The community interest company known as Theatre & Arts Reading (TAR) has today released details of its vision for an arts complex at Reading Gaol. The 1970’s Hexagon theatre is a true Reading landmark, and is well loved locally having endeared itself to at least a couple of generations over the years. My childhood Hexagon highlight was the Sooty show, whilst more recently, if I admit it, I do quite enjoy the travelling West End musicals my wife “drags me along to”. I’m perhaps not the culture vulture that TAR is aiming at, but when I’ve spoken to people who are closer to the arts scene, they tend to complain about the Hexagon.
The main issue seems to be that it’s simultaneously both too big and too small. At a little over 900 capacity it’s too small for larger touring productions. Yet, local groups complain that it’s also too big for their needs, making it expensive and complicated to use. As a multi-purpose, medium-sized theatre, it’s trying to cover all bases, providing good variety for the town yet leaving many of its users compromised.
I would add a second similarly contradictory complaint. It’s both too old and too new. Too old in that I understand it to be expensive to maintain and lacking some modern facilities. Too new in that its location doesn’t come with a back story needed to create a true destination and sense of theatre before a play even starts. This is where the Gaol is such an exciting opportunity. You’ve got the history of Oscar Wilde, other famous prisoners, and the legacy of King Henry. There’s the geography with its place at the ancient heart of the town on the banks of the Kennet river. You also have the religious significance of the Abbey: that’s history, geography and religious studies – a veritable humanities hat-trick.
A modern theatre in the ancient and dramatic surroundings of the Gaol and the Abbey could create the cultural destination Reading craves, and the stage to tell the town’s own story as well as that of whoever’s play is coming to town. But on top of solving too old and too new, TAR has ratcheted up the #GaolHype yet further will a solution for too big and too small. They propose including two theatres. Obvious really isn’t it? Enough pre-amble.. here’s the meat of their vision:
Location: Amenities building
Run by: Theatre operator
A theatre of 1450 seats able to accommodate musicals, opera and dance. Suitable backstage set, storage accommodation to host casts (up to 40). Adequate set storage and design facilities to accommodate a medium sized orchestra (up to 24 players).
To be programmed and operated by commercial partner on a lease.
That’s a seating capacity several hundred above the Hexagon’s, and would presumably be funded by selling the Queens Walk complex for housing. The location – I’ve guessed – is as labelled on my aerial photo.
Location: Administration building
Run by: Artistic director and programmer reporting to a board of directors
A theatre of 450 seats to work as a producing and receiving space with a playhouse style of intimacy and unamplified acoustics. Music and art will be prevalent throughout the versatile building. While operating as an intimate and flexible receiving house for exceptional touring companies, the building will also partner and support the development and presentation of professional, innovative theatre and dance from our town. Community, student and educational productions will all be supported.
A strong education programme will ensure that this theatre is not only integral to the learning strategies of Berkshire’s schools, but also an exciting place for young people to head to and be inspired by.
NB all the dressing rooms, green rooms, toilets etc to be used by crew and front of house talent for the two theatres is accommodated in the theatre buildings.
Again, I’ve guessed their proposed location. I’d also assume this would be a home for the highly-rated Reading Between The Lines local theatre company. This venue is clearly a big priority for the TAR project.
Having covered the wider prison site, here are their proposals for the main listed building – they call it the Crucible building, but I think they mean Cruciform, unless they’re really keen to get some snooker back?
Crucible (Grade 2 listed)
The Crucible building will have public access on the ground and first floors. The second floor will be for creative start-up businesses. There could be an opportunity for theatre-goers to walk through the prison to get to Theatre 1.
Café/bar/ restaurant, shop, box office, arts film theatre, box office, walkway to Theatre 1, archaeological finds under glass floor.
- A café/bar/restaurant space and an attractive flexible public gathering/reception space.
- Gift shop selling Oscar Wilde-related merchandise, educational merchandise, Reading Abbey merchandise, artworks and sculpture.
- An arts film theatre – run by an existing company or a new one.
- Chance to display any interesting finds from the excavations and to combine with innovative digital interpretation.
Performance/rehearsal space, Oscar Wilde Museum, Oscar Wilde Experience, contemporary art gallery, creation space.
- Rehearsal /performance space in the chapel. To be used/hired by Theatre 2 under management of Artistic Director.
A minimum of two rehearsal spaces to accommodate a range of rehearsal/ educational/community uses including visual arts, dance, classes, workshops, yoga.
A small museum to tie in with the Oscar Wilde Experience as the first floor is where his cell was , developed in association with local heritage and educational partners.
- Contemporary art gallery… will exhibit art from across the UK and with visiting exhibitions from across the UK.
A creation space/education suite for music rehearsal/recording. Education suite.
The cells to be used for around 20-30 start-up creative businesses, some on long-term lets and others on short term. Meeting rooms for businesses.
- Costume and prop storage.
- Solitary confinement, sensory deprivement area (as part of the Oscar Wilde Experience)
Wow. Is that all?! What can you say – that would be an incredible achievement to retain the whole building for these cultural and community uses. Far be it from me to bring in the tedium of feasibility, but you’d wonder whether at least a wing of the building might need to be given to more commercial uses, such as a hotel. That said, TAR acknowledge the need to bring in some money but propose elsewhere on the site:
A residential/commercial/leisure development to be located on the site
- Landscaping/planting and Improved access to the canal as part of the Abbey Quarter. Outdoor seating.
- Access to Abbey Ruins.
Entire site controlled by a trust – trustees may include representatives from Reading Borough Council, Reading University, Arts Council England
Their summary reads as follows:
Theatre 1 – large receiving theatre
Theatre 2 – smaller producing/receiving theatre
Cell space for creative start-ups
Oscar Wilde multi-media experience
Oscar Wilde museum
Contemporary art gallery
Arts film theatre
Archaeological finds from Reading Abbey to be displayed
Educational & Cultural Partnerships to build sustainability
Integration with Reading Abbey Heritage Quarter and Kennet & Avon Canal
This is a vision of opportunities by TAR and feedback is welcomed. We have lots of other opportunities to develop, for example could a restaurant be built to overlook the Abbey ruins?
So in addition to digging up King Henry, glad to see they’ve also resurrected the word “multi-media” from its last recorded appearance in 1997. But seriously, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have all these great arts facilities, and the Oscar Wilde connection celebrated.
Let’s be clear, they don’t own the site yet, so this vision could easily be labelled “Wilde Speculation”. But today’s news did include something of a breakthrough in that TAR will now gain visitor access to the site for their architects to poke around. This is credited to Alok Sharma’s influence in government, which bodes very well for a potential cross-party consensus after Reading’s Labour council made much of the early running. I don’t think local people care too much which colour’s politicians pull this off – let’s just all get behind it, because this project has the potential to transform the town.
Thank you to Melvin Benn and TAR for giving us GaolHype – good luck with the hard bit of turning it into reality!
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