Imagine a world where “we stop saying us and them about the arts and audiences”, where we can turn to someone and say “I’m an artist, you’re a butcher. What can we make together?” and where a giant red ladder reaches all the way to the moon. The latter is a dream of The Whirligig Fun Palace Creative Producer Jen Scott, the others are ambitions belonging to Stella Duffy, Co-Director of Fun Palaces – perhaps the most ambitious arts project to date.

At a Devoted & Disgruntled open space event in 2013, Duffy instigated a session with this provocation: “Joan Littlewood’s Centenary, October 2014: A Thing”. A year on, and with the aid of Twitter (“I don’t think we would have got this far without Twitter”), this ‘thing’ has grown into 109 Fun Palaces (and counting) set to spring up around the world on 4 and 5 October. These can be anything their creators want; big or small, whole events or a moment in the day. All Duffy and co-director Sarah Jane Rawlings ask is that all Fun Palaces are “free, local, innovative, transformative and engaging”.

In 1961, theatre revolutionary Joan Littlewood and architect Cedric Price came up with the idea of a Fun Palace. A university on the streets, the motto for which was to be “everyone an artist or a scientist”. Littlewood, like Duffy, rebelled against the hierarchical method of making theatre and also wanted to eradicate the ‘us and them’ of arts and audiences.

In 2014 the motto has been updated but the ambition is the same. Duffy explains “Joan said ‘we do not make this work to keep it inside the sterile space of the theatre. That we take it out, and our theatre is changed by taking it out and then it comes back again’.” Duffy and Rawlings believe the arts are sciences and the sciences are arts, so they’ve changed the motto to “everyone an artist and a scientist”. Fifty-three years on from Littlewood’s work, however, and the issue of engagement still hasn’t been solved. Duffy puts it like this: “Everyone tries engagement, everyone tries to do how can we get them in? But we’re not talking about how can we get them in, we’re talking about how can we give it to them?”

In Canada, a radio station will be hosting a digital Fun Palace over the airwaves whereas Norwood Fun Palace will take a plant and food theme. Luton Fun Palace creator Orla Nicholls says “there are lots of potentially exciting elements to our Fun Palace, but one of the best things has been our partnership with New Generation Youth Theatre”. It is this essence of collaboration that truly excites Duffy; Carine Osmont of Farnham Fun Palace hopes her Fun Palace “will be the beginning of a new community, in the long term, not just for one day”.

Duffy speaks of austerity, a word so often heard these days, and emphasises that “we do not have an austerity of people, we have astonishing people everywhere who want to make amazing work”. For Sarah Glover at Norwood Fun Palace “the most exciting thing is meeting local people (some familiar and some new) and learning how to create an event in the process”. Clearly there are communities out there ready to engage with this kind of thing, so I ask Duffy why she thinks something similar has never happened before? “I honestly don’t know,” she responds. “ I think lots of us have gotten scared”. In the arts, Duffy says, “we build a hard skin because we have to and sometimes that hard skin stops us being open enough to approach other people”. For Osmont, one of the most exciting things is “doing scary things we’d never done before like approaching complete strangers to try and get them involved, trying to pitch the Fun Palaces to art venues”.

It was lack of funding that stopped Littlewood’s vision from going ahead, but Duffy and Rawlings have been lucky enough to receive an Exceptional Award from Arts Council England. This is a decision Duffy describes as “visionary”; she and Rawlings “couldn’t believe they would [give them the award] but also couldn’t believe they wouldn’t”. The funding has allowed them to create a strong infrastructure to support all the Fun Palaces, provide them with toolkits to help with the event and an individual digital Fun Palace to help promote and enhance their event. Would they have met the same fate as Littlewood’s had the funding not been received? “We were totally doing it anyway.” says Duffy. “We already had 68 signed up when we’d done it all for free. The money supports the infrastructure that means people who run a swimming pool think they can do art”.

There is, however, every chance that Fun Palaces may only attract those audiences already engaged with theatre. Duffy admits, “I’m not saying I think the Fun Palaces are going to do it [full engagement] this year. Maybe one or two of the 109 we’ve got signed up so far, but we’ll learn from it”. As with Littlewood’s work the process is as important as the end result. Duffy often worries that “it’ll be a damp squib “ but then admits that the whole thing is already working as “companies who don’t normally work together are talking together because of us”. In the revolutionary spirit of Littlewood, Duffy is all about how the Fun Palaces might change the future of theatre: “I honestly think that if we do do full engagement, that if the work ends up being made by artists and by people who don’t define as artists and it gets so muddled that no one knows which is which, we will make different work, and it’s the making of different work that excites me”.

For Glover, and I suspect many Fun Palaces, one of the biggest challenges faced is “explaining what a Fun Palace is”. Perhaps this lack of explanation will be a barrier to engagement on the day, how do you get people to come if you can’t really explain it? Fun Palaces are a mysterious unknown entity in a society where everything has to be defined, commoditised and put into boxes. It is, however, for everyone and if ACE can get behind it then hopefully people will trust their local community enough to take a step into the unknown. Duffy’s vision for the future of Fun Palaces is this: “in the long run that we’re not needed… that it just happens… that maybe it has nothing to do with Joan Littlewood or Cedric Price, either. That people expect to make a Fun Palace at the beginning of every October, when the nights are drawing in and it’s time to take a look back at the lovely summer we’ve had and come together as a community.”

Fun Palaces will be open on 4 and 5 October 2014. For more information, visit the Fun Palaces website. Illustration by Emily Medley.