The original Fun Palace was never built. Dreamed up by Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price in 1961, it was intended to be a space where science and art mingled, where hierarchies dissolved, and where everyone was welcome. Everyone an artist, everyone a scientist.
For the first time, coinciding with Littlewood’s centenary this year, that dream is becoming a reality – or, rather, multiple realities. Following a provocation at the beginning of last year from theatre-maker Stella Duffy, Fun Palaces have been springing up all over the country. Overwhelmed by the response, Duffy paired up with producer Sarah-Jane Rawlings, and together they have facilitated these many "laboratories of fun".
On 4 and 5 October, the weekend before Littlewood would have turned 100, these Fun Palaces open their doors. Visitors can expect everything from theatre to cake decorating to a physics lesson in a swimming pool, as culture and science take on surprising forms. "Because Fun Palaces is about anything, you can just say yes," grins Rawlings.
At the heart of it all is a democratising impulse. When they started the campaign, both Duffy and Rawlings found themselves dissatisfied with many of the attempts they were seeing to make the arts more accessible. "It’s not good enough," says Duffy, "and if we want to make the arts open to all we have to try other things. For some people, this won’t be the thing. That’s fine, we’re not saying this is the only solution, we’re saying maybe this is a solution."
The driving ethos of Fun Palaces is to make the event "by, with and for the local community, not just for them". Although many of the responses to Duffy’s call out have come from artists, Fun Palaces are also being organised by those who do not identify as artists themselves and are more interested in exploring ways to bring together their local community.
And it is not just about one isolated weekend of activity. "This isn’t just a one-off, this isn’t a series of festivals, this is something really important," says Rawlings. "It’s about unearthing culture across the country and embracing it and shining a spotlight on it." Plans for next year’s Fun Palaces weekend are already being put in place, while Duffy and Rawlings are equally focused on how to maintain momentum throughout the year.
It’s a remarkably ambitious project for such a small team to take on. "No one has ever done this," Duffy tells me, sounding a little surprised at their own audacity. "The closest to the national scale of this is the Cultural Olympiad, but that had all that money, all that preparation."
She puts the project’s success down to sheer passion – "we want to change the world" – and the partnership between her and Rawlings. "Between us it actually became quite possible. There was somebody like me, very loud and enthusiastic and pushy, and someone who actually knew how to get money."
Fun Palaces now has an expanded team, including roles focused specifically on accessibility and digital advocacy, and has received vital funding and support from the Arts Council and The Space, a digital art partnership between the BBC and Arts Council England. The campaign has also partnered with the Albany in Deptford, which has become the national home of Fun Palaces.
While the Fun Palaces campaign may have ballooned beyond Duffy and Rawlings’ expectations, it has held fast to the initial inspiration of Littlewood’s legacy. "The foundation to it has always stayed true," says Rawlings. "The foundation does feel absolutely right, so we’ve never gone ‘what are we doing?’ Everything has just made us feel that we’re going in the right direction."
"There’s a thing that several people who knew Joan Littlewood have quoted to us," Duffy adds. "There are two versions of it: one is ‘I built my life on the rock of change’, and the other one is ‘I found my life on the rock of change’. But either way, it’s about the rock of change. You make it solid and then it keeps changing. That’s what this has been."
For Duffy, the real measure of the project’s impact is to be found in the people who are making it happen in their local communities. "We do not have an austerity of people," she insists. "Even if the bankers had spent all of our money and even if the government had given all of our money to the bankers – and they did give a lot of it – we do not have an austerity of people. We have amazing people."
Five Fun Palaces around the UK
Farnham Fun Palace: Created not by artists but by an international group of medical industry workers, this Fun Palace takes over Farnham Museum for 24 hours on 4 October. Activities include an international breakfast with dishes from around the world, craft workshops and a treasure hunt. Watch the organisers talk about what’s going on in the Fun Palaces launch video here.
Brockwell Lido Fun Palace: This poolside Fun Palace in South East London is putting on a real mix of science and arts events, from a practical talk about the effects of water on the body to a human chess game. The Fun Palace organisers are also promising a Victorian seaside experience and a miniature railway.
Southbank Centre Fun Palace: The Southbank Centre is one of the biggest venues to get on board with Fun Palaces, organising a weekend of events that celebrate the legacy of Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price. It is asking members of the public what their Fun Palace would look like, as well as offering a range of talks about the people and ideas behind the campaign.
Liverpool Everyman Fun Palace: The Everyman Fun Palace has placed its focus firmly on local artists, from choirs to writers. It aims to open up as many of its spaces as possible to the public on 4 October, with activities including talks, pop-up plays, music workshops and a look behind the scenes.
Whirligig Fun Palace: Proving that Fun Palaces really can pop up anywhere, this one in Stoke-on-Trent is taking place in the woods. The family-oriented event includes woodland yoga and campfire sing-alongs, as well as a few surprises that the organisers are keen to keep under wraps.
Find your local Fun Palace on the website.