The Civic Responsibility of Theatre Buildings is a Public Matter

by Tobi Kyeremateng

Many of our theatre buildings were Town Halls, community centres, abandoned buildings taken over by daring individuals and communes. They are built on the legacy of community, D.I.Y and gathering. The more I think about this, the more I begin to question whether we are utilising our spaces in the way they were intended to be used, or if we are gentrifying these spaces by deliberately shutting out a social responsibility theatre buildings have inherited.

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You are likely to come across public-funded organisations that propose a glistening, generic mission statement announcing how invested they are in being a space that acts as a civic participant; a space that responds to community needs as they arise and take action, hand-in-hand with the public. The better part of me wants to believe this is true on the whole, because it should be, and it’s important to acknowledge that it is for many individuals and companies around the UK, but there are valid reasons for why the public generally does not feel any real ownership over our theatre buildings, and a large part of this sits in the ambiguity of the civic role they play in our society.

Let’s start here; Theatre has been pretty good at responding to public matters via the stage. The urge to create is in the blood and bones of the industry, and we exist to explore our realities in whatever way, shape or form helps us understand this world just that little bit better. I think back to the individuals, companies and organisations that have expanded my world view; I think back to the likes of The 56, The Interrogation of Sandra Bland, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, Us/Them, The Jungle, The Siege. I think back to the stories that have been lucky enough to have been told and I am grateful to theatre for being the turning clogs that keep these stories ticking.

In Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first open session at the Young Vic, ‘The Floor Is Yours’, the brainstorming starts in a room of artists. It is clear that we understand the role theatre has to play in telling these stories. We are looking at the future of theatre; asking ourselves where we want to get to, if we are doing enough, and dissecting the ‘now’ in order to know how to get there. I am always interested in this conversation, considering theatre often prides itself on its artistic social commentary and relevance to the ‘here and now’. That being said, I sit somewhat idle in this conversation, a kind of displaced or vacant feeling that I do not express to the room.

A production, typically at the forefront and initial outcome of how theatre ‘responds’ to public tragedies, makes me feel quite uncomfortable. There are questions we need to ask ourselves and respond to honestly. We forget that theatre can very much be an echo-chamber, and so I ask; who is this work for, and why are you the one to make that work? What happens next? What is the immediate response for the affected group? And most importantly - is this really what is needed right now, at this very moment?

In June 2017, a deadly fire broke out in Grenfell Tower on Latimer Road. Since then, there have been artists and organisations working on the ground to support this community. Artists like Zena Edwards have stood by the Grenfell community, both politically and artistically, learning the wants and needs of the people and using their resources as engaged artists to offer support. Organisations like Bush Theatre have responded rapidly by opening up its spaces to support those that sought comfort. In this tragic moment in time, we see how artists and venues organise themselves to act as civic participants; we see how this is embedded in the bricks and mortar of organisations; we see exactly what these spaces mean to these communities.

There have been times where I have questioned whether a production is feeding the theatre community more than it is the people. When I look around the space and see a lot of the same faces; people that look alike, most likely share the same values, most likely do similar jobs, I wonder what exactly it is we have achieved here. That is not to say it is not impactful, but are we being fiery enough with what impact we want this to have on the world outside of theatre? I do not think it is enough to say we are ‘giving’ people a voice. This does not stick anymore. We are ‘taking’ these voices and ‘giving’ it to… whom?

Any object that exists to engage, create and support the public, using the money of the taxpayer and the space of the community, must allow that very public to hold them accountable for the things they are or are not doing. Public-funded venues ought to study the likes of Common Wealth, Scottee and Cardboard Citizens that are already doing the work by embedding community into the ethos of the work they produce, not at a shallow-level, but at a level that accommodates change for the greater good of what is necessary.

I do not doubt for a moment that someone, somewhere, is cooking up a verbatim production about the Grenfell Tower, and there is something in the pit of my stomach that hopes this production manifests in a few years, as opposed to right here and right now, and in the meantime we use the tools of theatre and theatre buildings to conjure up creative ways of supporting that community on a ground level, whilst persisting with trying to create solutions as to how these communities engage with theatres in the first place. There is something a bit insidious about creating a production about the people we are failing to engage, to put on show for people that are far-removed from them. We all laugh, cry, applaud and then it disappears.

Inclusivity and civic responsibility share the same bed. You cannot be a civic hub whilst alienating the very people you are supposedly ‘for’ in the everyday running of your venue. The inclusivity conversation includes how we open up our buildings to our communities outside of evening performances, matinees and workshops, and how we make these spaces physically and emotionally accessible. Maybe this will change once we begin to view theatre buildings in their simpleness without the added jargon of artistic ethos. We do not need to wait until people have died to embrace the engagement and contribution to societal issues.

This is not to dismiss the work our theatre buildings have done over the years - a more recent example being the rise of Battersea Arts Centre after the Grand Hall fire - the support of the community is what kept BAC alive during a very testing time. This is not to ignore vital hubs like The Albany that hold the Deptford community in the belly of its building. The good of the industry should not be swept aside, but each and every venue must openly interrogate what use this space would be without its people, and therefore how it must strategically prioritise them in a vision that has no hierarchy within the organisation. It must be understood and adopted by all; from the Front of House team, through to the Artistic Director. 

Maybe when we start to view these buildings purely as physical spaces for people to be, work, play and congregate in, we won’t be so blinded by what we can achieve outside of the mechanical structure of what a theatre building is meant to be.

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