Introducing Storyhouse, Chester's new arts centre

Feature by Lauren Strain | 20 Dec 2016

Chester's brand-new arts centre, Storyhouse, opens in May 2017. A major renovation and extension of the city's old Odeon building, it houses two state-of-the-art theatres, a cinema and library, and a programme of significant public art commissions.

Artistic director Alex Clifton presents his vision for a place where stories come to life

Chester is a city of stories. From its distinctive Tudor buildings to its Roman roads and Medieval walls, history is written in the streets. Heading home from the annual Chester Literature Festival, you can read these narratives in several unique sights, like the elevated walkways of the 'Chester Rows' and the colourful Eastgate Clock – all glowing softly in the early autumn light.

This is the backdrop for Storyhouse: a new multi-arts centre with storytelling at its heart. The core of this four-floor structure – Chester's biggest ever public building – is the city's central library, which moves from its current location on Northgate Street into a new home equipped with facilities designed to set the imagination free, from a touchscreen 'innovation wall' to telescopes, microscopes, art materials and paintable windows (and, of course, books). Artistic director Alex Clifton intends it to be a place where Storyhouse's year-round theatre, cinema and visual art programmes can be further explored; but also, crucially, where the community's own stories can be told.

“Libraries are a place where we share and make stories, where communities can gather together and ask big social questions: Who are we? How shall we live? What kind of community do we want to build for ourselves and our futures?” Clifton says. “And so the library sits right at the heart of the centre because its philosophy sits right at the heart of all the work that we'll be making.”

He notes, too, the vision of Cheshire West and Chester's local authority that Storyhouse should be physically central: “Next to the cathedral, that's the spiritual centre; next to the town hall, that's the civic centre; it sort of completes the triangle as the cultural centre. I think it has as crucial a place.”

[The vision for Storyhouse]

The interconnectedness of the building is emulated in the organisation's attitude towards community involvement: hundreds of people, more than 25 charities and every primary school in the county have been consulted on the centre's engagement programme, and Clifton explains that it is written into the contracts of anyone working with Storyhouse, even freelancers, that they must spend time mentoring others, from school groups to aspiring young actors or directors, to adults with learning difficulties receiving training and support.

Put simply, providing meaningful opportunities is about “putting people in each other's way,” Clifton says. “Sometimes it will bring genuine inspiration; sometimes it'll bring disagreement, disharmony, but that's also valid. It's about us being connected, and acknowledging that there is such a thing as society; that we are defined by our shared culture, by our shared social identity.” 

It's a premise that Welsh contemporary artist Bedwyr Williams will respond to in a new piece of work, the first of four public art commissions by Storyhouse to take place in the coming years. Williams will be spending time with people in Chester and its boroughs before presenting his piece – which could use any of the spaces and facilities Storyhouse offers – in autumn 2017.

[Alex Clifton on site at Storyhouse during build] 

Similarly, it's the library's human, rather than digital, resources that Clifton is keen to emphasise. Touch-sensitive walls, high-speed WiFi and laptops that visitors can take around the building are all well and good, but “the most special resource is simply the people we have in our team and their commitment to the project,” he says. “I'm as interested in the fact that we've got a wet play area and some sinks, some walls that are covered in chalk...” (He's describing the dedicated children's library, Storyden, which includes a 25-seat storytelling room with theatre lighting where the contents of dressing-up boxes will surely be put to wild and wacky use.)

Finally, these stories will not begin and end in the central library, but be passed along and developed across the 25 connected Cheshire libraries. “Whether it's the digital art or a performance, or if we've got a storyteller in the building, we can share that across the library network,” Clifton says. Sharing, supporting and inspiring: “That's the model for the future.”

Storyhouse – Chester's brand new £37m theatre, cinema and library – opens in May 2017