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What the BAC fire has taught us about the value of theatre

A scene from a performance of Missing by theatre company Gecko, the set and props for which were destroyed in the BAC Grand Hall fire.Photo: Robert Golden
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At 4.20pm on Friday March 21, exactly a week, to the hour, after the fire broke out which consumed most of the Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall, people were invited to share their memories of the building on Twitter using the hashtag #BACPhoenix, with the intention of building a digital archive. Some of these memories were of the work contributors had seen there or made there, of productions such as Little Bulb’s Orpheus and Kneehigh’s Don John – shows which filled the Grand Hall – but many others were smaller and more personal.

People away from the arts community – estate agents, cafe owners, parents – have also made gestures of practical help large and small, from financial donations and loans of office space to the local flower seller who gave BAC free daffodils to brighten up the cafe. The overlap between the arts community and the wider public here is a telling one, a reminder of what BAC, and organisations like it, can be to people: places where the social and the artistic are inextricably intertwined. People’s reactions were so visceral because they felt a sense of ownership about the building: in a whole variety of ways, it belongs to them.

“The range of these responses has been remarkable,” says artistic director David Jubb, during a snatched conversation between the many meetings he’s having at the moment. “People have a personal relationship either with the building or the organisation, or both, in so many different ways. From shows people have seen, to those who bring their children to the building, to people who feel a political link with the building, to those who are drawn to its heritage.”

Arts writer Mary Halton returned to BAC on the night following the fire and wrote about it on her blog, Valiant Dust, in an effort to encapsulate the strength of feeling she was experiencing.

She wrote: “People aren’t fond of BAC. They love it. With an absolute ferocity. Because it is a building – where they’ve made work or gotten married or met someone or heard something wonderful – and because it isn’t; it’s people, an ethos and an artistic mission, it’s bravery and generosity and open arms.”

Caroline Horton in Penelope Retold went ahead at BAC as soon as parts of the building were declared safe – and drew a healthy audience. Photo: Robert Day
Caroline Horton in Penelope Retold went ahead at BAC as soon as parts of the building were declared safe – and drew a healthy audience. Photo: Robert Day

I was there on March 17, after the building had been declared safe, to review Caroline Horton’s Penelope Retold for The Stage – and, like Mary, was struck by the palpable sense of affection in the building (which was packed), the energy it was generating.

The Phoenix Fund set up in response to the major fire to tackle the challenges of not having that space available has already topped £700,000 and on the March 23, culture secretary Sajid Javid announced that BAC would receive £1 million funding from government to help with its redevelopment work.

One of Jubb’s main jobs now is to find spaces to host the work which they were intending to stage in the Grand Hall. “We are currently relocating those shows,” he says. Some of them will be staged in the old Battersea Jongleuers, once a 1920s ballroom. “Some of the artists are doing two shows a night, because it’s half the capacity, so we don’t disappoint the bookers.”

The first show to be relocated was Gecko’s Missing, which was running in the Grand Hall when the fire broke out. The company’s set was destroyed in the blaze. On March 20, Gecko performed an unplugged version at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. “The atmosphere was incredible,” says Jubb. “They performed without most of their kit and their magical tricks and I think they invented a new form. I’ve never seen an unplugged version of a theatre show before. The ovation they received was amazing. I don’t think there was a person who was sat down at the end of that performance.”

Despite the loss and the work ahead of them, Jubb says he and his team have been given “a real sense of optimism”. He adds: “Only a week and a half on and we feel we’ll get through this and we will rebuild the Grand Hall but also we’ll grow stronger through this, through the way people have come together. We want to find a way in the rebuilding of the space to capture what’s happened here, because it is extraordinary and should be part of the history of the building. We want to find a way of celebrating the way people have responded.”

There’s a sense, for a lot of people, that it’s a bit like a second home

Perhaps, it takes almost losing a thing to crystalise its importance. In so many of the discussions about funding and the arts, there’s a tendency to create binaries. To make it seem as simplistic as hospital beds versus, say, contemporary dance, to stick the arts in a little box, as if they were something attractive but insubstantial, but as the events of the past couple of weeks have made clear, these things are far more entangled. “There are a decreasing number of spaces that are genuinely public,” says Jubb, “that are shared spaces, buildings which are owned and enjoyed and explored by all sorts of different people for all sorts of different reasons.”

This idea of public space, of ownership, is an essential one, particularly in London where it becomes increasingly difficult for people to own the spaces they live in. It’s a question of value, how we value the arts and the buildings in which they are created, and one that stretches beyond BAC, beyond London, to venues such as Nottingham Playhouse, which in February 2014 heard that Nottinghamshire County Council would not be renewing its annual grant, leading to the withdrawal of 100% of its annual funding of the Playhouse’s work. What impact does that have, socially, economically, creatively? Those aren’t threads you can separate.

With the general election coming up, it does feel as if BAC is a beacon, in more ways than one. As journalist Catherine Love commented on her blog about the fire and its aftermath. “If there’s any scrap of a silver lining to take from this, it’s how much our theatre and arts spaces really matter.”

It’s forced us to think about what that loss would have been like, what it might have meant for theatremakers, theatregoers and the local community, and more broadly to consider the social and cultural impact of the erosion of truly public spaces. BAC is a place of value to people for so many reasons and its ethos isn’t contained within its walls, as its Collaborative Touring Network so ably demonstrates; through a process of exchange and occupation it can travel, it can spread. It’s the antithesis of the current political climate, it is unifying and it is hopeful – and it is necessary.

“Everything is allowed here,” says Jubb, quoting the late performer and artist Adrian Howells. “People can come here to hang out and see work and use our spaces; they can get married here if they want. There’s a sense, for a lot of people, that it’s a bit like a second home.”

BAC’s Phoenix Fundraiser is on April 18 at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London

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