The 2nd September 2022 marked one year since the poignant reopening of the Sunderland Empire after emotionally closing the doors to its iconic Tower Entrance and turning on the stage’s solitary ghost light, which illuminated the auditorium until audiences returned 536 days later, due to the Covid 19 pandemic.
Since its reopening, Sunderland’s premiere theatrical venue has welcomed a whopping 303,889 visitors, including seasoned theatregoers and first-time guests alike to experience over 65 West End musicals and marvellous one-night shows. It also saw front of house staff sell a staggering 52,961 ice creams and 28,155 bags of sweets!
Known for bringing the best of London’s West End theatre to the North East, Sunderland Empire kicked off a momentous year with a bang with feel-good show, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ a tribute to Tina Turner. Audiences raised the roof and blew off the cobwebs of the past 18 months as Sunderland Empire’s new Theatre Director, Marie Nixon, ceremoniously cut the ribbon of Tower Entrance welcoming keen patrons back.
This was followed by a glittering School of Rock Gala Night in which the biggest faces and theatre fans from across the region came together to celebrate the official return of live theatre in Sunderland. Brass bands played, balloons coveted the iconic doorway and stilt walkers snapped photos with visitors as the party spilled out onto the streets.
The first 12 months back after the pandemic have been a true celebration of all things live theatre. Hosting over 269 performances, staff, crews and casts have worked tirelessly to bring productions from Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Cher Show to Mamma Mia, Dreamgirls, School of Rock, Alan Carr, Rob Brydon and many more as well as the return of the long-awaited Christmas panto.
The twice rescheduled Christmas show which has become a festive tradition with many local families, saw the return of the North East Queen of Comedy, Miss Rory, along with everyone’s favourite panto Jester, Tom Whalley. They were joined by national treasure Su Pollard, playing the Wicked Queen in Snow White to tens of thousands of people, bringing much-needed post-Covid joy to local youngsters.
Not forgetting January’s North East debut of the reimagined, much-loved blockbuster Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast, which waved a magical spell over the stage for a sell-out month of shows and a reception of rave reviews.
Other notable moments included a visit from global superstar Ed Sheeran who came to see friend Brenda Edwards perform in Chicago back in June. Fabulous fundraisers were also held as staff, visitors and Footloose The Musical raised £2,000 for Sunderland Mind. In a bid to support local artists, Sunderland Empire commissioned some impressive eco-friendly artwork of Sunderland Empire’s original logo in the Foyer Bar which has since been photographed and enjoyed by many patrons.
In July, the theatre celebrated the City of Sunderland’s 30 th Birthday by announcing the return of The Book of Mormon. Over the festive season, Sunderland Empire also became the proud recipients of a Gold Standard NEAS (North East Autism Society) award, shining a light on the hard work that goes into making the theatre as accessible as possible for all patrons.
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Vicki Medhurst, Theatre Manager said: “Wow – 12 months today, and what a year it has been. After walking through an empty theatre for over 18 months, it has just been overwhelming to have visitors and production companies back with us. That first night of reopening will stick with me for years to come in terms of the atmosphere and the absolute joy that was felt by everyone to finally be back experiencing live theatre. Our staff all worked extremely hard to bring the theatre back to life, and we did just that. We’ve had an amazing year with absolutely spectacular shows, and we look forward to much, much more in the months and years ahead.”
Miss Rory, North East Queen of Comedy and Sunderland Empire panto dame said: “It’s a huge joy to be a part of people’s Christmas celebrations appearing in pantomime at Sunderland Empire but last year’s run was especially brilliant, after a long 18 months of our beloved theatre being closed. There’s no experience quite like live theatre, and there’s certainly no experience quite like panto and no better place to do it than Sunderland.”
As well as welcoming back productions to our stage, Sunderland Empire’s Creative Learning team have been working hard to continue their ever-popular classes, school initiatives, tours and even launched it’s first Theatre Summer School which was filled to capacity.
This past 12 months alone, Creative Learning at Sunderland has engaged with over 22,000 children and have reached 14,000 Sunderland school children with the National Theatre’s tour of Jekyll and Hyde, many of whom had never seen live theatre before. Their important work during and post-Covid has helped to bring confidence and social skills back to children across the region, as well as inspire future careers in the arts after a tough two years with at home learning.
Emma Tully, Drama Teacher at Oxclose Community Academy said: “The Sunderland Empire reopening truly brought life back into our Performing Arts curriculum. The arts in schools had seen similar restrictions and the opportunity to perform and have meaningful learning experiences had entirely disappeared. Our pupils headed back to the drama studio and practical lessons at the same time Sunderland Empire opened its doors, and it reignited the passion and drive to give our students enriching exposure to the arts. Together with the creative learning team we have participated in backstage tours, artist workshops and the magic of live performance. The Empire is not just a theatre or a landmark in the city, it is the foundation of opportunity, creativity and aspiration for our young people across Sunderland.”
So, what’s in store? Sunderland Empire are thrilled to be welcoming a number of exciting productions in the coming months including the mighty Les Misérables, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, White Christmas, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, The Book of Mormon and many more fantastic productions to be announced very soon!
Keep an eye out for Sunderland Empire’s latest tours and Creative Learning events in the coming months by visiting atgtickets.com/sunderland