Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre
Seeing a whole universe.
When The Royal Exchange was opened in 1874 it's central space was known as ‘the largest room in the world’. Due to improved telecommunications the use of the building declined and in 1975 it was converted for use as a theatre. This was done by suspending a steel framed auditorium in the space and using the open spaces around the auditorium as a foyer and ‘galleria’ that is open to the public.
These gigantic internal spaces have featured in many of the education projects we have run in partnership with the theatre’s education department. This most recent project was an experiment in helping visitors, in this case children, to experience the macro scale of the spaces and the micro scale of the architectural details. The intervention that we used to do this was a large red helium balloon that we flew around the spaces like a kite. The children watched, with us, from below as the balloon went on an exploration that they followed visually and experienced in their imagination. The children watched it from different vantage points in the building and described what they thought it would be able to see and what it would feel like being so high up. We had fixed small digital cameras to the balloon to film its journey. Later this film was viewed by the children and allowed them to see what ‘the balloon had looked at’, to compare this with what they imagined it had seen and to talk about how this related to what they had seen from the floor below. After they had watched the film the children did drawings of the path the balloon had taken in the space between the solid parts of the buildings it had to navigate. For all involved, including children, teachers, parents and theatre staff, this was an experiment that could and did on occasion fail. But it was the sense of exploration that is vital to any creative process that engaged the children with the building. The dialogue generated by the intervention continued in the form of project work after the visit. An important part of this was the children’s story making which they expanded far beyond their experience of ‘the biggest room in the world’.