Virginia Woolf asserted that to have a room of one’s own was a necessity in order to write; not only a room with a window and four walls, but space to think, imagine and create. As Artistic Director of a theatre company in the very early stages of its creative growth, I am realising how challenging this can be. The search for a space to play, develop and grow seems to play a formative role in the early life of a theatre company. But is this hunt beginning to stunt creative growth?
Trying to find rehearsal space has been a constant problem for Witness Theatre, a worry that we could do without as we attempt to find our own theatrical identity. In rehearsal for The Importance of Being Earnest at Brighton Fringe this year, I was lucky enough to be given some free rehearsal space by the organisation Somewhereto_. Set up as part of the cultural Olympiad to help young people find space to do the things they love, the lifespan of this organisation is limited, but it’s an inspirational model. Despite being a basic, ugly, council-owned building that always smelt strangely of yeast, the space we were gifted was lovely. It was a glimpse into an ideal world, a brick-walled warren of space where we could clear the floors and cover the walls with research and development material. This was invaluable for a theatre company that works as we do, allowing ideas to bounce around before being pinned down. But the financial ramifications of excessive use of space are huge, and finding somewhere to play isn’t easy.
Theatre companies and individual theatre makers need a home, but only those with proven experience and expertise seem to be able to find them. Most of us have a place we call home, but combining living space and work space can be difficult. If you’ve ever tried to rehearse in someone’s house you’ll know it normally ends disastrously and if you work freelance you’ll know how maddening it can be spending all day chasing an idea around four walls and a sofa. But for the financially struggling, what (other than choosing a more lucrative career path) are the other options?
One way young theatre makers can find space is in a digital capacity – BAC’s new digital scratch programme, for example. The value of digital space is huge, but its availability doesn’t importance of physical space and real people. Currently it seems having such space is a measure of success, afforded only to very large companies or those dubbed as emerging new talent. This is fair enough, credit and rewards for hard work where they’re due. But, similar to Lyn Gardner’s recent argument in the The Guardian for more grassroots funding, I’d argue for more offers of space at a grassroots level. Unlike funding, there is a lot of space out there not being used – what we need are the people taking a leap of faith and letting young companies make the most of it. I know it’s idealistic to ask for all this space to be given for free, but as a member of a young company who have benefited from this, I know how vital it is.
Recently there’s been a rise in shared office space being provided, either for free or very low rates, for those working in a creative capacity. A similar scheme with larger workshop/rehearsal space is certainly something to consider. Understandably, this is more challenging – as space increases, so do overheads. But there must be other companies feeling the same; if so, maybe we should try doing something about it. Peter Brook said all it takes is an actor and an empty space for theatre to exist. There are certainly enough empty spaces in this country, maybe it’s time we started claiming them as our own. A co-operative of young theatre makers running a shared play space might seem like another idealistic notion, but it may be worth a try.
Image of Lothian Road, Edinburgh by Lee Kindness.