Over €4 million has been invested in a major refurbishment of the Olympia Theatre in Dame Street, which is owned by Caroline Downey and Denis Desmond of MCD. The result is very impressive indeed...
Hot Press has done the full guided tour of the newly refurbished Olympia Theatre in Dublin – and we can report that it’s a winner.
Fans attending events there may not have fully realised it, but over the past nine months or so, a major renewal project has been going on behind the scenes, under the guiding hand of Olympia and Gaiety Theatre boss, Caroline Downey. Over €4 million has been invested in bringing the historic theatre – which first opened its doors as Dan Lowery's Star of Erin Music Hall in 1879, and was rechristened The Olympia Theatre in 1923 – back to its former glory.
The only stipulation at the outset was that the theatre had to remain open. There were too many dates locked in to allow for even a temporary shut-down.
“That was a huge challenge,” says the Olympia's Chief Operating Officer, Kim O’Callaghan. “But once the staff here and in MCD were aware of what was involved they wanted to be part of it. It is all about teamwork – and everyone rolled up their sleeves and set about getting the job done.”
From a practical point of view, getting the seating on the auditorium floor right was the biggest challenge. The old seats – installed many decades ago – were by this stage cramped, worn and, well, not exactly offering the height of modern comfort!
“People who are big complained for one reason. People who are small complained for another,” Kim laughs. “They had been in place forever, so they really had to be changed.”
The project team, with Eamonn Fox and David 'Spud' Murphy of MCD's outdoor team to the fore, came up with a brilliant solution, which provides extra leg-room for everyone without losing capacity. The new seats have a slim-line elegance and they are really comfortable. But the design also makes them easy to remove and stack – which vastly improves the turnaround time from seated shows to standing, and vice versa.
“The old seats had to be literally screwed out individually, so it was really tedious, labour intensive work that was very difficult to manage,” Kim says. “Whereas the new seats can be slipped in and out – there are no screws involved.”
The seats are set into a grid system, which is cleverly designed to be both rock solid and easily removed. It is a great piece of modern design and engineering, which in every way benefits the fans and the patrons. But it also benefits the artists, because the old central aisle has been eliminated.
“A similar change was made in the Gaiety Theatre,” Kim says, “and so Caroline had that experience to guide her. The thing is that the performers all say that they by far prefer it. When you think about it, in the old seating arrangement, if the artist was smack bang in the centre of the stage, they’d be looking down at a big gap. Now, it feels much fuller, which is what every artist and performer wants. It really does add to the atmosphere when you have a packed house.”
The theatre’s four bars have also been transformed, with design input from Gwen Kenny of Divine Designs. For a start, the objective was to give them a fresh, and more luxurious feel, appropriate to the status of the theatre, as one of Dublin’s great entertainment destinations. But it was important too to ensure that service would be speeded up, to enable people to reliably get a drink during the classic theatrical interval rush.
The legendary Maureen’s Bar, on the ground floor, now features a visual homage to the great woman herself – who still does her shifts in the evening at the age of 91 – and which features dozens of pics of her with celebrities, actors, comedians and musicians of various shades and stripes. The bottles are now displayed properly too, adding not just to the visual appeal of the room, but also giving patrons a quick feel for what’s on offer – which is vital given the maximum 20-minute window that is the standard interval time in theatrical productions. In addition, attendees can now order their drinks in advance, so that they are ready and waiting when the stage lights dim.
In all of the bars, large-scale photographs are given pride of place. Alongside Maureen’s Bar is The Portrait Bar. Taking its design cue from the huge central chandelier, a circular bar has been positioned in the centre of the room, completely changing the dynamics and giving it a much buzzier and more convivial atmosphere.
On the walls is a series of photos of Ireland’s acting greats, taken by leading photographer Barry McCall – featuring Gabriel Byrne, Saoirse Ronan, Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell and lots more iconic figures. There is a beautifully stylised look about the printing of the photos and they are superbly framed and lit. The muted lighting in the room gives it a feel that is both warm and welcoming. In many ways the Piece de Resistance of the refurb, it is the now the kind of place that friends might meet in advance of a show or hang around for drinks and conversation afterwards.
“Caroline was really hands-on with everything,” Kim says. “She is really brilliant at visualising things and knowing what is going to work – and at imagining how it is going to look. It was a real pleasure to work with her and to see how she interacted with the design team – and to watch the ideas being turned into reality.”
There are spectacular results elsewhere too, with the new bars made by Caroline’s cousin and Gwen's husband, Tadhg Kenny, among the stand-out elements.
Meanwhile, in terms of visual themes, in the Circle Level Bar, musicians are featured on the walls, with a great shot of Dublin’s own Imelda May taking pride of place. Meanwhile, on the Gallery/Upper Circle level, the bar focusses on comedians and there’s a couple of voluptuous torsos adding to the sense of style, with a strategic hint of decadence.
The floors in all of the bar areas have been changed too, with rich wood finishes the order of the day, adding immensely to the quality of the finish. An extensive technical upgrade has been carried out, with the mixing desk now in the centre at the back. There has been comprehensive electrical work; the provision of a new medical and staff area; new shops in the stalls and circle levels; and improved facilities for those with special needs.
"Huge emphasis has been put on bringing the Olympia technical specifications up to the best contemporary standards,” the theatre’s Technical Director Matthew Cregan says. “We began with a full rewire of the stage production lighting system, including new dimmers, production facility panels, lighting control consoles and theatrical and concert lighting fixtures. We have also replaced the show relay and paging system to all areas back stage. That allows the show to be relayed to the dressing rooms and also calls for cast to be made as needed, which is a huge advantage to performers.”
There are other major improvements: in terms of sound power, as the Olympia will now have both 110volt and 240volt systems – favoured in the US and in Europe respectively – for touring bands, cutting down on complications hugely.
“We’ve also increased the load capacity in the roof above the stage for the suspension of lighting and stage set pieces,” Matthew adds. "This work was crucial, as shows are getting bigger and bigger, and thus heavier to hang. We’ve also installed what’s called a counterweight flys system, which will allow smooth, live flying of scenery and lights during shows."
Add in new carpeting, the addition of new pictures of the hundreds of artists that have played the venue along the corridors and it is fair to say that The Olympia Theatre has been through its own Operation Transformation – and is looking fantastic in the aftermath.
“It’s incredible that we were able to do all of this work while remaining open,” Matthew reflects. “99 per cent of the work was done onstage overnight and around shows. This could not have been done without the dedicated team of technical staff in the venue and also the highly experienced teams from both Push The Button and Production Services Ireland, who have been carrying out all the stage works.”
For Kim, it was all about staying calm and making things happen smoothly – from everyone’s point of view!
‘We worked away quietly on this through the year,” Kim O’Callaghan says. “We haven’t gone out there making big statements about it – but it is really brilliant when you see the look on people’s faces, for example when they step into one of the new bars for the first time. The reaction has been fantastic. Maureen is really thrilled what we’ve done with her bar, which is important. She’s such an extraordinary character.
“Caroline was an inspiration. And everyone on the staff feels that it has all been worth the hard work and the pressure. It was very intense at times, and there was the odd sleepless night, but everyone was great.”
The end result? A Dublin theatrical and musical institution has been given a fresh new lease of life. Long may it run...
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