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Refurbishment at the Merlin Theatre

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In 2011, the Merlin Theatre in Nether Edge sadly closed because of extensive flood damage. Four years and one successful fundraising campaign later, the Merlin, which works extensively with students with special educational needs (SEN) from the nearby Freeman College, is getting ready to reopen. We talked to Andi Stamp, a fundraiser for the college, about what it means to see the old stage restored to its former glory.

How does it feel to see the theatre coming back to life?

Fittingly given the Merlin’s mythic name, it’s all been a bit of a fairy story. When the theatre had to close we were all despondent about how difficult it would be to open it again. Fortunately, thanks to successful fundraising, we have a newly refurbished theatre, which will open up a wealth of possibilities in the performing arts to hundreds of young people in Sheffield.

It’s a fantastic experience seeing the Merlin come back to life after four years. Our thanks go to Janine Christley, head of fundraising at Ruskin Mill Trust, and the Education Funding Agency, which provided the main chunk of the money to renovate the theatre.

The response to your crowdfunding campaign for new seats was fantastic. Was that something you expected from the community?

What was wonderful about the crowdfunding campaign was that people had such good memories of the theatre that they were prepared to back us, even though the Merlin hasn’t been running for four years. It seems to have caught people’s imagination. We’ve also been helped by a lot of local funders, like the Sheffield Town Trust, JG Graves and Sheffield Hallam’s Cash for Kids, as well as some big national funders, like the Garfield Weston and Foyle Foundations.

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How did the theatre start its relationship with the Ruskin Mill Trust?

Ruskin Mill Trust, which is a successful national educational charity specialising in working with young people with special needs, was invited to work with the Merlin in 2005. We needed extra support for our community theatre work and and Freeman College provided a solid financial base for the Merlin.

The idea of using the arts as a means of teaching life skills sounds like a winning combination.

Theatre, music, dance and movement are vital parts of the college and school curriculum and key to the students’ success. The creative arts and performing arts give young people with special needs self-esteem, which is essential for developing other skills.

Do you think the arts in general, and drama in particular, get the attention they deserve in schools at a national level?

There’s been a reduction of the creative opportunities in the mainstream curriculum over the past few years, which is a major loss for most young people. Independent schools, on the other hand, are increasing their emphasis on creative arts as part of a solid base for developing young people and giving them the skills for a full life as active members of society. It’s crucial that the next generation be well-equipped with a broad range of skills.

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Once you reopen, what does the future hold for the Merlin Theatre?

We’re planning a full programme of events, including a Ruskin in Sheffield follow-on event on Art, Craft, the Land and Ecology, as well as an inclusive arts festival celebrating the diverse range of creative abilities in Sheffield. We’ll also be opening up the theatre for community groups and businesses to hire for their own events, celebrations and performances. The open-access ideal makes for a healthy exchange between people of all abilities to share expertise, perspectives and knowledge and learn from each other.

If you want to see the fruits of the college’s hard work, tours of the newly-renovated Merlin Theatre will take place at 11am on Saturday 5 and Saturday 12 September as part of the Nether Edge Festival and Heritage Open Days.

For more info, check out the Merlin’s Facebook page or visit their website.

Words: Phil Bayles.

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