The Civic Theatre occupied the building which was built as the Mechanics Institute or to give it its proper name the Institute of Arts and Science.
In 1860, an architectural competition was announced for the building of a Mechanics Institute on a site in Cookridge Street, and the first prize was awarded to Cuthbert Brodrick, the Leeds architect who had designed the Town Hall, and the Corn Exchange. The foundation stone was laid in 1865, and the building opened in 1868. The building, heavily influenced by French architecture, is raised on a podium, with an imposing arched doorway approached by a flight of steps. Above the doorway is a carved pediment with symbols representing the arts and sciences, and above this a pavilion roof. The arched windows have cast iron balconies.
The main feature of the building was a circular lecture hall, with a gallery supported by cast iron columns. As well as this there was a library, classrooms and reading rooms, and on the first floor an art galley, and rooms used by the School of Design. The circular lecture hall, the 'Albert Hall' now the theatre, measures 73 feet in diameter, is 52 ft high and could accommodate 1500 spectators.
The School of Art moved out in 1903, and the educational functions of the Institute were transferred to other buildings, although the Institute Library and The City of Leeds College of Music remained in the building which from the 1920s onwards was used as a theatre. In 1925 the Civic Playhouse, affiliated to the British Drama League opened in the Albert Hall with a performance of 'Overture', a comedy by Sutton Vane. It was hoped that this free theatre would be 'a place of entertainment and amusement and a common playground for all those who love the art of theatre.' Admission to the Civic Playhouse was free, but a collection was taken at each performance, and patrons could support the theatre by becoming subscribers (initially six shillings for five performances.)
In 1949 a cinema style stage, completely out of keeping with Brodrick's original design was constructed in the Albert Hall. It obscured the ornamental ceiling in the lecture hall, and part of the scrolled balustrade was removed. The building was officially opened as the Civic Theatre on 7th October 1949.
No further changes were made until 1983, when Claire Ferraby, who was responsible for the refurbishment of the Grand Theatre, was commissioned to re-design the Civic. The proscenium was re-modelled, using the original pillars and columns from backstage as inspiration for the design. The auditorium was renovated,and the ceiling re-decorated with stencilling and gold leaf. The chandelier was restored and the balcony fronts fitted with specially made brass light fittings.
The Civic Theatre provided a base for local amateur dramatic companies belonging to the Leeds Civic Arts Guild. Plays were put on by companies such as the Leeds Art Theatre, the Proscenium Players, Leeds Art Centre Drama Group, and the Cosmopolitan Players. Also, there was a diverse programme of drama, concerts and recitals, light entertainment, opera and operettas, dance, pantomime, and children's shows. The Civic was an ideal venue for small companies like the Cambridge Footlights, and the Hull Truck Theatre Company.
The Civic Theatre closed in 2005 and through Heritage Lottery funding the building reopened as the City Museum in 2008. The Carriageworks Theatre was designed as 'the next stage in Leeds'and opened in November 2005. There is more information on The Carriageworks in the 'Present Day' section on the website.
|Click images to enlarge|
Lecture Hall, 1867
Leeds Civic Playhouse, programme, 1925
New stage, 1949