Presentation to Theatres Trust Conference by Steve Tompkins and David Jubb

Steve:

BAC asked us to help invent the future of theatre, collaborating to transform the old Town Hall for improvisation and experiment by theatre artists, but also to work like artists in residence ourselves.

So on one hand we have begun to take the listed building back to its more authentic incarnation as a town hall – removing generic ‘Arts Centre’ overlays and re-mapping technical infrastructure so the whole building can be considered as a found performance space.

On the other we have been re-orientating the psychic map of the building with production-specific interventions – re-decorations, re-fittings and demolitions, new theatrical layers for productions like Punchdrunk’s Red Death or Kneehigh’s Don John and Red Shoes, each of which unearthed new ways of experiencing the spaces and generated permanent architectural change.

Smaller projects like the Bees Knees childrens’ project, the Home project for artists’ accommodation and the various entrance hall transformations have been ongoing experiments to increase the sense of availability and delight for artists and audiences.  These projects were truly collaborative, invented and carried out by a collective ego, neither in-house nor solely architect or artist led.

In some ways this is the most radical aspect of the BAC project – it’s been liberating to be part of an active process of cumulative change, achieved to budgets and timetables that would be unfeasible for any conventionally geared design team. BAC’s brilliantly inventive collaborations reinforce the fact that theatre space is not the preserve of an autocratic, ego-led design team.

The project has made us re-examine our whole working methodology, to expand our terms of reference, to be less possessive of authorship and more aware of the relativity of our creative input and value for money.  I think David and his team have moved us closer to the spirit of theatre making over the last three years.

David: 

One of things I learnt early on about conventional architectural process is that there are a lot of organisations and statutory bodies with a lot of rules and this leads to a great many different opinions. And a lay person, like me, sometimes finds it hard to work out what is a rule and what is an opinion. An early mark in the sand from Haworth Tompkins was to treat everyone in the process like an artist. It didn’t matter whether they were a conservation officer or a licensing official: everyone was a creative collaborator.

The result was that the project quickly grew friends. For example, a creative partnership developed with English Heritage and the local council’s conservation department. By treating project partners as artists they responded as such, and made resourceful contributions to push shared ambitions forwards. Generosity generates generosity, encouraging open-handedness and transparency. And funders too are offered the opportunity to behave more like artists and back their gut instinct as much as their score sheet.

In 2007 a critic who reviewed Punchdrunk and BAC’s The Masque of the Red Death went so far as to congratulate the health and safety officer working on the show.  It is rare for what is traditionally understood as a ‘non-creative’ member of a team to get mentioned in a review, but even rarer for a health and safety officer.  The reviewer was impressed by how risky and seemingly dangerous the production felt – and noted that was only achieved because the health and safety of the show had become an art form in and of itself.

Of course, such a human centred approach is labour intensive, and is challenged when you meet a partner or funder who prefer convention, with its clearly delineated pathways, where the offer to respond creatively has sometimes been interpreted as a challenge, or even trickery. Of course, it is neither. And the proof has always been in the pudding. Those who have been suspicious – have then viewed the results achieved in partnership with those who have taken the risk – and some admit the value of the approach. In theatre, there is sometimes an unhealthy divide between creative and non-creative roles, Haworth Tompkins have helped us break that down, both, interestingly, within what might be described as a building project – and a production project.

Steve:

BAC brought endless positive energy to the design process and there was a palpable sense of adventure, of having fun, of making it up as you go along.  What could have felt like an irritating affectation, or a sort of hubristic denial of project management norms, in fact had a streamlining, clarifying effect on the design process.

BAC taught us that playfulness can be another form of rigour, albeit one that privileges lightness of touch and probity over displays of power and control.

A key aim of the project was to explore the notion of joint authorship and, to whatever extent was feasible, joint responsibility. BAC was far better able to adopt a more makeshift, DIY mentality than a fully loaded design team used to working on large, complex, permanent buildings.

David Jubb and I drove the process hard and insisted on a genuinely shared dialogue, but the necessary meshing of gears between BAC staff and the design team was painful at first. Some consultants wanted to jump to conclusions before examining more unconventional or cost-effective alternatives, and BAC, more accustomed to overnight get-ins than construction lead in times, were sometimes naïve in deferring decisions until too much pressure had built up.

Gradually, as each of us adapted to the other’s working style, we began to break down the whole project into smaller constituent parts, to differentiate the broader, infrastructural processes from the more improvisational, production led experiments.

We split the project into big and small productions, ‘scratching’ ideas  – i.e. prototyping them at full scale  – and running several processes in parallel just like a production programming schedule, so that the scale and complexity of the entire transformation over many years became more understandable and manageable to both partners.

No arts organisation would programme, design and produce 5 years of work in advance, so we felt no need to know the full design outcome as we embarked on individual experiments, gradually trusting more to process and less to preconception.

David:

Like many people who work in the arts, neither I, nor most of my colleagues at Battersea Arts Centre had undertaken a capital project. So in 2006, as BAC and Haworth Tompkins set out to establish a collaborative partnership, I was completely ignorant of conventional architectural process.

It was liberating in a first meeting with Steve Tompkins to admit that I was making it up as I went along, and to not be looked on with horror, fear, pity or a mixture of all three. Instead, unknowns were established on both sides – and Haworth Tompkins were prepared to set the relationship up as a coalition based on different skills – rather than as hired experts who would solve all BAC’s building problems.

It is all too easy to embark on a “client – expert” narrative. The story is captured perfectly in the archetypal sound of air being drawn through the teeth of a car mechanic, as they shake their head pityingly at your lovable but knackered old wreck. You might have the keys to your car (or to your building) in your hand but you feel about as empowered as a child who can’t reach the lock. From the outset, Haworth Tompkins enabled a sense of shared endeavour. This was typified in Steve Tompkins’ idea that BAC created a space team, that we contribute to the Advanced Feasibility Report, and that we co-write the Conservation Management Statement.

So much of this is about teaching. In policy terms it might be called something like life-long-learning. In practical terms, it is about helping us have a better understanding of each other’s disciplines and perhaps realising they are not so very different. It does require immense patience. I am sure that the walls of Haworth Tompkins’ offices and of Battersea’s former Town Hall were witness to some colourful language between 2007 and 2010.

But in terms of creating a long-term, more sustainable model, we like knowing what is possible and how to achieve it. How can anyone truly guarantee the Arts Council that their project will not add to their operating costs (whether staffing, energy use or maintenance costs) unless they truly understand the operational impact of their plans? And how can they understand the operational impact of their design plans without having the right people intimately involved in the creation process? And also by sharing responsibility if it goes wrong. We need a more human and user centred approach to design. Who knows, in thirty years time, we might all have to be doing it for ourselves. Certainly, for the time we were working with them, Haworth Tompkins were generous and patient in sharing their craft and enabling us to collaboratively design and project manage.

Steve:

The conventional RIBA work stage format began to collapse because some bits of work were already on site or complete while others were still at feasibility stage – what we developed instead was a state of managed instability, or institutional fragility, where building work became an indivisible part of the artistic programming.

BAC were able to thrive in these makeshift conditions precisely because of their ‘scratch’ mentality, the belief that creative energy is generated not only from finished presentations but from the process itself.

We learned to relax into not quite knowing the full destination of the work, because of course the idea is that there is never a final, finished state, but a slowly and constantly evolving current state, endlessly transformed by successive artists’ work. Refreshingly, changing our minds was regarded as the natural result of proper reflection rather than a professional error.

So what are the lessons for clients with similar projects?  Choose your consultant team carefully and double the time you thought it would take to develop the brief together.  Don’t underdo the early thinking, and remember that it’s much more cost effective to pay decent fees at stage A and B if you then avoid building something you didn’t quite understand, you don’t need, doesn’t work and you can’t afford to run.

Spend proper money on investigations and surveys so the building is fully understood in detail and any additions are carefully targeted.  Set up some sort of project specific PI insurance so genuine co-authorship and risk sharing can happen, and develop bespoke appointment documentation that better describe the more intensive collaborations and professional relationships that this sort of project needs.

Don’t underestimate the cost in time and fees of designing and managing a large number of variable sized projects concurrently, and target consultants’ meeting time carefully. And above all, communicate constantly and candidly.

David:

In the mid 90’s, a £17.5 million scheme to transform Battersea’s former Town Hall hit the wrong end of the lottery’s rainbow. By the early half of the following decade, BAC had begun thinking about where it should live. The building seemed to create as many problems as opportunities. When the roof leaked, BAC would phone the council. Leases became shorter and shorter and there was little incentive for anyone to invest. BAC began to consider its mission might be better suited to a peripatetic model of artist development, producing and presentation, free of the constraints of the Town Hall.

But one of the reasons why lots of people wanted to work at BAC, including myself and Joint Artistic Director David Micklem, was the building. It felt like a home. The fact that it was an ex-Town Hall, with a radical history made it more interesting as a performance space. If BAC had been based in a purpose built theatre, would it have generated such an abundance of ground-breaking artists over three decades? I doubt it. The building encourages artists to break theatrical convention.

And so in 2006, BAC restated its commitment to the building. And chose to work with Haworth Tompkins for a period of research, development and testing that lasted for three and half years. Steve Tompkins and his team quickly brought ideas to the table that began to transform the building for the better. But perhaps more profoundly, they brought ideas to the table that transformed the way we, as users of the building, thought about our relationship with the space. Steve described the space as having its own voltage, charged with the presence of generations – political and theatrical ones.  It became our job to understand the building and discover how we adjust the voltage in each space, phase by phase. Rather than simply design new things with bricks and mortar, our design partners offered us a new metaphorical landscape in which we could re-imagine our building and our activity within it. It enabled us to think of our building as a character in all of our work. By taking time to understand our practice as theatre makers, Haworth Tompkins have enabled us to evolve our practice and our building from within – rather than imposing something which just isn’t us.

Slides that accompanied presentation: http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/store/assets/0000/2268/tttconf11-davidjubb-stevetompkins.pdf

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