By Tara O’Connor, local democracy reporter
After more than two years closed, a well-loved children’s theatre is preparing to reopen this summer following an £8.5 million makeover.
The Polka Theatre in Wimbledon closed its doors for refurbishment in February 2019.
It usually welcomes 100,000 families a year and it’s estimated it has entertained 3.5 million visitors since it opened in 1979.
The pandemic meant that the original plan to open in Summer 2020 was not possible.
Looking forward to opening again this summer, artistic director Peter Glanville said he is most excited about welcoming children back to the theatre.
He said: “It is looking really great, we’re really in the final stages now, we are hoping to be able to open to the public this summer.
“It’s been a significant increase in the total cost of the project to more than £8.5 million.
“On the positive side we’ve had really brilliant continued support from the Arts Council, with additional funding.”
The project was originally expected to cost £7.5 million.
Like theatres across the country over the past year, Polka has moved online with offerings including a literacy and creative writing programme, well-being workshops for children and a community choir for all ages.
But now attention is turning to the grand reopening of the theatre and Peter says his team is working on new productions for later this year.
According to the government road map, social distancing measures indoors are set to be scrapped by June 21.
“I feel reasonably confident about the road map,” said Peter. “But what I’m most worried about is what happens after that, when we get into the autumn and winter and whether social distancing will be needed again then.
“That is such a major risk for the theatre industry, there is no insurance for the level of investment we have to put into putting a production together.
“We don’t want to be in a position where we invest a lot of money then have to close. It would be great if there was some kind of government insurance.
“We are creating some productions that we know we can present in a safe socially-distanced way.
“It is better to make work that could work that way than something that could have to be pulled.”
Peter thinks there have been positives of being forced to go online, like being able to collaborate across the country or with people from anywhere in the world being able to take part.
But he thinks that the in-person experience of theatre can’t be beaten, especially for children.
He said: “Historically we’ve had up to 100,000 families coming in and using our building. All of us have missed that buzz, the excitement and that free space for children to run around and explore.
“My favourite part is when a show opens when we see that audience of children in the space and their reaction to the work. I enjoy the whole journey that children go through.
“Adults will sit quietly even if it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen but children are really responsive, they’ll scream and call out, then you see them running around and acting it out afterwards in the playground.”
The pandemic has been devastating for the theatre industry and as Polka prepares to reopen Peter says there will be new jobs on offer as well as opportunities for freelancers.
Since last March the theatre’s core team of around 14 have been working from home – they had been temporarily based at the New Wimbledon Theatre.
Like thousands of people for the first time Peter juggled working from home with his three daughters aged two, five and nine.
He said: “It has been challenging, particularly in the first lockdown working in our two-bedroom flat – luckily we have a garden.
“It is quite challenging mixing work and that experience of having children around.”
But he thinks that for some staff working at home part of the week may be an option going forward.
When the team is at full force there will be more than 40 people working at the theatre as well as up to 100 freelancers.
“We are going to be able to recruit new staff,” said the artistic director.
“More than 70 per cent of people in the creative industry are freelance. We’ve got extremely talented people who work with Polka who have spent the last year stacking shelves.”
For now the focus is on preparing the theatre for opening and getting together a programme of events, which are set to be announced in the coming months.
As one of just a handful of dedicated children’s theatres in the capital, the revamp will see an extended Adventure Theatre with increased capacity for early years audiences, a new sensory garden and improved play area as well as the theatre’s first on-site rehearsal studio.
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