Storyhouse, Chester

Public funding for a new arts venue in Chester is entirely justified despite austerity, says its director

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During austere times it’s heartening to hear of a new arts facility opening its doors. And with two theatre spaces, a cinema, library with dedicated storytelling room plus a café, bar and restaurant, all set inside a renovated 1930s Odeon cinema, Chester’s Storyhouse appears to offer something special.

“We envisage the entire building as being somewhere that enables people to tell stories,” explains artistic director Alex Clifton during the run-up to a nerve-racking opening day. “And all the activity – theatrical, in the library, the cinema and even the café – is programmed by us, all one team. That integration is something of an innovation and probably the thing I’m most excited about. Everything is connected and complementary and amazing.”

The main theatre is a flexible space providing 800 seats in the traditional proscenium arrangement during the spring and autumn seasons, switching to a more intimate 500 seater with thrust stage for summer and winter. The 100-capacity cinema is housed in a soundproofed pavilion suspended in the original Odeon’s auditorium while the library includes a dedicated children’s section with arts, craft and play areas.

Yet perhaps most interesting of all, particularly from a community perspective, is the smaller Garret theatre. “This is one area for which I’m programming as little as possible,” explains Clifton. “It is the space used most frequently by, amongst others, our partner groups.”

These groups comprise the Bren Project, which supports adults with learning difficulties and autism returning to employment, the Bridge Foyer – working with 16 to 24 year olds who are homeless or at risk of homelessness – and Passion for Learning, which supports vulnerable primary school children from complex social backgrounds. Individuals involved should benefit creatively and emotionally, gaining confidence and social skills following time working in the theatre.

With £33 million of funding coming from Cheshire West and Chester Council, Clifton acknowledges the Storyhouse’s requirement to provide clearly defined social benefits. Brimming with enthusiasm, he is keen to explain the positives he perceives the facility bringing the city.

“When storytelling works it tackles questions like who we are, how we want to live and how will we positively shape our future. The opportunities we provide will help answer those questions, with people forging a shared social identity, and that’s the critical advantage we hope to bring.”

But with the country heading ever deeper into austerity, were there not claims that public money could have been better employed elsewhere?

“I came into this very ready to be answering such questions a lot and it’s just not arisen,” replies Clifton, who previously worked at the National Theatre, Rada and the English National Opera.

“The community in Chester is massively behind the Storyhouse and people seem to really want us here, so helping those people access great ideas and information is truly such a wonderful thing to be part of.”

The Beggar’s Opera and Alice In Wonderland run until late August, Storyhouse, Chester (

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