The Sherman Cymru in Cathays opened earlier this month to much adoration and waves upon waves of positive review and sentiment. With good reason. The building is an oasis of calm and openness with beautiful light pouring through the ‘eyelid’ of the front entrance onto a gorgeous doormat of spring green carpet.
It’s in the community space of the building that I sit with Chris Ricketts, the director of the theatre. He’s looking out onto the street where there are still workmen putting the finishing touches to the theatre – like a father watching a child at play.
One of the things I’m really interested in about the Sherman is that the opening is partly about theatre and a new theatre programme but also partly about the design, which can only be expected. What was the process for designing a theatre?
The hardest part of designing a new theatre is usually the auditorium but because we had auditoria that we wanted to keep in their basic formation because we think they work as auditoria, a lot of the design process came down to things that were about public space and back of house space. On what is a pretty tight footprint, how do we make best use of the space available? The building when it was first built, was offset from the building edge which gave us the opportunity to move the front of the building out to the boundary line which we took full advantage of. The three principle things, which most influence the design process, were about wanting to achieve a sense of transformation for the public so that the public visiting the building again would really feel that there was something substantially different. The choices about that were about everything we’ve done to the foyer area and everything we’ve done to transform that space, taking the boundary up to the front of the building and cladding it in a way that looks so different from what we had before and makes the building very distinct from where it’s nestled between two cardiff university buildings. Now we have something that’s eye catching and stands out as you’re walking up the street. It’s a curved eye lid canopy at the front of the building that slightly pushes the building out from the otherwise straight line of buildings that go up the street. This whole public area has been really important. There were issues about level around the building that we wanted to address: building regulations as a consequence of disability discrimination act and changes to building standards over the past decade. Through achieving good access for people who may be in a wheel chair, for instance, what we’ve done is make the building work better for everybody. I think that’s one of the interesting things about that as a building standard – you’re making sure you can achieve access for a part of your community but also for everybody as we’ve thought about how to use different levels in the building. There’s been a real need to spend a hefty part of the overall budget on mechanical and electrical engineering. A significant part of the budget is buried away in bits of the building that you never expect to see but that’s really crucial in giving us 30 – 40 years as a working environment. It’s been a mixture of making an impact, how you move around the building and getting it in a fit for purpose state again.
Ricketts and the team behind the centre have accomplished just that. Everything from the toilets in the lobby which look so sleak to the curves of the atrium and right down to the furnishing of the seats in theatre one – wool from the island of Bute which covers the 1970 framework of the seats with a new lease of life and extraordinary comfort.
Did you take a lot of influence from what other people were doing?
I think Jonathan Adams who was the lead architect with Capita comes from a very informed position. He was the lead architect for Wales Millennium Centre, he’s spent many years working in London with an architectural practice. He has had a lot of experience as an architect working on major public building projects. When he started talking about very open foyers and trying to deal with light in the space and how we open up the building to the public approaching, I think that resonated with us in what we’d seen in other theatres in the UK or in other countries. You could draw similarities between what other architects and theatres have tried to do with their spaces. One of the things that interested Jonathan over a number of years and this is reflected in the Millennium Centre and the WJEC building on Western Avenue, which he was the lead architect on… and what he’s done with us… how do you use cladding as the finish on the building? Our three buildings in Cardiff all have a metallic cladding system to them but they’re actually quite distinct cladding methods. That’s been an interesting part of how public buildings sit in Cardiff and his influence on them. It’s about how to make a theatre space work when you’ve got hundreds of people arriving for a performance. Audience behaviour isn’t dissimilar in different countries so as an architect you try to respond to that.
Audience behaviour is important for him. What Ricketts is mostly interested by is the way in which his new baby can facilitate conversation and dialogue around the theatre itself: design, he thinks, makes room for purpose.
For you is the public space or the theatre space… I won’t say more important because that’s unfair… but which was a bigger consideration for you?
I think if we’d been a new build it would have been a different consideration but because we weren’t, the requirement was different. I love the theatre spaces here and I think that if we had messed around with them, we’d have been changing them for the sake of changing them rather than saying that the two spaces that are the heart of the building have worked for nearly 40 years. The artist and audience relationship in them doesn’t need to be fundamentally changed. I think audiences expectations of the front of house facilities has changed over that time because of changes in public space architecture. Where there’s been a wider social change it means that we are thinking about the public space in buildings. We have a much better public space in this building now when the building was first built but its taken 30 years of development and a few nips and tucks along the way until we got to a point of fundamental change. I think audiences deserve good social space in a building. Theatre is a social art form. The social aspect of theatre is a really important part of what makes a good night out and whether that’s about the expectation and how the sense of excitement that can be in the foyer before a performance, whether it’s about the conversations that happen during an interval or whether it’s about how you keep people talking about a performance after they’ve seen it and trying to make that happen in a place where people think they can stay. It’s better to keep them in your building where those conversations can happen. When we were talking about what do we want our new programme to be and how to we want people to feel about our theatre that we’re putting on, someone came up with the phrase ‘theatre that people want to talk about.’ I think what we’ve done with the changes we’ve made front of house is an area where conversation can happen after the performance. One of the things that has happened in British theatre over the past ten years is the wider conversation about how we engage our audiences more actively in the process. Things about performance talks and post-performance talks are much more part of theatre’s programmes. We need to find a way to make those structured. The more we can do to help that, the more I think people will get from the theatre they’ve come to see.
Absolutely. Talking a bit more about the theatre aspect of things now. You mentioned about the back end of the theatre – the rehearsal space is cavernous! How important will the Sherman be for theatre groups in Cardiff, Wales or even the UK?
You were never able to rehearse anything at the scale of our main stage. Trying to achieve rehearsal room which can feel cavernous means that if something is going to be performed in theatre one, it means that we can rehearse it at its full scale. We couldn’t have done that previously. It’s a real bonus. I think it’s a space that lots of other companies will want to rehearse in because there’s no other room intended for rehearsing drama in Cardiff. There are a good number of companies based in Cardiff. In that sense, for the same reason that it helps us try and make better work because we’re rehearsing at the scale something will be performed at, it means that inevitably the use of that space will have a wider impact on the theatre community here. More generally, what I hope our reopening with an ambitious programme of in house and visiting company productions will help bring in some of the best touring work in the UK to Cardiff. We’re a particular scale and out main stage is with 450 seats. There isn’t another space of this ilk in Cardiff and as we have with Frantic Assembly’s Lovesong coming here next week – this is the right space! With some judicious programme, we should be getting work into Cardiff that hasn’t been seen here before on a regular basis. We certainly want this building to be seen by the theatre making community in Cardiff as an important resource – particularly with our commitment to new work and original writing – we have to work together. We’re not here to produce our own work, we want to increase the audience for theatre. We can’t do that by ourselves.