As the nation celebrates the English director Joan Littlewood’s centenary, author Stella Duffy tells us why she’s reviving the innovative theatre maker’s Fun Palace vision in London
It’s a passion project,’ says novelist and playwright Stella Duffy of her latest undertaking – bringing legendary theatre maker Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palaces vision to fruition. As the deadline for her 14th novel looms and various theatre projects demand her attention, it’s a wonder she has time to meet me at Brockwell Lido to tell me all about the project.
The press release caught my attention immediately when it landed in my inbox back in May – Fun Palaces, that sounds, well, fun. But what are they? Those familiar with Joan Littlewood’s work – one of the 20th Century’s most significant cultural innovators – will likely be in the know, especially as her work has come thundering back to light this year in celebration of the 100th anniversary of her birth. But to the uninitiated, a Fun Palace is a space linking arts, sciences, entertainment and education. It’s a campaign for grass-roots culture at the heart of our communities.
‘I’ve always been in the arts to change the world, but it’s never quite happened,’ said Stella, who is coproducing the project alongside theatre producer Sarah-Jane Rawlings and The Albany theatre in Deptford. ‘Sometimes you touch a lot of people if a novel does well, and it’s the same with theatre, but it’s never quite… the Fun Palaces project is giving people the power to do it themselves.
‘Lots of us over the past 25-30 years have been trying to do what Joan Littlewood was doing in the 40s – trying to find ways to communicate with audiences – but I don’t think we’ve ever quite got it right. With Fun Palaces it feels like we’re onto something. People started saying, ‘Yes, we’ll make a Fun Palace’. I shared the idea on Twitter and strangers started coming together, and the good will they showed… Twitter has made Fun Palaces in many ways.’
Joan Littlewood – who, it happens, was a south Londoner – found theatre very constraining and stifling. And so, with pioneering architect Cedric Price, she devised an idea for a Fun Palace, a huge building where the community could come together to create; to get involved in the arts and sciences and culture, and for it to be fun. But the building was never made, most likely because it was simply too ambitious. But on the weekend of 4-5 October, Fun Palaces will spring up in arts centres, museums, marquees, school halls, parks and high streets in a vast communal celebration of arts, culture and sciences.
The project has gone national, with projects taking place from Glasgow to Cornwall, and south London has really embraced the idea. There’ll be a Fun Palace at Brockwell Lido, created by local playwright Shelley Silas, where you can swim with mermaids, paddle in a kayak, learn sign language, be amazed by Barrie The Illusioneer and take part in a human chess game. The Crystal (Fun) Palace will focus on its famous dinosaurs, the iconic transmitter tower and its sports heritage. Fun Palaces will be springing up across Deptford as part of a collaborative consortium with The Albany, Deptford Lounge, Teatro Vivo, Goldsmith’s University and even the market traders. There will be Fun Palaces in Battersea, Bexley, Croydon, Greenwich, Oval and the Southbank Centre, which has effectively been running a Fun Palace for years.
‘It can’t just be that I live in south London,’ says Stella, a Loughbrough Junction resident, marvelling at the south London community’s enthusiasm for the idea. ‘Or that Joan Littlewood was born in Stockwell. I think it’s because we don’t have many venues here. Take west London – there’s the Bush Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith; in north London you’ve got Hampstead Theatre… so you’ve got what are perceived to be ready-made venues and an assumption that the community is already catered for.
‘In south London, because of the lack of established venues – so many of those Art Deco cinemas have sadly been redeveloped into flats – there’s a community ethos around a pub or somewhere like the Lido, or Crystal Palace Park, rather than around an established venue.’
And if you don’t want to get stuck in, that’s fine, just go along and soak up the atmosphere. As Joan herself said: ‘Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.’