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“the complexity of our ecology has fed in to our most interesting projects”

BLOG – which explores Battersea Arts Centre’s new purpose to inspire people to take creative risks to shape the future

On Saturday 18th April I was sitting in the front row of the Royal Festival Hall in glorious agony. Glorious because 2,100 people were assembled to celebrate and support Battersea Arts Centre following the Grand Hall fire. Agony because I had to stand up to try and say something coherent, sandwiched between our awesome Beatbox Academy and Toby Jones – I was feeling the pressure! In the end, doing a speech in front of 2,100 people isn’t so bad when the lights are so eye-wateringly bright that you can only see what is immediately in front of you, a microphone, so you just talk in to it! It felt a bit like the last couple of months, don’t pause to think about the scale of the challenge ahead, just get on with it, other people deal with a hell of a lot worse.

I will be forever grateful to the generations of BAC artists, every single audience member and to Jude Kelly for giving us the Royal Festival Hall that night. There was a special atmosphere, like a massive, everyone’s-welcome, beautifully-weird, family-gathering. It said something about the Battersea spirit that stretches back, even before Battersea’s Town Hall was built. Toby Jones rounded things off with a poem, crowd-sourced from Twitter: each line a personal memory of the beautiful Grand Hall before looking ahead to the future, to our next steps, to rebuilding and renewal.

It was great to finish by looking forwards, edging those spotlights towards a path ahead and to what’s next for Battersea Arts Centre. With ticket sales and donations from the night at £46,000 and all the other remarkable support we have received, we can begin to look ahead with confidence and optimism.

Earlier this year, prior to the Grand Hall fire, we reworked the organisation’s core purpose for the future. Since 2006 BAC’s mission has been “to invent the future of theatre”. It has served us well as a focus for the organisation. But in pursuing theatre’s future, so our definition of theatre and what it can achieve has become much broader, to the point where the old mission no longer fully represents the breadth of our activity.

Whilst we have continued to support and will always support artists and companies to create new shows (1927, Kate Tempest, Paper Cinema, Little Bulb and hundreds more) we have increasingly used theatre-making process in lots of other ways: to develop social enterprises; to kick-start regeneration projects; to deliver the school curriculum; to develop our building; to explore heritage; to reshape our organisation’s structure and so on.

In each different setting, two things have been consistent. Firstly, we have always used Scratch, the creative process we use to make theatre, to test out ideas, to listen to feedback, to reshape our thinking based on the way people respond. Secondly, we have always sought that great live-theatre-moment: the moment when we see something differently, when we understand ourselves and each other better; the moment when we bear witness to change, to something being said or done that can never be unsaid or undone. The combination of using Scratch process and seeking out the live experience has meant that theatre has become a way of life for Battersea Arts Centre.

Artist, Chris Goode said “there’s definitely a constant imperative, especially at the moment, to use theatre as a place to create real liveable experiences of models for political and personal change. Theatre can have a crucial role in reimagining our social relations. What we do all day has never felt more important.” (Maverick theatre, Interview with Eleanor Turney)

So Battersea Arts Centre’s new mission recognises that we not only make theatre but that we use it to create change. It recognises that we are not only an arts organisation, we are also a learning organisation and a social change organisation. It is the combination of these three elements that will help us support civic and creative life in south-west London and beyond. Battersea Arts Centre’s new mission is:

Rather than describing a single goal, the new mission describes an ecology in which one aspect of the organisation feeds another. Our purpose is to nurture this ecology.

I have always thought that the complexity of our ecology has fed in to our most interesting projects or shows:

We will continue to seek out relationships with visionary artists, placing them at the heart of everything we do. But Battersea Arts Centre’s new mission is about everyone’s creativity. We launch it at a time when there is a crisis in creative participation, especially amongst the next generation. Arts Council England’s Taking Part data shows that between the years 2008/9 and 2013/14, the proportion of 5-10 year olds who engaged in dance activities dropped from 43.1% to 30.4%; participation in music activities dropped from 55.3% to 37.2%; participation in theatre and drama activities dropped from 47.1% to 32.1%. This is reflected in our schools. In 2003-13 there has been a 50% drop in the GCSE numbers for Design and Technology and 23% for Drama. In 2007-13 there has been a 25% drop in other craft-related GCSE’s.

We must come together, across different sections of our community, to change this story, to grow creative opportunities for everyone. The personal and prolific response to the fire at Battersea Arts Centre reminds us just how important it is to achieve this. People have deeply personal and valued relationships with organisations and buildings like Battersea Arts Centre. I think this is because these places allow us to express our creativity, they are homes for free expression, where you can truly be yourself.

As we now look beyond the Grand Hall fire, with our new mission, we have clear plans for the future:

  1. to develop an interactive, creative space on the site of the Grand Hall, in partnership with a very special artist from Oct 2015 to May 2016, for everyone to come together for a great night out;
  2. to open up new theatre spaces, artist bedrooms and production facilities in Apr 2016 when the current capital project concludes and present the climax of A Nation’s Theatre with the Guardian;
  3. to create a large off-site theatre from mid-2016 to end of 2017 for the presentation of visionary and exciting new theatre while we rebuild the Grand Hall.

Over the coming year we will continue to extend our partnerships. For example, we will work with:

  • the Katherine Low Settlement in Battersea to launch The Create Course;
  • the BBC on an exciting new theatre project;
  • Wandsworth Museum and 5 other museums to launch Creative Museums;

…as well as other new partnerships yet to be announced.

I invite you to become part of the story in whatever way most suits you, to inspire people, to take creative risks, to shape the future.

Some facts and stats post fire:

  • 124- the number of performances that have happened at Battersea Arts Centre since the fire
  • 13 – the number of performances that have happened in other venues rehousing Grand Hall shows
  • 1467 – the approximate number of visits to The Bee’s Knees since the fire
  • £800,665 – the amount raised to help the organisation tackle the challenges of not having the Grand Hall for up to three years
  • £500,000 – the amount raised for the existing capital project that will conclude in Spring 2016 opening up 20 new workshop and performance spaces
  • 481 emails offering Battersea Arts Centre support
  • 154 memories shared via Twitter on 13 April at 4.20pm, exactly one month on from the fire
  • 1 x exceptional company specialising in dangerous structures who have offered to undertake a package of works “at cost” to make the Grand Hall site safe to use, thank you DECONSTRUCT
  • 1 x amazing department in a national charity specialising in salvage of precious materials offering their support – thanks Historic Royal Palaces
  • 3 x supportive teams guiding us through the complexities of the insurance process – thanks Aviva, Wrightsure and Cunningham Lindsey

25 MAY 2015

Categories: Developing creative ORGANISATIONS FIRE in Battersea's Grand Hall PROCESS: Scratch, Co-Creation and Creativity

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