Raising the Roof  

In 1988, the Square Chapel in Halifax was a shell of a building. Damaged and seemingly beyond repair, demolition seemed the only option. It was to be saved however by a passionate group of residents who believed strongly in the arts and its importance to the local area. Today the Square Chapel is a wonderful arts centre and as Mark Glover finds out, the spirit that brought the building back to life is evident in its staff, visitors and community

It seems that all roads, paths and conversations in Halifax lead to the Piece Hall. Mention that you’re headed to the West Yorkshire town and you’re guaranteed, more often than not, a passionate explanation of why you must pay it a visit.

Built in 1779, loom weavers would sell their “pieces” of wool to the public from one of the 315 rooms that surrounds a vast courtyard, however the industrial revolution and mass production of the product meant wholesalers and middle men removed the direct to consumer sale, and in 1868 it was converted to a more traditional marketplace.

Following a lottery funded renovation in 2010, the Piece Hall now has shops, galleries and restaurants threaded in its rooms. Where weavers once spun wool, record shops spin vinyl and baristas swirl cappuccinos; in the summer you’d be hard-pressed to find space in the courtyard as people eat ice cream and relax in the sun.

Rising above the south-east corner of the courtyard is a spire which marks the site of the Square Chapel Arts Centre. My interview with Michaela O’Sullivan, Head of Audiences at the centre, takes place in the building’s fresh new bar area. The atmosphere is very pleasant; easy-listening music melts in the background and there is a quiet hum of content couples munching on paninis and the clink of mugs as bar staff make coffee. It’s open, airy and very welcoming; a stark contrast to the building that was close to demolition thirty years ago.

In November 1988, a group of people (including Jessica and Robin Sutcliffe who are now patrons) entered the building, quickly established the Square Chapel Trust and purchased it for £25 and vowed to turn the decrepit space into a place of arts for the community.

Despite the leaking roof and severely damaged walls the group made sure that this art began almost immediately. Performers would wear hard hats and high-viz during shows (see picture) and audience members were given blankets to keep warm.

Renovations were painfully slow, further complicated by tight budgets and complex construction requirements. Stone-by-stone, brick-by-brick the building began to transform. Each tiny project requiring a scratched together grant to finance it and voluntary man-power from the community to construct it.

The foundations of Square Chapel though are more than its bricks and mortar, it’s also deep within the people that work there. Each new member of staff is given a primer, a copy of the book Square Chapel Halifax – The History and Architecture by the aforementioned patron and founder Jessica Sutcliffe, and when I speak to Michaela it is obvious she is proud of the building and what it represents.

“I remember when I joined – 15 years ago – they were doing the re-plastering in the big auditorium, but they only partially re-plastered it because they wanted to keep the history of the building to see where it had been used and battered around,” she recalls. So, all the time we’ve just added to it and renovated it. It was a long process but what’s been done reflects the building’s history.”

Like the history of the building, Michaela’s journey to heading up Square Chapel’s outreach and engagement programme is an interesting one. Originally trained in fine art and an artist of ten years, she sought regular employment following the birth of her daughter and spent a rewarding period of time in social services working with people with learning disabilities.

Then in 2003, she became aware of an opportunity at Square Chapel. The arts centre was looking for an Arts Outreach Officer, someone to develop and deliver projects for those with learning disabilities. Given Michaela’s artistic background and her social service experience, the fit was perfect.

Square Chapel’s director at the time was Sally Martin. Sally’s approach to inclusivity in the arts had an obvious effect on Michaela. “I really admire that she believes in bringing people together, in finding ways not to categorise,” she says. “We want to do what we can to make sure everyone can enjoy the arts, something that Sally was really committed to.”

The outreach programme began two years before Michaela’s appointment, after Sally secured funding through the now defunct Single Regeneration Budget (SRB), a scheme set-up in 1994 to bring about economic, physical and social generation in local areas. A need which is still felt today in the area. “There’s a lot of deprivation in Calderdale,” she explains. “There are areas of prosperity but having worked in outreach for 15 years, I know where the areas of greatest need are. You get such a microscopic knowledge of your community that I didn’t have when I started.”

Initially, the first year was spent mapping out the local area, identifying groups to reach out to. Those with learning difficulties was one, as were young people. Schools however, had been overlooked. “Teachers didn’t always see the connection in value to the curriculum. Museum visits can support science or history. A visit to the theatre, I think, was often seen as a treat,” Michaela recalls.

Buoyed by a grant from the Esme Fairbank Foundation, Michaela set out to find out exactly what local schools wanted. “I approached 20 schools and explained that we wanted to set-up a school’s engagement programme and asked what issues they faced? What held them back from coming to the theatre? Ultimately how could we shape something that they would be interested in.”

The result was the Open-Door schools’ programme, a series of classes, events and workshops run tightly with teachers’ input. “I shaped it with the schools,” says Michaela. We talk to teachers, and still do, to get feedback after every single show so it connects to what they’re delivering.”

One such initiative, Calderdale Young Shorts programme which runs in partnership with the nearby Calderdale Theatre School and Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, aims to engage schools in creating their own plays. Beacon Actors, a troupe of young, freshly graduated performers workshop play ideas with the children who then write their own short pieces. A selection is chosen by Beacon, who then have four days in which to rehearse before presenting them in front of a live audience at Square Chapel.  It’s one of the centre’s most popular shows. “The last time we had 15 plays and they are the wackiest plays imaginable,” beams Michaela. “It absolutely packs out, it’s so popular. It’s up to the schools to tell the children whether their play has been picked or not, but often the children are in the audience don’t realise until they see their efforts being acted out in front of them.”

The outreach programme also works closely with other projects and initiatives in the community. A stone’s throw away from Square Chapel is Orange Box, a youth centre where Square Chapel’s youth theatre is based. Orange Box grew out of Square Chapel’s first foray into outreach when it developed Write to Record, a song writing and recording workshop for 13 to 19-year-olds. High demand and little space meant a new base was needed, and after another successful funding bid (in partnership with Calderdale council), Square Chapel assisted in creating Orange Box, which is now a thriving part of the youth community in the town.

From its very humble beginnings, inclusivity and community is at the heart of Square Chapel, and according to Michaela it’s something that goes beyond the centre. “For us, Square Chapel isn’t just this building, it’s something that spreads and includes everybody, whether they can get here or not.”

And what does the future hold for Square Chapel and for the young people who use it? “Teachers tell us that some children in their classes don’t go to the cinema or the theatre with their families because they can’t afford it, it’s just not part of their lives,” Michaela concludes. “It’s about creating those opportunities so young people have a choice. I didn’t go to the theatre with my family when I was growing up. I went with school twice, and I remember those trips vividly. It’s all about creating memorable experiences for young people.”