An £11 million campaign has been launched to help pay for a 21st century makeover for Edinburgh’s historic King’s Theatre - and end the threat of its sudden closure.
The biggest overhaul in its 112-year-old history is to be pursued over the next five years despite a bid for almost £5 million in lottery funding turned down.
A radical transformation costing up to £25 million, which will see the theatre go dark for nearly two years, is aimed at “bringing back to life a sleeping giant.”
Key elements revealed in the first images of the revamped King’s include a new street level cafe-bar, and a rooftop hospitality space and terrace, while its existing bars and foyers will be overhauled.
A brand new stage will be installed to help the theatre attract world-class opera and drama productions which currently bypass the venue.
The cramped and run-down dressing rooms, wardrobe and “green room” will also be transformed. Lifts will be installed to radically improve disabled access.
However a planned extension to the south side of the building, next to the historic Bennets Bar, has been scaled back in a bid to keep costs down. A more modest extension is proposed to accommodate the ground-floor cafe-bar, which will replace the existing box office.
The capacity of the auditorium will be reduced by around 150 to accommodate the new facilities on the upper floors.
The new facilities, which will also include a “learning studio” for schools and community groups, are being added as part of a drive to attract an additional 50 per cent more people through the doors each year.
The King’s, which has played host to stars like Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Simon Callow, Maria Callas, Ian McKellen, Rikki Fulton and Sean Connery since 1906, will more than double its opening hours after the revamp.
Actor Brian Cox, artist and playwright John Byrne, actress Elaine C Smith and author Ian Rankin are among a number of high-profile backers of the campaign, which is aimed at ensure a new-look theatre is up and running for the 2023 Edinburgh International Festival.
Duncan Hendry, chief executive of the Capital Theatres trust, which runs the venue on behalf of the council, said: “The King’s is a bit of a sleeping giant at the moment and we want to bring it back to life.
“We want to transform it and re-energise it for our audiences, for the performers and for everyone who works here. If we don’t do something soon, there’s a real risk of it closing.”
A full-scale revamp of the King’s was first proposed in 2004, but was thwarted due to funding problems, including a previous rejection by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Essential repairs to the theatre’s roof and auditorium were eventually carried out in 2012 as part of a £2.6 million programme, which also saw the introduction of new seating to its stalls and circle.
The trust, which also runs the Festival Theatre, revealed initial plans for a £25 makeover of the King’s in March 2017, amid warnings of the growing risk of a “sudden closure” due to its aging facilities.
The city council, which owns the venue, has since pledged £4 million for the revamp and agreed in principle to loan a further £5 million if there is a funding shortfall.
Capital Theatres plans to use £5 million raised from a levy on tickets, with the remainder coming from fundraising efforts over the next few years.
However the original scale and budget of the project has been reviewed in recent months, partly because a bid for up to £5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund was turned down.
Although a further bid for HLF funding will still be pursued before work is due to get underway in September 2021 this may have to be capped at just £1 million.
Mr Hendry added: “The original budget was based on an options appraisal and initial designs. We’ve since gone through a procurement process to appoint architects. “They have addressed what we are trying to do and come up with some elegant solutions. The new plans may be slightly less expensive than previously, but they are not fully designed and costed yet.
“We’ve already been in discussions with Historic Environment Scotland and the council’s planners. We plan to produce detailed designs by April.
“We have obviously got to take on board all the important historic aspects of the building while at the same time modernise it into a 21st century theatre building that is accessible.”
Donald Wilson, the council’s culture convener, said: “The King’s has been a firm Edinburgh favourite for over a century and we are proud to to pledge £4m towards its redevelopment. This essential investment drive will help all of us enjoy a night at the King’s for many more years to come.”
James Nelmes, associate director at project architects Bennetts Associates, said: “The King’s Theatre has a unique place in the hearts and minds of many Edinburgh residents and is a theatre of national architectural importance.
“The plans to modernise the existing facilities and transform the experiences of visitors, performers and staff will help the theatre to remain a vital part of Edinburgh’s cultural provision for years to come.“
WHAT THE STARS SAY
Ian Rankin, author: “‘I always enjoy my visits to the King’s Theatre. It’s a grand space where magic happens for all age groups. But like other buildings of its vintage, it would benefit from a bit of TLC, bringing it up to scratch for the 21st century. This is our chance to shape the King’s for future generations. It’s too good an opportunity to miss and I hope fans of the theatre from Edinburgh and beyond will join in.”
Brian Cox, actor: “The King’s Theatre is a gem which deserves to be preserved. If we don’t invest in our theatres, we stand to lose a vital part of Scotland’s cultural heritage and a theatre for everyone for generations to come.”
John Byrne, artist and playwright: “I love the King’s and have done down the many years I have gone to see a great many of the wonderful productions there.”
Andy Gray, actor: “It’s my favourite theatre in the world, and I have the
most wonderful time every time I walk through its hallowed doors.”
Elaine C Smith, actress: “It’s an honour for me to support the campaign to bring the King’s into the 21st century and to help make it the theatre everyone wants and needs it to be.”
Allan Stewart, actor: “My dressing room there feels like my second home as I
have been ‘living’ there since the early 1970s. I have so many wonderful memories.”
Grant Stott, actor and broadcaster: “I care so much about this building and to play any part in helping to get her back shining once again is nothing but a complete honour.”
Mary Lee, singer and window of the late variety and “Francie & Josie” star Jack Milroy: “You always felt you were somebody when you went on at the King’s. You weren’t a has-been. I’ve been in showbusiness for more years than I care to admit but when I walked on that stage I was a star.”
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