The opening of the Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 10:55 26 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:46 20 February 2013

The opening of the Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton, Derbyshire

The opening of the Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton, Derbyshire

The town of Buxton, already attracting audiences year round as a buzzing cultural hub, will soon unveil a new performing arts venue. Joanna Chichester-Clark looks behind the scenes ...

The 7th Duke of Devonshire would have been proud: soon the elegant Victorian spa town he helped to develop in the hills of the High Peak will play host to not just one but two theatres. You should expect Opening Night at Buxtons new Pavilion Arts Centre to sell out fast. On 24th September theatregoers will be able to walk right past the splendid faade of the Buxton Opera House, stroll through palms in the Conservatory of the Pavilion Gardens and take their seats in a new theatre.

Housed in the former Paxton Suite, at one time Buxtons original Playhouse, this 2.5 million project includes restored features such as the vaulted ceiling and balcony, whilst incorporating contemporary design. The flexible 462 seat arts centre complements the Edwardian grandeur of the 900-seat Opera House next-door, with a 369 seat main auditorium and a 93 seat studio theatre. Using retractable seating and a partition, the multi-purpose suite can be used for fairs, banquets and events. Students from Derby Universitys local campus will come across the road for lectures.

When the curtain rises on the very first play of the inaugural season, Laurel & Hardy by Tom McGrath, no one will be prouder than a small group of determined enthusiasts at High Peak Borough Council and the Buxton Opera House. Despite tight budgets and a recession, Executive Councillor for Regeneration Tony Kemp, Opera House Chief Executive Andrew Aughton, Opera House Trust Chairman Michael Williams and others have doggedly raised funds, negotiated and collaborated through the years to restore the little-used, tired Paxton Suite to its former glory. Under the deal, the Buxton Opera House will lease the Pavilion Arts Centre from High Peak Borough Council and will manage the programme. We plan to use it for the non-Opera House portion of our year-round programme and festivals, it will be a new home for small scale drama and films, it will be a fringe and studio theatre, explains Andrew Aughton enthusiastically. The new venue will also replace the Paupers Pit Theatre, which will be lost with the Buxton Crescent development.

Buxton Opera Houses initial proposal a few years back for a small Childrens Theatre, carved out of part of the former Paxton Suite, has clearly grown into something far more ambitious. But children could still be amongst the biggest beneficiaries of the new space.

Young theatre-goers at the Opera Houses regular childrens productions will soon have even more to enjoy in town. Not just as audiences, but as participants. We intend to form junior and youth theatre companies, to involve children in quality youth theatre, explains Andrew Aughton. Plans include creating original work to perform in the new centre, both on the main auditorium stage and in the studio theatre. An expanded education and community department will devise programmes with local schools across the Peak District.

All of this represents a step beyond the role the Opera House has played until now as host to touring childrens theatre companies. Indeed, local parents may soon discover on their doorstep opportunities in quality youth drama that rival those of Manchester or London. At a recent national conference on working with young people through theatre, delegates argued that children are not just to be encouraged as the potential theatregoers of tomorrow, they are already audiences who deserve the best.

Andrew Aughton understands this well: The new Arts Centre will be home to the majority of our children and young peoples programme, both performance and participatory our October Children and Teenagers Festival A To Z 2010 will be one of the first events in there!

The path to opening night has not always been smooth. At one point, the Pavilion Gardens faced becoming a Midlands food hall a sort of glorified farmers market but with food travelling in from very long distances just think of the food miles, says Tony Kemp. Instead, the town rallied to the economic benefits of restoring the Pavilion Gardens to public use. We have greatly appreciated the enthusiastic help of the Opera House Trust in joining their vision with ours, complementing their own long-held ambition to create a purpose designed stage facility for children and young people very much in line with our Council priorities, says Tony Kemp.

So what is it about Buxton that makes it home to so many festivals and enables it to fill the seats at the bustling Opera House year round? There are three elements that drive Buxtons cultural scene, explains Andrew, citing the year-round programme at the Opera House, the Buxton Festival under Glyn Foley, and the thriving Buxton Fringe. But the key ingredient is the audience, he says. Both councillors and arts organisers are clearly confident that on a typical wet Friday night in November, the people of Derbyshire and further afield will eagerly fill the seats of not just one but two theatres. We come to the opera house about once a month, says one regular audience-member who lives a half-hours drive away in the hills. We find it amazing that we can drive from fields of sheep to a Donizetti opera or a Peppa Pig show, now well be spoilt for choice.

Highlights of the Pavilion Arts Centres first season include poet and comedian John Hegley, singer Lucy Kaplansky, comedian Jon Richardson, Ibsens A Dolls House, the band Martin Stephenson & The Daintees and musician Ashley Hutchings, among many others. Visit for listings and tickets.

So Buxton can now boast a gem of an opera house, a fistful of festivals, and from September a new performing arts centre complete with art deco features. What next? All we need is for thermal spa bathing to re-open in the fine 18th century Crescent, as promised some time soon, and Buxton will have it all.

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