Shoreditch Town Hall reopens with a facelift and drama about the NHS
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Shoreditch Town Hall's director moves on this month as the newly cleaned arts centre reopens with a dance drama about the NHS.
James Pidgeon has spent more than eight years at the arts centre - four as producer, four as chief exec - helping to grow it into a community hub, and national performance venue with popular bar and restaurant.
A capital project to open up the Grade II listed building and engage with local communities started last month with cleaning the exterior for the first time in its 155 year history. The town hall's axe-wielding symbol of hope Lady Progress, based on the Statue of Liberty, was "revealed in all its glory".
"A fitting and timely reminder of our presence and future ambition as we emerge from the horror of the last 12 months and continue to serve artistic and local communities in Shoreditch, Hackney and beyond," said Pidgeon.
The Old Street venue reopens on June 3 with an adaptation of Christie Watson's bestselling memoir The Language of Kindness based on her 20 years as an NHS nurse. It will be the London premiere of the ensemble dance theatre piece that celebrates frontline healthcare workers and the challenges, heartbreaks and joys of supporting families through their best and worst moments.
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Pidgeon says: "I came into a building that needed some love and it's been a huge honour and privilege to bring it back to life in the way it was intended when it was built - as a civic, public, local site for discussion debate and entertainment - at the time variety and music hall.
"A huge amount of work and money has been invested into our greatest asset, the building, making it accessible and bringing the assembly hall back to its 800 capacity with a focus on proactively developing the eclectic nature of what happens here and a real diversity in programming, reach and people coming through the doors."
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With no public subsidy, the Town Hall has diversified its income to include venue hire, filming and corporate events, weddings, community events, performances, and hosting seven local businesses as tenants.
During the pandemic they offered 30,000 hours of free workspace for artists and community groups, ran online workshops for young people in Hackney, and co-produced an audio adventure for children and the digital version of West End show Cruise.
"Providing focus and structure to those artists for whatever they are creating has been a lifeline to many whose world was falling apart around them," he said.
The past year has been stop start. "We got one socially distanced gig in on October 31st then they announced the second lockdown but in some ways it was easier than the first because we were much more prepared to stage things digitally and performers were allowed to rehearse. It's interesting how those plan Bs and Cs are being worked into agreements for projects way into the future for whatever we might need to face."
The "international reach" of digital programming from Curse of the Crackles to Cruise is also something that will be built into future plans. As Pidgeon leaves to become Chief Executive of Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, he reflects on striking a balance between appealing to Shoreditch's hipsters and its more established population, citing his favourite events as the regular tea dances.
"People associate gentrification with pushing local communities out of an area. People feel shut out of developments but often it just covers them up. They remain in the shadows just not seen as much.
"One of the first things we did was the tea dances and there was something incredible about welcoming that local community back to the building where they had got married and had their kids christened. Their whole connection to the building is wonderful."
The Language of Kindness runs until June 12.