Any room at the arts centre? The creative potential of live-work space.

Written for Guardian Culture Professionals Network

Melanie Wilson's Frida Kahlo designed bedroom at BAC. Photograph: Katherine Leedale/Press

Pushing through a door at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) you come to a corridor of further doors and stairs that lead down to a bucolic kitchen area, a bathroom and some bedrooms. Visitors used to the centre’s adventurous approach to its building may be tricked into thinking this is another mysterious journey in the style of The Masque of the Red Death.

But while these spaces were initially designed as part of last year’s One-on-One Festival, for a number of artists they have become home.

“It’s an amazing thing to be able to wake up and to run to the rehearsal room in your pyjamas,” says current resident Clare Beresford from Little Bulb Theatre. David Jubb, co-artistic director, grins: “You walk in sometimes in the morning and there’s an artist in their pyjamas with a bowl of cereal. It definitely has a much more homely feel now.”

Turning the 80-room town hall building into a home is at the top of Jubb and co-artistic director David Micklem’s agenda. Alongside their innovative Cook Up, Tuck In, Take Out programme, the artists’ bedrooms are the next step to making the venue a place not just for theatre but for congregation.

In keeping with BAC’s house style for developing work, the rooms have been ‘scratched’. “We call them Playground Projects,” says Jubb of these architectural experiments. “It’s saying: Why don’t we test and try out some ideas, see how they work at a low cost and find out what we learn?” He estimates initial set-up costs at £20,000.

At the heart of this creative process are the artists giving regular feedback. Bedroom creator Kirsty Harris has even become head of detail on the architectural projects themselves.

“BAC were really invested in what we had to say,” says Myriddin Wannell from WildWorks, the Cornish theatre company based at BAC while co-producing this summer’s huge site specific show, Babel. And Jubb returns the compliment: “WildWorks were very helpful at helping us think through concepts of private space and public space.”

As a consequence of this and other feedback from guests including Belgian company Ontroerend Goed, BAC’s artists’ bedrooms have morphed from performance spaces to practical ones, kitchen facilities have been expanded, a greenroom added and access to the building’s courtyard encouraged.

The idea of venue-based ‘live-work’ space is still in embryonic form, not just in Battersea but in the wider British theatre world. Despite a rich history that includes Joan Littlewood moving her entire cast and crew into the dressing rooms of the Theatre Royal Stratford East, there are few ventures of this kind today. Conversely, on the continent it is an established set up.

One such venue is the Mousonturm in Frankfurt. The tower of this converted glue factory turned arts centre has been transformed into airy flats for artists. Sheffield-based Third Angel stayed there during a tour of their site specific show The Secret Hippie Piece and believe it solidified their relationship with the Mousonturm itself.

“We got to stay in the venue who were commissioning us even though we were working outside the building,” says Third Angel’s co-artistic director Alexander Kelly. “It meant we were very connected with the organisation who we were working with.”

Back in the UK, a handful of arts organisations are beginning to get in on the act. The October Gallery in London has a flat for artists to use on site, while The Point in Eastleigh has been running its own live-work building, called Creation Space, since 2009.

This state of the art complex with rehearsal rooms and living accommodation for up to 11 visiting artists was born out of a number of concerns: encouraging community engagement from touring companies, retaining graduate talent, and not spending project budgets on accommodation costs. While it cost a cool £2.7m (funded by the Hampshire venue’s local authority) artistic director Sarah Brigham is adamant that it has already proved its worth.

“It’s been fantastic,” she says. “We’re little old Eastleigh, just a 312-seater arts centre, and now we can attract artists of international standing. We’ve had Akram Khan and Gecko come in because we can say to them: Come and actually live here, make your work here, engage with our audiences whilst you’re making the work, then show it on our stage as a sort of preview before you go on your national and international tours.”

Brigham believes that having artists at the hub of everything they do has “allowed the building to breathe suddenly”. This has led to palpable results, from more engaged administrative staff (“you can see it in the way our box office talk about the work; they understand it a bit more”) to more fully developed relationships with audiences and emerging local artists through post-show discussions and weekend workshops. Best of all, the debilitating hotel bills are no more.

For artists, the benefits of residencies are more than financial. As Claire Beresford of Little Bulb says of the BAC rooms: “Because you get to know the staff so well, it’s really great for your mentality going into rehearsals. You feel balanced and you definitely get the sense that you’ve got a real base. And that’s a source of happiness.”

Nic Beard from The Paper Cinema agrees the set up creates productive rehearsal space and not just for out-of-towners: “For the crew that were across the other side of London it cut out two hours worth of travelling, which was great throughout the harmony of the whole thing.”

How do audiences feel about this artistic slumber party? Brigham believes it has led to a more committed audience base, excited to explore the new opportunities that residencies create for them. Jubb, meanwhile, has been inundated with requests for bedroom tours – he and Micklem have even thrown about the idea of an audience member in residence.

“An audience member could win an award where they could just live in the building for a month during the festival,” he suggests. The idea rolls around the bedroom, settling nicely. Now that’s a residency I’d like to get involved in.

 

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