Plymouth University has unveiled its award-winning performance space, The House. At a ceremony attended by cultural and community leaders from the south west and beyond, the new centre was officially opened by director and actress Thelma Holt. The event featured a contemporary dance performance by the Russell Maliphant Company, giving the audience a taste of the kind of performers set to grace its stage. It also included presentations by university academics. A range of undergraduate and postgraduate performing arts programmes are being taught in the building, and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research calls it home.
Professor David Coslett, interim chief executive of Plymouth University, said: “This exciting new performance venue, featuring first-class teaching and research spaces, takes our commitment to the performing arts to a whole new level. In recent years, we have consistently invested in our campus to provide students, staff, our partners and the community with access to some of the most advanced facilities in the UK. The House shows we are continuing to do this. Building on our already significant successes, we are creating a future where all our students – in every discipline – have the support and setting they need to fuel ambition and exceed their highest expectations.”
Thelma Holt has worked with many of the UK’s leading actors, directors and producers during a career spanning more than 50 years, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of arts at Plymouth University in 2010. She added: “Historically, there have been many launches of great purport from Plymouth. The House follows that very fine tradition, and I am beyond proud to be involved in this inspiring occasion.”
The £7 million centre – recipient of Plymouth’s Abercrombie Award 2014 for demonstrating design excellence and innovation – was designed by Burwell Deakins Architects and built by Midas Construction to BREEAM ‘excellent’ standards.
Versatile and fully accessible, The House features a 200-capacity, sprung-floor theatre, studio spaces and advanced technology. It will provide a new touring performance venue for Plymouth, helping to foster community engagement and attracting artists of national and international standing to the Peninsula Arts performance programme.
It also incorporates a high-tension wire grid – one of very few in the UK – enabling wheelchair access for students with disabilities to develop expertise in technical theatre including lighting, sound and scenography.
Professor Dafydd Moore, dean of the faculty of arts and humanities at Plymouth University, said: “The House is about our investment in our students, attracting and nurturing the next generation of performers by providing them with the facilities and surroundings that will inspire and enable them to fulfil their dreams. It also embodies the university’s commitment to its world-class research in theatre, dance and music and offers new opportunities for developing projects and initiatives with partners, both established and new, to further enrich the cultural and creative sector within our city.”
Midas Construction won the contract for The House and building work on the four-storey structure was carefully managed throughout the build process.
Mike O’Neill, divisional director for Midas Construction in Devon and Cornwall, said: “Creating a new home for Plymouth University’s performing arts faculty, as well as a high-quality, modern space for the entire arts community in Plymouth to benefit from, has been a fantastic project which we have been proud to manage. This prominent building has already become a landmark in the city centre, and will truly transform the provision of arts facilities in Plymouth. We are delighted that The House is now an award-winning structure, as well as a vital addition to the region’s arts community.”
The House is already enhancing learning experiences. Ruth Way, the university’s subject leader for theatre and performance, says current students using these new resources have quickly become “very proud of their new home … The House offers a stunning, world-class, mid-scale performance venue. Students have remarked upon the very special quality of the new spaces which gives them a sense of real purpose and vision to take their work forward. Students have said that being in the new theatre has already opened up opportunities and it has given them something amazing to aspire to.”
A range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes are now being taught within The House, including BA (hons) theatre and performance and BA (hons) dance theatre, as well as the MRes computer music, MRes dance and MRes theatre and performance. A number of PhD students are also working in the centre. This range will expand further with, from September 2015, the introduction of masters-level programmes in performance training and choreography and (subject to approval) a BA (hons) acting degree. Future plans are also afoot for a new BA (hons) technical theatre course. Students will also have the opportunity to work with the artists from across the globe who will be performing at The House.
Ruth Way adds: “The House represents a significant commitment to the performing arts at Plymouth University by recognising the value and impact of inspirational teaching and research with our students. It is an investment in their future and in how they will use these high quality learning resources and experiences to inspire others. Behind this is a deep understanding of the role the performing arts can play in enhancing and transforming people’s lives, ensuring greater opportunities to participate in high quality performing arts activities.”
Also housed in the building is the university’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR), which asks such questions as ‘Can music be the tool that unlocks the most devastating of neurological conditions?’ Led by Professor Eduardo Miranda, the research cluster includes academics and PhD students working to identify a range of techniques which analyse the brain’s response to music and movement.
That work and the scientific understanding it has generated have informed a number of performances, in which sensory equipment has allowed audiences to take control over elements of what they are watching.
But it is also generating improved public understanding of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, locked-in syndrome and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and seeking to give people with those conditions greater control of their lives.
“Music is something that everyone can relate to, and our work has leading to many performances in which the audience are directly involved in what happens,” Professor Miranda says. “But our work has also shown that music can have amazing and positive impacts on those with the most serious of neurological conditions. Working together with people who have locked-in syndrome and Alzheimer’s has shown that our technology can enhance their lives in ways they, and their families, might never have thought possible.”
Among the projects currently being undertaken by the ICCMR is a brain computer music interface (BCMI), through which a user wears a head cap to link a computer screen with their visual cortex, enabling them to control musical performances using just their vision.
Exploratory work is also underway into biocomputers, using organic material as part of an electrical circuit which can influence and respond to musical scores.
Research is also continuing into audience perceptions of music and movement, and the ways these can be adapted to influence existing and future compositions.
Much of the ICCMR’s work will be on show during the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival, partly being staged in The House in February 2015. For more information, visit https://cmr.soc.plymouth.ac.uk/event.htm
On the performance side, a full programme of events has been lined up for The House by Fin Irwin-Bowler. Co-founder of the award-winning Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter and currently artistic director of his own company Nuts and Volts, Fin specialises in immersive and walk-about theatre.
“My remit is certainly a challenging one – to programme interesting, contemporary and challenging work that will inspire students and attract new audiences,” says the university’s new performing arts programmer. “But in the coming season I have amassed a range of work, all exciting, which I hope fits that bill perfectly. I have been in Devon for 12 years, but really felt that I wanted to come and be part of the growing and exciting cultural scene that appears to be happening in Plymouth right now,”
The line-up includes shows by The House’s graduate company in residence, Blasted Fiction, as well as English/Bulgarian company Two Destination Language and Gloucester-based Spitz & Co..
There will also be dance performances produced by up-and-coming choreographers and, in the middle of January, a show called ‘BETA’ which is designed to give audiences the opportunity to influence future works by some of the south west’s theatrical companies.
All these shows are designed to complement the existing cultural offering in the city, with projects also being produced in partnership with other Plymouth groups. A co-production with the Barbican Theatre will see Zoielogic Dance perform at The House in May 2015.
Dominic Jinks, executive director of the Plymouth Culture Board, said: “It is a very positive development for Plymouth to see the completion of the performance venue, The House. This complements existing venues whilst offering something unique for performers and students alike. It is also a further step by Plymouth University to nurture creative talent in the city and create a compelling offer to study and possibly remain within the city after graduation.”