The North Wall Arts Centre is built around compromises, but it's so skillfully and thoughtfully done that those compromises look like strengths. You may already know that the building used to be a Victorian swimming pool. Owned by St Edward's School, it was a listed building, so the conversion was carefully regulated, and needed to be sympathetic. The result needed to function as the drama department of a busy secondary, as well as a venue in its own right. The main theatre required flexible staging to allow for traverse and thrust staging and theatre in the round. With commitments to community and youth projects as well there was a lot on North Wall's plate!
This didn't seem to phase St Edwards, or the architects Haworth Tompkins, who have won local, regional and national awards for the building. The foyer, with its central stairway and rooflights makes an elegant and welcoming exhibition space. It's the part of the building that feels most swimming pool-like, but this is part of the new build, and never was a pool. The original Victorian building is now the main theatre, with the stalls on a false floor, suspended over the original sloping base. The dolphin mosaic is still down there, preserved by listed building status! Knowing what swimming pool acoustics are like it's no suprise that a lot of work has been done on the sound-side. And this really shows - when you walk into the theatre there's an expectant hush. Maybe it reflects the shows they've had in there over the last year, but the sound of the theatre is the sound of awe.
The festival is making good use of the main stage this year - with concerts and theatre. But it's also taking over the other studios - the drama studio will be home to rehearsed play readings and there are even workshops in the dance studio, though the floor to ceiling mirrors will be curtained over! The studios will also be in use during the summerschool in August, when young directors, writers, actors, designers and technicians chosen in open auditions will convene to produce a play from scratch. The Company, as its known, have all their expenses paid for the three weeks of the course - no wonder there was such hot competition for the places!
And it's not just the young people who are getting a glimpse of a new profession: during an after dinner auction entrepeneur Hamish Ogston, who has children at St Edwards, won the opportunity to conduct the English Sinfonia at the Gala Concert. Under his baton the orchestra will play the overture of Marriage of Figaro, to finish the concert (and open the festival) in style. If that weren't daunting enough already, Dame Judi Dench, one of North Wall's patrons, will be in the audience.
The festival marks a turning point in the North Wall's plans. Up until now the space has effectively been hired out to visiting companies, including Oxford stalwarts Creation Theatre, but now that Dan Danson has been appointed Artistic Director there'll be more scheduling of programmes of work, picking companies and pieces which fit North Wall's ethos. That ethos is very much one of allowing experimentation, and staging pieces which use the space in imaginative ways. Balancing excellence and innovation is another compromise is also a strength. Take Mark Ravenhill's Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat, a cycle of plays about the effect of war on people's lives. It was written for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with a new play performed at breakfast time every day. Ravenhill is never one to shy away from controversial topics, as his critically acclaimed Citizenship (performed at the Oxford Playhouse last October) showed. Shoot... did not put Fringers off their breakfasts, it just made the audience forget about them entirely, mesmerised by the depth of feeling packed into each vignette. Extracts of the original plays are online here.
South Parade is a little way out of the centre, but it's not as far as some people think! And while drawing yourself away from the town centre may be hard, you have the benefit of drawing closer to Summertown, bursting with restaurants, cafes and galleries. With a complimentary glass of house wine with your pre or post theatre dinner at Mamma Mia, and a pre theatre menu on offer at Portabello throughout the festival, both just a stone's throw from North Wall, it's possible festival-goers will be quite won over to Summertown life. North Wall is definitely going places; but fortunately not literally! You can see a full list of festival events on North Wall's website.