Q: When is it better to have your delicate, multi-media experimental show in a blaring, bustling shopping mall than in a lovely studio theatre?
A: When it’s designed and promoted that way.
Alas, we found ourselves on the wrong side of this equation at the recently-concluded Pulse Festival Fringe in beautiful Ipswich. I know it’s considered déclassé by some to admit that one’s show has anything, ever, than a stellar, Earth-shatteringly successful run. But let’s face it, you learn as much from what doesn’t work as the opposite…even, as in our case, when what didn’t work is largely the result of the mercantile equivalent of deux ex machina.
Let me declare at the outset that the tumbleweed blowing through the ranks of empty seats at our ‘Burning Out’ shows had nothing to do with the folks at Pulse (we love you guys! honest!) Pulse had the great idea of taking its offerings straight into the commercial heart of Ipswich, grabbing a nice empty shop space in the Buttermarket Centre. We were one of several shows in that space, to be offered free of charge, with us and the Pulse gang working the tiles to convince the Buttermarket’s bag-toting legions to stop in, take a load off, and experience something more interesting than another overcooked Starbucks latte or a manic crowd-surf through New Look.
And then, just before the Pulse programme opened, the unthinkable happened: the centre leased the shop. Out went our show, and it is to the credit of our Pulse friends that they managed to squeeze us into the New Wolsey Studio and hoof around some amended posters and flyers. But of course it wasn’t the same. A free, unticketed show only works if you’ve got the venue, promotion and environment designed for it. We were pleased and gratified by those folks who did come and see us, and our talkback sessions after the shows were lively and, for us, very encouraging indeed given the experimental nature of the show, our first created via our new Re:Authoring Project. But we’d looked forward to the rustle of shopping bags tucked under seats, the murmuring of slightly confused but intrigued voices, and after all was done opening the doors and ushering our dazed but hopefully happy audience back into their gleaming capitalist playground.
Even now, I’m not quite sure whether to be heartened or saddened that commerce won over art. No one can be against some new jobs, which presumably what our eviction produced. But is the better use of a mall–that collective watering hole for the modern masses–as a purveyor of culture or a perpetuator of consumerism? Maybe there’s a happy medium. If you’ve found it, let us know. Meanwhile, there are other slack spaces to commandeer, if only for a while.