An open letter of love to Battersea Arts Centre

Dear BAC,

I find myself standing in my kitchen crying my eyes out over the devastating pictures of your recent fire.  I don’t think anyone realises quite how much they love a place until a part of it goes up in flames.  I am so relieved to hear that all of your staff, performers, crews, neighbours and Pluto the cat are safe and being looked after. I’m saddened by the photos showing the extent of the damage, especially after all the hard work that has gone into the restoration of that part of the building.

The newly refurbished Grand Hall.

The Grand Hall completely destroyed. Photo by London Fire Brigade.

The Grand Hall completely destroyed.

After the trauma of my Theatre degree (the prospectus never made it clear we’d be studying the weirdest extremes of contemporary performance art) and having to re-sit one of my modules (and see more of this stuff) in order to graduate, I was very skeptical about my first visit to Battersea Arts Centre in 2004. I needn’t have been. Vacaxion! Vacaxion! was joyful lunacy from start to finish and my first real taste of promenade theatre. Crazy Horse Theatre Co took us on a summer holiday in Battersea, from the ‘departure lounge’ of Allders cafe to balmy sunshine of Ilo San Pacaya. It was the first proof I had that contemporary performance could be fun – funny even. But with a degree (eventually) achieved, I shut myself off from anything even a little unusual.  I’d had enough.

About 2 years ago, I’d started seeing plays that had a quirky twist – I wanted more stuff like this. It finally felt safe to go back to the unusual of my own volition. I knew exactly where to look first: BAC. As I stepped into your foyer, with the grand staircase and mosaic floor, it felt strangely like coming home. It was warm and welcoming, with a real buzzy atmosphere. I couldn’t have timed it better: It was your 120th birthday and the most amazing party in every conceivable space throughout the building.  You fed me cake and introduced me to Hackney Colliery Band.  We celebrated the fact that you’d have guardianship of the building for the next 120 years.

In the last 18 months, I have explored rooms – both real and imaginary – in Rebels and Rubble and twice in The Unbuilt Room.  I have been snowed on, crawled around on my hands and knees, and made lightbulbs in The Good Neighbour.  I’ve been talked into holding hands with strangers by a transistor radio sitting on a chair in When We Embraced.  I’ve sat in total darkness and listened to some of the most exquisite sound design in Ring.  I have been bewitched by the choreography of Missing when I visited last Friday.  I have kicked myself endlessly for missing out on 9 years of productions.

I have got lost in your rabbit warren of endless corridors.  I have stood and just looked at curious bits of the building in all its crumbling beauty, history oozing out of the cracks.  Your bee-themed mosaic floors never fail to make me smile.  I’ve thrown money into buckets to go towards your restoration fund.  I have sat amongst excited chatter in your Scratch Bar.  I’ve made new friends in the space of an evening.  I’ve sat with Pluto nuzzling his face into my shins (then felt cheated on when he’s gone off to flirt with someone else).  There have been evenings where it has been a huge wrench to leave to get the last train home.  You have always been more than just a building – it just happens to be in one of the most beautiful buildings in South London.

The glass-domed octagonal atrium near the Grand Hall.  The words written around the top are from Shakespeare’s Richard II: “The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation: that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay. A jewel in a ten-times-barr’d-up chest is a bold spirit in a loyal breast.”

When I heard the awful news yesterday afternoon, it broke my heart.  I left work, sat on a train going through Clapham Junction, staring out the window, dreading the moment I would see it for myself.  As we passed at 6pm, the roof was clearly gone and smoke was billowing into the sky.  There were still pockets of flames in the corners.  Other people on the train looked, but didn’t fully understand much more than that a large building was on fire.  I could smell the smoke when the doors opened.

For some time now, you have perhaps been my favourite arts venue.  BAC has a heart and a soul that only ever seeks to welcome in more and more people – you cherish, nurture and inspire. You provide a safe space in which to experiment – to try things, get it wrong and then put it right.  You love your community and your community love you.  This is evident in the mass outpouring of support on social media from across the theatre and arts spectrum.  You have entertained me, challenged me and nourished my passion for the arts.  You’ve been there with something ingenious when I’ve wanted to go and see something on the spur of the moment.  Until yesterday, I don’t think I had realised how much a part of my life you have become.

I am so glad that everyone’s alright.  I am relieved that a lot of the building is unharmed.  I cried again when I found out that the London Fire Brigade had managed to save your domed atrium (last Friday I stood in there for a good few minutes just taking in what a wonderful space it was).  I am reassured by your stoic response to this tragedy.  I am heartened by the fact that in less than 24 hours, over £18,000 of donations have poured in to help rebuild your wonderful theatre. I am smiling at the fact that people are already starting to bounce back and to find a way forward.

In December 2013, I came to see your Christmas show The Good Neighbour – your actors told the story of George Neighbour, a man who bravely helped others out from the fire at Arding & Hobbs in 1909, but died when the floor gave way beneath him.  I thought of that story as I walked past the A&H building (now Debenhams) on my way up to you last Friday.  I remember the whole audience being asked to say together “Be strong, George! Have courage, George!”.  It was a truly memorable evening.

So be strong, and have courage.  We’ll be back when you’re next ready to open your doors.  I cannot wait to return.

With deepest love,

Gail xxx

For anyone wanting to donate to the cause, please give what you can to: https://www.nationalfundingscheme.org/battersea-arts-centre/BAC012#.VQQqQPmsWnk

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