Stella Duffy is… infectious. It’s 5pm on a slow Thursday and she’s bursting with so much energy that it’s impossible not to feel as though you might be able to change the world a little bit, after just one conversation. She should be available on the NHS. Little wonder, then, that she has kicked off a national event that “just won’t stop growing!”
Fun Palaces – a project that will see communities host free art and science events across the weekend of October 4th -5th – has the feel of something that had been percolating in Duffy’s mind for quite some time, before she took it to the floor at Devoted and Disgruntled in 2013 and what would become this year’s event was born. She is very candid about growing up in a small New Zealand town and being completely unaware that someone like her could make art. Since then, “I’ve always wanted to make arts available to everyone, and this feels to me like the way I can make arts available to everyone.” Conceived in memory of Joan Littlewood, and honouring her centenary this year, Fun Palaces feels intriguingly like a cocktail of community spirit and revolution.
“Look, we already spent all this money on more bloody concrete theatre and arts buildings. Loads of them .We don’t need any more of them. What we need are the people to feel like they’re welcome in them.” Duffy checks herself quite frequently, affirming that she doesn’t have a problem with people who want to sit quietly through several hours of Shakespeare (“I personally love [it]”), nor does she think that this project alone is the only way to change things, but there’s a deep, bubbling passion for a shakeup of the theatrical establishment that she can’t conceal – and that’s what’s exciting. She wants “radical accessibility”. They’re words you never hear together – accessibility is something often talked about in such a bland fashion, sometimes more as a necessity than an aim. A box to be checked. But now there’s fire in that phrase. Littlewood’s approach of putting ‘high art’ alongside something like football that was already liked by and accessible to local communities is the driving force behind Duffy and her co-director Sarah-Jane Rawlings’ approach. “What can I do to empower the people?” is the key question she feels they have inherited.
While it would be an insult to the amount of hard work that has been put into getting word of Fun Palaces into communities around the country, it seems that the most forthright answer to this is by simply saying yes. Thanks to surprising support from the Arts Council (“…when we literally could not say what it was going to be, other than this amazing dream. Which I think is phenomenal.”), a team of colleagues that Duffy cannot praise enough, at The Albany in Deptford, the Fun Palaces’ national home, and a fairly rigid set of terms and conditions; “[we can] say to people ‘No, no. Go ahead. Go for it!’”. Duffy effortlessly reels off locations from her mental map of the country, dotted with Fun Palaces where you can learn about the science of swimming (Brockwell Lido), create an elephant (Walthamstow), and make a tortilla while learning geography (Leeds), citing the names of local people, people who do not define as artists, who have commandeered space, help and resources to run something by and for their own community. Most importantly, they feel empowered to do so.
The first thing that jumps out at you on the Fun Palaces website (co-commissioned with The Space) is the giant red MAKE button. It’s on almost every page. Rather than search the site in the interest of attending an event (though you can easily to this too), the invitation is to make one. For anyone to make one. It aims to demystify the entire process – there’s a toolkit waiting to help you to publicise, source materials, and find people to participate. And nowhere is there a rulebook about what your Fun Palace should be or do or say or look like, short of not actually injuring anyone. Art and science, two disciplines which can seem from the outside to be filled with rules that are often not easy to understand, are being completely laid out on the table; up for grabs. “The call to action is to participate and create. The call to action says that you do not have to self identify as an artist to make a Fun Palace. You don’t have to self identify as a scientist to make a Fun Palace.” This difference is the smallest spark that makes the entire premise feel that little bit revolutionary. No one in the arts community is heading out with a predetermined idea of what they want to make and involve the community in. Instead, it’s an open invitation to make the kind of art you’ve perhaps thought about but never known how, never had the support or resources to consider, never even known was art (or science), like baking with your children. It’s straightforwardly effective arts evangelism.
“We’ve never said we know what we’re doing” is not a phrase you often hear from anyone running a large scale event, but again and again Duffy is keen to insist that this is basically a giant experiment. They will make mistakes. Things will go wrong. But “brand new things are going to come out of the weekend. Loads of things we couldn’t have guessed at.” The right to be wrong, the right to fail, is something we often discuss doing, but usually behind the closed doors of a theatre, in a scratch piece, before understanding eyes. Embracing a massive, freewheeling, sprawling project that still seems to be growing by the day, and accepting that it will be both wonderful and trying and may, in parts, just go a bit wrong, is an approach that not everyone is willing to take, especially with public funding. It’s actually refreshing, though, to hear someone simply admit it. Rather than claiming to have been right about everything, to simply say ‘well, we learned, let’s keep going’, is quite a powerful thing.
“’Can we make a difference with our theatre?’, rather than ‘Can we just make some beautiful theatre?’” is the philosophy that Duffy feels has brought her team together, and one that she is hopeful will last into future iterations of Fun Palaces. The dream is that “people who go to a Fun Palace who pop in because they happened to be walking by, think ‘Oh. I could do that. I could make that.’” It’s clear that her art is never far from her politics, and there’s a firm sense of where she wants Fun Palaces to sit in the public sphere. “People are doing it because they care enormously and they care about arts mattering and science being available to everyone. There’s a tiny part of me that thinks ‘oh God don’t let Cameron see – don’t let them say it’s Big Society’. What we’re saying actually is that the arts culture of participation needs more support, not less. People can do this on us saying to them, ‘let’s give it a go’. What could they do if they were truly funded? So that art didn’t belong to the people who were just called artists?”
If you currently make art. If you want to. If you know anyone. Just anyone. Tell them. Find a Fun Palace. Make one. Join one. Shout about one. We’re not going to wake up to a drastically different world on October 6th, but sometimes it’s the incremental changes, not the landslides, that are the most important.