British theatre’s most influential person – Architect Steve Tompkins: “We have to think in terms of maximising theatrical affect while minimising resource and energy use, in construction. All bets are off otherwise – so how do theatres show the way?”

Steve Tompkins

The prolific architect was named most influential person in British theatre but the world is in the grip of a climate emergency – and he says we all have to act.

Whenever there’s an announcement about an exciting UK Theatre building being built, redeveloped or revamped – whether it is the £45 million renovation of Grade I listed Theatre Royal Drury Lane , a pop-up community theatre in Manchester or a new commercial London venue with flexible auditorium-  it’s a fair bet that architect Steve Tompkins and his team are involved.

In the past two decades or so, Haworth Tompkins  has been responsible a number of high-profile theatre building projects including the Royal Court, the Young Vic, the Bush, and Chichester Festival Theatre. Tompkins celebrated work has also included the recent £13m rescue of Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall, which was partially destroyed in a fire, and the 2,135m £25 million refurbishment of Bristol Old Vic, one of Europe’s oldest theatres.

Bristol Old Vic Front of House

Bristol Old Vic Front of House

When I meet Tompkins, 59, he had just flown back from America.

“Well,” he begins, “I got back from the States 24 hours ago, so I am in a slightly heightened state, 100% Jet-lagged. We have a new job there, the first project in our studio that involves some flying, so we’re working out how to approach that.”

“There are two dozen projects on the book at any one time in the studio, ranging from a 1600 seat lyric house to a demountable 200 seat auditorium which can be carried from location to location – by the audience,” Tompkins tells me.

Steve Tompkins

Steve Tompkins

Earlier this year, Tompkins was named the most influential person in British Theatre, in the annual 100-strong power list, published by The Stage. Tompkins, who placed 23rd in last year’s edition, came in above prolific figures including producer Sonia Friedman and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Where was he when he got the news? “I was in the Lake District for New Year and I was running on the hills and got home to this email with a full-page mugshot,” recalls Tompkins.

And it felt like a huge thing? “I suppose it is a huge thing if you want it to be a huge thing,” he says, finding a sigh and a smile. “Last year was good with Vicky (Featherstone) – saying we are going to situate you in this spot because it allows us to talk about something arguably more interesting than the usual suspects producing fantastic shows – as they always have and they always will. I think it is interesting to adjust the levers – so that the odd outlier can come through on the rails. Choosing me, representing Haworth Tompkins, meant we can talk about the importance of theatre hardware.  I got many lovely messages from friends who are theatre designers and makers saying – fantastic – this feels like it is on behalf of all of us.”

He adds: “We’ve been trying to emphasise collective authorship, so in that sense  the personalisation of the Stage thing was a setback but this is on behalf of the whole organisation and the studio gets good acknowledgement and profile.”

Reflecting on the studio’s journey and the collective endeavour, Tompkins says: “I started the studio with my partner Graham Haworth – we did all the early thinking about what the studio should be about  –  then Roger Watts (Tompkins’ long term collaborator and now co-director)  and I took the theatre thinking forward and now we have a team of two dozen people in the performance design group– all of whom are really knowledgeable, technically far more knowledgeable than I am – and who are now building their own client relationships and running their own teams. It is high time that it is seen as not just me because it never was about just me.”

Tompkins’ first major theatre project was the transformation of the Royal Court in London. Even more remarkable considering his background was in social housing. His first theatre job, though, amuses him. “We got the job in 1995 and it opened in 2000. In 1995 we were a couple of early 30’s gobshites who had never done a theatre,” he laughs drily.

“We introduced ourselves to Iain Macintosh at Theatre Projects; a great theatre guru and hugely knowledgeable– one of the first books about theatre that I read was Iain’s Architecture Actor and Audience. It is the perfect introduction to the field. Again, it is symptomatic of the state the world was in in 1995 – the lottery was starting up – at that time Iain could envisage suggesting an inexperienced architect for the shortlist as a wild card to see what happened. Today that would be seens as too risky, meaning younger practices get less of an opportunity to break through.”

The 59-year-old smiles at the memory. “We were interviewed on stage at the Royal Court and I guess we were just enthusiastic because we got the gig.”

Liverpool Everyman

Liverpool Everyman

Fast forward a decade, Tompkins had won the 2014 Stirling prize for the innovative £27m redesign of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse – his first theatre built from scratch. Director Gemma Bodinetz believes it is Tompkins’ love of theatre-making that makes him so unique. “Steve and his team are wonderful because they understand the art form, how it works and they love theatre; they understand magic,” says Bodinetz, who runs the Everyman.

“We were his first all-purpose new build; a complete new build and when you walked into it you felt that it was completely loved. He has a fantastic way of creating democratic theatrical spaces with pure soul and that is what theatre is truly about. Because of an erratic funding landscape – we worked together for 10 years on this Capital project and every so often the process would have to stop.”

“A lesser man and architect would have dropped us,” she says. “Months at a time the project was frozen. We kept moving the design forward even when we were in this wobbly place – he and his team gave us his complete backing and unwavering belief. When I stopped working with Steve and his team it felt like a bereavement. He is so much more than an architect.”

Recently, though, Liverpool Everyman crashed out of Arts Council England (ACE)’s National Portfolio for the 2018-22 period, after a disastrous but acclaimed experiment with a repertory company of actors that pushed it into serious financial trouble. Increasingly theatres are running to stand still. Government cuts and those by local authorities mean that many regional theatre’s futures are at risk. “I have watched a brilliant director like Gemma do impeccable work with real courage and creative vision,” says Tompkins.

Years of austerity cuts and the national state of Brexit uncertainty make it particularly hard for arts organisations to take risks. Does he think that Capital projects are vital to secure regional theatre’s past for its long-term future? “It’s a really complex question.” He considers it carefully. “The situations are all so different, aren’t they? Liverpool Everyman is a building which has garnered a lot of public praise and yet still, still it is really difficult for her and her team to generate financial steerage,” he says. “All the recent travails that Gemma and her team have gone through, you think, God, what more can you do, actually. Her commitment to Liverpool is unimpeachable, and so if somebody like her is struggling to find the sweet spot, then it suggests to me that something is fundamentally broken in the funding system.”

“I do not know what the long-term answer is but it helps to have a building to that is on your side in terms of theatrical possibility, running costs and capacity to supplement revenue income.”

Battersea Arts Centre Grand Hall 3D model

Battersea Arts Centre Grand Hall 3D model

On the subject of saying no to prospective collaborations, “It’s not hard,” he says quickly. “It’s about self-protection and respect for your team. You have to take a hard line on what your capacity is at any given time. In a way it is a self-fulfilling issue, and we have occasionally got it wrong – in both directions. After the Royal Court, we had no work for a year because naively we had put all our creative capital into getting the thing open.”

“Brexit is going to be disruptive,” he adds, voice trailing off.

Of the many challenges facing society in 2019, the first and most overarching is the one so essential to the future of civilisation itself: the climate emergency . We touch on politics, but you can glean his beliefs from his Twitter feed: pro-European, and climate-change activist.  “The international – the debate around the climate and bio-diversity emergencies are taking a huge amount of my headspace – we have to be the exemplars,” he says, and he looks genuinely pensive. “All bets are off otherwise – so how do theatres show the way?”

Haworth Tompkins principle aim is to make buildings they design accessible to everyone. “The listed status of many theatre buildings means that many are still trying to get around the problem of providing adequate access to disabled theatregoers,” he says.

Theatre Royal Drury Lane Designs

Theatre Royal Drury Lane Designs

Certainly, relaxed performances are offered at many theatres – these aim to provide performances for those in the autistic spectrum and those with sensory and communication disorders. But progress is slow with many physically disabled audiences still miss out. “A lot of theatre hides behind the fact it is working it of historic spaces and if it doesn’t affect the bottom line it feels like it is not a priority,” he adds, quickly. “It is absolutely true and less the case in publicly subsidised buildings – we need to get off our asses and get on with it – none of it is that difficult  – even at Drury Lane we have managed to make that accessible on all levels – most of those barriers are easy to take down if it’s made a priority and the proper resources get committed.”

Would he say that success fundamentally depends on client relationships? “Absolutely,” he nods. “All projects completely rely on the strength of the relationship between architect and client,” Tompkins says. “Nick Starr has been an incredibly important person in our studio’s creative life – not just, because we have done so many projects together –now The Bridge and the next one for the London Theatre Company. Roger has the same thing – you have a telepathy and common set of references, which means you, can move very quickly.”

The Bridge Theatre, foyer London

The Bridge Theatre foyer,  London

Starr’s affection and admiration for Tompkins is mutual. “Steve is a genius. Truly. I can feel his respect for Dennis Lasdun – it is very distinguished architecture – the quality of materials, the scale,” says Nick Starr who ran the National Theatre for 12 years, collaborated with Haworth Tompkins on London’s Bridge Theatre and is currently working with Haworth Tompkins to open a new 600-seat venue in King’s Cross in 2021.

“Steve can draw in three dimensions upside down,” reveals Starr. “So, when we were looking at a future project – and he is sat opposite you – Steve can take a point and expand. And then you realise he’s drawing it so that they are the right way up for you – so that’s quite interesting – the hand-eye paper co-ordination allows those early discussions in which the problem solving and creativity is right in front of you.”

Architect Denys Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre – one of London’s best-known and most contentious Brutalist buildings – is a layered concrete landscape that Prince Charles once described as being like “a nuclear power station.”  I ask Tompkins why he thinks the National’s architecture is so divisive. “The more we got to know the detail of the National the more awe and respect we had for the designers,” he says. “Of course, the building is flawed in so many ways – it’s also kind of magnificent –and it will continue to be magnificent. It had a really difficult birth- it opened to austerity and a loss of nerve around modernism and the classical as opposed to the picturesque.”

National Theatre

National Theatre

Asked about the controversial National Theatre’s ‘no laptop’ foyer policy during peak times, Steve’s answer is: “I think there is a logic in asking people to vacate the foyers before shows. In one sense, you think its public funding and a democratic space I have a perfect right to be here,” he says reasonably.

“I can also understand from the point of an organisation that the publicly funded mission is to host 3 shows and make sure the audiences are having a good time for the price of their ticket,” he continues. “If it’s impossible to get a seat then that can’t be right either – in defence of the National – and I’m not their spokesperson – I think its joyful for them to have the foyers full of people doing their thing and hanging out – it’s the same “problem” that the Young Vic foyer has  – you come to the show and there’s already 300 passers by having a ball in there – if you try to make a foyer that people will find convivial then you can’t complain when people find it convivial – I guess there is a civilised conversation to have there– I think it will find its balance – I’m an optimist.”

The narrowing of the state school curriculum, squeezing out arts subjects in favour of the more traditional and academic is also a threat to culture for all. For example, young people living in the country’s most deprived areas, and those with lower than average attainment levels, are the most likely to miss out on studying creative subjects. “It is about opportunity,” he says decisively. “Culture is under threat in so many ways and the government’s lack of concentration on arts education is another symptom of a wider malaise. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience and participate in the performing arts early in their lives and its not happening.”

“In a way the lack of concentration on arts education is yet another symptom of that more general and tendency – the only thing that will motivate the government – it is about opportunities it and a start in life that you may not have,” he says, shaking his head.

An artist’s impression of the Theatr Clwyd redevelopmen

An artist’s impression of the Theatr Clwyd redevelopmen

Anyway, as if Tompkins and his team aren’t busy enough currently the studio is working on a 180-seat pop-up theatre for Manchester Royal Exchange’s community outreach work has been announced, complete with canvas roof and cardboard seats. The mobile space will tour disadvantaged areas of Greater Manchester and will be “very low carbon and super-lightweight”. Hayworth Tompkins and Theatr Clwyd has also just begun an extensive public consultation on their multi-million-pound redevelopment designed by Haworth Tompkins which will see the 43-year-old north Wales venue future-proofed.

“Theatre Clwyd will be interesting,” Tompkins says, “there is a fantastic artistic team with Tamara (Harvey) and Liam (Evans-Ford) making all sorts of waves and leading the way; brave as you like. There is a strong sense of continuity at Clwyd both in term of affection for this friendly giant of a building and in terms of a buy-in for what that team is doing.”

“We like to think of us as having accompanied a building for a few years of its life, either from birth or later on. The building will be there after us, as will the organisation.  So, I do think architects can have a false idea of their capacity to stop time – we like to think that when we leave the building it will be complete and all will be frozen at that moment. You can acquire more modesty if you imagine yourself entering the life of the building and working with it –working with it and leave it in a healthier state than when you found it. Our approach entirely is instinctive and collegiate and democratic – that’s where we feel our power is.”

Most significantly, the devastating impacts of global climate change and the part he plays, of all the wide-ranging topics that we discuss is one we keep returning to. Tompkins is instinctively conscientious. “We need to work out what our most positive cause of action is,” he says. “That is the overarching project of this studio and should be of anybody’s work. Architects actually do have clear possibility of affecting positive change; construction accounts for nearly 40% of energy-based carbon we produce.”

Steve Tompkins and Carl

Steve Tompkins and Carl

We really covered a lot. So much that the office ceiling could have fallen in and we wouldn’t have noticed. It is clear that business as usual is not an option and in the context of social cohesion and the nature of modern society – Tompkins and his team are working through theatre towards something – impressionistic – and bigger than theatre itself.

And there is no doubting his purpose. “If we – as makers – can devise in-roads into the climate emergency that then we can have a direct effect and we don’t need to feel helpless.”





Theatr Clwyd showcases initial designs for major redevelopment and public consultation period is announce

Exterior of Theatr Clwyd redevelopment - Haworth Tompkins

Theatr Clwyd today released architect Haworth Tompkins initial designs for their building’s capital redevelopment with the start of an extensive public consultation. The project will see the 43-year-old theatre refurbished and repaired, creating a greener, more efficient and sustainable building for the 21st century. The redeveloped building will incorporate reimagined public spaces, as well as dedicated facilities for health & well-being and community work.

Theatr Clwyd will remain open throughout the redevelopment. A phased construction period due to commence in 2021 will enable performances to continue on site as well as in a 300-seat pop-up theatre adjacent to the main building. In addition, the programme will include site-specific productions.

The public consultation period runs from Thursday 1 August until Monday 23 September. During this time members of the public are invited to explore the plans both online at and in more detail at the theatre on Sunday 1 September, to engage with the project and provide feedback.

Liam Evans Ford, Executive Director of Theatr Clwyd said, “We are thrilled to be moving towards the next stage of this once-in-a-lifetime project to secure the future of Theatr Clwyd and safeguard its economic impact in north east Wales worth over £7.7m annually. We welcome feedback from everyone in our community to enable us to proceed on this exciting journey together, shaping a bright new future not only for our building, but for generations to come in Flintshire and north Wales whom we are committed to serving. The project will also ensure that north Wales continues to export world class theatre and build upon the 500,000 people who have seen a Theatr Clwyd production elsewhere in the UK over the last 2 years.”

Colin Everett, Chief Executive at Flintshire County Council said “The physical redevelopment of Theatr Clwyd is essential to bring the facility up to modern day standards and to enhance the visitor experience. The theatre complex will remain a central part of a redeveloped County Hall campus.”



  • To reduce costs and enable greater carbon savings, an upgraded insulated building with new heating and ventilation systems will ensure large savings on gas, electricity and water costs, and make better use of resources.
  • New toilets will be flushed by rainwater and photovoltaic panels on the roof will produce heat and electricity. Numbers of toilets will be quadrupled with better access and family facilities
  • The surrounding area will be landscaped to include a therapeutic sensory garden; and for children, an adventure playground.
  • Newly planted trees will further improve the carbon footprint and plants on the walls and roofs will naturally insulate the building.

 PURPOSE-BUILT HEALTH AND WELLBEING SPACES – Theatr Clwyd’s award-winning health and wellbeing projects make a seismic difference to vulnerable people in the community. At the heart of the redevelopment will be a health & wellbeing suite with specialist changing facilities and a sensory garden.

 NEW OPPORTUNITIES TO DISCOVER, LEARN AND EXPLORE – For the thousands of people who engage with Theatr Clwyd every year, learning new skills, building new communities and exploring their creativity, developments will include a youth hub, providing a safe, creative space for rehearsing, meeting and relaxing; and new rehearsal and teaching spaces will be found for Flintshire Music Service.


  • New public areas will be accessible to everyone. The bar and box office will be reimagined, full height glass windows will give spectacular views with access to an outdoor terrace. The gallery spaces and cinema will be refreshed, with lift access improved. New family facilities will include an indoor play area, outdoor adventure playground and buggy park.
  • Inside the performance spaces new carpets and improved seating will be installed. And following earlier public feedback, there will be the option for two central aisles in the Anthony Hopkins Theatre. The balcony seats in the Emlyn Williams Theatre will be accessible and additional wheelchair positions provided in both theatres.
  • A new fit-for-purpose kitchen with relocated first-floor restaurant serving meals made from the best of north Wales produce throughout the day; as well as a newly refurbished function room enabling the hosting of large-scale events.


  • New fit for purpose stage appropriate size rehearsal rooms with higher ceilings will enable actors to rehearse with sets and sprung dance floors. Dressing rooms will be refurbished providing relaxing spaces with better access and privacy for actors.
  • The stage facilities will be upgraded – the Anthony Hopkins stage will be reinforced, and the stage mechanics and flying systems in both spaces will be repaired. Also, a new workshop with public viewing facilities will be installed.
  • Wardrobe will move closer to the rehearsal rooms, with fitting rooms added, providing greater access across the building.


Presentations and tours taking place at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. These free events need to be booked in advance via the Box Office on 01352 344101 or at Community feedback events will also be held in Wrexham, Chester, Buckley, Connah’s Quay and Flint. In addition, stakeholder sessions are planned for Flintshire Councillors, local businesses, community groups, volunteers and creative engagement participants.

Theatr Clwyd’s Capital Redevelopment Project will aim to be funded by the Welsh Government, trusts and foundations and private philanthropy with match funding from Arts Council Wales and support from Flintshire County Council already having been committed.

£1 Million Gift from the Oglesby Charitable Trust Supports the Design of A Brand-New Pop-Up Theatre by Haworth Tompkins



An incredible gift of £1 million given to The Royal Exchange Theatre by The Oglesby Charitable Trust enables the development of THE DEN, a new pop-up theatre space designed by award-winning architects Haworth Tompkins. THE DEN is part of the theatre’s newest strand of work LOCAL EXCHANGE which makes space to explore how the relationship between people, places and artists can shape the future work that the Royal Exchange Theatre makes.

  • An incredible £1 million gift from The Oglesby Charitable Trust has enabled the development of THE DEN and secured the longevity of LOCAL EXCHANGE. This generous gift is reflective of the long relationship between the Oglesby family and the Theatre.
  • THE DEN is a brand-new pop-up theatre for Greater Manchester communities. It has been designed as an informal space for residents to make and share theatre and to see work from the Royal Exchange. The team at Haworth Tompkins – including Steve Tompkins and Roger Watts, along with Chris Wise (Expedition) and Charley Brentnall (Xylotek) have found inspiration in both the Exchange’s Module theatre, how it connects artists and audiences and the secure, imaginative space of a child’s den.
  • LOCAL EXCHANGE is a pioneering, long-term and ambitious series of residencies designed to reframe the way the Royal Exchange makes work with, by and for the people of Greater Manchester. It has been developed to create long-lasting and sustainable relationships between communities and artists.

The Royal Exchange Theatre and the Oglesby family share a passion for progressing the arts and encouraging original creative thinking. The family have long supported the work of the theatre not only through generous gifts and sponsorship but also as audience members, spokespeople and champions. The substantial gift of £1 million supports the LOCAL EXCHANGE programme and enables the Theatre to build THE DEN, a brand-new travelling theatre space.

Michael Oglesby and Kate Vokes, Trustees of the Oglesby Charitable Trust said…

Philanthropic gifts can often provide the space to innovate and take risks, we have found that this results in some truly ground-breaking projects with real and lasting impact. We were incredibly impressed by the breadth and depth of LOCAL EXCHANGE as an original and insightful way to develop sustained relationships with the communities of Greater Manchester. As part of this THE DEN felt like a ground-breaking design – a truly unique theatre space that would respond to the needs of the residents using it. We are delighted to support the growth of this very exciting project for Greater Manchester.

Designed with the award-winning architectural studio Haworth Tompkins THE DEN is a unique pop-up theatre space that will visit areas of Greater Manchester as part of LOCAL EXCHANGE. Sitting within a larger found space, it is designed to help reimagine an existing local building. It is a space where communities can come to share, learn and make their own work, and where the work of the Royal Exchange can be performed outside of the city centre.

The development of this new pop-up theatre has been inspired by the idea of de-growth. It is a sustainable space which creates the maximum amount of opportunity for creativity whilst always considering the minimum environmental impact. With a stripped back design this new theatre space will honour the essence of the found building, aiming for a genuine environmental and social equity between both spaces. With co-operation at its heart THE DEN will be constructed and operated with the residents of each community, they will help to raise the roof of this unique theatre space, become its ushers, its box office, its technical team and its audience.

Roger Watts, Director at Haworth Tompkins said…

We’re so pleased to be working with the Royal Exchange Theatre on this exciting and crucially important project. What attracted us to become involved was the chance to make architecture for our changing times: where communities are under pressure; where energy and resources are precious and where finding common ground across barriers of difference is essential. As architects, engineers, designers and theatre makers, we hope our team can rise to the challenge of creating a very-low carbon, super-lightweight, 180 seat portable auditorium that is capable of being built and dismantled by its audience.

THE DEN is a fundamental part of a much bigger programme of work known as LOCAL EXCHANGE, a series of bespoke, long-term residencies that take place across the Greater Manchester boroughs. Each residency will last for three years and will be designed to respond to the cultural ambitions of each specific community. The project begins with the development of relationships with local partners such as Councils, Housing Associations and Arts Organisations and the formation of a local ambassador group that will work closely with the Exchange throughout the residency. LOCAL EXCHANGE continues the Theatre’s commitment to working with its audiences and communities in new ways and securing long-term relationships with sustainability at their centre.

Steve Freeman, Executive Director of the Royal Exchange Theatre said…

LOCAL EXCHANGE is an ambitious new strand of our programme here at the Exchange and THE DEN is an exciting and fundamental aspect of this work. We are delighted to have the support of the Oglesby Charitable Trust to ensure the longevity of this work and to work with cutting-edge architects Haworth Tompkins to design a unique and inspiring new pop-up theatre for Manchester. We hope that Local Exchange creates the space for a conversation with the people of Greater Manchester about what the future of theatre looks like for us all. That it will provide the building-blocks to reimagine the relationship between the places we make our work and the artists and people we make it with and for.

THE DEN will make its first appearance in Tameside this August in Stalybridge Civic Hall and in 2020 it will be resident in Spinners Mill in Leigh.