Building a Fun Palace; a Place for Awe and Wonder in Communities

Alan Lane is the Artistic Director of Slung Low Theatre company, in Holbeck. If you’re a fan of Fun Palaces you will likely find his book, The Club on the Edge of Town, a hugely valuable read (if you haven’t read it already). As Slung Low prepare to relocate from the working men’s club in, where they’ve been resident for the past 4 years, to new premises, they have been thinking how to bring awe, wonder, scale and fun to their local area; and in order to do this, they’ve chosen to build a permanent Fun Palace.  Here Fun Palaces producer Amie speaks to Alan to find out more about the ideas driving this development for Slung Low, and why they believe in the power of Fun Palaces to create both cultural and social change . 

To start with, why a Fun Palace and why now?

“Fun Palaces are interesting for us, because we’re huge Joan Littlewood fans and huge Fun Palaces (as in you guys) fans. But currently it’s an uncapitalised phrase for us – it won’t be the model that you do, which isn’t to say that that isn’t amazing, because it absolutely is, but the idea that a community theatre and a warehouse should also be a palace and that art should be fun – rather than a Fun Palace with a capital F, capital P.” 

For us, the Fun Palace is part of an evolution. We were originally based in some railway arches where there wasn’t always a ceiling; there it was a case of culture happening in spite of the venue. We made a Fun Palace there. After that, we moved to the oldest working men’s club in Britain. We came to the ask the question ‘how can you create a palace to everyday creativity and culture?’ Which came under pressure from covid; the drive for us then was to be of service; we were a food bank for a long time and created a community football club, so we were involved in very, very broad definitions of culture. The majority of our job here has been to provide the space for other people to do their version of culture. Which of course is  a real privilege. 

The desire to move out  has been largely for us focussed around the words Fun and Palace. The first of which is that we realised whilst we were doing all those other things,  there wasn’t enough people worrying  about awe and wonder in our community. There weren’t enough things to lift the eyes or the spirits; there were too few extraordinary things. What we were concentrating on was how to improve the day to day experience of creativity and of participation. 

One of the things we used to do was do the thing that you might see in a national newspaper, or hear someone talk of in ten years time, but increasingly we stopped doing that. And so we needed a new venue to do that again in. A palace – which is not just about scale, but it is also about scale. How can you go somewhere so big, that people walk in and go ‘how did you do that?’ So the new venue is substantially bigger, it has two stages, both bigger than the one we currently have.  We wanted to open a place that has fun at the heart of it. I mean – they knew what they were doing when they came up with the phrase Fun Palace, didn’t they? The knew the tension that’s in that, how exciting is it to be in a place of scale and ambition, but then also to do something silly? So that’s our journey to here. 

How will it operate in a day to day way…

“The venue will be pay what you decide, because everything we do is pay what you decide. We will put on big shows; we know already we’ve got a big opera coming, we know we’ve got a big digital  art installation coming. More importantly we’re one of the few public spaces here in Holbeck, where people can do creative things – all of our venues have been a rehearsal room before they’ve been anything else. There will be two big stages where there will be performances, where people can come and rehearse, local community groups can use. We’re partners with both children’s groups Kidz Klub and Leeds Dads, both organisations work with children and families. And for them to come to a place that is relaxed and informal, but ambitious and full of huge projectors – that is a Fun Palace is really important. Because they’re used to going to municipal places or civic places – you know, those council places with shit furniture. And this isn’t one of them. There should be some perks to having a theatre company in your community; so our van is available to anyone who catches wind of it, the spaces are for whoever have need of them to do fabulous things. Our kit and space is available for people’s birthdays and weddings and funerals. And in Holbeck it’s one of maybe two or three public spaces right now. “

And how close to Joan and Cedric’s original vision is your Fun Palace?  What are you taking away from her original idea?

“Slung Low is one of those tiny little companies that is talked about far more than you would expect for the size of it. And people often say it’s innovative, or pioneering and I think that’s absolute nonsense. I think we’re the children of John McGrath and Joan Littlewood… with I-phones. We’ve taken what they had and applied it to the reality of now; we are standing on the shoulders of giants and following in much smarter people’s footsteps.  

One thing we’ve always been really interested in is a secondary audience, so if you’re going to create a big spectacle in the middle of a city centre, yes you’re going to sell 300 tickets to that; that’s fine, but then there’s another four hundred, five hundred, six hundred people just walking past on their way home, or doing whatever they’re doing, and those people are the ones you fry the brain of – as they catch the end of a huge spectacle with a big explosion and they’re like ‘I was just going to Marks and Spencers…’ And I think that’s a real Joan thing. However you get them, you get them. 

We have opera in the car park, we take over spaces and make them really nice. We work with the local primary school, the kids ask us to do something and we do it and people say ‘but that cost a fortune.’ And yes, but all art’s expensive and why shouldn’t they get to choose? Why should other people get opera when some children don’t have crayons? Why is that the case. And our job here in Holbeck is to leverage for as much cultural capital as possible. And those are real Joan Littlewood things.

A fire outside the new Slung Low Premises (the Fun Palace)
Alan Lane © Malcolm Johnson