Today, I was planning to write a review on a production I saw in the ‘From Devon With Love’ festival. I sat down with my notes, and felt compelled to put them to one side. It wasn’t what I wanted to write about, from my heart.
Yesterday, I went to a talk by the infamous Charles Dance. He spoke about Game of Thrones, his new ventures into directing, and his decades-long career. I arrived late, with one minute to spare before the doors closed, sprinting down the stairs (in heeled boots) to find my friends near the front. I cursed myself for letting this talk creep up on me, for not thinking of a good question to ask him, to make this worth my while. Then, during his description of his theatrical beginnings, it hit me- repertory theatre! An almost-dead tradition in the UK- how are young actors supposed to break into the industry without that starting leg-up?
For anyone unfamiliar, repertory theatres were highly local theatres where young actors learnt their skills. They’d put on six shows in six weeks, non-stop, meeting people and making connections. These institutions survived from heavy subsidisation from the government. Once Thatcher’s government came into power, this subsidy was stripped away, and without it, the non-commercial theatres like rep theatres died. Now, there is only a smattering of rep theatres left, mostly in bigger cities, making seeing affordable professional theatre a distant dream for audiences in remote or rural areas, and cutting off an essential starting point for actors from all over the country.
With this in mind, I asked Charles what he’d recommend we do. The answers he and Don Boyd gave were not surprising, but important to hear from a successful actors mouth- start your own theatre company, or work in Fringe theatre.
This gave me a sense of security in a very insecure industry, and meant I could start to formulate a plan of where to go from here. Only to have that ripped from under me less than 24 hours later.
The Bikeshed Theatre is closing.
All over my twitter feed, and in my emails, but it wasn’t until I broke the news to fellow drama students that it really began to sink in.
The Bikeshed is many things: a quirky cellar with an aesthetic I grew into and came home to; a maker of killer cocktails; a bastion of excellent emerging theatre; and a playground for emerging artists to develop their craft- today’s answer to a rep.
I’d always imagined having an incredible idea for a production, and taking it to the Bikeshed, finding new ways of working where I have people to catch me when I fall. That’s what the spirit of theatre is. It’s not hostile glares at thirty women in a queue who all look like you. It’s not creating a ‘brand’ for yourself to market your personality. It’s about collaboration, active listening, a big heart and a way of seeing the world that is off-the-beaten-track. It’s the space used for a profession that relies on empathy above all else.
As of March 31st, a light will go out in Exeter, a shining star of culture. A place that attracted people from all over the South-West to come and watch new work sprout from the soil beneath us. A place to escape from the polished package of touring companies and mainstream musicals- a place to see the crazy and the bizarre for people who didn’t have the budget to hire out the Northcott. A place that actually brought together students and artists with the rest of the community, to share a common culture, no matter where you came from.
This is not a blog post about the Bikeshed. That ship has sailed- they have deliberated on how best to carry on and have eventually reached this conclusion. I admire them for their commitment to their vision and their willingness to prioritise integrity over artificial longevity.
This is a post about small-scale alternative theatre venues. Because I am scared for them.
In the world we live in, things are only worth how much money they will make you. It turns out, unfortunately, that theatre won’t make you that much, making it hard to convince investors.
What we can do, as ordinary people, is prove them wrong.
Prove to them that our theatres are valuable institutions and that we won’t let them die.
Do whatever you can. Go to your local theatre, even if all you can afford is a pint, buy it, because whatever you can give will help prove that these places are worth pouring money into.
For those of you who live in Exeter, spend some time in Bikeshed while you still can. Buy a drink, see a show, or just spend an evening playing board games. If the Boat Shed manages to take off, don’t hesitate to show your support.
To all of the staff at Bikeshed, thank you for making my time in Exeter a special one. I’ve only been volunteering there for a few months, but the time I’ve spent there has been invaluable. I remember coming to Exeter, and being concerned about the lack of theatre, tv and radio in the area.
Thank you for changing my mind.
How to support the Bikeshed from here on in: https://www.bikeshedtheatre.co.uk/news/faqs/