Features Published 14 January 2016

Bricks & Mortar

Rachel Briscoe, former co-director of South London theatre Ovalhouse, has stepped down to focus on her work as artistic director of fanSHEN. Here, she argues for more porous, multi-use venues – and fewer "theatres with a capital 'T'".
Rachel Briscoe
Performance escapes bricks and mortar as part of Tooting Field Days. Photo: Peter Dolkens

Performance escapes bricks and mortar as part of Tooting Field Days. Photo: Peter Dolkens

You can build a wall around you, stone by stone a solid ring
You can stay alone in an empty home, sit at home and be the King
[A hymn, beloved of the teachers of Garden Fields JMI, and quite well-liked by the children because the chorus involved accompanying hand movements that offered the opportunity to ‘accidentally’ punch the people around you, circa 1990.]

As part of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, it has been announced that Manchester will get a brand new building, The Factory, which will receive £78 million of government investment. Reactions to this idea have been mixed – including some people wondering whether Manchester really needs another arts building.

I’m coming towards the end of a period during which I’ve had an association with a particular theatre building, and also the end of a year of work for fanSHEN which has included building and non-building-based work.

I think I want to make the argument for the need for porousness in what we use any building for, especially in an age where property and space are at a premium, especially in London (the city I’m most familiar with). The argument that we need very few buildings with a singular dedicated usage, and by implication very few Theatres with a capital ‘T’. There’s two parts to this, and then a third part where I contradict myself. Here we go.
Not hiding

For the past couple of years my company fanSHEN have partnered with Transition Town Tooting (TTT), to make projects in our particular bit of South London. TTT is a Transition group, a local initiative with the aim of raising awareness locally of the effects of Climate Change, Peak Oil and the impact of human activities on the environment. TTT are known within the Transition Network for working a lot through the arts – which is in no small part due to TTT’s founders the incredible Lucy Neal and Hilary Jennings.

Lucy and Hilary have long maintained that one of the reasons that TTT has been so successful, with so many links into Tooting’s diverse communities, is because it has no physical base. Every time TTT want to do an event, they need to find a space to hold it in. This has meant conversations with all sorts of people who have access to all sorts of spaces in Tooting. It has meant explaining what TTT do a lot, and building up personal trust-based relationships.

In 2015, fanSHEN and TTT ran a project called Tooting Field Days, a series of 6 free family activity days. Field Days ran to the same model – talking place in the library, the space in the middle of Tooting Broadway market, Mushkil Aasaan Islamic Community Centre, Tooting Community Garden, Tooting Common, Tooting Graveney Common, the lido, Sprout Arts – and all sorts of spaces in between (each day involved a walk between two locations). Each place we went to meant that we encountered a new group of people, people who had a pre-existing relationship with Mushkil Aasaan or the library or wherever. Lots of these people were intrigued by what we were doing, chatted to us and got involved. Although Field Days developed a core of regular attenders, each location meant a new group of people could access the project. Field Days had a clear affiliation to a place – in so many ways they were a way of celebrating the chaotic, imperfect, brilliant place we’ve been lucky enough to find as out ‘artistic home’ – but had no affiliation to any building. One of their strengths was the fact they were peripatetic, picking up people wherever they went.

(I think this affiliation to place is pretty easy if you can walk across that place in less than an hour… I’d be really interested to hear how the experience translates for an organisation like NTW who are non-buildingly affiliated to a whole nation, rather than two postcodes in SW London.)

We talk a lot about audience development in the arts but –and this isn’t rocket science- I think there’s no substitute for going and talking to people. Neither Dan nor I are people who regularly strike up conversations with strangers in the street, but with Field Days, we learned the importance of being visible and explaining why we were carrying a giant orange bird through Tooting and inviting people to be a part of what we were doing. There’s a thing we realised, that we’re people first and artists second. We found that the best way to serve the arts was to be a person talking to other people. I don’t think this diminishes the role that artists can play within communities but does mean that you are accountable and -certainly for us- the work becomes more dialogic.

With Invisible Treasure, a very different project we made in a theatre later this year, it was important that we were around at the end to talk with people about their experiences, our intentions, and how it all worked. The show ‘ended’ when people chose to leave the space. I don’t think we’d have made this choice so consciously without what we’d learned on Field Days. Artists need to be more visible (and indeed to be people first) so my fear of people had to take something of a back seat. This – rather circuitously – relates to buildings because in buildings you can choose to hide, or indeed the default is that you the artist are hidden, you actually have to make a concerted effort not to be. Some buildings (e.g. ARC in Stockton) bring artists and audiences together in great ways but I just wonder if as a dedicated arts building, you’re always working against a structural bias to achieve this.

Amateur dramatics productions in this country are attended to a level that a lot of professional theatre companies would kill for. Lots of those audience members are attending because someone involved in the production means something to them. Our experience is that there’s something about being an artist in a place rather than an artist in a building that means you start to build up relationships in a way that becomes more than transactional. There was a moment at the last Field Day where we said goodbye to one of the families who’d attended almost all the sessions which was quite weird – we weren’t friends, we wouldn’t meet for a drink or dinner, but I think we were all genuinely sad that we didn’t know the next opportunity we’d see each other. One of the reviews we received on Mumsnet for Invisible Treasure talked about being proud of having an experimental theatre company based locally. This meant so much to us. I don’t know if the reviewer mum had been to any of the Field Days or just knew us indirectly but there was something in this that felt like the way you might be proud of a friend or relative who’d done something cool. Do people have this relationship to buildings? Maybe – but is it really this personal?

What I think fanSHEN are always trying to do is make work which is experimental but not elitist. There’s something about an unmediated relationship with our community (and the same people within that community are sometimes collaborators, sometimes audiences, sometimes funders) to do with trust. It’s saying, you know us, you trust us, come on this new journey with us?

And of course this is the role that many venue programmers or artistic directors or other curator-ish people in buildings can play for their local community: build up a trust and then work from this place of trust to introduce them to incredible art that they might not have otherwise encountered. But is a dedicated building necessary for this? Outdoor arts festivals like SIRF would suggest not. Organisations like MAYK, working through partnerships across spaces in Bristol, would suggest not. Sure – these organisations have office space in the way that TTT don’t but neither have sole usage of a building with the unique purpose of presenting art. And yes, MAYK work with Arnolfini and Bristol Old Vic which are art-buildings but what I’m arguing for here is fewer of these, rather than their wholesale eradication.
the undeniable uses of buildings

Maybe we’re going around in circles here. Maybe the more useful way to look at this is to ask, what do we need buildings for?

1. to keep stuff in – concentrations of specialist equipment that are necessary for some types of art (we couldn’t have done Invisible Treasure in any old space.) This is important but I wonder if sometimes the walls of buildings are used to keep artists away from this stuff rather than keeping the stuff out of the wind and rain. I spent quite a long time working for an organisation, which, despite its rhetoric about the central importance of artists, spoke about them in incredibly disparaging terms and often moved items to ‘keep them safe from artists.’

2. to keep knowledge (=people with knowledge in) so that people know where to find the people with that knowledge. Yes maybe, but I don’t think those people have to be in buildings and I do have a question about how current the knowledge in some buildings is – once you’re behind those walls, it’s easy to lose touch with what is happening in your hinterlands.

3. to meet our ‘tribes’ in. The people who look like us and sound like us and have opinions comfortingly similar to ours. It strikes me this is absolutely a thing that happens in exclusive-purpose buildings and would not happen in a market or library or community centre. But for me, art is not about further entrenching the segregation we sleepwalk into.

4. as stuff for funders to point at. Y/our money paid for this building – look. There was also some art, some performance but it was live and it has gone now. I think our love of buildings has a lot to do with theatre doing battle against its own ephemerality. It’s part of the overarching challenge we have, which is how do we transition from a values system based on consumption/ stuff to a values system based on experience. But that’s a whole other thing.

5. to provide a continuous source of entertainment for people, in that they know where to go to find the stuff. Yeah… maybe… but I’d argue a website could do this: how many people just show up at a theatre not knowing what’s on but wanting to see whatever it is because it’s a theatre?

6. (and this is the cynical one that I’d like not to believe) to provide employment (for people who wouldn’t survive as freelancers/ wouldn’t get another job they applied for) – rather than to achieve a mission. NOT ALL BUILDINGS. Some buildings even smartly mitigate against this by –for example- having the artistic director reapply for their job on a 4 year cycle, ensuring that the walls are always temporary/ semi-porous. But I think that a theatre ecology where every job was on a 4 year cycle would look significantly different to our current one.

7. to feel civic pride about? This one gets a question mark because I’m not sure. Is there a theatre people are super-proud of in the way people are proud of the Angel of The North? I think it’s more that the Angel of the North is a piece of art rather than a built structure that makes people proud. Although when the Grand Hall at BAC was so badly damaged by fire at the start of 2015, it felt like the outpouring of grief and subsequently support was as much about the building as the art that took place within it. But BAC is a civic, mixed-use building – for some people, the Grand Hall is the place they got married not the place where Little Bulb did Orpheus. So it would be difficult to conscript BAC to the argument in favour of exclusive Theatre buildings.
Queen Rachel of Artsbuilding

So if all this true, and actually there are very few things we need arts buildings for, why do I want my own building? (And I do, to the extent that we have even planned its layout.) If I’m honest, I think I want this space, the fanSHEN space to create my own little microcosm of the world as I want it – with making theatre, and a craft room and a library and a kitchen with a big table where everyone can eat together, with a garden outside we can grow stuff in and perform in, and of course everyone locally can come and use it and we’ll all get to know each other and blahblahblah. Because that’s my vision of the world – and so, to me, it’s perfectly reasonable and indeed, highly desirable.

But maybe everyone in buildings is living out their perfect version of the world – a world where no one can bother them (no demanding artists or difficult audience members), where they get to have meetings which make them feel powerful and successful, where their ‘community’ can exist as a kind of theoretical concept that gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling.

And who wouldn’t want a place to physically realize their ideal version of the world.

There are plants within any ecosystem which have the sole function of creating the conditions within which other plants can grow. Once those conditions have been created, those first plants die out. Do we ever plan obsolescence into the life-cycle of a building? No – because buildings are expensive and a faff to put up/ take down. But – and this takes us back to the start- if we were less attached to the idea of exclusive function, it would be less of a problem if a building which had once been a theatre became a daycare centre or a library or a chicken shop. Maybe it’d happen gradually – maybe Mon-Weds you’d go there for hot wings and on a Thurs for art. Would that be such a terrible thing?

Read more about Rachel Briscoe’s work with fanSHEN on the company’s website here.




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