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From Hard Hats To Here - Square Chapel, Halifax Launch
Scout Beck, Features Writer
Friday saw the launch of Halifax's Square Chapel - the redesigned and redeveloped centre for the arts that aims to expand and extend it's established cultural offerings to everyone in the region.

Built in 1772, the Georgian building is one of only a handful of square chapel's ever constructed.

By 1988 it was derelict and bought by a small group of theatre-loving locals for £25. Their aim was to make the roofless chapel a vibrant centre for the arts.

It's come a long from there. Back then audiences and performers wore hard hats to protect themselves from falling plaster. Now the £6 million development boasts state of the art design and facilities making it accessible to all, and with a roof only dreamed of 29 years ago.

Square Chapel director David McQuillan talks to us about the importance of the building - then and now - and keeping alive the original vision of a centre that welcomes the whole of the Calderdale community.

Firstly David, how was the launch for you?

Quite overwhelming! It was great to see so many people - particularly some of the people who are intrinsically linked to the history of Square Chapel, some of our first ever volunteers and, of course, most of the original six people that bought and saved the building: Sally who was Director here for over 20 years, back from Sri Lanka and Robin and Jessica Sutcliffe who remain trustees, so there was a real sense of completion, acknowledgment of the past but an inspiring vision for the future.

That of course extends to the amazing team of staff and volunteers we have now; because other than give the speeches I didn't really have to do very much - we have members of the whole team involved in programming all of the shows, family shows and films and organising everything.

When we set out that vision of what we wanted the launch weekend to be, it was in keeping with our overall ambitions: we wanted it to be high quality, we wanted it to be inclusive and we wanted it to bring people together, united in a shared experience of something really positive.

The building has quite a history, from derelict in 1988 to redesigned in 2017 - from a £25 layout to a £6 million investment; how has the journey been for you from the beginning of this project to it's completion?

I suppose I'm lucky enough to have only been here for the last fourteen years of that journey, from a time when the organisation was more secure, if you were to ask someone that has been involved since 1988, they might have a different emphasis.

Director David McQuillan
I know that when I started here there were only six of us and when we held a full team meeting the day before the launch there were well over 50 people in attendance; trying to keep the same warm, family, community atmosphere with an increasing staff team has been forefront in our minds.

It's been a long process, raising the money, overseeing the work and launching a much bigger organisation; and all of that is incredibly hard work. We've tried, at every stage, to make the right decision rather than the easy decision.

Has the building met with your expectations?

Unequivocally, yes. And I say that as someone that has sat in more than one four hour meeting about concrete - so even knowing the building intimately I'm still amazed and inspired by it. It is the most wonderful piece of architecture with gorgeous attention to detail - and like all the best architecture the real beauty is in how it works and feels when it's full of people.

What is your vision for the Square Chapel arts centre now the work is done?

In what we want to do, I can't imagine that we're dissimilar from a lot of arts centres - we want the best, most exciting work on our stages and to be full of people who have travelled from far and wide just to come to us. We're really interested in how we do that, and why.

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Though we love it when people come to us from different areas because they're excited by our programme - we have a strong and dedicated community here that have supported Square Chapel for nearly 30 years; and first and foremost, we are their arts centre and we believe what we do should resonate with our diverse communities here and be meaningful to them.

We want to be involved in the creation of new work and support artists, particularly those at the early stages of their career and we want to continue to engage with and work with our communities.

Our outreach programme has been running for fifteen years and is at the heart of what we do and who we are - whether that's a weekly painting class for older people or songwriting and recording for young people who will record their first music with us and play on our stages; it's important for us to be open and accessible and to give people these opportunities.

We believe that there's a magic that happens when people come together; whether that's putting a performer in front of an audience, six people saving a ruined building and turning it into an arts centre, or an inspiring conversation over food and drink; that people are united by shared experiences, and that if we help create those and make them positive experiences that mean people feel more open hearted and alive, that the world will be a better place.

In his lecture on the love song, Nick Cave commented "Jesus Christ himself said, in one of his most beautiful quotes 'where ever two or more are gathered together, I am in your midst' He said that because where ever two or more are gathered together there is language" and he is talking about language and love rather than religion.

I'm not an overtly religious person - but there's a beauty and truth in that the world that we create is in those spaces between people; where people interact and how they interact. If that space is full of compassion, love and understanding and we pay attention to the importance of developing a shared language, the world will be a better place. As Nick Cave sang on one of his own songs 'in the end it's beauty that is going to save the world now'.

How have you found the level of support from the town for the new Square Chapel?

It's been fantastic - even throughout the works when we opened with a temporary bar and temporary outside toilets; audiences, volunteers and supporters all stayed with us and kept up the same levels of enthusiasm.

Of course we're really grateful to our regular funders Calderdale Council and Arts Council for their ongoing support and their investment in this project, alongside the many other Trusts and Foundation that gave significant amounts as well as the hundreds of volunteers, friends and audiences who raised money through selling their scones, climbing mountains, filling Smarties tubes with 20 pence all went into the project and helped to show just how much support there was for Square Chapel and what we wanted to achieve.

The public response to the new building has been unanimously positive: which on the one hand was expected - it is a beautiful building; but on the other was still somewhat surprising as I think the architects have been quite bold and we have an uncompromisingly modern space connecting two of Halifax's most historic and loved buildings: the Grade II* listed Chapel and the Grade I listed Piece Hall.

Often modern additions to historic buildings are not to everyone's taste but we've been overwhelmed by positive feedback, largely I think because of the way the design team have respected the old and built in a level of transparency that means the existing Chapel, the Piece Hall and the Rose window and spire of Square Church are all highly visible in the finished building.

These are quite austere times when the economic divide appears wider than ever. How much importance do you attach to the arts in the lives of everyone, irrespective of background in times like these?

I think that's a really important point - and as well as economic concerns the news is full of events that can instill fear and hatred and divide our communities. We are close to our community here and we're aware that people are struggling and anxious.

Personally, I think art is massively important - for me it's one of the main things that make life worth living and makes that struggle worth it. People are amazing and they can achieve just about anything; as a species we're capable of spreading destruction, fear and division but we're also capable of spreading love, harmony, understanding and joy.

Artists help us to understand ourselves, others and the world differently; or they can take us out of our world altogether; make us laugh, cry and think.

Everyone is capable of creating and of contributing to the world in a positive way. I also think it's incredibly important that there is a range of voices on our stages, that all groups from all backgrounds feel represented and that the work we put on resonates with them - that's where our outreach work and talent development programmes come in; helping to support that next generation of artists and voices.

Can you see the Square Chapel playing a part in breaching that gap?

We try to. Again with our outreach work we do focus on groups that are underrepresented in the arts and we engage and work with people from primary school age to people over 90 years old and a lot of that is about understanding the barriers that exist that stop people taking part or contributing.

Although these can be many and complex, finance is definitely one of them. We have always aimed to keep our ticket prices affordable and most shows have a standard ticket price of £12 or £10 but we also know for people that are struggling to balance tight weekly or monthly budgets that £10 can be too much and that might be balanced against spending on fairly essential living costs.

We've introduced a genuine 'Pay What You Can' scheme on some of our shows which is all about trust. People can choose to pay anything between £1 and £20 for a show; we don't ask for any evidence, tickets can be bought online through our website so there's no stigma attached, nobody here will ever judge you for how much you chose to pay for a show; we just ask that people who can pay a little more choose to do that too so we can keep schemes like this going.

We tried to carry that same approach through to the pricing in our new bar and cafe: we didn't set our food prices without costing out what that would mean for someone bringing their whole family; likewise we now have a brilliant collection of craft beers and real ales - some of which can be quite expensive; we're determined that there will always be a few options that are around £3 a pint or less - because even if you've been able to pay £1 for a ticket and you want a beer at the bar but can't afford one; you're still excluded.

How does the arts centre relate to Piece Hall? What do you see these developments doing for the town?

Ah, the new Piece Hall development is beautiful and we're lucky enough to have a direct link from our cafe bar into the Piece Hall. We've worked closely with Calderdale and the new Piece Hall Trust throughout - they've got a great group of people there and they're doing something really inspirational with that space for this town.

Everybody has missed the Piece Hall whilst it's been closed for the redevelopment and it's great to have it back. It's a genuinely breath-taking space to be in and to host performances and also acts as a most beautiful courtyard not only for its own shops and restaurants but for Square Chapel, Orange Box, the new Central Library and Industrial museum; with the Minster, Eureka! And Dean Clough also on the doorstep we have one of the most vibrant cultural offers I've seen outside of major capital cities.

We've always thought of ourselves as the little red brick beating heart of Halifax; but I think the Piece Hall has really given the town it's heart back - so maybe that makes us the brain or the imagination, that's fine! It's something that for our community, they love, they can be really proud of and they 'own'.

I know that the team there are really keen to be clear that it's an asset that belongs to all of us, it's for the people of Calderdale and beyond. It also brings people from all over the country, it gives the town an incredible vibrancy and profile.

We've been incredibly busy since it re-opened so I think early indications are that Calderdale's commitment to culturally led regeneration is really paying off!

You've been with the Square Chapel for quite a number of years, what is about the work you do that has kept you there so long?

In simple terms, I have had a range of jobs since I started here and there have always been new challenges to undertake; and the freedom and responsibility to shape what we do here.

But fundamentally it's because I love what we do; the whole organisation has an ethos that resonates with my own. I started here in the outreach team establishing projects for young people and providing opportunities for them to engage with the arts.

The organisation's commitment to outreach, consultation, engagement alongside the highest quality most exciting arts, food, drink and film is really inspiring. I love the people that I work with and the community that we work within and for.

Are there aspects of the completed building you are particularly proud or fond of?

My background is as a visual artist, and most of my work has been trees and forest scenes - so I'm particularly partial to the arboreal theme in the cafe bar that runs through the structural steel trees that support the roof, the beautiful glass artwork of trees and branches by Sarah Galloway that reduces the glare and solar gain on the southern elevation and the abstract reading of a tree canopy in the coloured pattern of acoustic panels in the ceiling: looked at from one side of the room you can see only the 'spring' colours, greens and yellows; from the other the autumnal reds and oranges - it's beautiful.

More than that though, I'm most proud when I sit in that space at the end of the day with a glass of wine and see it full of people eating, drinking, looking at the architecture, laughing, smiling and bringing the place to life.

What about the events calendar? Is there a performance you are particularly looking forward to?

Well, it's incredibly hard to pick just one - in the 'Pay What You Can' series in the new Copper Auditorium alone we have some great companies that have been to us before in Paines Plough and Third Angel (with Growth and Partus) and the amazing 'Team Viking' - and often those shows in the smaller space, with minimal set and small casts are some of the most exciting and imaginative.

We have a couple of great events with our amazing patrons: an evening in conversation with George Costigan and Willy Russell and a celebration of Andrea Dunbar with Natalie Gavin, appearing in Shirley (only the third time the play has ever been staged) and leading a Q&A with Adelle Stripe (whose debut novel Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is also about Andrea's life) after a special screening of The Arbor.

One to look out for is the Opera Up Close performance of The Magic Flute in October - we don't often get to stage a full opera because traditionally the scale and expense is prohibitive - but that doesn't stop Opera Up Close; whilst they scale it down in size (the music is performed live by a piano led small 5-6 piece ensemble) they don't scale down the ambition.

Also, as we celebrate this transformation of our building we loved the fact that Mozart premiered The Magic Flute in 1791 and just like we have undergone some modernisation, so has The Magic Flute in this new version.

And finally, can you see yourself at the Square Chapel in another fourteen years? How do you picture it then?

Wow, the thought of that is almost as exhausting as it is exciting! I have no immediate plans to leave, I love what we do here and there is much still to be done; I also think that in Calderdale and West Yorkshire we are based in one of the most beautiful areas of the world and I think I would struggle to find somewhere as exhilarating and welcoming.

Whether I'm here or not, I'm sure that in fourteen years, Square Chapel will be as vital, exciting and thriving as it is now - whilst still being as special, as warm and welcoming to everybody. I'd like to think that one of the kids attending an Open Door school show this year will, in fourteen years time, be kicking off their new, amazing one person show here to rapturous applause.

From Hard Hats To Here - Square Chapel, Halifax Launch, 13th September 2017, 14:45 PM