The Arcola in Dalston has been around as long as Reviewsgate. It was one of the first, possibly the first, of London’s fringe theatres to shut down because of the pandemic. It closed its doors on March 15. But that was not the end as the people who run it started to fight for the money and for a future and although there are serious problems about returning to the old premises – conversion to cope with coronavirus regulations to create economic theatre spaces from the existing ones is a long term project – opening on ground next door in a roofed but outdoor site is now under way.
The news space has been designed by Jon Bausor, who has designed many shows including Bat Out of Hell and the 2012 Paralympic Games and will prioritise audience safety with year-round protection from the weather – it will have a roof – but still have the full airflow benefits of being outdoor. The seating on benches will be socially distanced and under the current Tier 2 restrictions its outdoor nature will allow groups of six to meet even if they are from different households.
Work has begun. It has been made possible by support from individual donors, Arts Council England and the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund and the hope is that the productions planned for the theatre’s 20th anniversary season can be rescheduled. The theatre’s co-founders, Mehmet Ergen and Leyla Nazli said that as we are likely to be living with Covid-19 for some time it was important new and safe ways of working be found. Arcola Outside would enable them to welcome audiences back and to create new opportunities for freelance artists and workers who are sauch a vital part of the industry and our society. “This year has been the most challenging in Arcola’s 20-year history, but with Arcola Outside and our exciting plans for new shows, we are coming back from the brink.”
The new space will also act as the central hub for a Hackney-wide festival of outside performance, Today I’m Wiser, which Arcola plans to produce next year.
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There are aspects of the plans which do make one wonder – the bench seating is frankly a bad idea, designers do not always get it right and as a veteran of bad fringe seating the last thing I want is to sit on some backless structure, and while a bar is an essential part of the venue’s viability just how you avoid, even with an audience capacity of about 90, queues to collect drinks has not been worked out. It will be cold, but there are plans for some form of underfloor heating – those freestanding outdoor heaters are considered environmentally damaging, not to work, and will not be included – so wrap up warmly will be the message and maybe bring your own travelling rug.
The Arcola may not be somewhere many of you will go, but the point is that the theatre is doing something about rising from the ashes and executive director Dr Ben Todd said they would be working with expert partners, including scientists and researchers at leading universities, to prepare for re-opening the main building when it was safe and viable.
Drawing¬ copyright Jon Bausor