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Venue profile: The cult of T13

A tour around the Belfast venue reveals a diverse and culturally responsible events space. 

In the shadow of H&W’s Samson & Goliath cranes, sat in the heart of Belfast’s Titanic Quarter waterfront, lives the not-for-profit T13 venue.

Since opening in November 2010, the venue has hosted more than 80 events in its unique space. Collaborations include Thompsons Belfast, Electric Playground and AVA Festival. It has also hosted Cypher Sessions, BMX Worlds Cologne and has toured its original RampRage event all over the country.

“T13 is a hybrid venue,” says Liam Lynch of SquarePit, the company that created T13. “It’s a dynamic environment, a shared cultural space.”

Square Pit is a collaborative private entity made up of experts from different disciplines such as sports coaching, digital design, video, marketing, engineering, programme delivery and procurement. The company’s founding philosophies of social enterprise inform T13.

“If there’s an element of social impact, that’s where we are,” Lynch says. “We manage the social transaction when different people come together – that flash point is where we operate.”

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Don’t let the not-for-profit status fool you, though – T13’s operators are serious about making a business out of their passion for unique and extreme events.

“Everything we do has to be commercially sensible, or we won’t do it,” Lynch admits. “We’re all business people. The majority of social enterprises have to be commercially savvy, and make partners to reduce your overhead and look at brands that will help you on your way.

“We look at people who are spending money and make partnerships with them. T13 generates money to survive primarily so that we can deliver these unique programmes and events, which stops us needing funding from the government or anyone else.”

T13’s booking slate is looking encouragingly busy for the rest of 2016; when Lynch spoke to Access, he and his team were in the process of stripping the venue to make way for a set of The Tempest to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. A Jameson event will follow that, as will a 300,000-capacity sport event.

“We get a concept and we build it,” Lynch tells Access. “If people come to us with something cool or immersive, we’ll work with them. Some people don’t have an idea, and if we can’t create that spatial environment, then we don’t bother.

“People come to these events for a specific reason. You come here for an immersive experience, not just for the public to walk in. When you come here, you’re immersed.”

Lynch describes his venue as a “cult – we do stuff that no one else can do, or has the balls to do”.

The colossal size of the venue – it is 70,000 square feet, with 80-metre ceilings and wide-open spaces – could detract from creating intimate, immersive events. But Lynch insists that the size actually enables creativity in creating smaller spaces.

“If you’ve got an event with 200 people in this massive venue, then you’re really making different intimate spaces to have that journey with them, as opposed to just showing them into a big hall,” he says.

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With The Tempest, for instance, Lynch tells Access that that the audience will be sitting in shipwrecks overlooking an island, with sand all around them. They’ll be part of the set, hearing the sound of the birds and the waves. When T13 hosted a production of Evita, the audience walked in and found themselves in an Argentinian village complete with straw bales.

Of course, the venue primarily exists as a collaborative social enterprise and space for extreme sports events like BMX. They have an active outreach programme, where they encourage Belfast’s youth to come and experience hip-hop, graffiti, BMX and more.

“The outreach programmes can give young people jobs such as BMX coaches. If you’re a young BMX star and you want to go professional, we can help,” says Lynch. “We get these guys to be self-employed, and show them how to make invoices and all that.”

T13’s innovative and boundary-pushing events are in aid of their social enterprise. Lynch and his team are grown-up skater boys trying to make a difference for the young people of Belfast. With such a diverse slate of events and a collaborative, anything goes approach, their six-year-old venue is a valuable and welcome addition to Belfast’s cultural environment.