Brian Hayward welcomes a new home for theatre, film and television events in Glasgow
Past generations of Glasgow students remember it as a chilly examination hall; future generations will know it as the Gilmorehill Centre for Theatre, Film and Television. Just now it is an exciting prospect for performance arts access and education, for students and general public alike.
The shell of the old Anderston Free Church at the end of University Avenue has been ingeniously redesigned to feature state-of-the-art facilities on five floors. To start at the top, under the 100-year-old panelled ceiling, level five houses the impressive James Arnott Theatre, now staging its opening production of Call Me Ganymede, an essay in androgyny and Arcadia, derived from As You Like It and directed by Giles Havergal.
The theatre's most interesting design feature is what the students are calling "the trampoline'', the wire mesh stretched 30 feet above the stage on which the intrepid will walk to adjust some of the 240 lanterns this theatre boasts. From there, too, fluttered the autumn leaves of the Forest of Arden, as the birds sang from some of the eight, flexible speakers. It was the only sound, the double and triple glazing of the stained glass windows effectively sealing off the city noise.
The theatre seating is fully retractable, and allows almost any configuration of audience and playing area, from the conventional "end-on'' 158-seater to seat-less "promenade''. The huge lighting installation, fed through all of 192 dimmer circuits, is endlessly adaptable. You might think it excessive for a medium-size theatre, but the technical resources officer who liaised with the design team, Patrick Brennan, explains: "The reality is that we could have a full-length play in the evening, a lunchtime performance, and be teaching lighting design classes during the day. We need this kind of resource to make that possible."
Moving down the building (and you can do this by stair, passenger lift or even by the mighty stage lift), level four has the impressive dressing rooms and the crush (promenade) bar, and level three, at street level, has the Andrew Stewart cinema.
Fitted out to the highest modern standards, and offering 16mm and 35mm projection with Dolby surround-sound system, the cinema has a triple function. Monday and Tuesday evenings, it is home to the university film society; at the weekend it goes public and becomes "the Glasgow Film Theatre at Gilmorehill'', a satellite of the Rose Street cinema. The programme of films is jointly decided by the GFT and the university, and the cinema is similarly staffed and operated. To emphasise the public role of the venue, Eileen Rae, manager of the Gilmorehill Centre, leafleted 50,000 homes in Glasgow's West End. The primary role of the cinema is to serve as a lecture room, with the facility of projecting high-quality computer and video images.
This dual "town and gown'' use is evident everywhere: the production office taken over for Call Me Ganymede is on offer to visiting film companies, and the James Arnott theatre has already been used by Kirsty Wark's television company for programme making.
Eileen Rae's office, and those of the teaching and administrative staff, are on level two. An office is only an office, maybe, but these are parcels of the north and south aisles, fronted by the nave's early English pillars and arches, walled with textured glass, with a tiny lancet window on their rear walls. Exciting, no doubt, though people who live in glass offices, they are finding, cannot pretend to be out.
At the base, in level one, is the plentifully stocked video library, with ranks of monitors for student use. Here, too, are the resources room with its up-to-date information technology and video playback facilities, a sound studio, and the video editing suite where students can do their own dubbing and editing.
It was here, among the bright lights and white walls of these electronic clinics, that I came across the somewhat forlorn chair belonging to Sarah Siddons, the actress. It sat so well in Professor Arnott's study in Lilybank Gardens. Maybe a place can be found for it in the new theatre foyer, by the fine bust of Jim Arnott, under the newly commissioned stained glass windows. Lorraine Lamond won the commission offered by the Oxford Society of Glasgow University Graduates, and her design includes lines from Edwin Morgan.
Here, too, in the foyer are the lists of sponsors whose donations, added to the university investment and the Pounds 900,000 National Lottery award, made up the Pounds 4.4 million cost. Of this, Pounds 31,000 was contributed by the Gifted Seat scheme. The formal opening was by actorrector Richard Wilson, whose work and presence in promoting the building has been, in Eileen Rae's words, "amazingly supportive''. The Ganymede students will, I know, testify to that.