Trading places

We’ve recently seen the announcement of the news that the Bush Theatre will be moving home in 2011 – after 38 years at their current space, they will be moving just around the corner to the old Shepherd’s Bush Library. This is fantastic news for a brilliant venue – but is moving home always a good thing?

The Bush have established themselves as one of the leading Fringe new writing venues in the UK, and a number of leading writers consider the venue as something of a ‘spiritual home’ – a place where they’ve felt truly supported and nurtured, in order to help them produce the best work possible. I’ve consistently been impressed at how ambitious The Bush have been for such a small venue – they constantly look beyond their own walls when producing work, engaging in co-productions with other venues and having a strong touring presence across the UK. Current Artistic Director Josie Rourke has firmly established her credentials as a talented director through work with other venues across the globe (including the powerfully moving Men Should Weep, currently playing at the National Theatre), and having worked with The Bush as Project Manager on First Time Voters, I’ve seen first-hand the passion and vision of a company who deserve a bigger stage to show what they can do.

The move to the Library makes sense in almost every way – the long-term lease gives them the security to develop a real home with the potential to support artists even further, and the proposed 140 seat capacity allows them to sell even more seats – which they no doubt can and will. The move represents a logical step up in terms of what they can achieve, which hasn’t been the case for other venues. Take the example of the Hampstead Theatre – the move from their previous home to their current larger venue in Swiss Cottage (plus studio) has seen them struggle to achieve full houses regularly, which exacerbates the problems caused by the increased overheads of running a new building. With having more seats to sell, the venue has long been stuck between two audiences – trying to keep happy theatergoers with more traditional tastes, whilst enticing those with an interest in challenging new writing. To date the venue has not yet struck the perfect balance, and continues to exist in a state of limbo – however, could the appointment of Ed Hall as Artistic Director signal a change in fortunes? A look at the recent programming sees Hall attempting to strike something of a balance between the two – bringing in new work by the likes of Nina Raine to run in the same season as revivals (such as Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy; however, with the Royal Court now the premier new writing venue in London – and even with smaller venues such as the Finborough Theatre and Theatre503 proving their ability at nurturing new talent – perhaps it’s best for the Hampstead to review and revise its relationship with new writing from emerging artists, making clearer its artistic aims?

The case of the Hampstead shows how a new space can affect a venue’s ability to deliver its core principles – but what of the relationship with its audience? The Arcola has developed a reputation for having strong relationships with its local community, and is currently moving to a new space in Dalston; however, there are financial implications to the move, which are exaggerated by the recent cuts in RFO funding from the Arts Council. Should the Arcola have to make cuts to their operating budget to ensure their continued operation, then I hope that they are still able to continue their commitment to making the venue accessible to the community; although this would be an area which might seem an easy place to make cuts, the weakening of the relationship with this audience could greatly affect the perception of the venue in Dalston and beyond. I have faith that Mehmet Ergen and Leyla Nazli – who were recently heralded as two of London’s most influential theatre figures by the Evening Standard – will ensure this does not happen.

Looking outside of London, in Manchester the Library Theatre will be moving with film organization Cornerhouse to a new venue. With funds already committed by the local authority, Manchester has proven it is committed to ensuring the local community are able to benefit from a high-class venue – putting culture at the heart of the city. Regional theatres are currently bracing themselves for some tough times in light of the Comprehensive Spending Review, so the example set in Manchester provides a message of hope to others; venues such as the Exeter Northcott and Bristol Old Vic have had their own battles with funding cuts in recent times – both being reprieved of funding cuts by ACE in 2008, alongside The Bush – but have survived, so perhaps the doom-and-gloom forecasts will not come true.

If anyone has any further examples of the effect of theatre moves, then please feel free to share – a more comprehensive picture of how venues can make the most of opportunities would no doubt provide hope for those of us who care about them.

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