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Community links send London Bubble theatre company soaring

London Bubble's Tales from the Arabian Nights will be performed in two south-east London parks this summer London Bubble's Tales from the Arabian Nights will be performed in two south-east London parks this summer
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The south-east London theatre company ran into trouble when the Arts Council withdrew its funding in 2008. Catherine Love finds out how it turned things around with a dramatic overhaul and a little help from its friends

Relationship is a word you hear again and again at London Bubble. It is no lazy industry buzzword for the Bermondsey-based community theatre either, as relationships with local people and organisations have proved the bedrock of the company. Close ties with audiences, participants and supporters shaped them into the organisation they are today and helped navigate the loss of Arts Council England funding almost a decade ago.

A workshop with one of London Bubble's resident drama groups. Photo: Jonathon Vines
A workshop with one of London Bubble’s resident drama groups. Photo: Jonathon Vines

Perhaps it goes back to the company’s roots, which lie in audience demand. “It’s very unusual,” says current creative director Jonathan Petherbridge. “It didn’t start with artists, but with an instrumental vision.”

The company was set up in 1972 by the Greater London Arts Association, which was looking for a way to tour theatre to the outer boroughs of the city. When they approached Glen Walford to become the first director, she had one demand: a tent for the shows to tour in.

Even in its earliest days, the company challenged its funders to meet the needs of its audiences. “The Bubble was originally supposed to tour Ibsen and Shakespeare to outer London and they didn’t. They took popular theatre because that’s what the audience wanted,” says Petherbridge. Shows tended to involve music, food and colourful costumes.

5 things you need to know about London Bubble

1. Farhana Sheikh’s Tales from the Arabian Nights, which is being restaged in south-east London parks this summer, was London Bubble’s first promenade show in 1994.

2. Adrian Jackson, the founding artistic director of Cardboard Citizens, first developed theatre about homelessness while working at London Bubble.

3. London Bubble’s inter-generational shows
have tackled subjects ranging from the Blitz to the changing world of work in south London and the global impact of nuclear weapons.

4. The Speech Bubbles programme, which improves communication among children at key stage 1,
aims eventually to have a presence in every primary school in the country.

5. As well as an office and two rehearsal rooms, London Bubble has a workshop that is home to the Rotherhithe Shed, a project bringing people together to use their practical skills.

When Petherbridge arrived in 1989, London Bubble was “completely polarised”. The company members who delivered the professional touring performances were sharply divided from those who led the participatory work.

One of Petherbridge’s first aims was to unite the different aspects of the company’s work. And, controversially, he ditched the tent – by then a London Bubble hallmark.

“I found the tent unsatisfactory,” Petherbridge explains. “It leaked, it was cold and you could hear all the buses and planes but you couldn’t see the sky or the trees.”

It was replaced with promenade shows in parks in Greenwich, Lewisham and Southwark, as Petherbridge also narrowed the company’s focus to its home turf of south-east London.

The outdoor shows – a format that London Bubble is bringing back this summer after a seven-year break – became a much-loved feature of the company’s work, while its participatory projects forged closer local links.

The strength of these relationships with the local community was tested when London Bubble lost Arts Council funding in 2008. The cut led to a major shake-up. “We looked at our assets and we sorted out our economic position,” says Petherbridge. “And then at the same time we dreamt.” Petherbridge’s colleague Shipra Ogra recalls that there was “a lot of honest interrogating of our own strengths”.

The team was reduced to just Petherbridge and Ogra, who became chief executive and producer respectively. A few months after the restructure, Adam Annand joined to run the company’s schools programme, and an administrator was hired in July 2008. This small staff managed the transition from a funding mix dominated by Arts Council subsidy to one relying on a diverse combination of public, private and individual giving.

As Petherbridge remembers, all the essential ingredients for the Bubble’s current programme were already there: “At that time we were working in a handful of schools doing what has become the Speech Bubbles project; we were working with a handful of teenagers on what has become the Young Theatre Makers project; we had done a certain amount of inter-generational work, which is what has become vernacular theatre. We invested time in developing those ideas – testing them, evaluating them, and finding partners.”

London Bubble Young Theatre Makers. Photo: Jonathon Vines
London Bubble Young Theatre Makers. Photo: Jonathon Vines

The projects mentioned by Petherbridge each address specific groups. Speech Bubbles uses drama techniques to improve the speech, language and communication of primary school children, in a model that is now being rolled out as a social franchise across the country.

Young Theatre Makers provides creative training and leadership opportunities for young people, while what Petherbridge calls ‘vernacular theatre’ brings together people of all ages to co-create performances.

In some ways, the loss of funding was an opportunity. “The Arts Council was the sun we went around,” says Petherbridge. “We didn’t look at any other sources of energy. That light going out meant we had to go to into deep space.”

The company also had to turn to its community and really listen to what people wanted. “We are very good at intuitive listening now,” suggests Ogra. “That was what came about when we had that time to reflect.”

The work that the company has done since 2008 has provided a platform for the summer shows to return this year. “All the participatory work and the thinking we’ve done – and the relationships we’ve made – have given us a foundation which, I hope, is secure enough for us to do this,” says Petherbridge.

“It’s almost unique for a company to put a performance piece on top of a rich participatory programme, as opposed to having a participatory programme on top of a performance, which we’re quite proud of.”

This model creates relationships – that word again – that unfold over time. “What I encounter is a lot of these bonds the company has made over a number of years come to fruition three years on, five years on, seven years on,” says Ogra.

“But it stays. People never forget those connections that have been made with the company.” As a result, she adds, “a lot of the goodwill that the company has generated over a number of years has come back to support it”.

London Bubble Tea Break Theatre. Photo: Jonathon Vines
London Bubble Tea Break Theatre. Photo: Jonathon Vines

For Petherbridge, things are coming full circle, as the company remounts the first promenade show he staged in 1994: Farhana Sheikh’s Tales from the Arabian Nights. “It’s a beautiful script and it works really well for all generations,” says Petherbridge. “It’s very intelligent, it’s very political, but it’s also very beautiful and there’s an element of fairy story about it as well. It fitted the bill.”

The show will be staged in Southwark Park and Greenwich Park, and Petherbridge hopes that it can recapture the thrill it previously generated. “The sense of seeing a fantastic piece of directly told storytelling and then going for a walk in a park in the dark is a very heady mix,” he says.

“I’m excited about that. I’m also excited to find out what that feels like in 2017. Whether it now feels like everybody does it and it’s not that special. It used to feel quite subversive. Walking in a public space at night with lots of other people of lots of ages – there’s something naughty about that.”

In Ogra’s view, the return of the summer show is “about connecting with all of those people we’ve lost connections with over the past seven years”. During the last few weeks, she has met audience members who used to visit every summer and are excited to see the show come back.

“Coming to the Bubble is more than seeing something at a venue,” she insists. “The phrase is ‘we are going to the Bubble’, and I think there is something about it that’s more about the connection they have to the company.”

The key to the company’s survival and success, according to Ogra, is its honest commitment to its vision. “You’ve got to know what success looks like for you,” she says.

“Other people can describe success for you and prescribe it almost. Those people can be the board, the wider arts community or the Arts Council. You have to leave all that aside and just think about what really matters to you as a company.”

The answer for London Bubble? Relationships.

Performances of Tales from the Arabian Nights take place in London’s Southwark Park, August 1-6, and Greenwich Park, August 9-19

London Bubble profile

Creative director: Jonathan Petherbridge
Number of performances: 16 (Tales from the Arabian Nights)
Audience figures: More than  17,700 people attended a workshop/event in 2015-16
Number of employees: Five full-time; five part-time
Turnover: £612,000 (2015-16)
Funding: In 2015-16, public funding (national and local government) was 38.6%, private income (trusts and foundations and individual donations) was 30.5%, earned income (hires, commissions, fees, box office) was 26%
Key contacts:

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