Businesses looking for somewhere different to hold conferences and events are being urged to consider a newly refurbished North-East theatre. PETER BARRON shines a spotlight on the opportunities…

WHEN the curtain went up on the £13.7m transformation of Darlington’s historic theatre, it was loudly applauded as one of the jewels in the region’s cultural crown.

Two years on from that emotional relaunch, the former Civic Theatre – now proudly reflecting its history as Darlington Hippodrome – has continued to earn rave reviews.

The investment – supported by a £4.5m Heritage Lottery Grant – has enabled theatregoers to enjoy bigger and better productions, with enhanced facilities that include a three-storey glass atrium, more modern rehearsal spaces, a new box office, café bar area, improved dressing rooms, enhanced back-stage areas and redesigned meeting rooms.

But it is now time to showcase a new dimension to the rebirth of the Grade II listed building, which is owned by Darlington Borough Council, and dates back to 1907.

Businesses are being urged to seize the potential of the first-class facilities at the Hippodrome, along with the adjacent Hullabaloo, which has been specially created for children, and is the only specialist theatre of its type north of London.

Since the relaunch, Act One has successfully focused on showcasing the artistic benefits of the magnificent new surroundings of the Hippodrome and Hullabaloo. Act Two is about promoting the buildings for wider corporate and community use.

“The response to the improvements has been overwhelmingly positive from audiences and performers alike, and we couldn’t be happier with the way the relaunch has gone,” says the theatre’s Sales and Marketing Manager Rebecca Howarth.

“Now, we really want to open up the excellent spaces within the building to the business community and other organisations for all kinds of events, meetings and functions.”

There is no doubt that the theatre is in an ideal location – within a short walk from the railway station and the town centre, as well as ample parking nearby.

With baked goods sourced from Bank Top Bakery, pies and quiches from Darlington’s legendary H Taylor and Sons, along with pastries and bacon sandwiches for morning meetings, the theatre can cater for any numbers and all dietary requirements.

“It’s the complete package, and the more we can maximise the commercial value of the building by hiring out the facilities, the more we can reinvest in developing the cultural offering to audiences,” adds Rebecca.

Darlington Building Society is one example of a local company, embedded in the local community, which is making effective use of the new facilities.

The Society is the main sponsor of the café at Hullabaloo, and the fun setting of the children’s theatre has been used for the Society’s annual general meeting and staff conference.

When DBS staged a story-writing competition for schoolchildren, Hullabaloo was also seen as the perfect venue for the final, with shortlisted youngsters reading their stories to judges and an audience of parents.

The Society recently hosted a public relations forum for the Building Societies Association at Hullaballoo, and marketing managers from around the country went away impressed by the “comfortable but quirky” venue.

Andrew Craddock, Chief Executive of Darlington Building Society said: “As an organisation which strives to be at the heart of the community, we are thrilled to be able to support Theatre Hullabaloo as it works to inspire children and young people from across the North East to play and learn.

“The venue gives our events a real sense of occasion and fun, but it is also extremely functional, with the ability to accommodate a sizeable audience while retaining an intimate atmosphere. Catering is also first-class, so it has the full package.”

The potential for staging major events at the theatre was demonstrated to a national audience when Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt came to Darlington for a Tory leadership hustings in July.

More recently, the Love Darlo Retail Awards were held at the Hippodrome, as were the Darlington College Awards.

Local dance schools have also made good use of the facilities, and the theatre has even hosted its first wedding.

Whatever the event, Darlington’s magnificent theatre is better equipped than ever before to stage it with style.

INTRODUCING THE OPTIONS

Hippodrome Auditorium: 1,000 seats with more legroom and better views of the stage. Combining exquisite heritage with modern facilities, ideal for all kinds of atmospheric events, including weddings.

Hullabaloo: Once a fire station but now a pioneering arts venue, with a 150-seat studio theatre, creative play installation space, café area, workshop/rehearsal space, dressing rooms and an external play space. Perfect for more intimate receptions and events.

The John Wade Group Lounge: On the first floor of the atrium, a versatile space, pictured below, that can be arranged either café or boardroom style for up to 40 people. The walls have been left blank so they can be used for projections. Comes complete with its own bar facilities, and breakfasts and lunches can be provided.

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The Living Water Room:  A unique space, pictured below, that originally housed a water tank providing high pressure water for spectacular aquatic scenes that were a popular element of music hall theatre during Edwardian times. Previously inaccessible to the public, it has been lovingly restored with the generous support of Northumbrian Water. Retaining the Edwardian splendour of the theatre, it showcases the spectacular 64-feet high pyramid roofed tower that gives the theatre its distinctive external appearance. The Living Water Room has a maximum capacity of 18. 

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Education Room: Ideal for dance schools and rehearsals. Equipped with a spring floor, ballet bars and mirror, this is an airy room that can also be set up with tables and chairs.

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Staging the perfect wedding

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WHEN Sarah Porteus tied the knot with Mike Macdonald, she chose the Hippodrome Theatre as her “perfect” venue.

Sarah, from Darlington, had emotional ties to the theatre because her grandparents, parents and auntie worked there backstage when she was a child. She also performed with other members of her family with the Joy Beadell School of Dance and Darlington Operatic Society.

Her wedding to Mike, from Glasgow, included invitations being printed on tickets, a “pre-show announcement” that proceedings were about to begin, and ice cream sellers in the aisles.

“We wanted an alternative venue that was different, and also that reflected our personalities,” explains Sarah. “So, because of the sentimental link for me, and the fact that Mike is a musician, the theatre was a perfect choice.  

“The building, especially the auditorium, is stunning and such a beautiful elegant place to get married, and it was wonderful to be on-stage and see our family and friends in the audience as we tied the knot.

“They also all commented on how great it was that they could see our faces too instead of being behind us like in a usual church ceremony.

“The recent refurbishment also meant that there was a great choice of areas for the reception, so that we could enjoy the ceremony and reception in the same venue. 

“The team at the theatre were also amazing in helping us to make it a truly special day, both on and off stage.”