The Square Chapel arts centre in Halifax undergoes £6.6 million redevelopment

PUBLISHED: 17:00 07 March 2017

A computerised image of the new-look Square Chapel

A computerised image of the new-look Square Chapel


How will things change when the curtain rises again at a West Yorkshire arts centre after its multi-million pound facelift? Tony Greenway finds out.

Work in progress in the cafe bar areaWork in progress in the cafe bar area

‘This is going to sound ridiculous,’ says David McQuillan, director of The Square Chapel arts centre in Halifax. ‘But we genuinely believe we can make this a better world for people to live in. Bringing people together and having artistic conversations, or putting on work that encourages people to be open-hearted, can build strong communities and make them feel alive.’ Actually, that doesn’t sound ridiculous at all. It’s probably the sanest sounding thing I’ve heard all week (I’ve been listening to the news a lot which, these days, mainly features people shouting at each other. Have you noticed?). McQuillan sums it up well. Fostering a sense of community and engaging audiences. That’s exactly what the arts have the power to do.

And The Square Chapel has been doing it a lot: for nearly 30 years, in fact. Okay, because of its size (it seats 220 or 280 at a push) it doesn’t attract the really big, commercial names. For example, during last year’s Halifax Comedy Festival, Jimmy Carr and Romesh Ranganathan played the 1,512-seater Victoria Theatre up the road, while the not-quite-as-well-known James Acaster (who’s still a name that’s bubbling under nicely, mind) played The Square Chapel.

Yet a game of ‘who’s most famous?’ isn’t really the point of this much-loved venue. It never was. So alongside the likes of, say, Phil Jupitus, Rhod Gilbert, Jerry Sadowitz, Ralph McTell, Maddy Prior, and Mike Harding, The Square Chapel hosts first-rate theatre companies (such as Mikron and Theatre Ad Infinitum) and curates an eclectic movie programme (don’t go expecting Sex and the City 2 but do book in for more niche films, like Anthropoid and Life, Animated). Take this month: on the bill is John Godber’s April in Paris from Little Diamond Theatre Company, folk musician Jim Moray, a talk about Bramwell Brontë, a variety of workshops and the film drama, Manchester by the Sea.

Essentially, this is a space which has a reputation for creative credibility. You’ve only got to look at its patrons — including actors Timothy West, George Costigan and Tim Pigott-Smith and screenwriter du jour, Sally Wainwright — to realise it’s special. Well, that and the fact that it has 170 volunteers on its books.

One of the first concerts at Square Chapel where everyone wore hardhatsOne of the first concerts at Square Chapel where everyone wore hardhats

‘I remember the first live show I saw here,’ says McQuillan, who began working at The Square Chapel 13 years ago, becoming director in 2016. ‘It was a great theatre company called Actors of Dionysus with a production of Oedipus. I hadn’t come from a theatre background, so the whole experience was magical. And the last couple of years we’ve had some really exciting new work — companies like Third Angel have been here — and we work closely with Halifax Philharmonic Club who bring brilliant chamber music quartets, such as The Danish String Quartet which was a sell-out show recently.’

When programming, he says, it’s important to ‘think about the whole vision, ethos and identity of this place and ask: “What’s our reason for being here?” And the answer is to increase the opportunity of people in this area to see high quality work. It’s about getting people together to create things. That’s how this whole place started.’

Actually, this Grade II* listed red brick building — designed by 18-year-old Thomas Bradley, who is also thought to have designed the Piece Hall next door — had a rather more devout beginning, first opening its doors as a chapel in 1772. It held its last service in 1857 and then became a Sunday school and hall before being requisitioned by the army in 1939. Over the years, however, it fell into disrepair and was bought by the council in 1969. In the 1980s, six locals thought it had potential as an arts centre, so formed a trust and took it off the council’s hands for the princely sum of £25. That was the cheap part. Doing it up and making it safe for public performances cost rather more.

Now it’s undergoing a much-needed redevelopment again, thanks to £6.6 million in funds. A big new extension will improve facilities and create a new 110-seater auditorium for performances, film screenings and workshops. There’ll be a café-bar, new dressing rooms, better toilet facilities and a new projector and sound system, too, plus direct access to the Piece Hall, which is also undergoing a facelift. Together, the Square Chapel and the Piece Hall will form a new cultural quarter for Halifax. ‘We hit the point where demand was going to outstrip our capacity,’ says McQuillan, who admits that the old building suffered from major drawbacks. It only had one dressing room for starters ‘which did affect the sort of shows we could bring here.’

David McQuillan, director of the Square Chapel arts centre in HalifaxDavid McQuillan, director of the Square Chapel arts centre in Halifax

So a brand new space means that audiences are going to grow. At the moment, numbers range from 12,000 to 14,000 a year but, with the redevelopment, audiences for live productions are expected to rise to 24,000 a year while film audiences should reach 25,000 or 26,000. McQuillan also reveals that the brand new space will give the Square Chapel the opportunity to commission (or at least co-create) new work; and it will introduce a ‘Pay What You Can’ system for some shows.

When I visited at the end of January, building work was still underway; but the schematics show the extension to be a big, bold design statement; an eye-catching, copper-coloured box — not a red-brick add-on trying to blend in with the original building. ‘We have three trained architects on our board,’ says McQuillan. ‘So the extension was never going to be a period pastiche.’

The building should be completed in April. But the big opening for this small space — the real date for Halifax diaries — will be the autumn. ‘We’ll have our launch in September,’ says McQuillan with a grin. ‘And we’re really looking forward to it.’

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