Telegraph Voices: How could an alternative venue replace the Library Theatre?

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‘A destination building might be helmed by our universities’

Paul Allen, Sheffield writer, broadcaster, playwright and lecturer

Like the Central Library itself, the Library Theatre is much-loved and sadly unfit for purpose, a response to the needs of generations long gone.

I’ve acted there, broadcast live on Radio 4, reviewed for the old Morning Telegraph and seen two amateur revivals of my adaptation of Brassed Off.

I’m fond of it. But facilities – stage, backstage, bar, disability access – are completely unacceptable and the fabric of the building is crumbling expensively away.

Given the kind of money spent recently on libraries in Manchester and Liverpool (think upwards of £50 million) you could gut the Central Library and turn it into a fabulous attraction. A ‘destination building’ with a computer-age library using a fraction of the overall space. As it does now.

Have an art gallery people could actually drop in on; a state-of-the-art small-to-medium theatre for amateur companies, smaller professional and more adventurous tours than the Lyceum can risk; proper acoustics for music, a floor good enough for dancers (the city’s provision for dance is terrible); an ambience welcoming anyone from the city or from outside, ie without the formality of our existing institutions, making it attractive to Edinburgh Fringe-type comedy.

Anyone remember when the Leadmill was an arts centre?

It would feel ‘live’ and it would be great for the city centre. It wouldn’t be called the Library Theatre. And if we can’t use the shell of the Central Library? Find somewhere else at least for the vibrant multi-use performance space.

Who’d build it? Not the council on its own, so it would have to fit someone’s commercial or institutional agenda.

Who would run it? The universities, already among the biggest property developers in town, are under government pressure to show they are not ivory towers but make a positive impact on local life – hence the readiness to take over Off the Shelf.

But government and universities’ agendas change.

So invite the universities to develop and run it through an inspired leader, but make them accountable to a genuinely diverse and representative trust setting a clear and compelling brief.

Vivienne Mager, Company Secretary, the DILYS GUITE PLAYERS

Most Sheffielders are angry at the potential changes to the Central Library building and consequent threat to the Graves Gallery and Library Theatre. Since 1934 it’s been a well-loved, much-used institution. We have been promised that a brand new state-of-the-art library is being considered, and assured that the Graves Gallery will remain in the building (as a rather unique reception area for its five-star guests).

My worry is about what will replace the Library Theatre. For decades I’ve been in the audience for events and have always thought of it as a hidden subterranean gem, and loved its adaptable function – despite the whole building having poor disabled access, and I remain mystified that a simple lift has never been installed.

As secretary of The Dilys Guite Players, based at the glorious Lantern Theatre in Nether Edge, I appreciate how lucky we are to own our own space, but not all groups are so lucky. It’s great having the magnificent Crucible and Lyceum, but they are generally more professional, grander venues with a restricted programme and prohibitively expensive availability of room hire for small groups.

Surely a city with our creative energy should support a central, affordable, multi-functional space that can be used by a wide range of organisations and events? Somewhere with scope to include, for example, affordable rehearsal space for local amateur dramatic and music groups as well as a space for performance. There are endless possibilities. So, if it has to be replaced and rebuilt, let’s hope the consultative process reminds the council about its past commitments to the creative sector. Sheffield Council, please keep the flexible and unique nature of the Library Theatre in the heart of the city in the future.

Mary Newey, chairman & director, Woodseats Musical Theatre Company

If the Library Theatre has to be replaced because of mindless developers turning a piece of Sheffield heritage into yet another hotel, then it is time the council stepped up and either provided a brand new purpose-built theatre or convert another building to accommodate all the community theatre that is vibrant and alive in Sheffield.

Doncaster, Rotherham even Barnsley have their own Civic Theatre and yet the council of this great city have been more than happy to sit back for years and call the Library Theatre the city’s civic theatre and then it appears to again quite happily close it with no alternative in sight. Well, if this is the case, then the theatre needs replacing and not just forgotten.

The Library Theatre is the home of many amateur theatrical groups and smaller professional companies who will have no home if it disappears.

The Montgomery Theatre on Surrey Street – where Woodseats perform every summer – are doing a sterling job of keeping the theatrical community going on a shoe string but they are in desperate need of funds to improve the theatre with one of the main problems being the lack of a lift which needs to be installed, plus many other improvements.

Therefore perhaps one option for the council could be to, instead of replacing the Library Theatre with a new theatre, consider joining forces with the Montgomery Theatre and release funds for them to put in place the improvements they are trying so hard to implement. The city has been crying out for a theatre to accommodate all the local productions and indeed a lot of touring professional companies for years.

If this hotel becomes a reality this would be a golden opportunity for the council to show the people of Sheffield that they care about culture and the arts, and not just the Lyceum and Crucible Theatres, as magnificent as they are.

Stephen Andrews, director, Grenoside and Birley Carr Players

If the Library Theatre disappears when the ‘Chinese Hotel’ arrives, what does the city lose? A small, city-centre drama space, right by Sheffield’s two nationally renowned theatres, where notable local amateur companies have for generations been able to mount good productions of plays, usually traditional ones.

Amdram musical groups will still have the Montgomery Hall – what will the ‘straight play’ groups have?

Audiences have stayed loyal to the Library Theatre because ticket prices have remained reasonable, and the venue has been affordable to amateur companies facing ever rising costs. By the same token, small-scale professional groups have been able to risk trying new, experimental productions.

Of course, anyone who has performed on this stage, as I and many of my friends have, knows its drawbacks only too well – no space in the wings, no facilities for scene-building and storing, limited facilities for actors and crew. And, as with the Monty, the ongoing issue of access, safety and comfort for those with mobility problems.

Central location? Many of the Library’s regular customers will surely combine shopping and a show with a pre-theatre meal. Bar and snack facilities could attract customers in the day. Affordable parking should be in the frame. Disabled access is a must, as is proximity to multiple bus routes and taxi-ranks. Seating capacity needs evaluation – maybe somewhere between the Montgomery and the present Library? Sorry, but an empty box of a ‘versatile performance space’ kitted out with stacks of chairs or moveable scaffolding tiers won’t satisfy theatregoers.

A balcony we don’t need, just raked seating, with sight lines good for all seats and styles of production. And please make the seats wide enough for modern bodies, and allow leg room for those with stiffening joints.

So, thinking caps on, city fathers and town planners. New build or older building crying out for refurbishment, you owe us a replacement that addresses all the foregoing and more.