Dialogue at BAC

- Jake Orr

Seeing the Scope of the Building

How often do you enter a venue and feel like you understand the workings and artistic vision? You might have a feeling of familiarity to the building, or to the work that they produce, but can you see the full vision at play?

Stepping into BAC has always been somewhat of an adventure for me; where dreaming is a starting place, and the unknown is praised. BAC has resembled a playground for me, a slightly distorted playground where theatre-makers go to play and then throw open the doors for audiences. In 2010 I experienced their One-on-One Festival which showed, for me at least, the sheer scale of the building. Others I’m sure would cite Punchdrunk’s The Mask of the Red Death but my theatregoing habits hadn’t matured at that point and it passed me by (a big regret). In 2011 I returned to BAC to the One-on-One Festival again, and also Forest Fringe’s Micro Festival, which again uncovered parts of the building unknown to me. It seemed that each time I visited the venue my experience was never the same, unlike numerous experiences at other venues where auditorium and stage remained still regardless of my attendance, it was just the shows that changed.

Did you know that BAC has 70 licensed rooms? This allows for a plethora of work to take place across the venue, but also house other organisations and companies. Hidden away across the building are not only the BAC staff but rehearsal and performance spaces, bedrooms (yes, really bedrooms), and the offices of Puppet Centre Trust, Ridiculusmus, Fuel and others. That’s not taking into consideration the extensive front of house space that includes a bar/cafe and a children’s playroom.

BAC is in a constant state of flux, and while you’re never going to know what you might find there, you might also not feel comfortable with the venue. The rules of engagement are generally that there are no rules, apart from those dictated by the on-duty staff members. That informality isn’t suited to every audience member. Rules can have their place.

Having recently returned to BAC after Dialogue’s residency, I am once again struck by how the building seems to tilt and shift on its foundations. The main foyer space now has a bar and kitchen area replacing some seating that was originally there. I know it’s a small detail, but I’ve sat at that large wooden table on many occasions waiting for shows. Now it’s a bar. How can you find the personal and small moments, the associations, in a building that never stops moving? BAC’s strap line is to make the “theatre of the future”, but by making the future, does it forget its past?

My time at BAC made me feel somewhat like a sponge, soaking in the building and its artistic developments that slowly seep out of every working room. If BAC is a place in flux, it is also a place that thrives on artistic creativity. When you enter BAC you’re not just entering a venue, you’re entering a home, a playground, a creative vision, a centre of brainstorming, a dystopian world, and an old council building. That’s the joy of BAC, it is so many things, but it is one thing: a building with life.

Dialogue’s month at BAC allowed me to truly understand how the building operates. As I said at the opening of this section, how often do you feel like you truly understand a building? You can get a feel for it, but how about truly understanding its mechanics? True, there is plenty of BAC that is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but being placed in the centre, and watching the daily life and commotion of a venue was fascinating, and educational as well.

The BAC Carousel of Development

As a resident company Dialogue was treated just as any company would, with Maddy and me as artists. Our output may not have been known, but our ideas were embraced (and often challenged). We were given a producer, a space, a timetable and goals to try and reach within our work. Just like any company or artist entering BAC we were put onto the carousel that makes up the development programme that BAC adheres to.

There are several steps through which BAC grows its artists and work. There is the entry level where artists are invited to Freshly Scratched nights, these being an open call for artists that BAC has never worked with before to showcase a short piece in an evening of work. If the producers see the potential within the work the artists are recommended to return to BAC for development. The next period of development tends to last a week or fortnight, and is part of a programmed season of work. Several artists will be developing work in residency at the same time. They’re expected to put on “scratch performances” for paying or invited audiences towards the end of their residency. These scratch performances (more on these elsewhere in the documentation) are to show the work to an audience, to see what is or isn’t working, and to generally have an end goal for the residency; something to work towards.

BAC also has ongoing relations with companies such as Kneehigh Theatre, Uninvited Guests, and Little Bulb, to name a few. These companies often premier their work or are produced by BAC. In the case of Little Bulb their work has been developed repeatedly at BAC through their schemes, they’ve lived in the building, showed scratched performances, and now working on a large-scale piece.

Aside from the scratch performances and development there are larger pieces that take priority within a season at BAC. During our residency Kate Tempest was playing a four-week engagement of her new poetry-performance piece Brand New Ancients. These larger, more fully defined pieces are placed within the bigger theatre spaces within the building (compared to the various rehearsal rooms that also act as performance spaces for the scratch artists). For an audience, the engagement with BAC might only come through the large-scale shows, or no shows at all if we look at the various parents who make use of the soft-play area. The development programme whilst marketed at the same time as the larger shows, has less impact upon potential audiences, unless the artist themselves have an audience base they can bring with them.

It strikes me that audiences may not realise the full scale and extent that BAC operates within. They attend the big shows, but rarely, from my experience, do they flock to the scratch events unless they are friends or family, or indeed other artists. At times I want to push the blame onto audiences themselves, I want to tell them that “yes, you can enjoy Kate Tempest, because she is amazing, but you can also discover new hidden work if you open your eyes a little.” But how can an audience truly understand the whole scope of a building when it is in a constant state of flux? There is the ‘cook up’ programme, there is the ‘take out’ programme and the ‘tuck in’ programme, but do audiences actually understand these terms?

I’m not trying to knock BAC, I guess I’m trying to understand how a body of work that is programmed can be translated to an audience when it is a complex and fragile thing. The programming, the development, the presenting, all of these are part of a process. The layering of work that takes place at BAC replicates the subsided theatre model as a whole. This is becoming clearer the more I think about it.

An example:
BAC and 1927.
1927 are currently playing at the National Theatre for the second year running at Christmas. Their piece The Animals and Children Took To The Streets was first developed and programmed at BAC. Since then it has toured the world, appeared in festivals, and been programmed at the National Theatre, twice. Out of support and development from BAC, with scratch nights and a month long run, the 1927 troupe have been able to develop their work and it has been a success. This is what BAC strives to do. To create the “future of theatre” by acting as the incubators of the work. To nurture, to develop, to expose.

Being based within the building allowed for Dialogue to witness this development and support. The staff and producers are committed completely to BAC’s ethos and aims. They attend scratches; they constantly (and I really do mean constantly) attend meetings with their artists and fellow staff to assist in the development of work. Often the staff themselves are creative practitioners. Dialogue’s producer for our residency was Richard Duffy, a senior producer of BAC and also one of the founding members of Uninvited Guests, a BAC-supported company. Immediately after supporting our residency Richard was in rehearsals for The Good Neighbour, the next full-scale BAC production. The staff understand the process of making theatre. They want to challenge artists, but equally they want to be inspired and provoked back.

Thinking about our time there, I’m reminded of films in which the central character is standing in a crowded place, perhaps a government building or a shopping centre. They’re standing focused, their eyes searching everywhere for signs. Their ears are attempting to channel a communication that is happening, a whispered discussion perhaps, somewhere. Then there is a moment when everything falls back, like someone has hit the mute button, and everyone seems to fade into the background apart from a couple who are engaged in a conversation that is not meant to be heard. That focusing, and slipping back of all the noise, is what Dialogue at BAC felt like for me. It was about clarity and understanding of a building. Sitting in the BAC Café and watching the comings and goings of the staff and audiences made me feel as if I was witnessing the lifecycle of a theatre, from opening to closing night.

A residency in which part of the aim was to listen and to learn, to document and to attempt to navigate the chaos of the building. That is what the purpose of Dialogue at BAC felt like for me.

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