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London’s Riverside Studios Puts Digital at Heart of Performance Arts

London's Riverside Studios Puts Digital at
Courtesy of Riverside

Riverside Studios, the West London performance arts center sitting on the banks of the River Thames next to Hammersmith Bridge, has a rich heritage, but its future is thoroughly modern, and digital.

William Burdett-Coutts, Riverside’s artistic director, gave a sneak peek Thursday of the plans for the center, which is in the process of being rebuilt as part of a residential development. Digital is at the heart of Burdett-Coutts’ vision for Riverside’s future stage productions. “What we are trying to do here is build what we believe is a truly digital arts center,” he said.

Riverside will follow in the footsteps of other leading U.K. performance arts venues, which screen their shows – either live or as recordings — in movie theaters around the world.

“Our home is local, and digital technology means that we can now work on both a national and international scale. Our ambition is to set up a national digital production network with venues, universities and production companies around the country,” he explained.

“There’s an incredible opportunity that’s been proven by the likes of the NT Live [National Theatre], the Royal Opera House, the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] and Glyndebourne, and it allows the arts to extend its reach to a much wider audience by recording shows.”

The new Riverside, which will incorporate three studios, a 200-seat movie theatre and a screening room, is set to be finished in 2018.

Riverside’s history begins in 1933, when the Triumph Film Company moved into a former warehouse. Under the ownership of Jack Buchanan, the studio produced many films including “The Seventh Veil” (1945), “The Happiest Days of Your Life” (1950) and “Father Brown” (1954), starring Alec Guinness.

In 1954, the studios were acquired by the BBC, which recorded TV shows such as comedy series “Hancock’s Half Hour” (1957-60), and drama programs, including the science-fiction classic “Quatermass and the Pit” (1958-59), early episodes of “Doctor Who,” and the children’s program “Play School.” The facility was in continuous use until the early 1970s.

In 1975, after the BBC moved out, a charitable trust took control of the building. Soon afterwards, two large multi-purpose spaces were shaped by architect Michael Reardon from the two main sound stages, to be used for a mixed program of live theater, music, dance and film.

In 1976, Peter Gill was appointed Riverside’s first artistic director and soon established the Studios as a leading London arts venue with acclaimed productions of “The Cherry Orchard” with Judy Parfitt, Julie Covington and Michael Elphick (1978), “The Changeling” with Brian Cox (1979) and “Measure for Measure” (1980).

During the 1980s, the center was the venue for the Dance Umbrella seasons, and hosted a huge variety of productions from across the world, including the work of Polish theater maestro Tadeusz Kantor.

In 1993 Burdett-Coutts took over as artistic director at a time of financial difficulty for the trust, and Riverside was forced to introduce more commercial work, including hosting TV shows “Top of the Pops,” “TFI Friday” and “Russell Howard’s Good News.”

Highlights in the early 2000s include “Stand Up South Africa,” “Woza Albert,” “The Secret Death of Salvador Dali” and Pete Postlethwaite in “Scaramouche Jones.” In 2010 its production of “A Christmas Carol” with Simon Callow enjoyed a successful run at the West End’s Arts Theatre, while “A Round-Heeled Woman” with Sharon Gless transferred to the West End’s Aldwych Theatre in 2011. In 2013 its production of Yael Farber’s “Mies Julie” opened to rave reviews and played to sold-out audiences.

While it’s been without its London home, Riverside has been staging events elsewhere, and next month it is presenting the Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival. Screenings include Benedict Cumberbatch in “Hamlet,” Matthew Bourne’s gender-switched “Swan Lake,” and Tom Hiddleston in “Coriolanus.”