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Keeping people safe at the Theatre

The Royal Exchange Theatre Company was officially founded in 1976 along with the largest in-the-round theatre space in the country. Prior to that the building had been lying unused and empty and was threatened with demolition until a theatre company took up residence in 1973.

Once tipped as ‘the largest room in the world’ the colossal space of the Great Hall was one of the world’s centres for cotton trade until the Second World War when the building took a direct hit during the Manchester blitz. It was then reduced in size and repaired and continued to trade until 1968.

Photography Credit – Andrew Brooks

The seven-sided theatre model of today is a feat of engineering and weighs in at 150 tonnes and is too heavy to be supported by the Great Hall floors. The solution is that the structure is suspended from four of the halls enormous columns, leaving only the ground-floor seating and stage area to rest on the floor.

The relationship with Black Box began through recommendation by the theatre’s insurance company. After a site visit and introduction several planning meetings were held to develop a design that worked across the site and solved a number of issues for the theatre team and the business.

As part of the design process, Black Box who are specialists in innovative, tailored solutions for buildings of historical interest, worked with Gallagher Security on the hardware requirements that the design team had incorporated into the approved scheme.

The new system comprises a network-controlled Gallagher Access command centre for the central management of the building, which controls twenty doors in the main theatre site and another eight in Swan Street building.

The doors are controlled via computer access from both sites and work is also now continuing to provide mobile credentials for visitors so the days of forgetting a pass will soon be over as technology continues to develop.

The Gallagher systems efficiently manage multiple access points to control risk, improve business efficiency – something that the theatre had to look at as a major consideration post-COVID, while keeping information safe through its data management.

Photography Credit – Andrew Brooks

The existing door access system at the Royal Exchange was beyond retirement age after being installed in 1996 following the Manchester bomb refurbishment. It had a short life span and the system kept falling over and losing functionality.

“Theatres are often behind other buildings in terms of technology due to the layout of the old buildings, the cost of upkeep and also the practicalities and funding issues around staying ‘up to date’,” says Sheralee Lockhart, Director of Business and Operations.

The crisis that COVID brought to the theatre pushed the leadership team to look to use resources in a more cost-effective way. During 2020/21 closures meant that it suffered a massive loss of income and a 65% loss of staff. Like lots of theatres across the world it struggled to find monies for basic improvements and maintenance.

The management decided they needed to reconfigure the building to work better due to failing infrastructure and the security system was designated as an area desperately needing an upgrade.

Having someone to operate the stage door from a fixed location was time consuming and expensive. This can now be controlled remotely from a mobile device. Now, with the door access control it means that the team can use technology in a different way and are more agile in the way that they work and cover the building.

The newly installed system is safe, works better and differently and is intuitive, responding to the building and staffing needs. There is increased visibility and security can see beforehand who they are letting into the building. The team can also remotely lock and unlock all door points from the office so the duty managers can allow cast and crew access with ease. Dynamically locking and unlocking doors, historically would have had to have security provision.

Photography Credit – Andrew Brooks

The system cards are also really easy to use and very straightforward. Duty Managers can issue a visitor’s pass which then allows access to specific areas and can be set to expire at 6pm. The management team also have access to a phone app making it even easier to control movement around the sites.

Sheralee Lockhart said: “It’s a really good, flexible security system and one which has transformed how we work. It is easy to use and has meant cost savings across the theatre which has been welcome during a time of difficulty. It has future-proofed the building and its function.

The system also provides counter-terrorism security, a feature that was dramatically pushed up the list of requirements following the Manchester Arena bombing. This means that if there is a need for an emergency lockdown all doors can be secured immediately at the push of a button or, if required, all doors can be released simultaneously regardless of where they are in the building to allow mass exits of all patrons and cast quickly.

Sheralee concludes: “I have always felt really confident that Black Box has been recommending what is right for the building and our traffic flow rather than trying to upsell systems off the shelf. We have developed an authentic long-term relationship and consider the team to be security advisors to the business and an extension of our team.”

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