Exactly eight years ago today, David Lockwood and Fin Irwin were ripping out the kitchen in a disused medieval-themed restaurant in Exeter. They were turning that kitchen space into a dressing room for performers, the cellar into a cocktail bar and a freezing storage room into a theatre space.
David and Fin were busy transforming. At the time they believed they were simply transforming a disused building into a theatre – but they ended up transforming the entire city’s arts scene. And, in fact, that catalytic heat that they would generate on that freezing cold January would end up radiating across the entire country.
I’m Artistic & Exec Director at New Diorama Theatre in London. NDT and Bike Shed Theatre opened within weeks of each other – and I’ve always seen us as sister venues; built from the same pioneering spirit, wanting to do things better, always striving for new ways of working and wanting to forge our own, independent path.
So naturally, I felt winded when I got the call from David Lockwood that Bike Shed Theatre would be closing. While we have never been friends in a social sense, David would be the first person I’d pick up the phone and call in a crisis or during a difficult time. And I like to think he felt the same.
Over the years David and I have spoken after failed funding bids, disastrous shows, losing key staff and shared many of our hopes, ideas and plans for the future. We’ve always seemed in sync and many times it’s been like looking in a mirror, seeing my own troubles and challenges reflected back at me (albeit a fun-house mirror where he is slightly taller, much thinner and far more attractive than I am). At the bedrock of everything, though, we have both always believed that small arts organisations can change the world.
Remembering my first visit to Bike Shed Theatre, arriving in Exeter on a freezing cold winter evening and walking through the dark, shut-up high street. There, nestled down a small set of stairs, were the bright lights of warmth, creativity and home. Inside was a bustling crowd enjoying cocktails amongst strewn bric-a-brac and bright theatre programmes and handmade show leaflets spread pell mell on the tables.
By the door, was a framed article from The Stage, a profile of the theatre. Behind the glass the original Bike Shed team looked back at me, at the time all still there, looking ridiculously young, full of promise and impossible optimism.
I, now, don’t remember what show I saw. I do remember keeping my coat on in the slight chill in the theatre space, which sharpened my attention and gave everything a pointed edge of urgency, as if we were gathering somewhere slightly illicit, to hear something we probably shouldn’t be allowed to listen to.
I do remember the people behind me were Exeter residents bringing a visiting relative, bragging about their new local theatre space.
I do remember sitting next to Fin, who kept looking at me during the performance to see how I was reacting, like a rightly proud parent showing me a child that’s just learned to walk.
But most of all, I remember enjoying it and leaving with such a lift in my heart. Coming from London, where everything is noise and where each cultural venue competes with a hundred others, here was a theatre standing alone with such a clarity of purpose.
But now the party is over and in Exeter the high-street is dark again.
Maybe it always had to be that way.
Theatre at its heart is ephemeral. It’s there for the briefest sliver of time and then gone. It can never be truly captured. Of course, echoes remain in video recordings, photographs, yellowing show reports and the posters on the wall, hanging in dust covered frames no more alive than butterflies pinned down behind glass.
The only place all theatre eventually exists is in the memories of those who saw it, those who were there. And like all memories, it dies with us.
Do we think less of a theatre show because it has ended and gone? We shouldn’t see the end of a venue as a sadness – but be happy that we were there to see it.
There, of course, will be a period of mourning. Exeter is losing a vital arts space, some incredible people will be without work and some shows will need to find a new home.
But that will pass and when those bruises heal, how should we view the Bike Shed?
For an organisation, for a theatre, to be a success does it need to last forever?
After all, many of the early conversations David and I shared were around those bigger, lime-scale organisations and venues – hanging on from an era long gone, surviving on past glories and successes, no longer relevant. Bike Shed will now never be consigned to that skip of irrelevance. The Bike Shed will never be a black hole in the night sky, but has secured its place as a shooting star: bright, brilliant, illuminating, and, perhaps, always gone slightly too soon.
It’s a huge achievement to make something from nothing. To make a hat where there never was a hat. There are a few theatre makers of my generation who have started their own venues and the time is coming for all of us to start looking to the next challenge. David, as usual, may be slightly ahead of the rest of us. I can’t wait to see what he does next. I can’t wait to see what each member of his prodigiously skilled staff do next. I’ve got a feeling they’re going to, once again, show us how it’s done. Plans are already underway about how the spirit and energy of Bike Shed may continue in the City without the theatre space itself.
Regardless, I will miss it. But I also know I’ll spend the rest of my career talking about it. I can already picture myself, older, sitting in the theatre café of some large institution meeting with a group of eager, impossibly optimistic young theatre-makers. They’ll, like every generation, want to make their own spaces, their own structures and their own rules.
And I’ll tell them about the Bike Shed. What it did, how it changed a city and an ecology. How it inspired me and many others to keep going and to do it better; how, in that bar in the darkened Exeter high-street, surrounded by bric-a-brac, magic happened every night.
And they’ll ask me: could it really have been that good? And I’ll tell them it really was. While it lasted it really was something very, very special. And we were all lucky to be there.
Read more on the Bike Shed Theatre’s decision to close in their statement here.