Fun Palaces at Shift Happens
I was delighted to be asked to present Fun Palaces to Shift Happens at York Theatre Royal today. Huge thanks to Marcus Romer for giving us the chance to share this passion with such a broad audience.
Here’s what I said …
Hello, I’m Stella Duffy, I’m a writer, director, and theatre-maker and I am passionate about creating Fun Palaces.
In 1961 the theatre director Joan Littlewood and the architect Cedric Price conceived and designed the idea of the Fun Palace. A revolutionary place that would be both temporary and moveable. A space that would house arts and sciences together. A place by and for the people. The original design says that in a Fun Palace you could see a show, learn about painting or mechanics, listen to a symphony, try starting a riot, or lie back and look at the sky. A place where we don’t treat the arts and sciences as if they’re unrelated things, where we don’t treat culture as if it’s different to real life.
The Fun Palace was never built, it was too costly, it was too ambitious – they dreamed of things that didn’t yet exist, things like a camera in the zoo to relay a live image of the penguins to the Fun Palace, so kids living near the Fun Palace, who couldn’t go to the zoo could see the penguins too. It didn’t happen because it was too hard to get the land, too many people found it too easy to say no, it was too far ahead of its time. Now is its time.
Next year will be Joan Littlewood’s centenary and at Improbable’s Devoted & Disgruntled this January I called a session that asked ‘Who wants to do something for Littlewood’s centenary that isn’t another revival of Oh What a Lovely War?’ Not because it’s not brilliant, and not that it won’t be timely next year, but there WILL be plenty of revivals. And because Joan herself was about so much more than just the plays, fantastic though she was at that. She was about the people. She was about the kids. She was about doing things. And in that meeting we started talking about Fun Palaces. About making a Fun Palace. Maybe a few Fun Palaces. I Facebooked and tweeted it and some people tweeted back. It really helped that those people were Erica Whyman and Mike Bradwell and Alison Clark Jenkins and Wendy Smith. I love twitter. I thought we might make half a dozen Fun Palaces. And that would be loads, after all, I already had a novel to write, two plays to direct, and a show to create. So I wrote to some companies and some venues asking if they’d like to make a Fun Palace, and they said yes. And they told other people. Then I persuaded producer Sarah Jane Rawlings to do it with me and we emailed more companies and more venues and more independents … they have all said yes, the big big venues and the brand new independents, all in.
By which I mean – as the most eclectic selection (of the very eclectic 100+) I can possibly get into this short speech – the RSC, Hall for Cornwall, BAC, RADA, East 15, Pilot Theatre, the Southbank Centre, Guildford School of Acting, the Liverpool Everyman, the Lyric Hammersmith, Eden Arts, Fuel, the Manchester Royal Exchange, MakeBelieve Arts, Sage Gateshead, the Saltburn Community Theatre, Ormesby Hall, Live Theatre, the Albany Deptford, Kali Theatre, the Winchester Theatre Royal, Manchester Museums Histories Festival, NIMAX Theatres, Improbable, Cartoon de Salvo, Comma Press, The Yard, Hackney Empire, OvalHouse, Kneehigh, Graeae, the Legacy List, and, of course, our partners the Theatre Royal Stratford East. And loads more, way too many to list now, who said yes straight away, and made it possible for us to dream this big.
They all said yes to making their own Fun Palaces and yes to the three guidelines – it has to be free, it has to involve children and young people, (and personally I think it has to engage older people, elders, too) and it MUST involve local people. We’re talking real engagement – not us the artists telling the people what they need or should watch or engage with, but us asking them what they would like to do. What do they want to do on our stages, in our museums, in our gardens, in our programmes? How can we truly make it with ALL of us?
And now there are over a hundred signed up and they are theatres and universities and music groups and a school in Portugal and museums and libraries and dozens of independent artists and we’re all going to make Fun Palaces, across the UK – and further – on the 4th & 5th of October 2014, because Joan would have been 100 on the 6th. We’re going to link them digitally because it was in their 1961 plan, long before it was possible, and we’re going to link them with walks, because when Joan wanted to get out of what she felt was the stifling London theatre scene of the 1930s, she WALKED from London to Manchester. And we’re going to create the roles of both an Access Provocateur and a Digital Innovator because we want everything that is Fun Palaces to be TRULY accessible.
And of course, this isn’t just for Joan, it’s not just because ALL of the dozens of women I’ve spoken to about this project – and most of the men – say she was a huge inspiration to their work in the arts, it’s because it’s the right time. IF we get it right – and that will be up to each and every one of the venues and companies and independents creating their own Fun Palaces – this is most definitely not going to be run from the centre, our job will be simply to hold it, and share your plans for your local Fun Palace as best we can – and IF we truly do commit to the engagement this idea needs, then we WILL make a seismic shift in the way we view the arts, in the way we see culture.
Because them and us doesn’t work. It has never worked. Them the audience, us the artists. And we pay a lot of lip service to engagement, we tick a lot of boxes that pay a lot of lip service to engagement. We spend our working lives as artists trying to bridge that gap when perhaps, all we need to do, is simply step into it. Stop treating it like a gap. Treat it like a place to make a Fun Palace.
And it’s very timely. In October 2014 it will be just 6 months until the next General Election, and there will be a lot of people making a lot of promises to us in the arts about what they’re going to do for us, what they’re going to offer us. The Fun Palace absolutely says culture belongs at the heart of society in exactly the same way sciences do, and sports as we showed with the Olympics last year, and technology, and business, and lying back and staring at the sky. It’s all joined up, and the Fun Palace gives us a chance to bring it all together, not by accident, but with intent. If we get it right, if it is truly engaging, then the art we create in future will also be different. We will be different artists making different work.
Joan said ‘everyone a scientist, everyone an artist’ – and I say we can make a shout about that, at a great time to do so. We can fill our venues and buildings and parks and school halls with a weekend of arts and sciences and technologies working together, sharing resources, meeting our neighbours, having fun. We can walk together and share stories. We can speak together digitally and share more.
We have loads of people wanting to do this already, Sarah Jane and I don’t even have our funding for it yet – oh but we will, everyone is going to want to help us make this! – but we certainly have passion, and we are meeting more and more who have the same passion, the same understanding that everything is connected. Now all we need to do is make it happen. With you. Ah of you who would like it make a Fun Palace, let us know. The answer is yes.
It’s only a weekend, of fun. And it’s a beginning.
And if you already know you want to make a Fun Palace with your theatre company, museum, girl guide troop, old people’s home, school, university, then send us your details and we’ll add you to our database and we’ll share more info as we progress.
Finally, for now – a date for your diary : October 7th, Theatre Royal Stratford East, an Open Space to begin to bring together all those interested in creating Fun palaces. TRSE will live-stream it too, so you’ll be able to see what’s going on, but, as with any of these events, it’d be great if you were able to be there in person.
ps – there was loads of lovely stuff at Shift Happens. Jenny Sealey (Graeae) and Alan Lane (Slunglow) being political and passionate prime among them.
Image credit: Jenifer Toksvig