Space to develop work emerged as a significant priority in the Whose Theatre…? Report of 2006. The myriad of reports since the 1980’s on the needs for development of The Sector had focussed on such issues as exclusion, access, institutional racism, cultural diversity, the development of artists and the need for a change of thinking and practice within the larger institutions and thereby buildings in the British theatre infrastructure. In the Eclipse Report of 2001 none of the twenty recommendations refer to spaces, the majority demanding organisational change. Statistical monitoring, legal enforcement and aesthetic shift accounted for only five recommendations.
The focus on spaces was most likely fuelled by the Arts Council of England’s withdrawal of capital funding for Talawa Theatre’s venue in London that occurred in mid 2005. At the same time The Arts Council instigated a review of the impact which the £25m uplift in revenue funding for theatre received in 2001 was having on the Black theatre sector. Though few knew the details of the decision on Talawa, it often featured in the review consultation process that began life as BT21 (Black Theatre for the 21st century) and ended with the Whose Theatre…? Report as Sustained Theatre.
The 2005 consultation process highlighted a division between those who felt the need for a type of national black theatre venue and those who felt they lacked rehearsal space to develop the quality and/or aesthetic form of their work away from the dominant norm of proscenium theatre. For some the argument was to step away from an historically fruitless battle for their work to be shown in the existing buildings; for others, access to those buildings was an inevitable right and a development space was a strategic stepping stone.
Following Arts Council England’s acceptance of the Whose Theatre…? Report in which they upgraded the capital amount from £4m to £5m, the agreed artist-led Sustained Theatre program commenced. In Autumn 2006 a self-nomination process established fourteen artists/practitioners as the Buildings Group to address the first recommendation of the report. It quickly renamed itself as the Spaces Group to allow consideration of a broader conceptual range than bricks and mortar. The group’s task was to draw from its collective expertise, debating and delivering the necessary action plan to fulfill the report’s preferred model of “A distributed, linked network of buildings…Each building in each region to have its own character and specialism...” This process is summarised in the document Research for Spaces Delivery Group January 2007.
The next stage of the process was to ensure that the Spaces action plan was meshed with the action plans developed for the other Sustained Theatre strands namely Critical Debate, Archives, International Connections and crucially Leadership. This work was begun in Autumn 2007 when the concept of the website as a virtual space emerged alongside an understanding that the spaces were a place for Sustained Theatre to arrive at rather than to believe that all the other issues the programme wished to address would be solved by beginning with a space.
In early 2008 four models of spaces were developed with the assistance of a consultant supplied through the Arts Council by CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment). These four models - dirty space; high tech space; retreat; mobile space - formed the basis for the ‘Call for Proposals’ developed from Autumn 2009 and issued in March 2010.
A smaller Spaces Group was established in the autumn of 2009 and a project manager appointed to take the project forward and deliver the spaces. Following some further consultation within the Sector and with the Arts Council, some refinement of the original proposals was undertaken and documentation finalised. There continued to be debates about creation spaces vs presentation spaces and there were some strong feelings that creating new buildings was not necessarily desirable.
The Call published in March 2010 and distributed widely through a range of networks was a very open one, focusing on spaces in which to create rather than to present work and inviting proposals from any organisation which thought it could provide facilities under any of the four models. It attracted a wide response, with 37 organisations from across the country responding with a wide variety of offers. Venues of all sorts and sizes and higher educational institutions all submitted proposals with a desire to support the work of Sustained Theatre.
Following a detailed assessment of these, seven have been selected as a priority group to be taken forward as the core of a network of spaces in which capital investment would be sought from the £5m set aside by the Arts Council and further discussions are being arranged with a number of other respondees which might also be part of the network. At the time of writing, this work is currently progressing and it is hoped that by early autumn, the embryonic network of spaces will be in place and work will be beginning on preparing applications to submit to the Arts Council for capital funding.