THE BLOG

The Beauty of Battersea: Lessons From the Battersea Arts Centre Fire

24/03/2015 16:48 | Updated 24 May 2015

On Friday 13th March, at 4.20pm, fire broke out in one of London's best loved cultural hubs, destroying the Grand Hall and offices of a 120 year-old building that for over 35 years has been Battersea Arts Centre.

Built in 1893 by Edward Mountford as Battersea's Town Hall, this distinctive landmark has been a focal point for the local area over generations: Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst - pioneering campaigners for Women's Suffrage - presided over meetings in Battersea Town Hall and London's first black Mayor, John Archer, was elected here in 1913.

In 1970, the building was saved from demolition and then, in 1979, it was rescued once again and reinvented as an independent arts centre. From that point on, Battersea Arts Centre - BAC - has been led by a series of inspirational figures and has forged a new identity and purpose as a locally relevant, nationally significant venue making work of international importance. It has pioneered new practices in contemporary theatre-making - like immersive theatre, as exemplified in Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death in 2007, or 'Scratch' development processes, through which Jerry Springer the Opera was born in 2001. At the same time, it has always been integral to local life, to family activities, classes, workshops, weddings and evenings out.

And so the fire that spread rapidly through the building on that ominous Friday was a gut wrenching blow: not just for artists, practitioners and theatre lovers, but for locally-based communities for whom the centre is part of their lives.

But what has been remarkable about the BAC fire is not the extent of the damage, or the disruption to performances, or the loss of a space for South London communities. What is remarkable is the opposite: the spontaneous outpouring of love, compassion and support for BAC, the heartfelt warmth and goodwill that confirms the special place of this special organisation.

I have been following all this on social media and, in the days since the fire, I've cyber-witnessed countless acts that are each, in their own way, tiny works of art. Taken together, they can seem overwhelmingly poignant: the local cafe in which the management team set up temporary home the next morning where the owner, Kazim, refused to accept payment; local businesses that opened their doors to provide access to computers and the internet; the tweeted photograph of a single flower on each table of BAC's café, arranged the day after the fire by a member of the catering team and paid for, on impulse, by a passer-by at the florist; the hundreds of individual memories of the Great Hall, posted on twitter exactly a week after fire broke out; the handwritten 'thank you' chalk board set up by staff outside the entrance. Taken in isolation, these individual acts might not seem particularly significant. But they are in the context of the BAC team opening the front, useable, half of the venue for not one, but two performances just 27 hours after the fire started. Not for nothing is the twitter hashtag #BACPhoenix.

Support has been forthcoming equally from the twittersphere, from cultural organisations, audiences, artists, communities and the authorities. Local MPs, Ministers, funders and more have visited to show support and give advice. Since that fateful Friday, over £200,000 has been raised from donors across the world, from countless individuals giving what they can to £100,000 from Battersea Power Station. And this week, BAC received the welcome news of a £1 million donation to the rebuilding campaign from central Government.

Every few days, a new update from BAC's Artistic Director, David Jubb, is posted on the centre's website. Honest, humane and beautifully articulate, the blogs detail progress and they tell of the hundreds of offers of practical help. Most importantly, they share directly with BAC's many stakeholders - artists, audiences, communities, funders - the process of bringing this building back to life.

It's a shining example of BAC's guiding principle, as reiterated in Jubb's March 16th blog: 'Not for me, not for you, but for us'. In years to come, I can't help thinking that their handling of this will be taught as a best practice case study in crisis management. Disaster can so often cause us to become defensive, to put up hoardings and close doors, but BAC's response has been the reverse. So what can we learn?

First, Be open: from the start, the response from David Jubb and his team has been open, honest and genuine. His regular updates - in which he talks about the big vision of restoration and the more mundane challenges of managing a bookings system using sheets of A3 paper - are sent out directly to the community via twitter and blogs. They offer a refreshing alternative to the faceless corporate responses penned by cagey crisis PR teams.

Be human: the tone of all of the messages is very personal and individual, and this personal response has been reflected back in the hundreds of memories and photos submitted by BAC's audiences and users over the last 10 days. And just when we thought we had no more tears to shed, the theatre cat, Pluto, emerged from the wreckage last Wednesday, having been missing since the fire broke out.

Be clear: No-one could doubt the team's determination that BAC will rise from the ashes, and the latest update sets out six clear and practical ways for people to get involved and support the Phoenix campaign - from donating to the fund, to offering memories, to providing technical kit or performance space.

Say thank you: even in the midst of the fire the team were thanking the emergency services. No-one has gone unacknowledged - from the local Brownie pack leader organising a fundraiser, to the local Mayor, to the Arts Council for their support.

But above all, be relevant: this amazing outpouring of love reflects Battersea Arts Centre's role not just as an important place, but as a place maker: it is both in and of the communities among and for which it exists.

Lyn Gardner summed up all this in her moving tribute in the Guardian last week: 'A theatre is not just a building. It is all the people who pass through it, and who - for however brief a time, a few days or weeks or years - call it home.'

Follow #BACPhoenix and watch Battersea Arts Centre rise again. Or to pledge a donation, visit
http://bit.ly/1ClXPuS