During the first weekend of October 2014, around 150 buildings across the UK will be transformed into “fun palaces”, in celebration of the legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood’s centenary. Lisa Parry chats to some of those involved and discovers what the project could mean to theatre practitioners in the future.
When writer, director and theatre-maker Stella Duffy called a session at Improbable’s Devoted and Disgruntled in 2013, “Who wants to do something for Joan Littlewood’s centenary that isn’t another revival of Oh! What a Lovely War?”, it’s fair to say she didn’t realise what she was about to unleash.
“There was a moment when we were talking about how we could maybe make a fun palace,” she says, “when [chief executive] Mark Courtice from Theatre Royal Winchester walked by and said: ‘Oh it’s our 100th anniversary in 2014, we could make a fun palace.’ And then everyone twigged – we already have all these venues.”
“At that point, we thought maybe we would get half a dozen palaces but Twitter has been astonishing. For example, Erica Whyman tweeted back ‘I’m in’ around the time she went to the RSC [as deputy artistic director] and then lots of tweets turned into fun palaces. I’ve done a ton of work pushing it, but from the start, it already had its own momentum and agenda.”
That agenda has been bottled up for decades. The fun palace was a concept dreamt up by Littlewood—most famous for developing the left-wing Theatre Workshop and her productions of Oh! What a Lovely War? and A Taste of Honey—and architect Cedric Price in 1961. Inspired by Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, their palace was to be a purpose-built space which would house culture, science and provoke debate in a fun way. Their blueprint sounds rather nebulous:
“Choose what you want to do—or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting—or just lie back and stare at the sky.”
Nevertheless it was rooted in the idea of community. For various bureaucratic reasons however, it was never built. Despite this, the idea of the fun palace was hugely influential, notably in Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s early 1970s project, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. But Littlewood’s notion of “everyone a scientist, everyone an artist” remained homeless, until this year, an unactioned piece of her legacy.
Now, venues like the RSC, Birmingham Rep and the West End’s Lyric Hammersmith will make the abstract idea concrete, alongside scout huts and schools. For some, the community aspect of the project is enough. For example, Joanne Netherton, assistant head teacher at Kent’s Old Bexley Church of England Primary School says turning the school into a fun palace will be a good way of showing off the new building to the local community “and hopefully bringing everyone together, apologising for any inconvenience or upset the build may have caused.”
For others however, Littlewood will be the cornerstone of any work. “Joan Littlewood is such a significant figure in the UK’s theatre history we wanted to mark this anniversary,” says Geraldine Collinge, the RSC’s director of events and exhibitions. “We also wanted to celebrate participation in UK theatre and science with an open day of extraordinary activity that takes Joan’s values as a starting point.”
The palaces themselves will be incredibly diverse. They will not be managed by Duffy, nor by the project’s producer Sarah-Jane Rawlings. Nevertheless there is a loose framework to which all palaces must subscribe.
They must be:
- local, with community involvement, engagement and participation at their heart
- innovative, finding new ways to bring the arts and sciences together
- transformative, whether this be achieved through space or through the experience had by makers and participants
- engaging, with participants being involved
But what does this mean for artists choosing to make work under the fun palaces banner? Can serious artists take part in an event alongside scouts and bouncy castles? Duffy believes they can and that the project could have far-reaching consequences.
“Localism is brilliant, community is brilliant,” she says. “At the moment, I’m not sure that the idea of excellence in art is really excellence. Excellence could be a community getting together on a sunny morning and creating something that might be judged by a critic as dodgy, but it’s the community working together.”
“Also, as makers, we have an idea and we start there and we work towards it,” Duffy says. “As theatre makers, we try and get people engaged through showings and that sort of thing, but we are still making our idea and trying to get people engaged with it towards our end. What we are saying is—if you engage with people, the work we make will be different. That excites me so much—that we will start to see a shift in the type of work we are making.”
Certainly groups involved in the project share Duffy’s enthusiasm at switching the focus from artist-led to community-led work. Louisa Yates, director of collections and research at Flintshire’s Gladstone’s Library, which is planning a storytelling marathon and a micro-play workshop as part of the weekend, believes this shift can only be a good thing. “Our programme of creative writing events has revealed considerable numbers of keen, motivated, creative people who love to share their ideas in bright, inspiring, funny ways,” she says. “They must be one of the best audiences in the UK – they deserve a public platform on which they can take centre stage.”
For Mike Shepherd, founder and joint artistic director of Kneehigh, a shift in standard working practices, inspired by Joan Littlewood, has already happened. Shepherd was given Littlewood’s out-of-print autobiography Joan’s Book as a 50th birthday present—a read he describes as “the direct spur” to build The Asylum, Kneehigh’s portable performance space which can seat up to 850 people. Shepherd says The Asylum is Cornwall’s fun palace, and although the company’s work in it will close just before the October weekend, Kneehigh is dedicating its co-production of Dead Dog in a Suitcase (with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse) to Littlewood, with community events running alongside it in Heligan.
Shepherd is passionate about reaching out to the community and making fun work. “There’s still a snobbery in this country about being populist,” he says. “But you should be popular and accessible. It doesn’t mean you’re dumbing down. The idea of a group of people on a journey, all learning together—we need to keep that oxygenated. It’s got to be a good thing.”
Shepherd describes how working with the community can lead to greater engagement, citing Kneehigh’s work with bereaved and autistic children who are given free tickets to performances. For Duffy too, this notion of localism is something that might break down barriers within communities and across social classes.
“I’m appallingly idealistic,” she says. “I believe the arts can make a difference. Everyone ought to have access to culture and art. But coming from my family, I didn’t feel I had access to opera. I didn’t hear any until I was 16 and it sounded strange to me. Other people feel that way about Shakespeare. It’s not about money, it’s about how you grow up.”
“In a sense, this is about us asking how we can better share what we have with each other, how we can talk to each other more. It’s really basic.”
“We want to say culture isn’t something you get to, it’s what you are. It’s not something other, it’s all of us.”
But what about the other strand to all this—the sciences? For some people, the union of arts and sciences has been the chief reason to take part. Freelance theatre designer and art director Cherry Truluck, who is co-organising a fun palace at the iconic Crystal Palace, admits this is what most excites her.
“My personal approach to the arts is interdisciplinary, having come from a background in architecture and now working in theatre and live art,” she says, “so the idea of an event that combined the arts and sciences—without needing to differentiate between the two—naturally appealed to me.” Crystal Palace is planning science work around its radio transmitter and broadcasting history, work which will sit side-by-side with a poetry open-mic.
Duffy admits she is asking scientists to take a leap of faith in the project. “I speak to scientists and they ask what they can do because you can’t do this in a lab,” she says. “But the science could be something like—you jump in a cold pool and your blood pressure is taken before and afterwards and then maybe someone makes a painting of that. Joan and Cedric were going to put arts and sciences in separate rooms. But we will learn from each other.”
What do you do if you find yourself unable to attend one of the events? Plans are being made for a digital fun palace, exploring art, science, politics and nature through games and adventures. The project is still in its early stages but both Duffy and Rawlings are confident it will add a valuable dimension to the weekend, incorporating technology of which Littlewood and Price could only dream.
To find your nearest fun palace on October 4th and 5th, and to find out how to get involved, visit www.funpalaces.co.uk.
This article first appeared in Issue 3 of Bare Fiction Magazine (July 2014).