Last July, my theatre company, Wonderbox and I sat in deep discussion on the Megabus to Bristol, boxes of props in our laps. We were doing a show at The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, an arts venue in Bristol, where we would also be running the bar, setting up all equipment and creating the stage. Only one of us had been there before and while excited by the freedom the venue had given us, we were also nervous as to how our low budget materials would transform the space. PRSC was a big white room with a cool makeshift bar in the corner, and we had permission to do what we wanted, including painting the walls. As great as the space was, however, as a theatre space it proved difficult, so set design improv was needed. The stage was created by putting chairs on blocks to make a mini Amphitheatre, with the added touch of fairy lights to frame the space and we found items in our bags to create the sense of a student’s bedroom. It wasn’t ideal, and I felt a bit embarrassed by our obvious lack of funds and last minute look of the piece. Thankfully though, the night was a success! As the audience entered the space, the DIY set, fairy lights and cheap bar seemed to make them happy and excited; it was wasn’t a stuffy auditorium, but something different. Our friends who came to watch sat and laughed and pointed out the objects on stage, as if they recognised the layout of their own room. I worked on the bar, and while I wanted to drink with everyone, overhearing the comments of a show I directed, incognito style, was far more rewarding. People stayed and hung out for ages after the show ended, just to chat to us. I think because we had the made the space ourselves, people felt more welcome and eager to explore.
In January this year I felt the same excitement at Platform Southwark. The entry was a fiver and it was Bring Your Own Booze. A friend and I sat huddled together on a beanbag sharing a bottle, looking at an amazingly hand-crafted set. Nestled in, surrounded by other people our age, it felt more like sitting around at a house party than a night at the theatre. And we were in for a treat. We were watching Frisky Theatre’s Girl World, a brilliant piece about two girls that ‘exist in an imaginary world of their own making.’ The best parts of the piece were its DIY nature, and the musical performers (called Pony Boys) taking tickets on the door. I chatted to Camille Dawson, writer and performer of Girl World about her work and its DIY vibe, which she told me makes the piece much more personal and I feel, makes for a more vibrant aesthetic which is fun and invites the audience into the world of the play.
It’s not only the aesthetic of DIY that is bringing audiences closer, but the spaces used themselves. Hiring a theatre can be expensive, so many artists like us are opting for alternative spaces like art galleries, such as the one we used in Bristol. In Frisky’s case, they had a 10-day residency with Brainchild at Platform Southwark, a disused squat that is now a multipurpose art space. In creating their own theatre, people like us are exploring and experimenting far more.
DIY has also changed the theatre maker’s relationship with theatre. Dawson told me that she is often producing, promoting, stage managing and programming other acts, all on top of writing and performing in her own work. In the same way with making theatre, I feel I am mostly marketing and not directing, but skills in copywriting and social media campaigning have earned me skills I will use elsewhere.
Of course, there is a sad reality in why more DIY theatre is emerging. It is simply necessary. There’s difficulty in receiving arts funding and trying to get it on the fringe especially is competitive with rejection being the norm. The scraps we can pull together though, can create something new and beautiful for audiences, more used to theatre being very much ‘us and them’: a numbered seat and a raised stage.
We all want funding, but in the meantime lets love the fact that this quirky DIY vibe is going to become more common, and our creativity should be celebrated because of that. We often can’t afford a long run in theatres, so it is difficult to attract the attention of reviewers. Let it be known that some really new, innovative theatre is happening now, not just off-west end, but off-fringe.