Mike’s pride and passion for the theatre was immediately apparent as he praised our surroundings: “We’re proud that the theatre still looks as fresh and smart as it was on the day we reopened in early November 2017”. We meet Bev and Mags on our walkabout. Two local women who are part of the cleaning team which Mike credits with keeping the Hippodrome pristine. They too applaud the theatre, telling us what a lovely place it is to be and how everyone is friendly and happy in their work there.
Mike explained, that whilst the theatre was still functioning and operating as Darlington Civic Theatre prior to its refurbishment, limited investment had left it looking tired and falling into disrepair. It had limited social spaces - café and bar provisions were inadequate and toilets weren’t in line with modern standards, meaning the overall comfort levels were below par and, as a result, audience attendance levels were low.
Since its relaunch under the theatre’s historical name – The Hippodrome, following the multi-million-pound investment, its revival has been a resounding success.
As well as creating a plethora of new employment opportunities for local people (the theatre’s staff roll has significantly increased, with new team members in the technical, marketing, front of house, cleaning, and catering departments), the regeneration project has also enabled the local community to contribute to the theatre’s ongoing success in other ways too. Its bars and cafés stock locally-sourced produce, including scones and pastries from nearby Banktop Bakery, Railtown coffee, Durham Gin and Quaker Gin, and the Hippodrome team regularly collaborate with regional contributors to bring inspiring art exhibitions into its gallery spaces. Students from the Northern School of Art have created 'From Page to Stage', an exhibition currently installed in the Catherine Cookson Heritage Gallery, and in partnership with The Morrison Trust, a charity which supports local people to develop their skills and find paid work, local Ukrainian refugee families have created an artwork display entitled Identity, currently being exhibited in the Gillian Dickinson Gallery.
The redevelopment programme saw major investment into the renewal and expansion of the auditorium and backstage areas. This has enabled the theatre to attract more shows, and bigger productions can now be accommodated. The new Hippodrome is a fully inclusive venue. Step-free access to all floors means all front of house and backstage areas are accessible to everyone. It's now commonplace for shows to sell-out - something which Mike tells us would rarely have happened before the redevelopment.
We asked Mike what his favourite thing is about the Hippodrome. In a heartbeat he tells us it's "the anticipation before a show" - the excitement and atmosphere it creates and seeing everyone busily working together as a team to do each other proud.
With a full and exciting programme of shows planned, it's great to know that there'll be plenty more of this anticipation, and that the Hippodrome's future as the beating heart of Darlington, continues to look bright.