Humanistan – image credit Chris O’Connell 2019
Theo Bosanquet finds out all about Humanistan
Coventry’s Shop Front Theatre: ‘We’re trading experiences’
Working on a magazine about the history of 2 Tone music for Coventry City of Culture recently, I stumbled across the city’s Shop Front Theatre. Situated on a corner of the central arcade, amid an otherwise typical array of high street shops, it’s a small space that represents a revolutionary idea.
It has long been the case that, for all the theatre industry’s often strenuous efforts to increase accessibility to the artform, the buildings themselves remain the biggest hurdle. As Lyn Gardner wrote in 2013, “Where a show happens is as crucial as what it’s about… Playing in unexpected places and spaces is important for all kinds of theatre.”
The Shop Front Theatre has been putting this into practice for over a decade.
Chris O’Connell and Julia Negus, artistic director and producer of touring company Theatre Absolute, were inspired to set it up by a visit to Chicago. O’Connell’s play Zero was produced there in 2009, and to his surprise it was staged in a disused shop, one of a number of ‘storefront’ spaces in the city.
“These people were properly embedding themselves in a community,” O’Connell tells me. “They were really exploring and changing the social and economic relationship with their audience. It was a revelation.”
Realising it was a model they could replicate, O’Connell and Negus set about finding a suitable location in their hometown of Coventry. They soon came across a former fish and chip shop in the city’s historic arcade, and negotiated an 18-month rent-free trial with the council.
“People were immediately curious,” says O’Connell. “We were offering a real alternative to the mainstream at the Belgrade Theatre ten minutes down the road. It was amazingly successful.”
Despite starting as a home for Theatre Absolute productions, the space soon became, in O’Connell’s words, “a conduit for many different people.” Visiting companies were asked to keep sets and lighting to a minimum; this was not a space for naturalistic productions of Chekhov. And large numbers of community projects soon found a natural home there too. All told it has formed a key part of Coventry’s cultural renaissance in recent years.
Their tenure was swiftly extended and the shop location has proved enduringly popular with audiences, encouraging a certain serendipity that is rare in traditional spaces. “People walk past and see a poster in the window, then they pop in a start a conversation and maybe come back and see some work,” O’Connell says proudly. “We’re a shop trading experiences.”
For their latest experience, O’Connell and Negus wanted to continue in the vein of their recent project Are We Where We Are, which saw 15 new works commissioned over an 18-month period from a central provocation.
They have conceived an epic three-year season inspired by the words of writers including Ben Okri, Francois Matarasso and Benjamin Zephaniah:
“What are you prepared to give up for a more equal society?” (Benjamin Zephaniah)
Its title, Humanistan, was conjured to reflect the idea of collective experience. With debates raging over fundamental issues from climate change to democracy, O’Connell says he is eager to do something constructive. “This word Humanistan is to urge people to contemplate the stories we tell ourselves, and the things we can do together that are positive and communal.”
Artists working in a range of disciplines are being invited to take part. One of the first is Amahra Spence, who has worked with performance, text, digital media and installation. The ideas behind Humanistan resonated with her, she tells me, “because it’s not lecturing saying art is the answer. It’s saying art can help us to interrogate these issues and reimagine what it means to be human.”
Spence says that she appreciates Theatre Absolute’s “super light touch” approach to collaboration, enabling her an unusual level of creative freedom that is “really empowering”. She’s still developing her show, but thinks it will be a theatre piece that “plays with the idea of absurdity in the every day”. She cites the recent crisis around the prorogation of parliament as an example of this, and says she is fascinated by the idea of anarchy in the age of social media.
Spence’s piece is scheduled for November. After this O’Connell and Negus are planning a collaboration with three local breakers (break dancers), a new one-on-one performance from the acclaimed Sharron Devine, and a project O’Connell himself will write to coincide with Coventry’s tenure as City of Culture in 2021. Many more artists are still to be announced – but as O’Connell points out, the nature of a three-year season means he is yet to meet some of them.
Spence, who is based in Birmingham, agrees that whereas traditional theatres can feel like exclusive spaces, Shop Front Theatre has a refreshing feeling of “openness”. And she adds that it’s making a valuable contribution to discussions about the future of the high street, not just in Coventry but elsewhere. “Theatre could become something that occupies those many empty spaces,” she says.
It’s an intriguing idea; a whole range of shop theatres springing up across the country. But does O’Connell think it will happen? “I’d love it if other people set them up. I’m surprised more people haven’t done it, and if someone else wanted to do it we’d completely support them,” he says.
But don’t expect them to set up a chain of shops anytime soon. “If you corporatised it too much it would completely change the nature of the shop. There’s something about it… It’s hard to articulate, but there’s something about its fragility that makes it what it is.”
– Theo Bosanquet
Theo Bosanquet is a freelance writer and editor who has written for publications including TIME, The Stage, Time Out, the Guardian and WhatsOnStage. He also works with arts organisations on content marketing @TheoBosanquet
Early thoughts about the next artistic programme by Chris O’Connell
As we complete our 10th year at the Shop Front Theatre (SFT), here in City Arcade, Coventry, we are excited to begin a new project inspired by our last work ‘Are We Where We Are’, (AWWWA) which saw 15 works commissioned over an 18-month period.
When that concluded in November 2018, we felt sure that our approach to multi commissioned work sparked by a central provocation was a rich seam to mine. Creating a critical mass of representative voices and responses to social, political and personal provocations, and putting that work in front of audiences so that we might allow conversations and connections to occur and reverberate, feels like our most useful standpoint as theatre makers in these turbulent times.
Gone are the days when we made plays written by and large by myself for Theatre Absolute, into which we put a singular energy and resource for the privilege of travelling an arduous touring circuit that brought little artistic satisfaction. Over the last 10 years at the SFT we have been on a thrilling journey of transition. These days, through performance, we are focused on collaboration, interventions, visits. If this be by writers who aren’t performers, or performers who aren’t writers, or by some who are neither, or by some who are both, then that feels like a worthwhile approach. Some of the work in AWWWA lasted 20 minutes, some of it an hour. It wasn’t the length, but the intent and the response of the artist that drove the work, and the chance to explore it afterwards with audiences.
See here: Are We Where We Are
So what is Humanistan?
Take a look at the word:
The definition of ‘stan’ means: place of, country.
Thematically the work is inspired by the words of the poet Benjamin Zephaniah: “what are you prepared to give up for a more equal society?” and also by the words of Francois Matarasso, who says “…societies belong to people, not governments. They are built through relationships, not treaties, (they are built) in what we DO, not what we say.”
Equally, we are struck by the words of the writer Ben Okri:
“Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings,”
Humanistan will consist of 8 commissions over three years, and invite the artists/performers involved to create and tell positive stories, provoking us to consider that the social and political systems that surround, and arguably are currently failing us, should not be allowed to define our experiences of ‘being human’.
What is the new story we tell to ourselves?
We’re really interested in the dynamics of local and large scale activism. Where can we currently look to see this activism? The Shop Front Theatre is a micro example of activism – taking control of the means of making art, pushing hierarchy to one side, building a broad base of representation and voices that over 10 years have allowed it to evolve and become so many things to so many people.
Let’s just throw this open to many variables:
There are visible examples of the political landscape being changed in small rural towns that have traditionally been ruled at council level by the expected parties, each swapping control over the years. In far flung places like Buckfastleigh, in Devon they have changed the face of party politics and local councils. See below:
Consider the story of Grenfell Tower and the way that communities came together to help each other when the state was slow to react to the tragedy that paralysed lives in the Grenfell community.
Zephaniah talks about anarchism, and that we shouldn’t wait until there are tragedies before we choose to work together. Why aren’t we doing it anyway? Hence his question we quote above: what are you willing to do to create a more equal society?
How hard is it to say yes to someone, when it’s easier to say no. Of course, too often. But should it always be? How do we organise for ourselves, and take power back from the systems and the people, and the authority that is failing us?
We’re interested in what it means to think independently. That’s really worth chewing over.
To decide for oneself about how you want to live your life, and the principles that are important to you and the kind of world you want to live in. If someone offers a room in their house to someone who is homeless, or begins a movement called Refugees At Home and gives up some of their home to a newly arrived family, and asks that others do the same, does that mean that person identifies as odd, as crazy, or does it identify them as a free thinker, as someone who is thinking about the new story?
These are just some of the thoughts we put down in a thinking document. What will be created and put before our audiences we don’t yet know. It is a way of working that invites risk; we don’t overly prescribe to those responding, rather we begin a discussion about what THEY feel about what WE feel, and allow a pathway to open up.
We were all born to live in this place called Humanistan. Sometimes, too often, it’s so hard to spend time there.
We want to try harder.
Chris O’Connell – Artistic Director, Theatre Absolute
Francois Matarasso – A Restless Art
Ben Okri – A Way of Being Free, published by Phoenix; Ne Ed edition (1 June 1998)
Humanistan is kindly supported by Arts Council England, Backstage Trust, Coventry City of Culture Trust, Coventry City Council and Coventry University.