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Jo Caird: Is it Madness to Launch a Theatre in a Recession?

By • West End
Last week saw the launch of the Brixton Empire, a new theatre space in the converted St Matthew's Church in the heart of Brixton town centre. Any ravers among you will recognise the venue as Mass, the 1,500-person capacity club famous for its drum 'n' bass and jungle nights.

Meanwhile, down in Vauxhall, another new, albeit temporary, theatre has just launched with a production of The Lights by Howard Korder. The Spring is a sprawling warehouse space that will be knocked down in a year to make way for a new development. In the meantime though it will be available for hire for all sort of events.

The Spring follows in the super trendy footsteps of The Yard, a converted warehouse venue in Hackney Wick that opened in July and will be shutting its doors at the end of the month. This temporary space, kitted out in recycled materials from the Olympic Park development, was designed by Practice Architecture, the firm behind Frank's Cafe, the pop-up bar and restaurant that has perched high above south east London on the roof of the Peckham Multi-Storey Car Park for the last three summers.

Launching a new venue is always going to be a complex and challenging process; doing so in the middle of a recession doesn't make it any easier. When you then consider these venues' locations – inner-city neighbourhoods whose communities are both economically and culturally underprivileged – the task facing these theatres' teams seems like an extremely daunting one.

What the Brixton Empire, The Spring and The Yard have in common, however, is a spirit of pragmatism that, with any luck, will enable them to succeed. The Brixton Empire has struck a deal with Mass and with The Brix at St Matthews, the company that runs the building, that allows them to use the space for free for theatre productions as well as vocational programmes for long-term unemployed young adults living in the area. Brixton has live music venues, a great independent cinema, plenty of fantastic restaurants, bars and cafes, but no theatre. The idea is that the Empire will fill this gap.

The Spring and The Yard, on the other hand, are both making innovative, creative use of otherwise unoccupied spaces, taking advantage of materials and space to create something beautiful for a limited period. If the crowd at The Yard last night was anything to go by, these venues will succeed through attracting the type of punters who like to be ahead of the game in terms of discovering new and unusual culture and nightlife locations.

The futures of the two warehouse venues are already decided (although the team behind The Yard are hoping to continue the adventure and are currently in talks to see about achieving this aim), but only time will tell when it comes to the success of the Brixton Empire. The theatre has received plenty of generous in-kind support from local institutions and businesses, as well as from the Young Vic and the National Theatre, but artistic director Daljinder Singh hopes the Empire will be self-sufficient in due course. Much, of course, depends on whether they can drum up enough interest, both locally and London-wide, to sustain audiences for the work.

When it comes to getting local bums on seats, Singh is reasonably confident, relying on Brixton's strong community vibe to keep people excited and engaged. She intends the theatre to plug into what she calls the “personality of Brixton” - it will only programme work that engages with the area's diverse and vibrant atmosphere. Locals can take advantage of concessionary tickets for all performances and tickets to all Monday night shows cost just £6.

Spreading the word to wider theatre audiences beyond the immediate local area will be more of challenge, but social media and the huge increase in online review sites have made marketing much cheaper and more straightforward than it was in the past, giving new venues like the Empire a better chance of success.

Every new theatre is different, of course, but for a vision of the Empire's future, we might look to how the New Britannia Theatre has fared since its launch above a Hackney pub in December 2010. Alanna Leslie, one of the venue's three artistic directors, acknowledges that the timing of the New Britannia's launch could have been better, in terms of the financial climate, but doesn't believe the theatre has suffered as a result of the recession. Setting out without funding (but with the premises hired to them free of charge by the Britannia pub), the team agreed to work on a voluntary basis for the first year, so any profit they make from ticket sales can be ploughed back into the new company's running costs. “Audience support has been good”, Leslie says, adding that the team is currently applying for funding to help towards future development.

It's an cliché that the arts thrive when times are hard, but clichés don't usually come from nowhere. The Return of the Exile, the piece of experimental theatre I saw last night at The Yard, was not the highlight of my cultural year by any means, but it was undeniably ambitious in its scope and offered a few really engaging, powerful moments of performance. The venue itself I can't praise enough, from its imaginative auditorium design, to its fantastically atmospheric bar. I hope very much that the team are able to find a life for The Yard beyond the end of this month.

Brixton Empire is a very different set-up from The Yard, but is no less ambitious in its approach, hoping to bring high quality theatre to a community that has been without it for a long time. The venue has only been open for a week, but the combination of Daljinder Singh's passion and pragmatism and the support she and her team have mustered from the local and theatre community are very promising indeed. Here's hoping that old cliché turns out to be true.


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