Conference 19 Blog: Reflections on Centre Stage

Theatres Trust Director Jon Morgan looks at some of the key themes that emerged from our conference, held in October at Batters

“People are the foundations on which our theatre buildings are built. Without them they crumble” - Liam Evans-Ford, Theatr Clwydea Arts Centre.

At the Theatres Trust it isn’t about buildings for buildings’ sake – we are very much concerned with what happens inside those buildings – theatres as spaces where art is created and audiences entertained, engaged and empowered. With the topic of ‘artist and audience at the heart’ I wanted our annual conference to be an opportunity to explore the new ways that people want to create and engage with theatre, how we can make theatres truly accessible in the widest sense and how theatre can fulfil a wider civic role.

We had more artists’ voices in the room than ever before and we tried something new with the quick-fire Capital Projects Lightning Round offering a snapshot of some current projects. We heard from a range of people including artistic directors, producers, theatre operators and architects from a wide array of theatres, from traditional proscenium arch theatres to pop-up and found spaces.

As you would expect with such varied participants tackling such weighty questions, there is not a neat ‘one size fits all’ answer and I’m not going to attempt to reproduce all of the discussions here (the speakers’ presentations are available on our website), but I do think that several key themes emerged over the course of the day.

These are my three key takeaway points Conference 19: Centre Stage – artist and audience at the heart.

1. Buildings do matter

“The space really does matter… what I really feel in Battersea Arts Centre, is everything they believe, everything they do, everything that inspires them, in a way grows out of this space” - Tarek Iskander, Battersea Arts Centre

Obviously at the Theatres Trust we believe that theatre buildings are important – but nonetheless it was good to hear so many speakers affirm this, whether they worked in more traditional theatres or unconventional spaces. Madani Younis talked about his time at the Bush Theatre where he became acutely aware of how much the building meant to the community following the vote to leave the EU and again after the Grenfell Tower fire. Jessica Brewster from Theatre Deli talked about how they think about buildings as art in and of themselves and Colin Nightingale from Punchdrunk described how its shows developed in response to the spaces they occupied. But what was apparent was that buildings do need to evolve, adapt and be more inclusive.

2. Theatres need to be civic spaces

”I think the civic duty of the theatre is so important and nowadays it isn't the church… where do people congregate, where can they read a book or have a discussion and not have to pay for that? and if some of those people come and see a show, that's a big thing” - Nadia Fall, Theatre Royal Stratford East

Although not part of the agenda, the two big political issues of the day, Brexit and the climate emergency, hung in the air and came up time and again in presentations and audience comments. Madani Younis framed this uncertainty as an opportunity for the theatre sector to bring about real change and we heard several examples over the day of theatres that were doing just that. Our venue, Battersea Arts Centre, couldn’t have been more appropriate with its history of radical politics, pushing the boundaries of artistic production and having recently completed a major capital project using a variation on the centre’s scratch methodology of testing out ideas with audiences, which has resulted the creation of facilities including a play area for the under-fives and bedrooms for artists. But there remains the issue that many people are not comfortable entering a theatre, perceiving it as not for them.

Many current capital projects are trying to address this - Rachael Thomas described how they plan to open up Birmingham Rep to create a social hub, an essential part of redefining its civic role. Matt Fenton described how Contact is providing mental health services for young people that aren’t available elsewhere. It is clearly working at Contact with Nasima Begum from ConStruct, Contact’s young people’s capital project saying that Contact felt like home for her – a rarity for a South Asian Muslim female from a working class background.

3. Leaders need to relinquish control

“I think it is my job to lose control. I think that's the best form of leadership” - Madani Younis , Southbank Centre

Madani Younis took up the invitation to speak provocatively as an opportunity to ask questions about who culture belongs to and imagine a world in which our communities hold us to account. These were themes that would be returned to throughout the day by several speakers, including 64 Million Artists’ David Micklem, Hannah Fox from Derby Museums and Tarek Iskander. Martin Lydon at Haworth Tompkins described their approach to Battersea Arts Centre as not designing everything but allowing “other people to come and make their open mark on the building”, while Matt Fenton talked about how the young people were meaningfully involved in the ConStruct project, giving them major decisions to make.

On his ambitions for Battersea Arts Centre for the next five years, Tarek said he wanted to take giving away power and control to the next level, but was not sure what that would look like yet.

This was what I came away from Centre Stage thinking – how do we share our spaces more equitably and what are the next steps in doing this? While the conference didn’t provide an easy answer to this, it was good to open the discussion and start asking ourselves some of these perhaps uncomfortable, but vital questions.