It’s been 12 months since the old Shepherd’s Bush library closed its doors. Home to the Bush Theatre, a year-long renovation of the property was underway, transforming the classic redbrick building into a sleek, modern space for companies to create, innovate and imagine. During that time, the Bush Theatre took its work into the community, commissioning and performing work in karaoke bars, dance halls and care centres.
Artistic Director, Madani Younis, remembers that community is at the heart of the Bush Theatre’s ethos:
“Over these 12 months we’ve got to experience our community in a way that probably we haven’t before. What a year 2016 was – a year of change for the community and us as a country. The one thing I am reminded about is that when we left this building, we didn’t need it to make theatre. We can make our theatre anywhere – a community centre, a disused pub. We need places that are safe, that are open to all, that are democratic. I’m really proud for the community of Shepherd’s Bush, one of the most diverse communities in the country.”
But now, the building that has housed the Bush Theatre since 1971 is open once more. Starting as an 80-seat space above the functioning library, it now boasts a main theatre, a studio space and a separate attic rehearsal space, all at least as big as the room that marked the theatre’s humble beginnings. To mark the occasion, Younis and executive director, Jon Gilchrist, invited friends, family and collaborators to cut the ribbon and open the theatre doors once again. The message was clear – The Bush is Back. Steel bands, gospel choirs and contemporary pianists entertained guests as the whole space was made available for members of the public to view.
The redevelopment, performed by architects Haworth Tompkins, cost £4.3 million and the two biggest contributors were on hand to congratulate Younis and the team on their work. Director of Theatre for Arts Council England, Neil Darlison, spoke about the increasing demand for Arts Council funding for capital projects such as these. The Arts Council donated £2.6 million to the Bush Theatre to aid the renovation works:
“These capital budgets aren’t given out easily and there is ferocious demand, particularly in London, for a rather small pot of capital money. Projects that we eventually do support have to have a range of strategic partners, a clear vision and a compelling narrative that means others will come and support it as well.
What has been particularly joyous is to see what Madani has done in terms of bringing on other voices and other stories onto the stage at the Bush that we can all realise. It’s always exciting to be here at the start of something, so thank you both commerce and community for the support you’ve given.”
The other major contributor was Hammersmith & Fulham council, contributing £1 million towards to the total cost of the building. Councillor Stephen Cowan spoke of the wider message and the importance of the Bush Theatre to the community as a whole:
“At the heart of what we believe is that community is central to everything. Art teaches us, makes us grow and is central to the human condition. Shepherd’s Bush, back in 1971 when the Bush Theatre started, was famous for being at the cutting edge of British culture. What we’re doing now with the Bush Theatre, everything that we see in this amazing team, is putting the Bush back at the centre of British culture. There is nowhere more exciting than the Bush Theatre in British arts at the moment.”
Looking round the newly refurbished building, it is immediately clear that the Bush Theatre has taken inspiration from other recent renovations. Haworth Tompkins themselves are behind such similar projects as the Young Vic refurbishment (completed 2006), the Temporary Theatre and building extension at the National Theatre (2013 – 2015) and the Donmar Warehouse rehearsal building (2015). Visual and architectural design elements intrinsically wind themselves through many of these projects – take something old and make it new. Open spaces highlight exposed beams and brickwork, a whitewash chic that breathes new life into the dusty old bricks and morat. The outside naturally brings itself in, with ceiling to floor glass panels providing light and vitality. Even on this first day, there is an energy and vibrancy to the place – only a few minutes after the ribbon is cut by award-winning poet Anthony Anaxagorou, the bar is in full swing, people are booking Box Office tickets and a gospel choir is filling the space with the soulful sound of M People.
Despite Haworth Tompkins injecting some of the same concepts as used on other buildings, something feels more welcoming about the Bush Theatre. The space excels with small, detailed touches that hark back to its heritage, as well as remaining inviting to newcomers. Bookcases are littered with old games, books and play texts; soft furnishings, whether they be plants or sofa cushions, give the theatre a natural homely feel; design accents that scream vintage chic, an old suitcase or a battered typewriter, adorn various surfaces. Yes, there is stylishly exposed wiring, wrought iron gates and banisters, but there is also the feeling of warmth that permeates into the very fabric of this place.
The theatrical considerations are well considered too. The main theatre is an ample, if not overly cavernous, space that provides a logistical blank canvas for each director to stamp their mark on. The studio is light and airy, completely at odds with current black box theatre styles. But in a few short minutes, wooden shutters block out the light and raked seating is brought out from hidden cupboards, cubbyholes that squirrel away untold treasures. Ascending into the rafters, visitors pass a roof space lined with moss, a nod to the sustainable and environmental requirements that the Arts Council England is increasingly imposing on theatres as part of the funding application. But the best rooms are those the public will rarely see – a wood panelled rehearsal space with expansive acoustics and a tiny writer’s room brimming with creative inspiration. The latter appeals to the bohemian pauper lying dormant in all writers, the dream of clacking away in a whitewashed attic room whilst gazing out past a French balcony onto cobbled Parisian streets. An American In Paris, or Moulin Rouge, perhaps…
As the afternoon serenely meanders on, people start settling in, getting comfortable in the spaces and letting those creative juices flow. Contemporary classical pianist Karim Kamar takes to the piano to showcase some original creations, light motifs interspersed with broken arpeggios instantly evocative of Ludovico Einaudi. A woman opens her Apple Mac and starts typing. Perhaps she is a modern-day artist, scriptwriter or poet, inspired by the energy of the building and drawn instantly to creating, describing, imagining. Perhaps she is just answering emails or shopping online. But the former resonates louder in the Bush Theatre, a place for a creative community to be inspired and dare to dream. The Bush Is Back and it’s supported by the generosity and spirit of this local community. Younis invited Neighbourhood Project student Cat to speak at the opening ceremony – Cat was given work experience at the theatre to help her college studies and was forced to consider what it is that she stands for.
The re-launch of the theatre doesn’t stop there. The theatre runs free building tours throughout its first week of operation and Younis has commissioned a week’s worth of short plays under the title Black Lives, Black Words. Six plays will be performed alongside spoken word interludes, including contributions by Anaxagorou. The plays will be performed by actors and in the spirit of protest, most of the audience will stand and move with the performance. The main space will open with Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph’s Guards At The Taj, directed by Jamie Lloyd, on 7 April. The Studio space will wait a bit longer before playing home from 26 April to While We’re Here by Critics Circle Award winner Barney Norris, directed by Alice Hamilton.
The upgraded Bush Theatre has been twelve months in the making. Now it claims to be an accessible and sustainable modern theatre for the future. But it remembers its past as well, it celebrates its community and it feels as though everyone is invited to join in shaping the next adventure.