In this time of cuts, libraries and theatre should team up

Artistic director of Attic Theatre Louise Hill on the company’s latest production of ”Great Expectations” which takes place among the bookstacks in Wimbledon Library

Louise Hill, artistic director of Attic Theatre
Louise Hill, artistic director of Attic Theatre

Making noise in a library is something you learn is forbidden from an early age. So the invitation to make theatre in the middle of a reference library was too tempting to turn down. When Merton Libraries team wanted to extend the scope of Wimbledon Library's out of hours activities, we were invited to stage our 2014 annual Playfest there, and found that the library surroundings really complemented a writing festival.

We supported the library's application for funding from the Arts Council with a commitment to stage an adaptation of a classic novel in part of the library – newly launched as Merton Arts Space – if the bid was successful. We're delighted to be the first theatre-makers to play here. It feels good at this time of cuts to arts funding and library closures to come together and pool our creative and material resources.

Great Expectations has always been my favourite of Dickens' stories – it's a classic revenge tragedy, with a thwarted romance, escaped convicts and a ghostly bride thrown in for good measure. When I spoke to Theresa Heskins, artistic director of the New Vic, about her adaptation – which uses only text from the novel – it seemed a great fit for our project, which would celebrate both theatre and literature.

It is good at this time of cuts to arts funding and library closures to come together and pool our creative and material resources

Rehearsing Great Expectations
Attic Theatre rehearsing Great Expectations

We're staging Great Expectations in the round in the centre of the library's reference section, which was once a separate building known as Marlborough Hall. The Hall was used for theatre, among other things, and productions were often designed by the students of Wimbledon College of Arts. We're delighted that two of their final year students are renewing the College's relationship with the space by designing our set and costumes. It's a huge challenge, with a cast of eight embodying over 70 characters, and over 50 setting-chances in the course of two hours' playing time.

Of course, making theatre in a working library presents at least as many challenges as opportunities! We can only use the space out of hours; our designers have to create a set which doesn't prevent library users from reaching the bookshelves during the daytime, and there are limits to the technical wizardry our sound and lighting designers can create with limited access to a simple rig.

We are asked to imagine all the settings of the novel from a graveyard to a stately home in a single library room

But there are benefits which are borne out of these necessities – minimal props and technical capabilities, within a communal setting where audience and actors share the same space, all create a sense of intimacy. The audience's imagination is as important as ours – all theatre involves a collective agreement to suspend our disbelief, but the simplicity of a single library room in which we are asked to imagine all the settings of the novel from a graveyard to a stately home, to a boat capsizing at sea requires a special kind of relationship between actor and audience. We're having great fun creating everything from a horse and carriage to a wedding cake in, as the script puts it, "the blink of an eye".

It's a huge privilege to be the first professional theatre company to perform in this newly rediscovered space in the heart of Wimbledon. We hope it'll be the start of a new lease of life for the building and that Great Expectations will be the first of many stories to be brought to life among the bookstacks.

By Louise Hill

Great Expectations runs at the Merton Arts Space until 18 December.