David Lockwood on the Bike Shed Theatre’s closure: ‘Our sector needs to get better at saying goodbye’
It was a three-week pop-up that stayed for eight years. As the Bike Shed Theatre closes its doors, director David Lockwood looks to the future and sums up the venue’s significant contribution to the cultural life of Exeter
What a rare treat to get to write your own obituary. Here goes. The Bike Shed Theatre was a 60-seat theatre and bar. Or rather, the Bike Shed was a three-week pop-up that stayed for eight years. It was a cocktail bar. It was damp. It was an organisation that supported emerging artists, giving them the space to develop and present their work. The Bike Shed provided a different experience for theatre audiences, more relaxed and informal. Welcoming. We provided a reason for theatremakers to stay in Exeter. We were held up as an example to others in the sector. The venue closed the day before Easter.
Fin [Irwin] and I had both wanted a venue for a decade. We had known one another when we were studying – him at Exeter University, me at a little drama school called Cygnet. A few years after graduating, our paths crossed as we put on a new play in a pub in Exeter.
Our next production was in a Chinese restaurant and night club. We named it the Bike Shed Theatre, as we were in a basement beneath a shop called the Bike Shed. Innovative.
Having deep-cleaned the place, we wanted to stay for a bit longer. For me, having struggled to find places to put on my own work, I felt incredibly privileged to have a space that I could offer to others. For the first few months, it was mainly friends, and then word got out that there was this space in Exeter and people started getting in touch with us.
In the early days, the curation of the programme seemed less important than the curation of the experience. We put more effort into the feel of the building than into the work we selected and, consequently, it was rather lumpy.
Our own productions still took priority, and we staged a mix of new plays, adaptations and modern classics. But the quality was also uneven and so, two years after opening, we took a step back and came up with a new model.
We invited our favourite companies, offered them space to develop a new show, programmed their existing work, helped them develop a local following and supported them in writing funding applications. We set out to be the second home to companies from across the country, including the Wardrobe Ensemble, Worklight, Rhum and Clay and many others.
Meanwhile, we could focus activity on developing local theatremakers to get to the stage where they were also in our programme. We created a festival, took on empty shop units for free rehearsal space, provided seed funding, ran mentoring programmes, provided cheap tickets and free workshops, and made connections with others across the sector.
In 2015, we joined Arts Council England’s national portfolio and the same year we announced plans for a new, larger space, transforming four derelict warehouses into a cultural hub for the city. Perhaps this was the high point. Certainly, it was around here that our focus started to shift.
Becoming properly funded changed our attitude. We were encouraged to behave differently and allowed ourselves to be swayed by our change in fortunes. In hindsight, we didn’t use our funding wisely. Instead of being a well-funded fringe theatre, we behaved like a poorly funded arts centre.
The prospect of a new, larger project was more exciting and, while we continued to provide a home for artists and audiences and our programme became more consistent, our eyes began to wander. We wanted to reach more people, to get out of our cellars and engage with people who were less served by subsidised culture.
In 2017, we ran a pop-up in the new building. We called it the Boat Shed. Still innovating. This was one of my proudest achievements, as we welcomed thousands of people to shows, music, visual art, a craft market, weekend barbecues, ice-cream parlour and mini golf course. We showed the potential of this space to transform the city.
Nothing lasts forever. In the arts, we’ve a habit of keeping things going that bit too long. Knowing when to call it a day is hard. Every three months or so, we’d ask ourselves whether it was time to pack up, give our funding back and do something else. Each time, we’d conclude there was still a need for us and still work to do.
Then the bar, which had bankrolled the art since we started, found itself in competition with a host of newbies in better locations. We faced the choice of a possible new tenant, losing control of the atmosphere and losing the income, compromising both the artistic work and the welcoming environment. So we chose to close, perhaps a year or two too early, but better to go out while they’re still applauding than to the sound of your own retreating feet. So the last two months have been a mix of selling assets, programming a fitting farewell week and encouraging artists to start their own projects in the city. For Exeter, it has seen a surprising outpouring of grief, as a community feels it is losing a home. Hope is presented in the shape of the Boat Shed, but the truth is that it is at its toughest point since we announced our plans in 2015.
And what of the wider sector? Our situation was so unlikely, I’m not sure it tells a bigger story in terms of emerging theatre, or new work, or regional venues.
I do think, though, that as a sector, we need to get a bit better at saying goodbye. We’re so terrified of failure that we cling on, fearing emptiness. As a sector that celebrates innovation and ephemerality, that seems strange. We should let a few more things go. You never know what may come in their place.
I’m not sure what follows the Bike Shed, but I imagine it’ll be a bit better. And less damp.
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