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Lyn Gardner: Shows have the power to change theatres they’re in

Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death Punchdrunk's The Masque of the Red Death – the production has had a lasting impact on the way Battersea Arts Centre operates, says the venue's artistic director
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At the reopening of the Battersea Arts Centre Grand Hall a few weeks back, artistic director David Jubb talked eloquently about how much the building had been shaped by hosting Punchdrunk’s The Masque of the Red Death. A decade after that show finished, the traces remain, not just in the fabric of the building but in how the theatre’s spaces have been re-imagined so they are provisional, never permanent. The artists left a legacy.

I recall another impact Masque had on BAC. Shortly before previews it became apparent that the costumes were behind schedule. Everyone in the building was invited to lend a hand, and immediately they all became invested in the show. They had a direct connection to the art. It brought the building together, reminding those who worked there of their common purpose.

How often is it the case that a show made and performed in a theatre genuinely has an impact on the building and the way it operates? An institution can programme a season of work by women, yet do little to support real gender equality in its own workplace.

Productions that critique capitalism play to bankers in publicly funded buildings where artistic directors doff their caps and refill potential donors’ glasses. It creates a sense of dislocation. What does the theatre really stand for?

Mark Ravenhill nailed this disconnect in a speech to mark the opening of the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe. He looked back at the (relatively) plentiful funding of the Labour years and presciently predicted an era of unending austerity under the Tories. “The message in the last couple of decades has been very mixed, in many ways downright confusing,” he said.

The playwright went on to say of theatre: “We are a place that offers luxury, ‘go on spoil yourself’ evenings in new buildings paid for by the National Lottery – a voluntary regressive tax. You can mingle with our wealthy donors from the corporate sector and treat yourself to that extra glass of champagne, but we are also a place that cares deeply about social justice and exclusion as the wonderful work of our outreach and education teams show. So, we’re the best friends of the super-rich and the most disadvantaged at the same time? That’s a confusing message and the public has been smelling a rat.”

For many theatremakers, process is as important as what is staged. Over the past 10 years, it has been interesting to see how many have found more collaborative ways of working, in which the traditional roles are more blurred and the rehearsal room is a less hierarchical place.

But how often does the process of making a piece of theatre really have an impact on the building and all who work there? If this happened more often, would the culture of the building change? Can a production, through its process, leave behind more than just a few photos gathering dust on the walls of the bar?

It’s a question that is particularly pertinent when considering work made by, and with, the community. When Mark Storor made a piece with community groups at the Royal Exchange in Manchester a few years ago, he invited all who worked in the building, in whatever capacity, to be involved as part of the process. It’s an approach that puts the work right at the heart of the theatre.

It suggests that while a theatre working with the community can have a significant effect on those involved, perhaps those communities and their work can also leave a mark on the theatre itself and bring about change in the way the organisation operates and sees itself.

‘Can a production, through its process, leave behind more than a few photos gathering dust on the walls?’

Of course, that won’t, and can’t, happen if the projects created with the community are viewed as an add-on rather than core, or if a theatre approaches its community work with the misguided mindset of 19th-century Christian missionaries trying to convert people to theatre. Or if it wants to tick some boxes for funders. Or if it puts community shows on its main stage as a means of miraculously increasing the diversity of its audiences (three or four nights of a packed main-house auditorium can do wonders for audience data).

There was a time when most community-based projects took place outside the buildings in which they started. Inviting the community into a theatre – which, after all, belongs to them because they paid for it out of their taxes – offers the potential for a different kind of engagement. One that, when the community is genuinely given space, access, ownership and opportunity, can leave a legacy.

Maybe the questions that a theatre need to ask – long after the last word has been spoken on stage – is not: ‘What did we do for the community by working with them?’, but: ‘What impact did the community have upon us through the process? How did it make us change our thinking, our way of working and our mission? And if it didn’t, why not?’

BAC is back: How Battersea Arts Centre rose from the ashes of a devastating fire to renew its mission

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