Theatres Trust Conference 19 – Centre Stage

Battersea Arts Centre, Grand HallLast week I once again attended the annual Theatres Trust conference, this year on the theme of ‘Centre Stage – Artist and audience at the heart of theatres’. The venue was the wonderful Battersea Arts Centre – a building which did not disappoint when actually experienced. The ambience of the place is quite extraordinary – the layering of history, and the drama of the distressed finishes of the Grand Hall proudly wearing its scars. A rare and special place that matches the feel of Wilton’s Music Hall and The Panopticon in Glasgow.

As part of the day I was delighted to share Page\Park’s recent work with the Leeds Playhouse in a ‘lightning round’ of capital development projects giving a snapshot of theatre projects around the UK. This new format was a great way to disseminate information on a range of projects – but was certainly a bit of a gallop to condense 4 years into 5 minutes!

As ever the wide range of speakers and opinions from the floor made for a lively day with some common themes emerging. For me the most interesting session of the day was ‘People Centred Design’ which deftly summarised the themes of the day.

The first of these themes was a need to devolve decision making to ensure equitably representation and broaden engagement. Contact Theatre in Manchester is a fantastic example of this, having young people are embedded in the governance and programming of Contact. Appropriately their presentation was given by artistic Director Matt Fenton and Con:Struct participants Jake Howarth and Nasima Begum involved in the capital project young people’s team.

This theme of wider engagement was further developed in the presentation by David Micklem, co-founder of ’64 Million Artists’. He spoke about how everyone should be encouraged to embrace their ‘inner artist’, arguing for cultural democracy – as opposed to the democratisation of culture – and active citizenship. The analogy of how we were ‘subjects’ at the height of theatre building in the Victorian era, moving through the post war theatre building boom, when we were ‘consumers’, and how today we are ‘citizens’, resonated strongly with my project work at Page\Park.

Our work with historic buildings requiring creative adaptation is to ensure that these Victorian ‘edifices’ can properly reflect today’s society and values. Democratising entrances, making these buildings more comfortable by opening them up and providing equitable facilities are common to many of our projects.

Hannah Fox spoke about Derby Museums exploration of new ways to deliver their Museum of Making capital project through co-production – a truly participatory process maximising engagement from all stakeholders.

Madini Younis, Creative Director of the Southbank Centre had opened the day in a controversial fashion in his positive attitude towards embracing our uncertain but exciting times – and even advocating a bit of radical activism! Whilst advocating that we all need to ‘become more comfortable by being uncomfortable’, he also stressed the importance of our cultural buildings providing a sense of place and belonging. This is certainly our belief, demonstrated by our recent work for Leeds Playhouse, where the façade of the new entrance reflects the local ceramic tradition with a theatrical narrative embedded in the pattern.

And inevitably the issue of toilet provision came up in the final ‘Creative Spaces; session. I have had a keen interest in this topical issue since I first became involved with theatre buildings – having spent too much time in queues for the loo in the interval! I would argue that the way forward seems be to provide choice for everyone by maintaining gender assigned provisions supplemented by adequate numbers of individual WC compartments and spaces for those with differing needs.

The conference programme was a perfect mirror on what is happening in wider society – the debates about devolving power and finding new ways to work together feel very prescient – making for a very relevant and insightful day.

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