The Show Must Go On – My Farewell to the Riley Smith Hall
Saturday 12th December became an extremely sad day as we said good-bye to the Riley-Smith theatre. Over the years this stage has been a wonderful servant not only to myself but to the hundreds of students who set foot on its stage year on year. A servant to the performance societies and dance societies who have graced this stage with seemingly effortless pride, and in particular the Backstage society, without who none of these shows would be nearly as professional as they are, and to who everyone who has performed on this stage owes a lot of thanks. The first time that I went backstage I was immediately reminded of the immense history of this hallowed hall as behind the stage doors and all over every wall, ceiling, nook and cranny are the marks of past shows. The simple title of the show and the year, written on the wall forever, as each show adds itself to the long illustrious history of the Riley. The stage is a loving stage as every production is filled with parents watching children, students watching students, and friends watching friends. It is a stage that has contributed so much to the memories of all who create the shows and to all who watch the shows. There is no denying that the quaint Riley has become out of date, despite our best efforts. The seating is very traditionally put out in its rows on the ground level before every performance and the holes in the floor are taped up, like a wounded soldier who refuses to surrender.
However it is also fitting that before this dying dinosaur is rejuvenated into a modern marvel that we should be privy to what is currently possible in the professional theatre world. A few weeks ago, MT (Music Theatre Society) delighted its audiences with is production of Ghost. This production showed what was now possible in the world of student musical theatre, as they created a Riley-Smith hall first by having a fully electric orchestra who played from the flies. As if in the Lourdes room at the Globe, they enticed our ears with an incredibly smooth, balanced and professional performance. Having the band unseen by the audience also allowed them to have a little fun with different fancy dress themes for each night, a particular highlight being their pyjama night. This term also saw a new record, as SMS (Stage Musicals Society) and their production of West Side Story became the first Riley show to sell out a full 5 night run in here. Both of these examples are evidence of the extraordinary enthusiasm that Leeds has for theatre. An enthusiasm which is setting us aside as leaders of student theatre. In both of the last two National Student Drama Festivals, productions by Leeds students have been selected to be one of a handful of shows invited to perform. Both of these shows went on to win awards, further showing our excellence. This year saw over 5 shows perform at the world renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with one show even managing to get the top prize from one award scheme, as it was given the award for the best show at the fringe. This enthusiasm does not end at Leeds either. It is flame that is delicately nurtured so that it may continue to burn bright when a student leaves, which is further proven by there being over 15 alumni currently in drama school and even more who have graduated from drama school or skipped it all together to pursue a career in theatre. An example is Ekow Aboagye who has traded the Riley-Smith stage for the National Theatre stage and is currently starring in their production of As You Like It. This excitingly ever increasing number of professional alumni shows the talent and dedication of Leeds students in pursuing a career in the arts.
It is only fitting that the Riley should have an upgrade so that it can keep up with the level of performance that Leeds Students are capable of, as we continually exceed even our own expectations. And that is what we will see on its reopening in 2016. A modern theatre that can be the flagship for theatre in Leeds with new retractable raked seating, so that all of the day time activity that is part of Riley life can still occur, without backstage having to put every single chair away then back out again by hand. Unfortunately, a piece of work so large cannot happen over 1 single holiday. However, the show must go on. And indeed it does, as we welcome the new 300 seater Refectory Theatre which will be an incredible venue whist the Riley is upgraded. Turning a large canteen into a theatre brings its own set of very unique challenges and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the staff from both the university and the union who have worked tirelessly to deliver a theatre fit to act as a guardian for our riley shows.
The upgrade does not end at the Riley-Smith hall either. Over Christmas, work on the Raven Theatre shall begin which will result in the space transforming, like a phoenix from the ashes, as what is currently a derelict wasteland becomes a vibrant and unique theatre in the round. This shall set us aside as a university as we will become one of only a few universities with a dedicated theatre in the round to add to our collection, further adding to the skills and specialties that theatre makers from Leeds have. The Mine bar will become a bar dedicated to serving the Raven, except for on a Friday evening where the sophistication of theatre will be replaced with the sophistication of Rn’B tunes and mega shapes thrown left right and centre of the D-Flooo, as our favourite night becomes whole again. Christmas will also see the closing of Pulse, which sadly won’t be noticed by a lot of people, further showing the need to upgrade it so that this squandered space can serve, cater and contribute to the needs of its students.
In undertaking a £20 million upgrade of a building which is used daily and to a great extent comes an incredible challenge. Therefore the phasing of the building work is essential so that we can continue to serve the students currently here as well as keeping an eye on the students union of the future that the upgrade shall bring. Details of the phasing plan and indeed all of the upgrade plan can be found online at unionupgrade.com. Subsequently by 2017 you will see a new foyer fit for its students. New dance studios fit for its students. An expanded terrace fit for its students. A new South Entrance fit for its students. A new market square and central light void which shall turn the desolate shadowland of the areas where the salon, hair dressers, opticians and female toilet are into an exciting, welcoming and warming market place as we knock down that central block. You will see a Riley-Smith hall and Raven Theatre fit for its students. Finally, you will see a student’s union that you can be proud to say that you belong to, that includes you and is run by you, the students.
Now, all that there is left for me to do is to say,
The Riley-Smith hall is not dead. Long live the Riley-Smith Hall.