What does it take to reopen a venue after two and a half years of closure, during a global pandemic? Time, patience, serious graft by a lot of people, and the belief that we’re needed now.
Polka Theatre closed its doors for redevelopment on 18th February 2019. What has happened to the world since then was unimaginable at the time. It has meant our Capital Redevelopment Project has taken a year longer than planned, cost a fair bit more than expected, and been a lot more complicated to deliver. Covid and Brexit have reduced worker capacity on site, caused labour and building material shortages, and added new risks and challenges to every working day. Unexpected discoveries on a compact site have also brought their challenges. Our teams have had to manage constantly shifting timetables and budgets, the ping-demic, and most recently a heat wave that even started to crystallise their paint! We can’t thank everyone who has worked on this project enough for their resilience, dedication and incredibly skilled hard work – particularly most recently the army of talented theatre freelancers who are putting the stunning creative fizz into the fit-out. We’re so nearly there.
We need to be honest with you, our loyal audience: do we expect a few teething problems? Of course. But do we know that our audiences, artists and communities need us to begin reopening now – you betcha! So from next week we’ll be starting to slowly reopen our wonderfully renovated building with a selection of pre-bookable activities that will test out the new venue, the new team, the new Covid-safe operations, and the new facilities. We won’t yet be fully open for drop-in open-access use of the building, but plan to be from early September, when our café will also be opening.
Our first project back in the building is our Freefalling summer school, one of the most important weeks of the year. Freefalling is our flagship funded project for children who are experiencing challenging circumstances at home or at school. It has been 3 years since our Freefallers have stepped onto the Polka stage and it is incredibly fitting that they are the first to make use of our new building. The following week our Youth Theatre take over, with a week-long project creating their own show. And across these two weeks our brilliant Creative Learning team are putting on a range of bookable taster workshops for all ages and pockets, designed to test out our new spaces including: The Nest (our new rehearsal and community space), the Clore Learning Studio (our dedicated creative learning room with interactive sensory technology), and even our garden (keep your fingers crossed for good weather!).
Not only are we wanting to ensure that we’re Covid-safe, but we’ve got a huge amount to learn about our incredible new building. We’ve never had a Building Management System (the clever tech that automatically controls temperature and air handling in different rooms – better for energy efficiency, better for comfort and importantly now ventilation). We’ve got a brand-new theatre space for our tech team to get to grips with – the Adventure Theatre is a state-of-the-art flexible studio. The beautiful new Wimbledon Foundation Garden is going to need pruning, and the café has equipment we’d only dreamed of before. And we can’t begin to tell you how much builder’s dust is being scrubbed, brushed and hoovered from every nook and cranny to make sure it’s spick-and-span for your arrival!
Our first on-site production celebrates our new building. RED starts rehearsals at the end of August and the first performance will be 25th September. This adventurous production is designed to introduce audiences to some of our new spaces, as a small audience follows our performers around the ground floor of the building on a storytelling journey incorporating Sign Language. To create this show we will need to restrict general public access to some spaces, but there’ll still be plenty of areas you can come and enjoy from September, including our new outdoor play area. Our amazing staff and volunteers will be on hand to make sure everyone knows what is going on each day.
We’re really looking forward to welcoming you back to Polka and joining us in discovering our new building, and we ask for your patience as we get back up to speed and apply the finishing touches. We’d love your feedback over the next couple of months – both what you like and what we could do better. So please do send me any helpful feedback to [email protected] or you can call us on 020 8543 4888. We can’t wait to see you!
Lynette Shanbury, Executive Director
Photo credits: Sam Roberts