A devastating fire gutted Battersea Arts Centre three years ago, just as its artistic director David Jubb was gearing up to launch an era of radical community engagement. Now the building has been revived – and so too have those plans. Lyn Gardner hears how the venue’s new season embraces the disaster while looking ahead
On March 13, 2015, Battersea Arts Centre’s artistic director, David Jubb, was on a train. He had just sent an email to his board explaining how he and the team wanted to change BAC’s purpose.
For the previous 10 years, the building on Lavender Hill in south-west London, originally built in 1893 as the borough town hall, had seen its remit as “inventing the future of theatre”. It had succeeded admirably, playing a significant role in the careers of numerous artists and companies including Kneehigh, Punchdrunk, Little Bulb, Gecko and Coney. Its tentacles spread out across British theatre.
But in a changing world, questions around who the arts serve – and who they do not – were becoming more urgent. For Jubb and his team, it was time to redefine the theatre’s mission.
It would no longer focus on creating the “future of theatre” – a laudable purpose, but not of much interest to the many who doubt theatre is for them – but instead would concentrate on inspiring people to take creative risks to shape their own and their communities’ future, whether those people defined themselves as artists or not.
The point was to give people, particularly young people, agency in their own lives and recognise that creativity comes in many forms, not all of them recognised by Arts Council surveys.
Jubb had barely pressed send when his phone rang with terrible news: BAC’s Grand Hall was on fire. The blaze, battled by about 80 firefighters, destroyed large parts of the roof and the hall. Later, standing in front of the still-burning building, the artistic director vowed that “brick by brick we will bring the building back”.
Now the Grand Hall is rising from the ashes and reopening with the aptly named Phoenix Season. This includes, among many highlights, a new show from Bryony Kimmings, called I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, which charts her personal experience of trauma. Also included is the National Theatre of Scotland’s superb Adam, tracing one trans man’s journey from Egypt to Scotland, Dead Centre’s clever and slippery Chekhov’s First Play, and the welcome return of Little Bulb’s skittish musical take on Orpheus, which relocates myth to a 1930s Parisian music hall.
Kicking off the season is Gecko’s Missing, the show that was midway through its run in the Grand Hall when the devastating fire broke out. “It felt like common decency to bring Gecko back to finish the run,” Jubb says when we meet during the Edinburgh Fringe.
On putting together the rest of the season, he was left with a conundrum: “How do you represent in the first moment, on the first night, in the first show, playing to the first gathering of people, the story of what happened? What you quickly realise is that it would be totally impossible. You’d be a fool to try to do it.
“So, bringing back Gecko was obvious and the whole season came together quite naturally. In the case of Bryony’s show, the conversation with her about where she was at and how she could see a strong connection with herself and what had happened to the Grand Hall, certainly in terms of the emotional journey, meant it was an obvious choice.”
As was the need to say a big thank you to the local community and the many people – around 6,000 – who offered help and support to BAC in the wake of the fire. Over the course of the season between now and January, there will be 10 parties and performances to which those people will be invited, as well as 2,000 free or £1 tickets for local community groups.
The importance of the Grand Hall – a place for weddings, exam-taking and celebrations – in the warp and weft of local people’s lives will be celebrated too. Some couples who have married in the Grand Hall over past decades will get a chance to renew their vows on stage during Orpheus.
If the reopening of the Grand Hall marks its return from the ashes, it also marks a new chapter in the life of BAC and the role it sees itself playing as a 21st-century arts institution. Leaving the fire damage clearly visible in the rebuilt hall was a conscious decision for an organisation that has always tried to embrace the past rather than paint it over.
That is apparent through the work it presents. This year’s Christmas family show, Return to Elm House, plays tribute to the building that stood on the site before it became a town hall and which was owned by the pioneering Jane ‘Jeanie’ Nassau Sr, the architect of foster care.
But it is also apparent in the way it has rethought, reinvented and remade the building with the help of the artists who have worked there and theatre architects Haworth Tompkins.
“It wasn’t a random aesthetic decision to leave the fire-damage visible. It was much more about honouring the building and its ghosts,” says Jubb. “You get inspired by the past to think about the future. It’s key for us. We’ve always had a principle that if an artist or community group does something lovely in a space, you just leave it until someone does something better.”
“It’s always been artists who have led the way. Punchdrunk through their work here utterly transformed the building. Masque of the Red Death was like a broom swept through it. Without it, we would still have three black box studios. No artists’ accommodation. No play spaces. We would still have been locked in an old model. It is the artists who have changed everything.”
… Preferred partnerships:
“Artists whose work I am most excited by are companies such as Common Wealth and Slung Low, which are co-creating in partnership with communities. Institutions spend far too much time thinking about themselves and how they structure and manage and run themselves. We still operate like industrial silos.”
… Arts buildings:
“A shift in language is needed because the democratising of the language is part of a genuine move to democratise the ways in which we work, use our spaces and present our buildings to people. They are not our buildings, but everybody’s buildings.”
“We spend too much time thinking, as institutions, about the ways an institution represents itself. But an institution is just made up of people.”
… What the arts need to do:
“Do the arts and culture still have a lot to do? Hell, yes. At best, the arts bring people together. The funded culture sector has plenty to do to widen out what it is doing. That is political. It is political in the sense that we have public resources and we often have public buildings, and so it impacts on our role in serving the public.
He points to Punchdrunk’s landmark The Masque of the Red Death, staged at BAC, saying it “still looms from the walls in the bowels of the building”. He continues: “You can still find evidence from the One-on-One Festival, or vestiges of Kneehigh’s Midnight’s Pumpkin. So it felt right not to try to hide that the fire happened but acknowledge it. The fire is present, the walls exposed, the damage visible. The beauty created by the fire on the walls is the past sitting side-by-side with the new.”
He puts the enormous outpouring of grief that followed the fire down to the acknowledgement of its rich artistic history as well as people’s attachment to the building and how it connects to their own lives and memories.
“People didn’t talk about the fire as if it had happened to a building, they talked about it almost as if it had happened to somebody they knew,” he says. “It was a much more personal reaction because people have history with the building. It is not just bricks and mortar, it is memories. It is moments of their life. So we always knew it was our job to work with that and do it sensitively.”
Looking back more than three years after the fateful fire, Jubb is keen to take some positives. Perhaps sometimes it takes a crisis for an organisation to really rethink its purpose? “There have been a few crises at BAC in my time,” Jubb says. “When I first arrived, there was a funding cut, then three years later there was the 2007 Arts Council lop of £375,000 a year with just three months’ notice, and then there was the fire.
“Those moments, while they have been awful, have also been moments when change has accelerated massively within the organisation. You don’t want those crisis moments – they are stressful, and they have a human cost. But they do also make you think differently and make you look to work with people you might not have worked with before. And it keeps you vulnerable. I think that vulnerability leads to a fresher, more generous sense of what it is you and the organisation are for.”
The redefinition of purpose that began on that train journey more than three years ago may have been temporarily interrupted by the fire, but has returned stronger than ever. The Phoenix season signals that the Grand Hall is back in business and BAC is still programming some of the UK’s most adventurous artists. But the fire has also allowed the organisation to re-imagine how the building and its resources might be used for the greatest benefit.
That includes the creation of what is being called the ‘Scratch Hub’ in the Lower Hall beneath the Grand Hall, which will be home for more than 100 start-up enterprises and new creative organisations based on a membership model. It’s curated, so is not merely an office space for hire, and will boast a mix of companies working in the fields of film, fashion, music and social enterprise.
“Our shift of purpose is manifest in something like the Scratch Hub, because that is how we can support the development of other people’s ideas and become a facilitator,” says Jubb. “We’ve always done that with artists, but it’s been a hop, skip and a jump to recognise that we can do that with the rest of our community, rather than trying to persuade our community that they should be interested in what we do and make what we do. This is the way we can support the development of their ideas and not impose ours.”
Jubb uses 21-year-old Seshie Henry’s music platform IAMNEXT, which will be one of the companies in the Scratch Hub and play one night in the Phoenix season, as an example of how BAC can support creativity in many ways and not just with theatre artists.
“In 2013 I tried to get Seshie, who comes from the Winstanley Estate down the road, to see a show at BAC,” he recalls. “I watched him fall asleep in the first five minutes. It was an important moment for me because it was a reminder of that classic model of an artistic director saying: ‘Hey, you should come and see this, because this is what I am interested in.’ It was a salutatory reminder that Seshie is into what Seshie is into.”
When, in 2014, Henry did his first IAMNEXT gig as part of the Agency – BAC’s collaboration with Contact in Manchester, which works with young people to foster creative talent – he invited a then little-known artist called Stormzy.
“We had no idea who Stormzy was. I couldn’t have programmed Stormzy because I wouldn’t have known who he was or where to find him. But Seshie could, and now because of our support via the Agency, Seshie’s music platform tours the country. We have helped facilitate that.”
But with this increased emphasis on working with the community to support its creativity, in whatever form that might take, are theatre and the arts less central to BAC’s way of working? Not according to Jubb, who just thinks the role of arts institutions needs to be redefined. What they need to do, he says, is serve everyone better, not just the economically advantaged who were identified as the major beneficiaries of the arts in the 2016 Warwick Commission report.
“As far as we are concerned, the arts are still at the centre of taking a creative risk, but they are only one branch of creativity,” he says. “It’s an important one, but lots of people see themselves as creative in different ways. When I talk about taking creative risks I feel I can have a conversation with many more people than when I used to tell them I wanted to invent the future of theatre. Their eyes often glazed over when I said that.”
Jubb thinks artists are at the forefront of this way of thinking and are leading the way, while it is the institutions who are lagging behind.
“I always think independent artists show us the way. More and more independent artists have no problem at all in moving in a fleet-of-foot way from one project to the next,” he says. “They know when they are making a piece of art for themselves and their development and they know when they are creating a piece of socially engaged practice, and they don’t have any issue about those two things being one and the same.
“It’s only institutions who’ve managed to complicate it and departmentalise it and turn it into a complicated thing. So they have a main programme called ‘art’, and then ‘participation and engagement programmes’, which are quite separate.”
He says that in the 21st century, so many arts organisations still operate on 19th-century models. “If you are making a car, then having a design shop, an engine shop, a body shop and a marketing department makes sense. But when you are working with people’s imaginations and trying to support communities and artists develop their ideas, it is quite a weird way of going about things.”
So why not try something different? Over the coming years, those working in the arts, institutions and funders will be looking with interest to see what impact BAC’s re-imagining of its purpose makes, both on the theatre ecology and on its local community.
On the ceiling of the Lower Hall, where the new Scratch Hub is based, the building’s 19th-century motto is visible, inscribed in the ceiling. It reads: “Not for you, not for me, but for us.” Now that’s a good motto for any 21st-century arts organisation.
Artistic director: David Jubb
Executive director: Rebecca Holt
Number of staff: 74 (64.5 full-time equivalent)
Projected turnover 2018/19: £5.5 million
Funding level (in 2018/19): Total fundraising (including statutory, trusts and foundations, Lottery, individuals, corporates and restricted funding) is £3.1 million
Phone: 020 7223 2223
For more details about Battersea Art Centre’s reopening and Phoenix Season, visit bac.org.uk