‘ In 2014, we need to turn theatres into secular churches.’
This was the provocation of Honour Bayes in a recent blog for The Stage. She was writing about ‘events that bring the outside world into theatre – not just artistically-led platforms, but socially-led ones too’. She kindly mentioned Meet Me at the Albany, our artist led day club for the over 60s.
Her article chimed with many of the conversations that are taking place at the Albany on pretty much a daily basis about what we stand for, and, for the communications team, how we talk about the work we do. It provides an interesting context for a live discussion about how we define ourselves.
The Albany describes itself not as a ‘theatre’, but as an ‘arts centre’, and increasingly, as a ‘community arts centre’. This isn’t just semantics. It is significant for us because it reflects the fact that we operate in a very different way to most theatres – and we are funded to do so. While we have a strong programme of professional theatre (this season you can catch work from the likes of Kate Tempest, Jonzi D, Polarbear and Bryony Lavery on our stages), we are, first and foremost, driven by a consideration of the needs of our community. This is the principal reason we’re supported by our main funder, Lewisham Council, and their recognition of the role the arts and organisations like ours can play in fulfilling their community agenda means that the range of ways we are working with them is growing significantly, at a time when many local authorities are cutting arts and culture budgets entirely.
For example, within the last couple of years we’ve been contracted to take on the management of two libraries, both in Lewisham (Deptford Lounge) and over the border in Southwark (Canada Water Culture Space). Meet Me at the Albany forms a core aspect of the council’s programme of activity to tackle the issue of isolation in older people. We provide office space for twenty seven small charities, arts organisations and social enterprises, and we are working with the council and others on various enterprises to increase networking amongst businesses and the creative industries in the borough.
There’s a queasiness about the term ‘community’ in the arts: it hints at cringy ‘Legs Akimbo’ style outreach projects where artistic quality is compromised in the fulfilment of social agendas. Historically, we’ve had something of a love/hate relationship with it here. But today, we find it useful to embrace it as a prompt that drives us to, quite radically, interrogate the notion of community spaces: the role they play in people’s lives, and how they can serve the needs of the contemporary community.
Bayes writes about theatres fulfilling the role churches have played historically. At the Albany, we’re drawn to the idea of the ‘third place’. Originally defined by Ray Oldenburg, the ‘third place’ is a social environment distinct from the ‘first place’ (the home) and the ‘second place’ (the work environment). ‘Third places’ are the informal meeting places that anchor community life and facilitate broader, more creative interaction. The qualities of a third place are, according to Oldenburg:
– Free or inexpensive
– Offer food and drink
– Highly accessible
– Involve regulars
– Welcoming and comfortable
– A location for meeting new and old friends
Examples of third places might be a general store, a barber shop or a sports centre and of course, it’s a role that has historically been played principally by churches. The secret of Starbucks’ success was in part the fact that its founders capitalised on the need for third places at a time when churches were no longer playing this role in people’s lives.
The qualities of a third place go above and beyond what most theatres typically deliver. They are public places where people linger for substantial periods of time, throughout the day, a role certainly not fulfilled by West End theatres that may only open their doors an hour before a show starts, and offer only a restricted bar space with prohibitively expensive drinks.
The Albany is open throughout the day, offering a stimulating environment with affordable, nourishing food options and ease of engagement with others. On Tuesdays, visit our café and you might find yourself caught up in a Meet Me at the Albany sing-a-long, or an impromptu spoken word performance. On Wednesdays, Fridays or Saturdays the building will be buzzing with people spilling over from the adjacent market, nipping in to use our toilets or discussing their latest purchase over a cup of coffee. And for many local children, the relationship they have with our garden – whether through our Growing Up Club or helping out on our allotments with their class – is just as important as the shows they see in our theatre.
In short, the socially-led activities that Bayes refers to are the heart of what we do, and have been for a long time. But the crucial thing in all of this is that this foundation to our work enriches our ability to deliver great art. Artistic excellence is not a side issue – for us artistic innovation is driven by the need to access and engage with our wide and diverse audiences. For example our leadership on the Circulate project, a three year programme of large scale outdoor productions developed specifically to tour to outer London boroughs, was motivated by the need to access audiences for whom crossing the threshold of arts buildings is a huge barrier. Similarly our work in libraries is underpinning a major strand of our thinking about creating outstanding art that responds to the particular needs of audiences in this setting. Furthermore, by adopting an increasingly dynamic business model, we are securing new opportunities and resources to support the creation of new artistic output that truly resonates with the people of Deptford.
Amber Massie-Blomfield, Head of Communications, the Albany