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EartH proves venues can survive in Hackney one year on from controversial licensing

[EartH Theatre. Photo credit: Caro Gomes Pak]

Around this time last year, Hackney residents and the borough’s visiting night owls were grieving. New licensing meant new venues were no longer allowed to stay open past midnight, and most of the ones that were open late - among them The Nest and The Alibi - were all either closed or in the midst of closing. It seemed like a bad time to be a creative in what was once the most creative of London boroughs.

Enter EartH, the unlikely newcomer that wangled a 2am license amid the roll out of the controversial new licensing that has challenged other Hackney venues - some to breaking point. One year on since EartH opened, the creatives that helmed this historic new arts venue are celebrating its early success.

“The first time I saw EartH I was overwhelmed by how much there was to do,” remembers Ben Masterton-Smith, Director of Transit Studio who led the redesign of the decrepit former 1930s cinema. “I was amazed that such a building had been left for the pigeons to take over, but peeling back the layers and uncovering the building’s history as we went along was filled with surprises.”

[EartH Concert Hall. Photo credit: Wyatt Dixon]

Masterton-Smith led the design of EartH by creating two very different performance spaces, both of which enable the venue’s dynamic line-up. Shows range from DJ sets to full blown orchestral shows, as well as film screenings, fares and community workshops. Both venues are housed within the former cinema which is double, perhaps triple the size of today’s high street cinemas. Upstairs, what was the cinema’s balcony seating still displays original 1930s ceiling motifs. They’ve faded slightly but still retain their original colour and splendor. The walls, adorned with more high theatrical motifs, lead down to a generous stage where the cinema screen would have been. Derelict for decades, the splendid cinema that only collected bird muck until recently now welcomes Hollywood stars, which helps to raise the profile of east London as an arts hub more broadly.

[EartH Theatre. Photo credit: Wyatt Dixon]

On the night I visit I’m attending the launch for new Sky TV series Temple, starring Mark Strong. He’s here to introduce the show, along with an orchestra who are playing the sountrack to the episode live in place of the overdubbed music. As Strong comments on stage, watching a live orchestra accompany a TV show is ground-breaking live entertainment: exactly the type of work EartH wants to promote. That’s without mention of the money that can be won by such contracts with big media to help fuel EartH’s wider rosta, including its community led projects, which are sometimes free for local residents or at a reduced cost.

“There’s nothing like a bit of classical music in an old 1930s semi–derelict cinema,” Amelie Snyers, an EartH team member, says when we speak. We’re meeting to discuss the series of events being laid on for EartH’s first birthday, including an all-dayer that’s free to enter and a comedy gig by Reginald D. Hunter. Of her highlights so far, Snyers remembers a favourite of hers called ComposeHER which platformed female composers:. “I cried twice that night: one because of the music and the other because of the energy of the crowd.”

[EartH Concert Hall. Photo credit: Eleonora C Collini]

“The first Worldwide FM night was also epic,” Snyers recalls. “The theatre was full of people sitting on the steps, chatting, drinking, bumping into people they know… it was like being at a festival.”

The vibe may feel laidback like a festival, but that’s exactly what the venue’s management want ticketholders to think, says EartH’s business management and support lead Katherine Khan. “Our culture looks a bit cuddly from the outside but it isn't,” she says. “It's centred around logic, detail, some deep thinking and listening to ideas,” which in other words means EartH’s success is no surprise but the product of experience and hard work. That makes sense: Creative Director Jorge Nieto is responsible for the Village Underground arts venue in Shoreditch, where he runs a tight ship with Khan when the duo aren’t at EartH. That hard work extends most importantly to EartH’s crowning glory, a 360 immersive sound system, which Khan describes as sounding “so complete it’s emotional.”

Artists that've taken advantage of the venue's unique sound offering in its inaugural year include spoken word performer Kate Tempest, Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant and the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah, rapper Little Simz and Mercury nominated singer Bat For Lashes offer a glimpse at the calibre of artists lined up to play as the venue enters its second year.

[Lianne La Havas playing in the EartH Theatre. Photo credit: Wyatt Dixon]

“The engineers could throw my voice around the room in a way that any Scooby Doo baddy would be envious of,” sniggers Khan. “The quality of the sound literally gives me goosebumps. Every now and then something is SO amazing it blows your mind - it takes me about 2 days to calm down.”

EartH is celebrating its first birthday from September 13th to 29th with a series of events including comedy, music, vintage fairs and all-dayers. Visit the EartH website for more information and tickets.

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