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Peter Glanville on Polka Theatre's £8.5 million development

The venue is open now

The refurbished Polka Theatre
© Hufton Crow

Polka Theatre has recently completed an £8.5m Future Polka Campaign redevelopment, reopening at the end of September with Red, our first production for children and family audiences in 2.5 years.

It has been quite a journey, and throughout we've been thinking about what a 21st Century Theatre for Children should look like. Well, in part, we retained the initial concept of Polka when first built in 1979 – that the whole building is imaginatively child-centred and that it offers a range of free creative play spaces for children as well as the two theatres.

So, we've built the Y C Chan Play Den, a huge indoor space where children can dress up, act out stories, play with a giant magnetic board or chill out in the reading corner. We've created an underwater corridor with wave baffles overhead, illuminated portholes and a lighthouse. We worked with specialists The Space to Play to build a new large abstract house in our outdoor play area and we've created a beautiful sensory garden with giant red pots.

Our participative classes used to take place in an old run down annexe hidden away at the back of Polka . We've now repositioned children's classes and workshops in the heart of our building with our new Clore Learning Studio, kitted out with interactive technology for sensory work.

It's a wonderland for children and families, who can also hang out in a train carriage in our new larger café, or have a look around the Polka Shop. All this with improved accessibility throughout.

But we know that if we want to create world-class theatre that helps children navigate their place in the world, we need to also support artists with better resources and facilities. We now have a much larger and more flexible 100-capacity Adventure Theatre with a gallery to support technical teams; our main theatre (300 seats) has had a facelift but also now has a lift which gives access to the stage. We've also built The Nest, a new rehearsal space which is also riggable. It's a far cry from hiring a little church hall nearby and having to wheel the set down a cobbled road at the end of the day. The 2 theatres are now right next to the rehearsal space and wardrobe. Time is precious when you're making a production, and less is now wasted running from pillar to post.

Red is our first production in this building and it's an indicator of our ambition and intent. The project is led by Deaf and Disabled Artists and performed by Deaf actors. It is a promenade production taking audiences of 30 at a time on a journey across the ground floor of the building, transforming ‘non-theatre' spaces. The director Hannah Quigley, designer Rachana Jadhav and BSL consultant Brian Duffy and the wider team, have created a unique visual and physical landscape which uses no words and integrates Sign Language, as the audience journeys from Woodland to Swamp to Palace, to try and find our protagonist Red.

The response has been wonderful so far and we're looking forward to once again welcoming up to 100,000 children and families through our doors each year.

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