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Battersea Arts Centre: a true community theatre

Charlie Kenber

We spoke to David Jubb, Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre, about ‘inventing the future of theatre’ in a deeply historical setting…

The Town Hall that holds the Battersea Arts Centre has now been standing for 120 years. Fittingly for the experimental and inventive work staged there, the building has had an especially radical history: London’s first black mayor was elected there in 1913, suffragettes spoke there a number of times, and the first organised socialist party in the whole country was constituted there.

Quite some history then. Unsurprisingly the building is currently undergoing a £13.3 million renovation, but as Artistic Director David Jubb explains, this is largely about turning it back into a Town Hall. “It becomes a much more creative space for artists, and it’s then a more welcoming space with audiences too because you’re also exploring a historical space. There are eighty rooms in total, and so audiences pretty much get to wander where they want to. It’s a bit of an adventure.”

This allows artists to choose from a wide range of flexible spaces, rather than your traditional black box studios, “the conversation starts usually with a walk around the building now…asking what space might be most appropriate to both develop and present the show in.” This has even forced staff to move the office around: “it’s like that game with nine squares and there’s one free and you move the squares around into different configurations. It sometimes feels like we’re doing that but without a missing square!” To emphasise the point we’re interrupted by someone moving furniture as we speak – this is a building that is constantly changing.

David has programmed a season of work to celebrate the anniversary, featuring some artists who have performed at the BAC before such as Nic Green (performing Fatherland) and Uninvited Guests, as well as some new artists, including Polish company Teatr Zar (with Caesarean Section). The programme reflects David’s belief that “theatre should be a popular accessible art form for everyone, rather than something you do with a glass of wine at 7.30 in the evening, or that only certain groups of people do.”

One particular highlight that is bound to appeal to all the family is The Great Escape, based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. “Children get to don white coats and spectacles and become part of the Borrower Information Network. They get to go hunting around the building, because of course being a Victorian Town Hall there are hundreds of Borrowers living here now. It’s a really lovely show where the kids are co-opted to try and save Bob the Borrower who’s being chased by the KBD (Keep Borrowers Down), and the whole family can go on that adventure too.”

As well as exploiting its unique spaces, much of the work directly engages with the building’s history. For David, this history is very much alive and present today. “We’re trying to think about the building’s heritage not just as a dusty old document in a glass box for you to peer at…there are over a thousand events that happen in the building every year as well as the shows [these include everything from weddings to accountancy exams], and the way that the building continues to be used by the community is all a part of that history.”

This heritage-inspired work includes an audio tour that directly engages with the story of local hero George Neighbour, who died in a fire in 1909 trying to save two women. “There’s a plaque up to George Neighbour in the Grand Hall and so this audio tour traces his story”, David tells us, “but it also looks at the history of the riots in 2011, and takes you on an audio journey around various sites around Lavender Hill.”

“Alongside that one of the things that we’ve done is worked very closely with the Wandsworth Heritage Service…they’ve got all of the records of the Town Hall dating back to the 19th Century. We’ve created a digital archive of all of their records.” People will be able to access this archive and learn about the building and its area.

David still sees a problem in the regions however, and so the Battersea Arts Centre is engaging with a number of regional centres, including Great Yarmouth, Hull, Thanet and Gloucester. “I think London’s increasingly a bit of a bubble…in some of those regional towns there might not be a very thriving arts scene. There are people there who are very passionate about it and who really want an arts scene. So at the moment we’re working over the next three years with six producers promoting six towns to do thirty-six festivals. I think that’s certainly something that organizations in London – and indeed in other metropolitan centres – can and should be doing more of.”

The community theatre then must begin to engage with the nation as a whole: all the better that David is set to run the Battersea Arts Centre for a while to come. “I will certainly be here for the foreseeable future,” he tells us, “because there’s a lot more to do in terms of developing the building and opening it up.”

For full details of the season, which runs until 23rd November visit the website.

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