The New Olympus Theatre on Gloucester’s Barton Street is not short of atmosphere. It opened its doors in 1923 as a cinema – the projector still stands in the lobby – and was converted into a theatre in the 1980s, but has been disused for years. Though the original seating in the auditorium has been ripped out some time ago and paint is flaking from the dusky, dusty lung-pink interior, it is slowly being restored, both as a venue and a community space. It’s also one of the venues playing host to the Strike a Light Festival, a weekend of theatre, dance, and discussion.
It’s Saturday night and the bar at the New Olympus is packed with people. It’s thumping in there, it does not feel very theatre-y at all; a DJ is playing in one corner, a twelve year old kid with henna tattoos is selling homemade flapjacks the size of house bricks by the bar. Wine is £2.50 a glass. (I’m going to let that sit there for a bit). The age range stripes right across the board, family groups, teenagers, and there’s a real energy in the room. It feels properly exciting: when the call goes up for the start of the show a group of girls whoop and air-slam as they make their way through to their seats.
Strike a Light is part of Battersea Arts Centre’s touring initiative, the CTN, a network of festivals which take place twice yearly in six locations around the UK; alongside Gloucester there are festivals in Thanet, Hull, Darlington, Great Yarmouth, and Torbay. The CTN is currently in its third phase – it’s a three year project – and the idea is to mix Battersea Art Centre’s own ‘spine’ shows – which in the past have included Made in China’s Gym Party, Paper Cinema’s Odyssey, and Victoria Melody’s exploration of beauty pageantry and dog show culture, Major Tom with a growing roster of local work.
This balance between London and local is central to the project as David Jubb explains: the amount of local work on offer has really expanded and evolved since the CTN’s first phase. Whereas the majority of the work came from Battersea Arts Centre the first time around, this relationship quickly shifted and Jubb estimates “it’s now more like fifty-fifty.”
Supported by a substantial grant from Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, part of the CTN’s mission is to warm up cultural ‘cold spots’, to start conversations and strengthen community ties, to take art to places where there is often no existing theatre or performance space. When this has been the case they’ve been finding new places in which to perform, other buildings to occupy – and it’s this idea of occupation which Jubb is particularly keen to explore with the CTN.
In Gloucester this has meant putting on work where a lot of people will be most likely to see it. On the Saturday afternoon the Strike a Light team set up shop, quite literally, in Gloucester’s King’s Walk mall, inviting passing shoppers to experience Folk in a Box. A kind of mini-music venue-slash-Portacabin has been erected in the middle of the shopping centre just big enough to hold two people: a single audience member and a local musician. There, in this tiny room, the door shut behind them, they are treated to a one on one performance in the pitch black, a midnight serenade performed in the middle of this shiny strip-lit thoroughfare. It’s an enchanting, intimate experience, surprisingly moving.
In a nearby vacant shop Bootworks are presenting their version of Oliver Jeffers’ The Incredible Book Eating Boy, which they perform as a kind of inside-out Punch and Judy show in which a child – and the grown up accompanying them – get to sit inside (another) black box and watch as the story is performed through the box’s windows. It takes a mere five minutes but it’s a delightful, intricate thing. The front of the shop has been turned into a play area so that afterwards the children can sit and watch the puppeteers perform and see how it all works from the outside. Both performances, short as they are – and free, do not ask much of their audience; they’re the kind of thing people will happily take a chance on. It’s a strategy which pays off. Queues quickly start to form and volunteers are on hand to explain the rest of the programme to those whose appetite has been successfully whetted.
Now Gloucester is not Cheltenham. It sounds obvious. It is obvious. But in my head they were sort of synonymous: I blame the building society. Cheltenham has its racecourse and its literary festival, it has the Everyman Theatre. But bar the occasional touring show there’s not much of a theatre scene in Gloucester, though Strike A Light’s creative producer Sarah Blowers is not keen on the ‘cold spot’ label. There was a Gospel band playing in the high street and one of the other venues I visit is home to a thriving amateur theatre company. There’s a lot going on here if you know where to look she says and local interest in the festival has been considerable. It’s also a far more diverse city than I expected. It has sizeable Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Polish and the Czech communities and Blowers is passionate about making sure the festival is accessible and appealing to everyone.
To this end a devised piece exploring immigrant stories gathered from local residents formed part of the opening night programme as well as a big communal meal. Food is central to the Strike a Light experience, Blowers tells me, it’s important that both performers and audience get fed she says; the act of eating together is an important one and a big part of what she’s trying to do with the festival.
The full Strike a Light line-up also includes another Battersea Arts Centre ‘spine’ show, Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Ballad of the Burning Star, alongside scratch performances of new pieces by emerging Gloucestershire-based artists – including String Theory Theatre’s charming work-in-progress, The Book Crasher – and an ‘open space’ debate about culture in Gloucester.
At the New Olympus, a rake has been built to replace the absent seating and they’re in the process of making the building a theatre once more. “I’ve spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about toilet roll, soap – and chairs” Blowers says, as she and her team shift chairs about the place and calculate sightlines. The show they’re preparing for is Avant Garde Dance’s kinetic The Black Album. This hip-hop-licked mixed bill is gloriously physical. Bodies pulse and pop and flip to a soundtrack which mixes Beethoven with Linkin Park. DM-clad feet pound the stage; monochrome images flicker across the back wall. This show says Blowers was their biggest risk. It’s not a BAC show, but they thought it would bring in a new audience and it clearly has. The mood in the room is brilliant, the energy considerable. They’ve even, smartly, included a sequence performed by local young dancers, including a tiny but extraordinarily acrobatic boy called Devontae Patterson. When these kids troop out, when they begin to move, the already electrified audience goes wild. They cheer and whistle and feet thunder in the balcony above. It’s a celebratory, uplifting sound, the feeling of pride in the room palpable.