- Coventry’s pioneering theatre-in-a-shop is preparing to close after more than a decade of delighting and surprising city centre audiences.
- Theatre Absolute have run the Shop Front Theatre in City Arcade for 13 years, but the project is finally drawing to a close in November 2022.
- The Shop Front Theatre will be demolished in 2023 as part of the City Centre South redevelopment.
In 2009, inspired by a model in Chicago which encouraged audiences to enter a space and meet artists as equals, Chris O’Connell, and Julia Negus the Artistic Directors of Theatre Absolute, in association and partnership with Coventry City Council, created a simple and non-traditional theatre space open to all and quite unlike anything else in the city. The Shop Front Theatre was the first, and remains the only, professional shop front theatre in the UK – a real one of a kind.
Chris explains, “The initial idea was to challenge ourselves as theatre makers, taking away everything theatre often relies on and keeping only what is essential to tell great stories – a space and actors. And we wanted people to feel welcome and able to create and contribute, not simply consume what was being offered to them; what started as an opportunity for us became a way of making opportunities for others.”.
Based in the empty shop unit previously occupied by Fishy Moore’s fish and chip shop in City Arcade, Theatre Absolute fashioned a trail blazing approach to its work producing new shows, and commissioning and supporting emerging and established writers. In 2021 they were nationally recognised by The Writers Guild of Great Britain, who awarded them an Olwen Wymark Award for exceptional encouragement of theatre writing.
But Shop Front Theatre was much more than a space for writers. Its flexibility saw it quickly evolve into a welcoming home for arts and community organisations right across the city to tell their stories not only through theatre, but through dance, music, poetry, textiles, film, and exhibitions.
A key use of the space has been by local and regional community and Arts groups – from workshops on writing, consultations on the value of creativity, drama and acting classes, and talks – the Shop Front Theatre has been a home from home for many including Grapevine Coventry, The Coventry Society, Underground Lights and both Coventry University and the University of Warwick.
Even during the pandemic, Theatre Absolute ensured that the Shop Front Theatre space remained an asset despite being closed to the public. Work, including poetry created through the City Voices programme – a writing development partnership between Theatre Absolute and the Coventry City of Culture Trust – was still visible as the Shop Front’s large street-facing windows were turned into a changing exhibition space, engaging passers-by with poetry as well as film, photography, and textiles. Local artists were also offered the keys to the space for sole access, along with a small bursary.
This commitment to maintaining community creativity was noted in the Centre for Cultural Value’s Culture in Crisis: Impacts of Covid-19 on the UK cultural sector and where we go from here, one of the world’s largest investigations into the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the cultural industries.
The Shop Front Theatre will be demolished some time in 2023, as will all of City Arcade, as part of the massive City Centre South redevelopment.
Chris said, “It will be immensely sad to see the space and the Arcade itself go, it’s been a brilliant home for independents. But we had already decided that Theatre Absolute’s future lay in progressing our work in other ways and we’re excited to start exploring that.”
Julia added, “We must never stop trusting and encouraging local artists to create new work that has a relevance to a place and its community. Our own work will continue here until November– we have writing residencies and theatre labs, offering space and development time. And we’ve a celebratory weekend planned on 4 and 5 November when everyone can gather to reflect on all the brilliant events that have happened here during our time in City Arcade. It’s been an amazing achievement!”
Martin Sutherland, Chief Executive of the Coventry City of Culture Trust said, “Theatre Absolute and the Shop Front Theatre have been at the heart of Coventry’s independent theatre scene for so long that it’s difficult to imagine the city without them. Thankfully, they continue to innovate and once again are reimagining how best to support the city’s extraordinary artists and communities to flourish. I look forward to seeing what happens next and continuing to find ways to support and champion Julia and Chris in their next era”.
Photography by Andy Moore
Pictures in order from top-bottom:
1. Shop Front Theatre interior
2. Shop Front Theatre exterior
3. TAB – A Life With Pip by Stephen Lightbown
4. Unfinished City – Chris O’Connell
5. Humanistan Poetry In The Window words by Shahnaz Akhter
6. Audience post show discussion feat Julia and Chris
Notes for Editors:
About Theatre Absolute
Theatre Absolute creates performative work with the community that takes risks and is radical and disruptive. Driven by the shared artistic vision of artist-producer Julia Negus and writer-director Chris O’Connell, they collaborate across disciplines to explore how they can make narrative.
By working with writers, dancers, poets, visual artists and more, they strive to make relevant and experimental work for performance. They have been creating professional work for nearly 30 years, forming in 1993. Early work was written and led by Chris, whose plays included the Time Out Live and double Edinburgh Fringe First award winning Street Trilogy (Car, Raw, Kid).
In 2009 Theatre Absolute founded the UK’s first professional Shop Front Theatre, in Coventry’s city centre. From this unique base they have been on an incredible journey that’s allowed them to reflect and act upon their role as artists and theatre-makers within the community coming to believe that artists, participants, and audiences should be considered active citizens not consumers.
Olwen Wymark award on Theatre Absolute site
Olwen Wymark award on The Writers Guild of Great Britain
Shop Front Festival
Centre for Cultural Value’s report, Culture in Crisis: Impacts of Covid-19 on the UK cultural sector and where we go from here
IMAGES & INTERVIEWS PLEASE CONTACT:
Julia Negus 07799 292957
Producer, Theatre Absolute, 38 City Arcade, Coventry, CV1 3HW