ARTICLE – this was an article for The Stage a year on from the Grand Hall fire about how we can rethink the role of our theatres; it was originally published on 21st April 2016
As fire engulfed the grand hall at Battersea Arts Centre on Friday March 13, 2015, I was on a train to London. I experienced the blaze in between tunnels in fleeting conversations with my team and by viewing mind-boggling pictures of the inferno on Twitter. When the train doors opened at Clapham Junction, the wood-smoke smell of 122 years of history hit me like a punch in the stomach. The Grand Hall was gone and Battersea Arts Centre’s future was wobbling.
Battersea Arts Centre has remained open since the fire. Photo: James Allan
Yet in this devastating moment, there were embers of hope. The everyday superpowers of the London fire brigade saved the front two-thirds of the building. Another superhero, artist Stella Duffy, kickstarted the hashtag #BACPhoenix on Twitter. And the heroic acts of hundreds of friends in Battersea and beyond helped us reopen the building just 26 hours after the fire began. The doors opened and people whooped and cheered.
I never doubted we would find the resources within ourselves to endure and rebuild. What I had not foreseen was that thousands of people would want to help. The response has been a manifestation of civic pride: of a local community, a cultural community, a national and sometimes international community. People have come together to protect something they feel passionately about.
What is that something? I have thought about this question since the fire. Partly because of the incredible response and partly because I have discovered that when a building burns down you ask yourself a series of increasingly existential questions: What have we lost? What are we going to rebuild? What is our purpose?
Three characteristics come to mind:
I have been awe-inspired by the way hundreds of artists and arts organisations have responded to the refugee crisis. Artists have travelled to Calais and Dunkirk, setting up cultural spaces for people to come together, while some UK arts spaces have become Theatres of Sanctuary for refugee communities. Cultural spaces also encourage debate with many hosting political hustings for the 2015 election or planning the same for the EU referendum. Others seek to engage directly with the big topics of the day and artists are tackling our human experience in their work. Rather than homogenise us, as happens with consumer culture, cultural spaces individualise us, gather us and politicise us. Theatres are spaces to be different together.
Beyond our walls
Losing a large section of our building has reminded me that some of the most important work we do happens outside our four walls, meeting people who might not otherwise walk in to a dedicated cultural space. While we want people to take ownership of our theatres, it takes a very confident individual to walk into a space and claim it. So while it’s good to have buildings for people to develop their ideas in, it is more important to go and meet people where they are, find out what they think and then invite to come over. Theatres play a connecting role across the community.
On my favourite day at Battersea Arts Centre since the fire, I watched 14 presentations describing ideas for social change.The first seven were by local professionals working in the charity or public sector, taking part in a new programme called Agents of Creative Change. In partnership with an artist, each had worked up a practical idea to effect positive change in the community in which they work. The second seven were young people from local housing estates taking part inthe Agency, a project we run with Contact in Manchester. Each had developed an idea for a new social enterprise for the community in which they live. In both groups, the presentations were transformational. Theatres encourage people to become protagonists and lead positive change. People’s positive response to the fire has reminded me that we are not doing enough of these things, not nearly enough, and we need to change ourselves.
It is our role to inspire people to take creative risks
Artists have a role to play in all our futures. Not just as storytellers but as inventors. They can empower us to create instead of simply consume and to re-imagine our future. But as theatres, we are often failing to connect with everyone in our community. We over-serve the most socio-economically advantaged people in this country and we risk becoming irrelevant to the many, in favour of the few. This is a huge disservice to artists and their potential role as change-makers.
I think we have separated the creative work of ‘the artist’ and the creative work of ‘the public’. There are some old-fashioned hierarchies inside our cultural spaces, including the one I run, that we need to break down. We are homes for human creativity and we must develop the ideas of the public, just as much as we develop the ideas of artists. It is our role to inspire people to take creative risks, and by doing so, support them to lead change and shape our communities: one that is more sustainable, more connected, more creative.
In 10 years’ time it will be the 75th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. By then, we need to change three things:
Our approach to arts education
Rather than putting it in a silo, we should remember that creativity has a role across the curriculum. Every young person should be helped to nurture their creativity – not just an hour of drama or art each week. Should our cultural spaces take the opportunity to run free schools, whatever we think of the model, to demonstrate the positive benefits of a creative education?
Our approach to arts journalism
Our awards, our hit-lists and our reviews offer the public a skewed impression of the work of theatres. We need to start showing off the totality of what we do and celebrate the creativity of the public, not an increasingly narrow band of actors and directors. Could we re-imagine the way we celebrate theatres in which the public are participants rather than spectators?
Our approach to arts funding
We need a fundamental shift within the priorities of our arts funding, to recognise that our cultural spaces and creative projects should better support the development of everyone’s ideas, not just those of artists or artistic directors. We must rebalance the hierarchy: our base expectation must be that theatres connect with everyone in their community and artists should be better supported to lead this change.
I direct these opinions, first and foremost, to my own work and the issues we are grappling with in Battersea. While I am angry that things are not right, I am optimistic that we can change them. Tapping in to everyone’s creativity provides a rare alternative to a dominant orthodoxy more concerned with consuming than creating. We need to reset the way our theatres work to enable this to happen. I think people are ready for a change.
As we look to rebuild the grand hall and develop the rest of our building, we need to think about how it becomes a home for everyone and how it encourages us to look out, get out and meet more people in our community and invite them to explore their creativity and their potential together.
On March 13 at 4:17pm, a year on from the fire, Battersea Arts Centre will pay tribute to the people who have offered their support with an informal gathering in the building. All are welcome. The event will be the beginning of a conversation about how BAC can celebrate people’s responses to the fire with a permanent building installation. Email David with ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org