The Bunker Theatre’s General Manager, Lee A. Whitelock writes an honest and equally heartbreaking and optimistic piece on what its closure means to him, the team and to the Arts.
The outpouring of support, kind words and sympathies that we have received with the announcement that the Bunker Theatre will be closing its doors in March has been wonderful. Knowing that our community stretches far and wide across this fickle industry is both heart-warming and overwhelming. Make no mistake, we know we’re only a small damp corner of the theatre world, but we are a home and have been a home and a safe place for many talented people across many varied backgrounds during our brief tenure at 53a Southwark Street.
These views are my own:
Now, with the struggles of running a small fringe theatre comes the sobering realisation that it is likely many people will simply forget we were ever here and the great mission statement that was the Bunker Theatre will dissolve into the theatrical sludge. The accomplishments of Chris Sonnex as our Artistic Director in the last year or so have brought about a dynamic shift in how theatres should be looking at programming, how theatres should address privilege, how theatres should be proactive and not reactive or conformist to the great issues that still plague this industry. It is paramount that what’s been accomplished under this banner does not simply get brushed under the welcome mats of the established order that dictate the pace at which we move forward. To paraphrase Chris, “we still had so much more to do, to truly make a different kind of theatre, where inclusivity, transparency, and kindness is the mission.”If theatres are not now rebuilding themselves, using the Sonnex model of family community and diversity then they are dinosaurs. But big up to those already doing work, we look to you, as others should.
Joshua McTaggart, one of the Bunker’s founders was told upon our inception that London did not need more theatres, and we were written off before we’d even started, because no one really cared. That statement is as true now as it was then, because London doesn’t need any more theatres that are run by the privileged elite, it doesn’t need to raise higher the towering pedestals upon which, (let’s face it) undeserving white men sit. What it does need is theatrical community spaces that can be inhabited by those who haven’t been allowed to speak, and if those spaces are like in our case still run by white men, then address it, be humble, be progressive, it’s not about you.
There is a broader problem in regards to the Arts as a whole, and theatre in particular will always be a hubbub of privilege, so long as the country and the industry refuse to implement and fund the vast nationwide grassroots initiative needed to level the playing field for all, because that is what theatre is, for all—everyone should at the very least be seen and be heard – and look, the Bunker isn’t this vast grassroots initiative, it’s not been the be all and end all – we’re not deluded, but it stands by those principles, it’s representative; a small beacon of optimism in the swamp, and it will continue to shine its light even after it closes, through our friends and our team.
Now in reality, with the benefit of hindsight, the closure of the Bunker is something that the team has lived in acknowledgement of everyday since we all started. It was really never meant to continue, artistry and theatre aside. We simply don’t have the infrastructure, money or time to keep going. We are all worn out. Furthermore, we are occupying a space underground that actively goes out of its way to eject us, because it’s not meant to be a theatre, it’s a car park; the money it’d take to make it work properly is insurmountable. The building has flooded and warped, it’s either too hot or too cold, we’ve seen precious little sunlight while working hours on top of hours; we’ve run ourselves into the ground. But somehow, we made it all work, against all the odds, without regular subsidy, without regular government funding, but with thanks to a handful of investors and supporters and a family of volunteers that have always done more than we’ve asked of them. The rest has been our own blood, sweat and tears. So let it not go unnoticed that this has been an incredible feat: that we’ve simply managed to… do it, by any means, but unfortunately we are also the living proof that this model isn’t sustainable, not without the proper funding and groundwork.
Overall my point is this, no other team could have done this, not with what we’ve had to deal with and the tools and money at our disposal: we’ve truly been an anomaly. The Bunker is not a venue, it’s not a theatrical space: it’s a team, it’s a people, and I’d like to use this opportunity to give props to one member of the team in particular. Hannah Roza Fisher (our Head of Production). Together we’ve been at the Bunker since day dot, and there are honestly no words to describe what she has brought to the building and the team. We’ve journeyed to Hell and back more than twice, and she’s the reason I personally survived. She’s never publically got the recognition she deserves for what she’s put into this place, but those who know her and have worked with her know exactly what she is capable of.
So if the Bunker was a proper theatrical space, imagine the damage we could have done, imagine the changes we could have implemented if we weren’t spending the majority of our time worrying about money. Money and time, it’s always money and time, and that’s privilege, and privilege doesn’t want to worry itself with the time and money needed for the transformation of British theatre. So underrepresented artists and those without privilege will continue to struggle as they always have, because the infrastructure isn’t there, the funding isn’t there, the spaces aren’t there, not really, and let’s face it, the industry doesn’t want to open its doors to them, because those that could help are set in their ways – change never trickles down, it always rises up—that’s the mission.
As Chris said, “perhaps we’ve made a big enough splash to create enough ripples of change.” Personally, I think the industry is still too fickle to accept that. But one thing is absolutely certain, for the community that makes up the Bunker, we will not stop, the Bunker and its ideals will live on through us. Hopefully that’s enough.