Remarkable transformationof the city's Waterside Theatre

Iain Barr Waterside Theatre

A SERIES of huge ceramic buttons on the interior walls of the recently extended Waterside Theatre tell the story of the building’s remarkable transformation. Superimposed on the buttons, the faces of the Ebrington Shirt Factory workers from the last century intermingle with those of the creative people who work in the theatre today. Gail Mahon’s distinctive work brings together the building’s past and its vibrant present, both, very different, incarnations vital to the life of the city.

It was back in the 1980s that the theatre’s parent company, the Maydown Ebrington Group, bought the derelict site (the shirt factory closed down in the 70s), initially to help young unemployed kids experience the world of work. Eventually, the Group ethos would turn to the arts, but right from the outset, as Theatre Manager Iain Barr explains, the aim was to create a place where all would feel comfortable.

A shared space for the arts

“We wanted to create a neutral space”, he says, “where Protestants and Catholics could come together. We didn’t want the space to belong to one side or the other. The only way to get peace and stability is to get people to do things together, right from start.” This even extended to building a new entrance, at a cost of 135,000 when the 2 million Ebrington Centre was opened in 2001, with the 372-seat Waterside Theatre as its centrepiece. “The original entrance was from Bond Street, which would have been perceived as a Loyalist area,” Iain explains.

The final developments in the theatre were the opening of a purpose-built studio, the Gateway, for their many dance and drama classes, in 2008 and a brand new foyer, box office, exhibition space (where artists showcase their work on a six week timescale) and caf/bar, added in September 2009.

50:50 balance

Throughout its evolution, the Waterside has remained true to its ethos of creating a welcoming space where everyone, regardless of background, can develop a love of the arts, either as performer or spectator. “You would have thought being based in this part of the city, it would have been easier to attract Protestant kids to our classes,” Iain says, “but actually it was harder, perhaps because over the years there has been less access to the arts in the Protestant community. But, today that barrier has been overcome and it’s about 50:50, which is hugely encouraging for us”.

Driving Force

Iain himself has a strong personal attachment to the building. His father Glen, who grew up in the area, is the driving force behind the Maydown Ebrington Group (which recently changed its name to the International School for Peace Studies to reflect its new direction), while his grandmother worked at the old shirt factory. With a degree in geology and having trained as an accountant with Price Waterhouse, ending up as Theatre Manager at the Waterside would not have seemed a likely destination for Iain. In fact he came in 1994 to look after the finances of the parent company, but took over his current role in 2002 and hasn’t looked back. In fact his financial work only now accounts for about 20 per cent of his day. The rest is creative work at the theatre.

Growing up with the arts

Some of the most important work done at the Waterside is at the new Gateway Studio, just opposite the main theatre. It hosts art, movement and drama classes (the latest programme was launched at the end of September) with everything from classes in Hip-Hop for various age groups to drama classes that start at pre-school and run all the way up to the theatre’s in-house youth drama group. “Making the arts second nature to children who have no background in coming to the theatre is a main goal of the Waterside”, Iain says.

In Your Space

Another key aspect to the theatre’s work is leasing space to tenants, all of which are now community or arts based. “The main thing is the groups must complement what we do,” Iain says. A good example is In Your Space (a collection of talented street performers who run the North West Circus School). “We started off just helping them with grant applications while they worked out of John’s (founder, John Burns) house”, Iain says. “As they became more successful they leased an office and storage space and have use of the theatre Monday and Tuesday nights for their classes. It’s a great help for them, giving them access to facilities they wouldn’t normally have”.

Echo Echo

Equally important is the groundbreaking dance and movement company, Echo Echo, whose Chess Piece stunned audiences at the Guildhall back in June. “It’s very pleasing to see the way they have developed an audience for contemporary dance here from a very low base”, Iain says. “At the beginning there might just have been a handful in the audience, but the quality of their work has built that audience up”.

Other companies at the theatre include the Ulidian Youth Drama Group, Mouthpiece Productions, the Laura Doherty Hip Hop Dance School and Jo Jingles, whose early years movement and music programme has proved very popular. All have access to the flexible theatre space itself, whose retractable seats make it perfect for rehearsals and small performances. It was originally to be slightly bigger, but it was decided comfort, good sightlines and versatility were more important.

As funding (largely from the Arts Council) is tight, the theatre knows it has to at least break even on most shows, with the few admissible loss leaders being the children’s shows, where the main point is to build a love of theatre from a young age. Some acts or groups will hire the theatre outright or arrange a box office split. If the Waterside buy in a show, they have to be certain it will sell.

Broadening horizons

The growing market for the arts the theatre has helped build means that Iain gets some of his greatest satisfaction from attracting interest to previously unfruitful areas like ballet and opera. “It’s about developing an audience, bringing them in with something people are comfortable with, broadening their horizons and building on that,” Iain says. In recent times that has meant working with organisations like Opera Theatre Company and European Ballet, while in spring 2011 Ballet Theatre UK will be appearing for the first time.

In early October when North West Opera brought their acclaimed version of La Boheme to the Waterside there was an added bonus for Iain, “My 10 year old daughter had a small part as an urchin,” he says, “There were 47 young people from all over the City involved in the production and it was a fantastic experience for them”.

Getting festive

The Waterside has also become home to the City of Derry Drama Festival and Hidden Treasures Children’s Theatre Festival too. The former has blossomed since relocating four years ago, and the latter, started two years ago, is fast developing with top Northern Irish groups like Cahoots, Sticky Fingers and Replay performing regularly and the possibility of more international groups participating next May.

Joined up thinking to sell the arts

Over the last few years, Iain believes, the Waterside has been part of a much more cohesive and positive approach to the arts in Derry, which is already bearing fruit. “When we opened in 2001”, he says, “the main venues were all trying to grab everything for themselves. But people cottoned on to the fact that we all have to sell ‘the arts’ as a product and it’s most effective to work together. If you look at the Playhouse, Forum and ourselves, for instance, we are all complementary in size so we direct events to other venues if they are not right for us. We are roughly comparable in size to the theatres in Armagh, Cookstown and Enniskillen, so visiting companies can schedule us all on a tour. But if something is too big for us I will alert the Forum, if it better suits the Playhouse’s 170 capacity, I’ll get in touch with them”.

A bright future

The future for Derry is a positive one Iain believes. Apart from his own plans for the theatre – “I would love to programme an annual piping festival like the ones they have in Brittany, where they celebrate all music of Celtic origin” – he believes that the work of Ilex could transform the city, if they get it right.

People are still sceptical but I think it is hugely significant work and needed to be done”, he says. “The Peace Bridge will help, reaching out to the Waterside where people have always felt alienated from the rest of the city and making Ebrington part of the city centre will have a huge effect. People will buy into the idea of a united city if they get Ebrington right. It could be fantastic for the city. The benefit of attracting people from outside is huge and the outdoor venue, with up to 16,000 people will be very important. A maritime museum would be fascinating – we have a rich maritime history in this city, which needs to be documented. People sailed from here to the New World during the Potato Famine and our diaspora is huge. It could be our Titanic Quarter”.

City of Culture

“I think it will showcase the city and open doors. It’s already bringing an interest from potential sponsors for us, something we have not had before. Our Marketing Officer is currently working on sponsorship and has secured two sponsors already for our new art gallery and the children’s theatre festival. We are now in talks about a main sponsor for the whole theatre. And these sponsors are telling us it’s all because of the City of Culture.

“Hopefully there will be inward investment. We will get massive events in Derry in 2013 and we have to make the most of that opportunity to showcase the city. I would love to expand the children’s theatre festival for instance, give it a more international slant. But it’s also about building creative partnerships with people working here day in day out. I’m currently working on projects with the Arts Departments at the University of Ulster and North West Regional College, for instance, about creating opportunities for their students. We must get 2013 right - it’s a huge opportunity for the city”.

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