working from home: the producing hub

david micklem: battersea arts centre, london

Tom Lawrence, The Masque of the Red Death, a BAC/Punchdrunk co-production

Tom Lawrence, The Masque of the Red Death, a BAC/Punchdrunk co-production

FOR 28 YEARS BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE [BAC] HAS PLAYED A PIVOTAL ROLE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THEATRE IN THE UK. OCCUPYING A VICTORIAN FORMER TOWN HALL IN SOUTH WEST LONDON, THE ORGANISATION WORKS TO DELIVER A MISSION TO INVENT THE FUTURE OF THEATRE. THROUGH STRUCTURED SUPPORT PROGRAMS WE NURTURE ARTISTS AND COMPANIES IN AN ENVIRONMENT THAT ENCOURAGES EXPERIMENTATION AND RISK.

With a loyal audience playing a central role in the development of new work, we have offered a critical resource for a broad range of theatremakers for over two decades. Over that time BAC has helped nurture hundreds of companies including DV8, Improbable, Kneehigh, Complicité and more recently Punchdrunk, 1927 and Ridiculusmus. BAC’s co-production with Punchdrunk, The Masque of the Red Death—a building-wide, immersive theatrical experience—completed an eight-month sell out run in April 2008.

staying at home

In January last year after a quarter century occupying Battersea Old Town Hall, BAC was threatened with closure. Wandsworth Borough Council, our landlord and key funding partner, took the decision to withdraw financial support and levy a commercial rent on the building after decades of rent free use. While highly prized by artists, our audience and backers including the Arts Council, it looked like BAC would have to vacate its premises. A campaign was launched and the team at BAC began to look at a range of options including closure or relocation. Eighteen months on and after a campaign that included a question to Tony Blair in the House of Commons, BAC has been saved. Wandsworth Borough Council has reinstated most of the grant it threatened to cut and we have just signed a 125 year lease on the building.

This story is important for many reasons. When the prospect of alternative sites was explored it became clear that much of the success of our organisation could be traced to the relationship we have to our Victorian home. Our success as a theatre and as a developer of new work is in part rooted in the fact that the building we occupy is not a theatre but a found space. Although we do offer black box studios, many rooms are relatively unchanged from their intended use as places for public and private congregation within a municipal building. From tiny attic rooms to a Council Chamber and a grand hall, BAC presents an incredible playground for artists and companies. The success of so many performances generated by BAC is partly attributable to this architectural provocation.

renovating the house

This attitude to space is at the heart of our emerging plans for the building. In our ‘co-production’ with a brilliant team of theatre architects, we seek a series of phased solutions that will retain the ghosts of our building’s Victorian past while embracing 21st century technologies and infrastructure for artists and audiences. We have begun a process that sees the building through the eyes of theatremakers and, over the long term, will unlock the potential of a contemporary performance environment across our half-hectare site.

We want our plans to develop in the same way that great theatre emerges from the rehearsal room. Much of the work we develop starts with an idea or a theme. The productions we support are forged in the rehearsal room, often by an ensemble committed to working collaboratively. In the same way our architectural project is seen as creative process where ideas are given time to emerge, develop, breathe, flourish. While we have bold and ambitious ideas for the building we strive to keep our options open. We want to experiment with space, slowly learning how different environments might be best used across the building. We are excited by the prospect of building a ‘home’ at BAC—a space where artists, producers and staff can eat and drink together; a new model for residencies in London where we can accommodate UK and international artists. We are tapping a rich seam of new ideas through a process that is deliberately fluid, flexible, mutable. David Jubb, with whom I share BAC’s artistic directorship, calls this process “playgrounding”—a new way of improvising with space that places theatre artists and architects at the heart of the design process.

the house producers

This process draws on our experiences of a decade of ‘scratch’ at BAC. Over this period BAC has refined a model of development that has now been adopted by dozens of other arts organisations across the UK and overseas. This methodology places an artist’s work, at an early stage in its development, in front of an audience for the first time. Encouraged to provide critical feedback, the audience plays an integral role in the development of new work. The bar becomes a place for debate and conversation about the journey that emerging practice might take. The environment is supportive. Seeds are sown. Critics are banned.

Critical to this process is the role of the producer. For the last five years BAC has pioneered a particular approach to this role. Every artist and company we support is assigned a producer who slowly and skilfully brokers the emerging links between an artist or company and an audience. Armed with an understanding of the creative process of making theatre fused with an entrepreneurial zeal, BAC producers are responsible for assisting the birth of many new works every year. From our participatory work with young people to the development of world class professional theatre, it is this role that drives our program and unlocks the potential in many artists’ work.

supporting producers

And it is this role that the Arts Council in England [ACE] has over the last five years taken greater interest in. As a previous employee and one charged with leading this funder’s relationship with an emerging generation of producers I developed a series of initiatives aimed at raising the profile of and support for dynamic cultural entrepreneurs working in the arts in England.

Between 2005 and 2007 the Arts Council made a series of interventions aimed at providing a more sustainable base from which producers could work. Foremost amongst these was a scheme that provided a small coterie of independent producers with regular funding as a contribution towards operating costs. These grants were made with few strings attached with the intention of providing core support for producers working in contemporary performance, music, live literature and new media and music. In each case, and with demonstrable results that exceeded the expectations of relatively minimal investment, these producers delivered. Some attached themselves to partner organisations to access broader networks while retaining their all-important independence. Regular funding was offered on the understanding that supported producers would be able to come back to ACE for additional finances for individual projects. The piloting of support for independent producers was deemed a great success. Some of the individuals supported this way are now funded on an ongoing basis and all have punched above their weight, many making significant contributions to their artforms.

the challenge

Faced with similar challenges and a champion in John Baylis, the Australia Council developed a parallel scheme. But back in the UK in 2008 the climate is changing again and while some producers now feel on a more stable footing, all are faced with dwindling project funds. The 2012 Olympic Games raid on lottery funds is now felt across the arts and the promised access to flexible project funds is fast drying up. Many independents feel better recognised and core support has increased the sustainability of many, but a curb on project funding is beginning to bite and producers’ ability to broker the relationships between artists and audiences is slowly being curtaiiled.

case studies

The prevailing ethos of the producer is echoed in The Producers: Alchemists of the Impossible. This book, a collaboration between the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and the Arts Council, aims to shine a light on a dozen or so producers working in the arts in the UK and mainland Europe and serve as an inspiration to a new generation of cultural entrepreneurs. It offers a rich set of individual case studies and aims to capture the qualities and attributes that lie at the heart of the producing mindset. One chapter focuses on David Jubb and the unique producing vision he has brought to BAC:

I reckon my most important quality as a producer is to create a flexible space for play in which anything can happen and to keep that space open for long enough for something extraordinary to happen. That often means keeping the space open and keeping people’s confidence in the space way beyond any rational position.

It is this desire to create oxygen around the creative process that lies at the heart of the producing mission at BAC. With a fleetness of foot and a healthy attitude to risk BAC continues to give artists and audiences genuine space to play.

David Micklem is Joint Artistic Director, BAC, London, www.bac.org.uk; www.the-producers.org

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 22

© David Micklem; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2008
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