#5 Opened The Backstage Centre: our state-of-the-art rehearsal and training space

,  27 February 2015

In March 2013, after years of planning and fundraising, we opened The Backstage Centre in Thurrock. This is the story of how we created a state-of-the-art rehearsal and training space, where employers and learners are equal partners.

One piece of advice I’m good at giving out but not great at heeding is never to take on a task without understanding the implications.

I remember my first boss at Arts Council England in 1998 asked me to do something about the demise of Local Authority discretionary grants for drama and dance students. It was only when I saw an article in Lottery Monitor a few years after we’d set up the Dance and Drama Awards (DaDA) scheme using National Lottery funding that I realised no one thought a solution was possible.

And Apprenticeships in the creative industries? Every time I talk about the business of introducing apprenticeships for the creative industries I say that if I had known what was involved I would never have started!

A £13.4 million capital project 

How much more so when in 2007, Creative & Cultural Skills’ then Chair Tony Hall and CEO Tom Bewick invited me to work with them on their National Skills Academy bid to the Learning and Skills Council, which had a £13.4 million capital project at the very end of the proposal. It didn’t occur to me that this was a difficult ‘ask’.

The sector didn’t need another small theatre, it needed a big empty space.

At that stage the application was for development funding to set up training provision with Further Education Colleges across England, and then a short summary of a capital project to develop a new training centre in Thurrock, Essex. There were some basic measurements and ‘massing’ and a few computer-generated images of what is now The Backstage Centre. One of those CGIs appeared on the back shelf in Creative & Cultural Skills’ then national office in central London early in 2008.

I had never been to Fenchurch Street Station or Purfleet when we started the project. Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation had identified the plot with a view to creating a creative industries hub. Walking across the site for the first time in boots and hard hat was like a journey into a past land with derelict buildings covered with overgrown plants, boarded up windows and doors, and ‘danger, keep out’ signs. The site looked like the set of a science fiction film and, to add to the atmosphere, every 20 minutes one of the Eurostar trains whooshed across the top of the site. Otherwise it was silent.

Getting the project started

A group of us, representing the High House Production Park partners: the Royal Opera House, Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation, Creative & Cultural Skills, Thurrock Council and Arts Council England, started to meet together regularly to get the project started. First, the Development Corporation commissioned a masterplan for the 14-acre site and secured outline planning permission. The Royal Opera House building went up first, along with the renovation of some historic houses.

The Backstage Centre came next. We spent at least two years raising the funding – not helped by a year-long suspension of the Learning and Skills Council’s capital programme, which was to be the anchor funding against which other fundraising could happen. Our board created an industry committee to advise on all aspects of the building. We spent a long time with them imagining how the building would be and recruiting professional teams to deliver the vision. Along the way were some interesting dilemmas: an important moment was when we realised that the sector didn’t need another small theatre, it needed ‘a big empty space’ – because training couldn’t happen in busy theatres with little down-time – which could be adapted to any training needs of any theatrical or events building.

Features of The Backstage Centre

Conceived and designed by industry professionals, the building has been open for two years. Two years before opening a small team of two started developing our programme from South Essex College’s Grays site.

The Backstage Centre was a dream: a purpose-built training centre with employers and learners as equal partners.

At the heart of the building is a Sound Stage the size of six Olympic Swimming Pools in volume. It is used as a dry hire space so any equipment our users need they bring with them. We have a unique theatre grid – or rather the area above the stage area has both traditional and tension-wire grids. It can take 100-tonne roof loads from the 15-metre high gallery levels. It is a truly flexible space.

Surrounding the Sound Stage are:

  • training rooms
  • classrooms along a dance studio
  • a green room
  • dressing rooms
  • a recording studio.

Currently we have 70 students in residence on courses or apprenticeships who work alongside professional hirers.

Hiring out and hosting at The Backstage Centre

We have hosted live events companies, music, theatre and dance professionals, video games producers, opera productions, conferences, recruitment fairs, orchestras and much more.

We couldn’t have built it anywhere but Thurrock. 

Next week we will host our annual conference for the third time at The Backstage Centre with students from South Essex College covering all the technical roles, leading on managing the event and providing a media centre – carefully supervised of course. We’ll use all the facilities, the dance and music studios, classrooms, dressing rooms and green room, as well as the fabulous Sound Stage itself. We have no revenue funding for the Centre, so everything we do pays for itself: we can only do things when we can raise income or if the event pays for itself.

It hasn’t been an easy journey to this point. It was five years from when the computer-generated image of The Backstage Centre appeared on the back wall of our head office in London Bridge to the point when we closed our London office and relocated our staff. 

Walking the talk

The Backstage Centre was highly commended in the British Construction Industry Awards (BCIA) in the Best Building category in 2013 and won the 2014 Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyor East of England award for Best Regeneration Project. It has far outperformed the original business plan. Thurrock Council has now designated the creative industries a key development sector, alongside logistics, and has agreed the development of a new film studio complex nearby, as well as putting in place a cultural entitlement curriculum with the local schools.

It was part of a regeneration vision that was truly transformative. 

For Creative & Cultural Skills the building allows us to ‘walk the talk’ and develop courses, apprenticeships and curriculum in our own space that we can then share with over 40 Further Education and school partners across the UK. We can host professional development courses for professionals in the industry and tutors. We can run our own programmes like our Technical Youth Group and masterclasses. And in Autumn 2016, we’ll open our new National College from the Centre, with activity happening in industry venues and with tutors across the country.

The Backstage Centre was a dream: a purpose-built training centre with employers and learners as equal partners. We couldn’t have built it anywhere but Thurrock. It was part of a regeneration vision that was truly transformative. Now every day I see 50-60 cars in the carpark. People work here. And the creative industries are now central to Thurrock.

In the run up to our annual conference and tenth birthday celebration we're looking back at our biggest achievements of the past decade: one a day for ten days.

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