The reality, as ever, is a little more complicated. Whilst there’s no doubt that it’s a challenging time to run either an arts venue or a shopping centre, we know that both spaces can be a real asset to their community. Managed thoughtfully and with care, both offer important social hubs, can champion boldly accessible provision for those with disabilities, and are full of ideas about creating spaces that are engaging, relevant and exciting.
Gary Turnbull, centre director at Thistles, puts it well: “We strive to create fantastic experiences that go beyond what is traditionally associated with visiting a shopping centre. What makes any place special or an event a success is the people. Where there’s an opportunity to thank the public for the support we receive, we try to create moments that are memorable and a talking-point for all the right reasons.”
There must, we thought, be more we could do in partnership.
Macrobert and Thistles both go all-out at Christmas – twinkling lights, late nights, choruses of Mariah. And so, we thought, why not team up to bring a magical Christmas experience to the people of Stirling – hosting a pop-up cinema in a vacant retail unit (cunningly transformed into an absolute wonderland by the hardworking staff at Thistles)?
For Macrobert Arts Centre it was an opportunity to chat to old friends and new and perhaps to challenge a few expectations about what the people of Stirling could expect from their local arts centre. For Thistles, it was an opportunity to test alternative uses for retail space and to offer customers more provision to really make the most of their time in the centre. For us both it was a pilot, an experiment, a chance to see what might work, and how people might respond.
So shoppers at Thistles in November and December were greeted not only by the sound of tills beeping and coffee machines whirring, but also by the roar of the MGM lion, the rustle of popcorn, and the unmistakable sights and sounds of some of our most beloved Christmas films. We met elderly people and those on their own, groups of teenagers, dads entertaining kids (and kids entertaining dads). We chatted to regular attendees of Macrobert Arts Centre, as well as those who’d not been to the theatre for years. We even got chatting to one married couple who had first begun dating when working as ushers with us back in the 1970s.
Some people had gone out of their way to seek out “the new cinema”, others stumbled across us by accident. Some had to be persuaded just to peep through the curtains – gradually finding themselves drawn into the Snug by the talents of Will Ferrell, Macaulay Culkin, James Stewart and Benedict Cumberbatch. It was lovely to be able to remind people that there’s nothing quite like the magic of the big screen experience.
There was a relaxed screening, timed to tie in with Thistles’ regular Quiet Hour on a Sunday morning, where adults and children watched The Polar Express with the lights on low and the volume turned down.
We had queues out of the door for two screenings of Elf, which along with The Polar Express was our most in-demand film. Customers leaving the screening of It’s a Wonderful Life had to tell us their feedback through floods of tears, but we’re confident they were for all the right reasons And if you’ve never watched Home Alone in a room with 60 overexcited eight-year-olds, I’d highly recommend it as a sure-fire way of beating any pre-Christmas tensions.
And so, as 2020 came around, we were delighted to hear reports of customers asking Thistles staff “when will the cinema be back?” It felt like we all – Macrobert, Thistles, Stirling’s people and communities – took something positive from the experience. As Gary says: “Being at the heart of the community enables us to share our platform with a variety of excellent stakeholders and champion to a wider audience the many great initiatives, groups, associations and individuals right here in Stirling and surrounding areas.”
We are hoping to be back with a regular programme of pop-up screenings through the year. Watch this space ..!
Kathryn Welch, operations director, Macrobert Arts Centre