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Lyn Gardner: We own publicly funded theatres. It’s time to occupy them

Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: Morely von Sternberg Battersea Arts Centre is a venue that has opened its doors to the local community. Photo: Morely von Sternberg
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“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage,” wrote Peter Brook in his famed 1968 book The Empty Space.

You can. Once, the travelling troupe turned up on the village green. Now, many younger artists prefer to put on a show in a car park than a black-box theatre.

Yet the availability of space – and who has access to it – remains a real issue both for theatremakers and the wider public. Particularly as this comes at a time when public space is being eroded, privatised and policed by security guards, and when finding unoccupied space is becoming harder. And when rehearsal rooms are so costly.

One of the reasons I so love the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival is the way it reclaims space for ordinary people. The annual Dancing City weekend in Canary Wharf lets families and children play in the places normally colonised by bankers.

On a bigger scale, the work of Royal de Luxe – and its shows such as The Sultan’s Elephant or Sea Odyssey – transforms streets into no-go areas for cars. Instead, they become places where pedestrians dance and come together as a community.

Shows like these make us look at the familiar and everyday through different eyes. They make such places seem magical and give us back ownership of the public space that already belonged to us but that has become circumscribed and policed.

Taking over a space can be a statement. Whether it is Royal de Luxe in the street, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company leaping on stage to protest BP sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company, or Jess Thom and Tourettes hero emerging from the basement into the foyer of the Barbican and proclaiming loudly and joyously that they own the space – at least temporarily. That they have a right to be visible and noisy. That they have a right to be there.

When theatre started to be made inside purpose-built buildings it opened up aesthetic possibilities, but it also started to constrain who did and didn’t have access to performance. Us regular theatregoers see the door to the theatre as a way in. But for many it might just as well have a big ‘keep out’ sign over the lintel.

Cast in Doncaster was a case in point: a new-build theatre that many thought they didn’t want in a town of economic and cultural disadvantage.

It takes courage, patience and persistence to keep those doors wide open until local people see it as a space they can claim and that is a home from home. You have to keep working at it. Not only when you first open the doors, but forever.

The National Theatre’s 6pm laptop ban suggests an insidious mindset that values those who have bought a ticket over those who have not

Just as the window displays of Topshop may deliberately scream that their wares are not for me – a middle-aged woman – many venues unwittingly send out the signal that theatre is not for everyone.

Some go even further. I understand the National Theatre’s desire for foyer space being made available to evening theatregoers, but the 6pm laptop ban suggests an insidious mindset that values those who have bought a ticket over those who have not.

In the commercial sector, this attitude is all too common. Effectively, once the financial transaction has been made and the ticket purchased, the theatre loses all interest in the buyer, except if it thinks it can squeeze more money out for an overpriced ice cream. If that’s how they want to play it, ignoring the quality of customer experience, I guess that is the commercial theatre-owner’s choice.

But when it comes to the subsidised sector it is quite another matter. If the public has paid for these buildings then they truly must be places available to the public – and artists – all day long, to do what they want, not what they are directed to do.

They shouldn’t feel the need to be invited in, but they should be made to feel welcome whatever their purpose for being there. Nobody should look askance at a woman and two toddlers playing a game in an empty theatre foyer where they are no danger to anyone.

Battersea Arts Centre knows this. Its space is a community asset that local people feel they own: so much so that one group of friends held an impromptu birthday party in the foyer.

Why would any theatre complain about that? BAC didn’t, any more than Derby Theatre, which sits right next to the market, doesn’t complain when market traders come to spend a penny. Why not? They already pay for the place through their taxes.

Some venues have become much better at opening up space to theatremakers to rehearse and inviting the community in. But too often I find myself in theatre buildings outside show times wandering past foyer spaces that echo like empty tombs. I think it’s time to occupy them. And if you are challenged, point out that the theatre doesn’t own the space – you do.

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