Sophie Gibson - Interview picture for The empire Theatre in Burnley. Sophie is wearing a white hard hat and yellow High visibility vest.

Sophie Gibson’s Exclusive Interview – Empire Theatre

Sophie Gibson’s Exclusive Interview all about the Empire Theatre.
Sophie Gibson graduated with a degree in Fine Art at Liverpool John Moores University, in 2009. Since then, Sophie has been working within the arts and culture scene throughout the whole of the North West. When Sophie moved back to Burnley, she started to get involved in community projects volunteering. By doing this she started to meet other freelancers that worked in the town and became part of an arts co-operative called The Art Bunker, where she started to meet more artists and work more with the community. 

Throughout the whole time of being back in Burnley, Sophie has managed to exhibit her artwork both nationally and internationally from Burnley all the way to the United States. Nowadays the Empire theatre takes up a lot of Sophie’s time.  Being active for such a long time Sophie still gets a lot of opportunities to exhibit, sell her artwork, freelance and be a part of many exciting projects in the town. 

When Sophie’s not working as a Lecturer, the Burnley Empire Theatre takes up most of her time, along with many other exciting projects she’s involved with, in the town.  Kelly Smith put on her hard hat and had a chat with Sophie at the theatre she loves so much. 

Can you tell us how you went from being an artist to an activist? 

I think, in all honesty, it was being in the right place at the wrong time. I’ve been used to fundraising, creating artwork and writing grant applications, and I have always been intrigued about the Empire. I never knew what it was or the history around it.  I just remember catching the bus from Padiham Road to the Empire as a child looking at it but not really knowing much about it. 

I used to go to my friend’s cafe, the pavilion Cafe in Scott’s Park every week doing crafts. One weekend there was a meeting about the Empire, and I recognised someone there. It was Mike from the Notsensibles and that intrigued me straight away, the Empire and singer of a punk band. So I was there in a sort of crafty sort of way and edged over to this meeting. I have been involved ever since because I thought, Well, I’m a printmaker. I can raise money through my prints, which we did do. I knew about grant funding so I could help with funding, which I did do, and the rest is history. 

Can you tell us more about the recent Art Exhibitions you have been involved in?  

Yeah, so recently I have had a solo exhibition at Town Hall. This is part of a group exhibition called Hidden Reveals, and the brief was to respond to Towneley Hall’s art collections, something I have really enjoyed having a look at what they had and exploring and reimagining it. I wanted to do something slightly different that I have not done before. So, I looked at the chemist labels, a variety of labels that they had because I love the text, I love the colours, and I recreate those out of paper making collages.  

I have recently had an exhibition called I Think About You, which was based on some postcards that my Grandma June gave to me a few years ago. I didn’t know what to do with them, but I knew they were special to me. I decided I wanted to create a nice collection of works that were Burnley themed. On these postcards there was a correspondence between people to and far across the world.  There was one line in a card that said it all, wrapped in this one postcard “to let you know that I think about you”. I thought that was quite sweet, especially after the pandemic, all the lockdowns and correspondence with people keeping in touch. 

I thought it was really nice and it might just make people think as well. The title could mean anything really. It might make anyone think about someone just thinking about the title. So that was what that exhibition was about, and it was made from a combination of large, printed postcards collaged with gold leaf. 

I have been involved in Burnley Light Night which takes place in Winter and lights up the town. Taking inspiration from Hebden Bridge, Handmade Parade a group of artists got together to create Burnley Light Night that happened annually. Then unfortunately over the past two years it has stalled due to the pandemic. 

This year the artists will be doing something different in response to the Light Night, which will be exhibited at 117 St James Street. The installation will be in response to the survival of artists in the form of a space suit as an artistic take on PPE for the 21st century pandemic. This installation also includes hanging work by Burnley College first year Level 3 Art & Design students. 

We’ve been sort of surviving whilst everything shut down as artists, freelancers, self-employed people. And this is just a nice way to have a little bit of a comeback of the light now.  

We are also working on bigger ideas for next year’s Light Night so watch this space…

How did you get involved in the Heritage Action Zone Programme? 

The Heritage Action Zone program on St James’s Street has been really beneficial to the Burnley Empire, local businesses, the community as well as the young people in the area. I’ve been involved in a variety of different hats from the Burnley Empire, the College Students but also with the Cultural Consortium who have come up with amazing ideas for the area. 

Students from Burnley College have had the opportunity to commission a piece of artwork on Lower St James’s Street across from Cross Keys. This is a mural by Alexandra Gallagher, a Lancashire based artist, which is part of a trail. Please visit the artwork, which is just as you enter the Heritage Action Zone, a key gateway to the town in a beautiful, seated garden area.

My College Students have had another opportunity this year to use the empty shop space, at 117 for their own installation, taking inspiration from the Burnley Light Night.  Hopefully this great work can continue so please keep an eye out for other pop-up displays on Lower St James’s Street. 

Burnley College Students have enjoyed learning about the project and all the developments on Lower St James Street and having a bit of a say as well on and sharing their feedback of what would be better, how they would like the space to be used and what would make it more appealing to them around the arts and cultural side of the project. 

How do you think the artwork and creative work in Lower St James’s Street changes the area?  

By adding creativity and artwork to Lower St James’s Street it has definitely uplifted the area. Artists who use this area are really beginning to feel the benefit. Something doesn’t normally happen in this area of town and suddenly there’s been this injection of life and colour, which makes a difference, in ways such as people just talking about it, ‘oh, have you seen that?’.  

The Public realm works, Alexandra Gallagher’s work or the pop-up shop at 117, it’s going to instantly uplift people, get them thinking and seeing that something happening but also it is creating a place to actually go and have a look for something rather than avoid. 

It’s already made a difference, in terms of the students are talking about Lower St James’s Street, where they may have not talked about it before and a variety of other young people in the town. 

Can you tell us how you got involved in the Empire and why? 

I got involved by accident really thinking I had a lot more time, but it’s been pretty much every day since that meeting in my friend’s café. 

When I first got involved in the Empire, it was a combination of being intrigued, but also knowing something should be done about saving and restoring this incredible building that means so much to the people of Burnley, not knowing that that someone would be me.  I very much love going to gigs or exhibitions and unfortunately a lot of that happens outside of Burnley.  The Empire was an opportunity to make a difference to the place that we all love, where we live and work. But also make a difference by restoring this incredible building that needed to be saved. Sometimes I just can’t believe I’m involved with the Empire and it’s a privilege because I’ve learned so much along the way. 

When I first got involved, I thought I could contribute a lot, but turns out it was a lot more than I realised I needed to at the time. But I think it goes back to being a creative thinker, and as an artist you kind of look for solutions and you always manage to find a way.  I got involved probably naively thinking it wouldn’t be as hard work as it was and is, but it’s just incredible and I love it. 

It’s such an amazing project to be a part of. And if it makes a difference, if it means we can walk to town and back after seeing a live performance that normally we’d have to go to Manchester or even further for then, that would just be amazing.  

So, what do you hope to do with the Empire going forward? 

We would love the Empire to be a multi-use arts and culture venue. It was built in 1894 and there was a man called Mr. William C Horner and he really pushed for the commission of the Burnley Empire because he said at the time, there’s not a big enough venue in Burnley, we need a Music Hall for a variety of entertainment that doesn’t stop off in town and the need is the same today, to help complement what we already have. 

We want to create a venue that facilitates everything that doesn’t already exist in Burnley. If it’s bringing those bigger names to town that would be incredible and provide a better offer for the town, creating a destination for arts and culture for the people of Burnley and Lancashire. 

We have had a lot of interest for it to be used as film sets, TV sets and many other great interesting ideas as well. The building is iconic and very appealing, we want to be able to facilitate all these things here in Burnley and continue the legacy of the Victorians and all those fantastic acts who’ve performed here.

The great thing about this project, as much as we’ve got the Trustees that work hard on its future day in and out, it’s very much for the people of Burnley. It’s the only venue of its kind in East Lancashire and it’s certainly the only venue of its kind left in Burnley. 

Now you talk about your vision, how long do you think it will be before the Empire opens to the public? 

In terms of getting people into the building as soon as we can do so safely. It is so important to the members of the community who have supported us online, offline, and donated, that they get the opportunity to come and see inside the Burnley Empire but it is safety first, and we still have some more stabilisation works to do. 

We’ve been doing these works for the past two years which have been really successful. But of course, with the nature of the building, this is something else that we need to just keep working on to make sure it’s absolutely perfect and ready for people to enter. We can’t wait to give people a glimpse inside, but we will have to wait for now. 

Throughout our restoration journey, we are keen to work with students and apprenticeships to create hands-on learning as well as upskilling people in the local area as well. We’ve worked with students from Manchester School of Architecture for the past year. They’ve been using the Burnley Empire as their subject, and they’ve just had their exhibition, which we’re hoping to showcase in Burnley soon, which is their response to how to reuse the Empire, with their own ideas pushing the boundaries and use of the building. Watch out for this coming soon. 

So for me it’s not just about that opening night, it’s very much the journey along the way.  

How is the Empire project being funded? 

We are a charity so are very reliant on funding coming our way. 

A few years ago, we worked in partnership with the National Trust to secure a resilient grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund that helped us to start to find out the information about the Empire that we needed because up to that point, we had not been inside the building. So, we did not know anything about the condition of the building, the condition of the structure, safety of the building; all really vital, information to check for with the restoration and the preservation of the building that went on to help inform a way forward. 

The pandemic really set us back, so we turned to the public and we launched a Crowdfunder campaign raising nearly £10,000 from public donations, which we are just so grateful for. This money was then successfully matched, funded by the Architectural Heritage Fund, and through that work we managed to do the first stabilisation works to clear the ground floor. 

More recently with the HAZ works we have been lucky and fortunate to get the support from Historic England. This made an enormous difference, enabling further safe access around the Empire to complete more stabilisation works throughout the building.   

We really could not do all this without the support of others so if you would like to make a donation, we have a link on our website On the website you can also sign up to our mailing list or contact BET and tell us how you could help.  We also share progress on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @BurnleyEmpre where you can also contact us. 

What do you think the Empire means for the town? 

I hope that for the people of Burnley it is something that they can be proud of. It was once described as the prettiest venue in the North, it can be another venue to put the town back on the map because Burnley has such a rich history of people that have performed here, born here and much more.   

I think it is very much in the hearts of the community. There are so many memories that people have of this place, whether it was as an operating theatre, cinema, or Bingo Hall. People have some really fond memories of the place, not just attending an event, but also working here as well. 

Over the past few years, people in Burnley have worked really hard in the town planning all sorts of festivals that pop up annually, and other activities, and hopefully this could just be the icing on the cake that can give people a place in town somewhere that they can feel really knowledgeable about and proud of and share their stories once again. 

Last question. What other young artists should be looking out for and why?

Burnley College is doing a fantastic job of creating new young minds and artists in the area. There’s also an organisation called Blaze Arts. They work with young producers to produce events, projects and exhibitions. I think they are one to look out for. I’d love for them to be involved with the Empire at some point.