Conference 19 Blog: Stepping over the threshold

Capital projects consultant and Centre Stage attendee Nafeesah Butt shares some thoughts following the conference.

BAC Grand Hall birds eye view

In theory it should be a simple action, stepping over the threshold from one public space: a street/pavement, to another public space: a theatre/arts venue/cultural building.

Yet many of us know that in reality these lines in the sand have been layered with barriers and rules that only some people know how to pass through unscathed. This action, of taking yourself from one place to another can come at such a high cost for many of us, whilst for others, that threshold is merely a line to brush past at speed, without a second thought for why there may be another person hovering on the step outside, hesitating over their next steps or questioning their place on the other side of the threshold.

I have been working in theatre for over fifteen years and I still find myself as the ‘hoverer’ on the doorstep in some spaces, feeling the need to assess if it’s safe for me to exist there. I’m always thinking about what it is like if it’s your first time entering a space.

Much of the Theatres Trust conference held at Battersea Arts Centre delved deep into how and why we need to democratise cultural spaces. It was posited that cultural leaders need to lose, or at least share, some of their power for that to happen in a meaningful way. This has become a familiar concept and I think that what we are now starting to acknowledge is that we need to be kinder, and perhaps that the creative industries have been found out. There should be no more hiding from the systemic problems that run through them. What’s becoming real and more widely accepted is the notion that we all expect to have a stake in everything about public buildings: that they are for everyone and I mean this in every form, as the visitor, the artist, the staff member etc - the relevance and future of these organisations requires this democratisation to survive and thrive.

I attended a debate this week entitled ‘Is A Home A Human Right’.  It was argued that ‘a roof over your head isn’t everything you need for a home’, and I know for me, a home is where I feel part of something, feel safe, and also where there’s the sharing of stories and ideas and it just so happens that that’s what I can find at a theatre. I found myself bending the question to one I’ve had conversations about at different times in my life: ‘Is Access to Theatre/Art A Human Right?’

I think the things, discoveries and processes of creating, the interactions and disruptions etc that can happen in theatre/arts spaces are a human right and so when we create these spaces, we have to consider this as a right, with its differing and changing needs.

So, it follows that thresholds cannot continue to have the same barriers that currently leave so many people hovering on the brink of inside and out, or without a place to call home. There’s no one solution; it’s a multi layered consideration, where the task evolves rather than gets ticked off the list. The moment we think we’re done or stop listening, the barriers start creeping back in, higher and wider.

Nafeesah Butt is currently working as a consultant across both the commercial and subsidised sectors working primarily on capital projects, business planning and policy & strategy. Follow Nafeesah on Twitter @Naf_eesah

Nafeesah was General Manager of Kiln Theatre’s £7m+ Capital project. She was previously Learning Events Manager at the National Theatre. Prior to that Nafeesah worked extensively as a Stage and Company Manager. Nafeesah is a trustee for Company Three and the Gate Theatre.

(Photo credit: James Allan)