Investment in the UK’s heritage infrastructure is creating opportunities for a major shift in the cultural sector, preparing historic buildings and services for the next generation of users. The Shaftesbury Theatre has long anticipated these requirements with a transformation programme that began in 2016 – shortly before the arrival of Memphis The Musical – and today unveils the next stage of its £10 million investment in creating a venue that better serves twenty-first-century theatre makers, staff and audiences.
Development projects are part of the fabric of London life and the 1350-seater venue, currently home to &Juliet, is right in the middle of an upgrade to the surrounding area known as Princes Circus which has rerouted traffic around the busy Shaftesbury Avenue and New Oxford Street junctions to create pedestrian space and conservation.
In the latest stage of its own refurbishment programme, the Shaftesbury Theatre has seized the advantage to create two new underground function rooms, The Taffner Suit with a capacity of 30 people or 10 for dinner and the 1911 Long Bar behind the Stalls providing a pre-show menu and drinks. In a bid to change the functionality of and access to the theatre during the day, both will shortly be available for booking for industry and public events, auditions, orchestral call and conferences.
During a tour of the theatre Chief Executive James Williams was keen to stress how seriously the Shaftesbury Theatre is also taking its responsibility to its audiences, providing new lifts that give visitors with mobility issues greater access to the best seats as well as a creating a flexible bank of 74 removable seats across the Stalls that can accommodate 13 wheelchair spaces. With the addition of a central aisle, plans to replace all of the seats with higher, more comfortable stalls in the future and new exit routes to minimise interruption during the performance, this independent commercial theatre is eager to attract and retain its audiences.
Doing that will also require great shows and Williams introduced a number of backstage developments that are improving facilities and working conditions for theatre staff and visiting companies. Central to this is the creation of a new fly tower whose terracotta colouring has been designed by architects Bennetts Associates to blend into the local area, but it contains energy efficient office spaces and a new ‘Grid’ with direct access to the stage several flights below where technical teams can hoist items safely and work in relative comfort now the ceiling height has been raised from 1 to 3 metres.
In fact, it is the emphasis on staff welfare that was the most notable feature of this brief tour and the contrast between the historic fabric most visible in the public areas of the theatre and attempts to modernise backstage. Developments include a new kitchen that means the need for individual kettles in each dressing room are a thing of the past, a small roof terrace sandwiched between the wardrobe and the fly tower where staff can spend a few moments away and a new onsite shower block.
The first steel-framed theatre in the West End and one of only two UK venues with a functioning auditorium roof that opens, the Shaftesbury Theatre isn’t done yet, its most important feature – 29 ladies’ toilets – will be open by the Spring although 27 are available already. With so much change inside and immediately outside will the venue revert to a version of its former name, the New Princes Theatre? Given the work to improve Princes Circus, of which this phased redevelopment of the Shaftesbury Theatre is part, Williams thinks that’s a conversation this independent venue is very likely to have in the years ahead.