I’m particularly excited about the meeting point between those disciplines, to blur the edges. It’s important to take risks – I want to bring companies to Brighton who haven’t been to the city for a long time.”
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