Theatre/Music/Dance: Refining the draft Open Brief

Post its exploring open air theatre for the Castle and Eye of York area

There is a huge interest in seeing the new public spaces in Castle Gateway as hosting theatre, music, outdoor cinema, dance and every other art form imaginable. On reflection, we’ve been a bit concerned that this aspect of the draft Open Brief is currently less well developed than it could be. To fix this, we’ve reached out to people who put on theatre, music and dance in York so we can develop a really strong brief for performances of all kinds. Especially, how to make it as cheap and easy as possible for community groups to stage productions in the Castle Gateway.

Tom Straszweski, Artisic Director, Bronzehead Theatre, has kicked this off brilliantly with his thoughts, which we’ll us as a basis for pulling in other people’s ideas over the next couple of weeks, including York Dance Space, Mediale and Make it York.

Built in, tiered seating for 200+

The big expense tends to be (raked) seating, so having this built in helps massively.

How many audience members? Minimum is 100 seats to have a hope of turning any sort of profit; really looking at 200+. Is there space for wheelchair users? Integrate steps and ramps into the staging for accessibility.

Open air?

Is it open aired or covered? Open air is vulnerable to the elements but less intrusive on the site’s profile. A cover makes it more commercially viable for bands, but less interesting for theatre.

Is there a stage? Is there a backdrop to help with acoustics?

Is there an actual stage? If there’s raked seating, this is actually less of an issue. If not, there really needs to be a stage. Materials: no slippery-when-wet paving slabs!

Lighting/sound infrastructure

The increasing use of LED lighting means you can run things off 13amp sockets. But that might mean groups with old incandescent lighting are put off. At the very minimum, somewhere to patch in lighting and a sound system. Lighting needs to be behind the audience.


If you want to charge for tickets, you might need a way to block off entry into the seating space. Perhaps a ticket booth, which could be removable? The Clifford’s Tower solution of a small van is definitely an idea. Could this be hired out to groups where needed?

Public loos that can cope with high demand

Are there nearby facilities for intervals, when 150 people are queueing up for the loos?

Backstage Facilities

Backstage is another issue. There needs to be changing rooms and toilets. Can this be coordinated with the museums? It would make sense to have facilities with multiple uses. A lot of groups either own or can borrow a gazebo or tent for backstage/sheltering musicians. But the big problem is actually fixing them to the ground. If the venue is entirely concrete/gravel then you need to find stage blocks to secure them. How could this be built in?

Navigation, built in ways to advertise and give directions

Is it easy to find? The Gateway’s not huge, but if it’s a relatively small stage then is it tucked away by the river or more obvious? And is there somewhere to display posters and a programme of upcoming events?


Who runs the space? Is it a free-for-all? Is there a timetable? Who gets priority? What sort of events- are community groups prioritised over commercial enterprises? When can entertainment go on until? As a guide, most Shakespeare is likely to be 7.30-9.30pm, but could go on much later depending on the group.

How to manage different uses during performances

In Rowntrees Park, because it’s on a through-route for the park, you get cyclists, skateboarders walking through. Sometimes wonderful but sometimes dangerous when a teenager on a scooter weaves through a dance routine because it’s their skate-park too…

Reference points

  • Rowntree Park: Worth taking a look at the amphitheatre in Rowntree Park. Downsides there are no natural back as a sounding board (so sound gets lost); power supply is behind the stage (great for amplified music, rubbish for lighting which needs to be at the back of the audience); the seating is all on the grass (gets waterlogged, no way to put chairs up) or on the gravel (must hire in seating). Plus site is closed off at night so you have to negotiate opening/closing with the management team.
  • Bath Spa Ampitheatre is one example that creates a stage, has built in seating and can be covered as well.  You can see a range of images here. 
  • Minack is another way- very organic- sea as the backdrop, seating all over the cliffside. You can see a range of images here.

Beyond performance – infrastructure for theatre

Rehearsal space is at an absolute premium in York- for community groups, one of the biggest expenses! A church hall with kitchen is anywhere from £10-20 an hour; most shows take anywhere from 60-200 hours to rehearse (shorter for stage plays, longer for musicals). So anywhere between £500- £4000. That means cheap/free rehearsal space is massively helpful, even if it’s outside in the spring/summer for a bit, but then you’re at the mercy of the weather. Somewhere to shelter during the inevitable rainstorms helps a lot! Early rehearsals tend to be tucked out of sight so you can experiment and make a fool of yourself, and rehearse vulnerable/dangerous scenes (kisses, fights etc). But when rehearsing outside, it’s a great way to bring life to the area. Is there a way to display information about the play so passers-by can find out more?

If you have thoughts to add, either comment below or drop us an email:

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