Wanted, West Yorkshire Playhouse


What do you want to see on stage?

That’s the question that Chris Goode and Company asked the people of Leeds. And it seems like an apt question to kick off a weekend of looking ahead to the new, expanded incarnation of Transform, a reimagined theatre festival for the city. Transform will take its official first steps as an independent, international festival next year; over two days on 22nd-23rd April, it offered a taster of what’s to come. What better way to anticipate and develop a city-wide festival than to ask the people of that city what they actually want to see?

I was, then, immediately on board with the premise and intentions of Wanted. As invitations go, it’s full of possibility. Scrap that: it’s defined by possibility. The only limits, in theory, are the imaginations of participants and the resources of the festival. So I stepped into West Yorkshire Playhouse on the Friday night of Transform expecting to see gloriously wonky, DIY attempts to make people’s wildest dreams come true on stage. I had images in my head of papier-mâché dragons and confetti cannons and a riot of movement and colour. I was expecting, above all, something theatrical.

But what Wanted really seemed to ask (or what its participants seemed to answer) was a different question: what do you want to do/say on stage?

Though the individual three-minute segments were hugely varied, a pattern of statements emerged. Intriguingly – and somewhat surprisingly in the moment, if not so much on reflection – most of the people and organisations with whom Chris Goode and Company made the show treated this opportunity as a platform. The stage became a vehicle for causes, passions and beliefs, from world peace to the Yorkshire dialect. Wanted thus felt, in many ways, like a not-so-distant cousin of Stand, another Chris Goode and Company show about the idea of standing up for what you believe in.

So we in the audience are asked to check our privilege. We are told about the plight of Kurds in the Middle East. We learn about the work of local charities and community groups. We are urged to respect difference. Voices are given to young people with learning disabilities, to the LGBTQ community, to survivors of abuse and oppression. The theatre feels like a political chamber and the stage finally seems to boast that democracy that it so often aspires to.

Except, of course, it’s not entirely democratic. What we see in front of us has still been chosen, curated, squeezed into snug three-minute slots. It makes me want to know more about the process. How did Chris Goode and Company go about extending this invitation? Who else did they speak to? How did they decide who to include and exclude?

Then there’s the limit of those three minutes, another element (if an understandable one) of control on the part of the “professional” theatre-makers. How much can you really say or do or show in three minutes? How do you choose to use that time? And to what extent does that restriction impel or restrain the voices and creativity of those involved?

Before I misrepresent the experience, it’s not all preaching and protesting. There’s also a toddler being swung round in the air (and my God does it look fun) and a rabbit (with a case of stage fright on the night I attend) hopping around to the strains of “Bright Eyes”. There’s a woman gently, humorously remembering her trips with her late mother to the very theatre we’re sat in. There’s a David Bowie impersonator singing “Heroes”. There are kids dancing in superhero costumes. And it’s all as heart-melting and grin-making as it sounds.

But the most interesting thing about Wanted is, ultimately, the invitation issued to its participants and how they have chosen to interpret it. Does that make it any better or worse as theatre than the loveably over-ambitious, confetti-strewn extravaganza I’d constructed in my imagination? I still can’t decide.

I’ll close, instead, with some words from Chris Goode’s new book The Forest and the Field that feel particularly apt when thinking about Wanted. This passage seems, to me, to convey some of the thinking and feeling that feeds into Wanted, if not necessarily (again, for me) reflecting the reality of it as an experience. Maybe Wanted is best thought of as one inevitably flawed articulation of this understanding of theatre – one of the “pieces”, to borrow Goode’s words from elsewhere, that nod towards a whole.

“[…] at its best, you can live inside theatre, in the way that you might feel that you live inside a set of political or religious commitments: the feeling that you don’t contain such commitments – they contain you. Thus theatre becomes a way of looking at the world, a way of forming and deepening relationships, a way of connecting the intellectual and the romantic, the political and the sexual, the individual and the collective, the civic and the visionary, the present and the future. To borrow what the poet Roy Fisher said (of Birmingham): theatre’s what I think with. Seen always as a hybrid art and a social practice, theatre will expand to accommodate whatever you bring to it; everything can be taken to the work, nothing is necessarily excluded.”

Arts and Older Audiences


Originally written for The Stage.

When attempting to improve engagement with theatre, focus often falls on the young. It is of course vital for the survival and reinvigoration of the art form that new generations come into our theatres, both as artists and audiences, and are inspired to keep coming back. But what are theatres doing at the other end of the scale?

Over the last few years, the problems raised by an ageing population have been firmly on the political agenda, raising questions about how this growing group of older people can be catered for in society. In a report commissioned for Parliament in 2010, it was found that over 10 million people in the UK were over 65 years old, a figure that was expected to have nearly doubled by the middle of the century.

This age shift is reflected in cultural attendance. According to the latest statistical release from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, there has been a significant increase in arts engagement among adults aged 65 and over since 2005/06, but adults aged 75 and over still have lower engagement rates than other age groups – arguably due to barriers that limit their access.

In recognition of this demographic movement, the Arts Council has now begun implementing strategic measures to boost engagement among older people, in line with its promise of “great art for everyone”. Last year, it launched a £1 million grant jointly funded with the Baring Foundation, intended to widen access to the arts for older people in residential care.

One of the successful recipients of funds from this initiative was The Courtyard Centre for the Arts in Hereford, which in recent years has been firmly committed to working with older people and those with dementia. Penny Allen, the Arts and Older People project manager at The Courtyard, explains that their programme involves a mixture of long and short term projects, ranging from a poetry project for people with dementia to a regular over 60s choir. The arts centre is also committed to becoming a “dementia friendly” venue and is the first organisation of its type to join the Dementia Action Alliance.

“Art has the power to reach people who may no longer be able to communicate as they once did,” says Allen. “By making arts accessible to all older people, be it in our venue, or in community venues or even residential settings, we are helping improve the quality of people’s lives and that is a powerful, wonderful thing.”

Inspired by the work being done at the Courtyard, Farnham Maltings in Surrey is taking similar steps to make its building welcoming for people with dementia, as well as offering events such as relaxed cinema screenings and tea dances aimed at older audiences. Director Gavin Stride insists that “if we are serious about audience development then we need to respond to the changing shape of our communities”. He hopes that in time “it will be an everyday occurrence to have elders and those with dementia accessing and contributing to our building and programme”.

Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC in Stockton, similarly sees the venue’s work with older people as part of its aim to connect with the whole community. “That’s the key thing,” Turpin stresses, “we want to connect people.” ARC’s Silver programme now regularly welcomes around 160 older people, who get involved with everything from ukulele lessons to iPad workshops. Crucially, the programme has been shaped in response to what its participants want.

The Albany in South London has equally built its Meet Me at the Albany programme around the older people it hopes to reach, as well as in collaboration with its resident artists, such as participatory arts company Entelechy. Activities in the programme range from poetry to circus skills, interspersed with board games and refreshments. Artistic director Gavin Barlow hopes that the work they are doing can pose “a real challenge to the way we think of things like social care for the elderly”, as well as creating a long-term programme that involves true artistic risk.

Both ARC and The Albany are involved in a new collaboration with Entelechy and Freedom Studios in Bradford, culminating in a joint touring show. Home Sweet Home, written by Emma Adams, draws on the experiences of over 200 older people from Bradford, London and Stockton, and explores the transition that many experience from home to care home. It demonstrates just one way in which this participatory work intersects creatively with the work of professional artists.

As well as connecting artists and participants, many of those working with older people emphasise the importance of intergenerational engagement. West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Heydays programme, which has been running for 24 years, is currently the largest regularly run project of its kind. Community development officer Nicky Taylor says that the work they do with older people “feeds back into the fabric of Playhouse, ensuring it’s a diverse, multi-generational creative space where people feel valued”.

Intergenerational work has also been an integral component of the work done by London Bubble Theatre Company, based in South London. Elders are often central to the process of gathering and shaping material for London Bubble’s intergenerational shows, working closely with participants of all ages. More recently, the Creative Homes project has taken London Bubble’s workshops to those who might not otherwise be able to attend, running groups in local sheltered housing schemes.

Creative Homes, like many of these projects, is still at a relatively early stage in its development. What it does, however, is pave the way for others. Taylor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse has the message that “you can make real and significant change in your venues with only a few small steps”. Barlow, meanwhile, claims that Meet Me at the Albany has demonstrated “massive potential” for work of this kind.

For all of these projects, the aim is ultimately about opening out the arts to the whole community – young and old. As London Bubble’s creative director Jonathan Petherbridge puts it, “Our aim is to open up the joys of theatre making to all-comers. We want to weave it into the every day – a creative action, like whistling and doodling.”

Photo: West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Transform 14: This Building is Full of Secrets

Originally written for Exeunt.


A journey through a door marked “no entry”. A road trip that covers hundreds of miles without moving an inch. A game in which there are no winners. A dream. A plunge into darkness. A constellation of stories.

The statement of intent running underneath the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s fourth annual Transform festival, emblazoned on the front of its attention-stealing pink and purple brochure, is “reimagining what theatre can look like and what it can do”. The varied festival programme is true to this intent, incorporating everything from off-site interactive performance to small-scale storytelling; from intimate audio tours to late-night cabaret and live art. Some of the work is finished, some of it is embryonic. Around the edges of the festival, meanwhile, there are installations and conversations, inserting art into surprising places.

As festival producer Amy Letman explained to me last year, each event to date has had its own distinct identity. When I was in this same theatre 12 months ago, a little patch of the outdoors had been brought into the bar, suggesting the permeability of theatre and city. While last year’s festival was very much about Leeds, this year’s focus seems to be much more on Transform as a recognisable entity in itself. There’s an appealing sort of swagger, both in the bold colour scheme – volunteers in loud pink T-shirts are dotted around the Playhouse, making the festival impossible to ignore – and in the programme.

This confidence is perhaps most evident in the Playhouse’s foyer and bar, where the festival has occupied the space and become a throbbing hive of activity, drawing in curious audience members as they spill out of the Quarry Theatre. On Friday night, a band plays until late and the area around the bar is packed with bodies. It might have taken a few years, as a number of those who have been involved since the beginning admit, but Transform feels at home here now.

Play the game.

As anyone who has ever had to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance will know, the Job Centre can feel like something of a farce. It is this strand of absurdity that artist Selina Thompson has seized on, creating a new piece of interactive theatre that is as fierce as it is funny. It Burns It All Clean, commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse specifically for Transform, is a silly, satirical trip through a new kind of job centre, with the grand prize of £56.80 for the players who come out on top.

Speaking about her research, Thompson tells me that what was most striking about the conversations she had with jobseekers was the number of people who talked about “playing the game”. Arriving to it from the outside, the benefits system can seem like a labyrinth of unspoken rules, which Thompson has deliberately reflected in the structure of her show. As players in a surreal, constantly shifting game, it is impossible to gain a solid footing.

While taking part in the show – which is just as entertaining as it is troubling – I was also made painfully aware of my urge to perform. This may not be a surprising reflection for a piece of interactive performance, which has a tendency to make its audiences think about their role within the work, but it also prompted me to consider the damaging ways in which the unemployment system might demand people to perform their worthiness. All too quickly, I found myself eager to please – to play the game.

I am interested to hear that Thompson hopes to develop the work further following its outing at Transform. In its current state, It Burns It All Clean feels like an intriguing starting point more than anything else; a striking initial provocation. Its power lies in the transition between contained, involving silliness and the quiet, reflective space it offers as an epilogue to its climax. This is political anger with a smiling face, slowly peeling off the mask.

It is apt that this is playing at Transform alongside Gym Party, Made in China’s anarchic critique of the competition that drives capitalist societies. The show, which I saw in various stages of development last year, enacts a similar movement to It Burns It All Clean, containing a simmering rage beneath its shiny exterior. It is also, like It Burns It All Clean, about games – and about winning. In a system that makes losers of so many of us, it would seem that we still can’t resist playing.

This building is full of secrets, whispered into cracks in the wall. Around hidden corners, dreams surge against the rocks. This building is the product of your imagination.

Backstage spaces, however tatty, always hold a strange kind of magic. It is this thrilling, intangible charge that Hannah Bruce & Company exploit in their new piece, the second of this year’s Transform commissions. The Claim is essentially an audio guide with a performance element, but with the added appeal of leading audiences out of bounds, behind “no entry” signs and through closed doors. These spaces in the bowels of the West Yorkshire Playhouse are not just hidden away; they are secret, forbidden, kept closed off to prying eyes.

While the illicit frisson of trespassing is tempered by a framework of permission – each audience member is always part of a group, accompanied by an usher – there is still an undeniable excitement that comes hand in hand with being offered access to these secret spaces. The journey, which takes place along different tracks for difference audience groups, is constructed with care. It begins in the auditorium of the Quarry Theatre, a familiar area of the Playhouse, but offers us a view of this eerily empty space from different angles. Peeking in from its thresholds, we catch glimpses of dancers moving through the sea of seats, while the stage behind is viewed in fragments.

Max Jones’ gorgeous, evocative set for current Quarry show Of Mice and Men provides a beautiful and occasionally haunting backdrop for these early sequences, its canopy of lightbulbs dimly glowing above us. It is when the piece guides us further away from the stage, however, that it becomes most compelling. Its revelatory moment arrives when we are guided into a vast, shadowy cavern beneath the theatre; it is the one moment in which a real connection with the building’s past and the housing complex that used to sit on its site is felt.

The Claim suffers a little from the usual challenges of audio works, struggling at times to integrate the instructions that guide us around the building and the enticing calls to our imagination. Distractions impede the fluid movement it seeks, never allowing an audience to get truly lost in memories and musings. There is, as with much interactive theatre, an invitation to engage that is not quite seen through.

That said, the piece manages to render these backstage environments truly magical, at the same time as offering an intriguing sideways look at the world. As we are released into the cool afternoon air, I walk away thinking about everyday spaces and the hidden traces of beauty and memory that might cling to them.

“We invite into the room as much – of everything – as the room can help us to hold.”
Chris Goode

There is an intoxicating sort of calm to Chris Goode’s rehearsal rooms. On stepping over the threshold of the wide, airy third-floor space, I feel that perpetual knot of anxiety somewhere in my chest loosen a little, while the relentless ticking away of the minutes seems to temporarily pause. Melting into a chair on the edges of the action – I prefer to be a quiet, unobtrusive presence in the room – I instantly relax, settling quickly into absorbed observation.

I am here to watch Chris Goode and Company work on Albemarle, a new project about dreams, hopes and utopia. As I will be missing the sharing on Sunday, the company are offering me a snatched glimpse of rehearsals. The experience is enthralling but all too brief. The company are mostly weaving together two separately developed strands, as actors and dancers are united for the first time this week. The group share a series of prepared gestures, which are oddly captivating in themselves, before these are placed within the context of a movement sequence.

For a few minutes, with music playing in the background and later overlaid with a piece of text read aloud by Goode, the performers navigate a grid that has been outlined on the floor in tape. As they move carefully along its lines, they freely deploy the series of gestures, which range from hugging to waving to kneeling. These gestures can be either solitary or communal, but is fascinating to witness the urge to mirror and embrace; as it evolves, the sequence seems to become more and more about encounters between the individual bodies. I am reminded of Tino Sehgal’s These Associations in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, with its swirl of moving bodies and fleeting engagements.

After my peek into the rehearsal room, I have lunch with Goode, during which we talk about the project, the festival and the context of work in progress sharings. The Albemarle sharing has been framed as a “sketchbook”, which is doubly apt. More than the woolly “work in progress” tag, it suggests unfinished fragments, delicate outlines that still need to be filled in. It also hints at the presence of artist Lou Sumray in the room, whose gorgeous line drawings capture the movement and energy of rehearsals far more effectively than any usual method of documentation.

The difficulty with festivals such as Transform, as we discuss, is how to talk about the work that they encompass, as well as drawing meaningful links between the festival line-up and the rest of the theatre’s programme. It has been observed that Transform now feels much more like an integral part of the Playhouse’s life than when it began three years ago, gradually making a home for itself within the programme and feeling more closely associated with the theatre’s identity in the city. It’s all about connections.

I am also short of time for Ring, David Rosenberg and Glen Neath’s unsettling “sound journey” in the pitch black, which I experienced last year at Battersea Arts Centre. I do, however, get to take a second trip to Cape Wrath, Third Angel’s charming and intimate storytelling piece. The show, which takes place in a minibus parked up outside the Playhouse, recalls two journeys: that of Alexander Kelly’s grandfather to Scotland’s most north-westerly point and the retracing of that journey by Kelly over 20 years later. It is gentle, enchanting and absorbingly told by Kelly – everything you want from a story.With a wonderful sort of irony, I run out of time for Abigail Conway’s installation Time Lab, which invites visitors to dismantle a wristwatch and create something new from its remains, reclaiming and recycling the minutes that usually dictate our lives. The closest I get to it is a brief conversation with artist and performer Ira Brand on the way to It Burns It All Clean, during which she describes the desire to spend longer with the piece, to get absorbed in the intricate care of the activity.

Stories are also at the heart of Fast Cuts and Snapshots, the Inua Ellams rehearsed reading that is presented by Fuel on Friday evening. Ellams’ new play takes a barber shop for its static setting, positioning this space as a focal point for the many characters who revolve around it. These loquacious customers discuss everything from politics to football, often reflecting on the situation in their native African states and their experiences of living in the UK. The action is frenetic, cutting swiftly from scene to scene, while the characters’ wide-ranging ruminations occasionally feel contrived. As it settles down, however, the piece becomes quietly compelling, sketching a vivid portrait of this lively social hub.

There are other fragments of the festival that I miss in my hurried two-day visit. I never manage to sit down for a conversation with Sonia Hughes, who is inviting strangers to join her for a cuppa and a chat in the Playhouse’s foyer, though I do fall into conversations with several other festival-goers over the two days. I miss two shows about love – Love Letters Straight from Your Heart and put your sweet hand in mine – and one about death: Unlimited Theatre’s new piece Am I Dead Yet? And it is a bit of a wrench to leave before the Transform Variety Night, hosted by self-described “light artist” Scottee.

Reflecting on the festival a year ago, I noted its “intoxicating, transitory buzz”, wondering how this might extend into something more permanent. That buzz remains, as do odd traces of the festival’s spirit in the Playhouse’s main programme. Vincent Dance Theatre’sMotherland – with one of the boldest and best posters I’ve seen in a long time – is following fast on the heels of Transform, while the theatre’s Furnace strand continues to support artists such as RashDash. As artistic director James Brining puts it, “by getting more artists creating, exploring, experimenting within the building – and that doesn’t necessarily just mean the walls, it’s in the bloodstream of the theatre – we are animating the metabolism of the theatre”.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Building Innovation

NORTH14 group photo credit Topher McGrillis

Originally written for The Stage.

Theatregoers and theatre-makers alike can breathe a sigh of relief as The Shed, the National Theatre’s temporary riverside venue, is granted a longer life. The 225-seat space could now be open for up to another three years, extending its programme of new and experimental work. Under the National Theatre’s associate director Ben Power, this little red powerhouse has stretched the remit of the theatre’s programming since opening last April, bringing in exciting new artists and different ways of working.

But The Shed is not alone. Across the country, a range of subsidised venues are investing in innovative, experimental programming, developing the next generation of artists from within their walls. From festivals to scratch nights, artist residencies to audience development initiatives, these regional producing houses are dedicated to developing the theatre ecology around them, even in lean times.

For Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, new ways of working with artists are not an accessory to the theatre’s core work – they are essential. “The old systems simply aren’t of use,” he says simply, referring to how funding cuts have altered the landscape. In their place, the venue is looking at strands of work that feed the ecosystem of young artists – such as its NORTH scheme for performing arts graduates – and offer the space for new companies to test their work in front of audiences.

This latter need is filled by the theatre’s Stage Three space, which Campbell is developing into a fringe venue for the city. The work on this stage will not be produced by Northern Stage, but instead the venue will be thrown open to Newcastle’s young artists. “Unless there’s a space for those artists to get their work on and make their mistakes in public, they aren’t going to evolve,” Campbell explains the intention. “Unless those young artists can grow an audience at the same time as they’re beginning to grow themselves as artists, nothing is ever going to change.”

For Emma Bettridge, curator of Bristol Old Vic’s artist development department Ferment, it is equally important to offer artists the opportunity to evolve within the theatre’s programme. She describes Ferment’s work as “an ongoing conversation with artists”, emphasising its flexibility in response to artists’ needs. “It’s become about working with artists that we’re really excited about and facilitating them in whatever way is suitable for them,” she explains.

One development in which Bettridge has been instrumental since joining the Old Vic is the backing of more work to full production. It is essential, she stresses, to get the work seen and give it a longer life, as well as connecting it to larger audiences. This is partly achieved through the two Ferment fortnights of work-in-progress showings each year, but Ferment also now supports between six and eight productions a year.

Elsewhere, festivals have become an important outlet for experimental and often unfinished work. Two such examples are Transform in Leeds, produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and the New Wolsey Theatre’s Pulse Festival in Ipswich. Both festivals feature a mixture of finished productions and works-in-progress, placing the work of young artists alongside more established companies.

Rob Salmon, associate director at the New Wolsey, explains that the theatre has honed the Pulse Festival over the years in order to be able to simultaneously support bold programming and retain an audience. The festival now supports a mixture of high profile work and embryonic scratches, combining these different levels of experimentation in a way that manages the risk for theatregoers. Similarly, this year’s Transform Festival includes full-scale commissions, visiting shows from mid-career artists and showings of work in development.

What both Salmon and West Yorkshire Playhouse’s associate producer Amy Letman are adamant about, however, is the need to extend this kind of work beyond the isolated pocket of a short festival. Salmon has recently started up Pulse Presents, a strand of work that keeps the festival’s spirit alive throughout the year. The aim behind it, he says, was to “keep that work ongoing rather than it being something that crashed into the programme at one point in the year and then disappeared”.

Letman agrees: “I think the key thing is people know that there’s an ongoing commitment and desire for this work, and that it’s not something that flashes up and that we do once, but that it’s an ongoing part of our programme. The fact that the work is coming back helps to develop the audience.”

For all of these theatres, they understand this commitment to pushing their programming and supporting new artists as absolutely key to their artistic purpose. Asked how this work fits into his vision for Northern Stage, Campbell responds, “it is the vision”. Meanwhile Peter Rowe, artistic director of the New Wolsey, describes it as the theatre’s “particular mission” to help companies make the leap from small-scale to mid-scale work.

These sentiments are echoed by James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, who tentatively suggests that theatres like his have a leadership role in their regions. “The problem with leadership roles in the past with big organisations is that they set an agenda which is about how you should do it, and that isn’t what I mean by leadership role. What I mean by leadership role in a city, in an area like this, is that our leadership role is about facilitation, it’s about collaboration.”

In times of stretched funding, that notion of collaboration could become increasingly crucial. Importantly, in all of these examples it is the theatres’ status as larger, regularly funded organisations that allows them to take the necessary risks in showing and developing new work. About the necessity of subsidy, Bettridge is unequivocal: “We fill a gap for risk-taking. We always need to have a subsidised pot of money that can we can invest in the ideas stage.”

Photo: Topher McGrillis.

Thinking Outside of the Building


Originally written for The Stage.

At Vicky Featherstone’s first Royal Court press briefing, there was an intriguing statement of intent about the theatre’s direction. As well as reaffirming the theatre’s commitment to writers, handing over the keys of the building for a summer season led by the playwrights, Featherstone made a comment with potentially far-reaching implications for the future role of the Royal Court. She said, with a playful grin, “no space should be safe from theatre”.

As the new artistic director went on to explain, she’s interested in utilising different spaces within the building, in taking shows outside the Royal Court’s home in Sloane Square, and in bringing new audiences through its doors. It’s perhaps not surprising that Featherstone, who has led the nomadic National Theatre of Scotland for the last eight years, should want to look beyond the restrictive and arguably exclusive boundaries of the Royal Court’s four walls. What’s more striking is that she’s not alone.

While “audience development” has long been a key part of theatres’ PR arsenal, this can often be just so much empty rhetoric. Now, however, there seems to be a genuine commitment to opening up theatre spaces, venturing beyond bricks and mortar and establishing theatres as a vital part of their surrounding communities. It’s a development that’s sorely needed and one that might, if successful, ensure a future life for theatres within an arts funding landscape that is looking increasingly precarious.

At last year’s Theatres Trust conference on delivering sustainable theatres, Griff Rhys Jones championed the theatre as a place of public assembly in modern day communities, taking on the civic role once occupied by the town hall or community centre. While a vision of the theatre as the beating heart of the community is perhaps a little utopian, there are ways that buildings can connect with local residents through more than just their artistic programme. Just look at Battersea Arts Centre, where experimental performance jostles alongside yoga classes and tea dances. Artistic director David Jubb is keen to retain this diverse make-up of functions, hoping to achieve an overlap between the venue’s two distinct strands of activity, while ongoing improvement works will make the building structurally more open.

Beyond London, this gesture of opening out is even more essential, particularly as other public spaces are threatened. Rhys Jones has pointed to the example of Derry Playhouse, which is open to local people throughout the day, functioning almost like a community centre. There are other similar if not quite so far-reaching examples. Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff has worked hard to create a welcoming environment that encourages people to drop in, while one of the key pledges made by West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new artistic director James Brining is to open up the building and explore the way the theatre relates to its communities. One of the few things theatres do have is space, much of which lies dormant when not being used for performance. Why not fill it?

As well as inviting audiences in, establishing theatres as buzzing hubs of the community, venues might look outwards. As buildings hold less prestige than they once did, there is the opportunity for theatres to redefine their identity beyond their own walls. West Yorkshire Playhouse has effectively demonstrated this approach with the city-facing programming of this year’s Transform Festival, including a piece of performance made with local residents and performed outside the theatre. The challenge, of course, is to expand this beyond the fleeting festival context.

But does all this shift the focus away from the art itself? There are clearly potential pitfalls for such an approach – particularly if treated as a careless add-on to tick funding boxes – but the community benefits need not be at the expense of the theatre. At their best, each can positively impact upon the other. Fresh influences enter the building, disrupting and invigorating a process of theatremaking that might otherwise become stultified, while new potential audience members are given the opportunity to encounter the work and be surprised.

None of this is to say that theatres should abandon their core activities; rather, as ever, they need to adapt. Buildings have always been one step behind the performances and audiences they host, running to keep up. Think of the exponential growth in site-specific work over recent years, to the point where the National Theatre is now selling tickets for Shunt and Punchdrunk shows taking place miles away from the South Bank. The need from local communities and potential audiences is there, the only question is whether theatres will step in to fill the gap.

In her recent keynote speech addressing the thorny issue of arts funding, culture minister Maria Miller firmly stated that the arts need to make the case for their ongoing importance in economic rather than artistic terms. It’s a statement that has prompted an understandable backlash, pinpointing many of the dangers and inadequacies of measuring the arts’ value in purely monetary terms. But perhaps theatres’ greatest argument for their survival is the role they might play within their local areas – artistically, economically, and as a central component of the community.

Photo: Richard Davenport