Belfast theatre company Bright Umbrella has announced plans for a £2.6m two-theatre complex in the east of the city.
The 150-seat Sanctuary Theatre and the Little Theatre, which are both part of the same arts centre, will become the permanent base of the company, which has signed a 50-year lease and aims to use drama to improve cross-community relations.
Housed in Mountpottinger Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, which dates from 1875, the theatres are located between the predominantly unionist areas of Castlereagh Street and Albertsbridge Road and the largely nationalist Short Strand.
The location is a short way from the peace line in Cluan Place, where sectarian rioting was once a nightly feature, the Belfast Telegraph reported.
“The church sits directly on what is arguably Northern Ireland’s most notorious interface,” the theatre company’s mission statement says.
“Many buildings and sites in the vicinity are derelict. Levels of paramilitary influence are high. Violent incidents and murders ramp up community anxieties, but despite this there remains a strong sense of community belonging.”
Bright Umbrella plans to refurbish the historic church, with backing from both sides of the community. The planned upgrades will preserve original features including the stained-glass windows, pews, vaulted roof timbers and the plaques and monuments honouring soldiers from the First World War.
“The original plan was to tour classical plays to other people’s theatres, but when we started to rehearse at Mountpottinger we realised it would be a wonderful performance space,” said artistic director Trevor Gill.
“We know funding’s tight but we are quietly confident that we can get the money we need,” he added. “We hope construction work will start in January 2025, with the opening a year later.”