You know this time of year always puts me in mind of Bubble Theatre – a company I have followed since the late eighties when they had their own bubble-shaped tent and whose summer promenade productions around the parks of London were a fixture the Phantom Calendar for a good decade – probably longer.
When they first started arts funding wasn’t the shambles it is now and Bubble’s itinerary took them all over the capital from Chiswick Park in the west to Valentines Park in the east, Waterlow Park in the north to Sydenham Park in the south (and me with them – I used to pick a different place every year and a bunch of us used to travel miles for the experience of seeing a new show in a different venue) but as sundry cuts bit, the Rotherhithe-based company was forced to shrink its reach, though it stayed in South East London to the last – our own Oxleas Wood was one of the last places to go.
I was one of the angry ones when the Arts Council slashed Bubble’s funding. I guess they were just too popular, not wanky and progressive enough for the snobs who want to see ‘innovation’ (read ‘weird stuff by arts graduates. Weird stuff by anyone else not allowed’). I was so very angry because far from being uninnovative, Bubble are one of the bravest companies around – they are masters of reinvention, unafraid to experiment with style and working with the community – something once fashionable but now rather shunned. Yeah, we get art ‘for’ the people but more and more rarely ‘by’ the people (with the honourable exception of Sir Danny Boyle last Friday night).
I can’t say I love everything they do (Not even Sir Danny had that accolade – I mean what was it with that creepy baby? It looked like something out of Alien…) Occasionally it does come out just a bit too weird for me – or is more fun for the participants than it is for the spectator. Sometimes the intention is there but the execution hits wide of the mark. But that was what was/is exciting about Bubble. Did they say, for example, when The Sirens of Titan was chosen as the summer show ‘come off, it, that novel is un-performable’? No – they went ahead anyway, and much of it was extraordinary. Bizarre, yes, but extraordinary.
You just don’t know what you’re going to get – and when you get a good one (which is usually) it is utterly sublime – an evening of pure joy, energy and dazzling invention (the pictures are from one of my all-time favourites, The Odyssey, but there have been so many.) And that was enough to get me back every year.
They lost their Arts Council Grant several years ago, but reinvented themselves yet again with what’s now known as crowd funding – they called it Fan Made Theatre. But then everything went a bit quiet for me.
I traditionally found Bubble’s website hard to work out where I wanted to be on it, and if it had the info I needed, I could never find it so I thought I’d drop Peth, artistic director for the past – what – twenty years? – a line to ask what’s going on with the company.
His reply was very encouraging – they’re still doing exciting stuff – and still working with all sorts of interesting people in loads of interesting ways. Here’s his reply (with my comments interspersed – hey – my blog, my rules…)
It’s been an interesting few years, replacing 65% of your core revenue income isn’t easy, but we’re getting there. From a financial point of view we are no longer dependent on the vagaries of the Arts Council and are working in partnership with a number of trusts and foundations – 3 of which have awarded us 3 year funding.
I can only think that it’s good to be independent of the Arts Council – it’s unlikely that we’ll get another Olympic Games turning up and suddenly pulling the rug from arts funding to pay for it, but I am curious to see whether that funding will be reinstated in 2013 or just quietly forgotten – and by that I mean arts funding for anyone, let alone people like Bubble, who don’t dance to the Arts Council’s tune anyway.
We work quite intensively in Southwark and Lewisham, running year long projects in schools for children referred to our Speech Bubbles programme with communication needs – this programme is now rolling out to North London and Manchester. Our LB Plus project trains teenagers who are not in education, employment or training (NEET is the awful term) to lead workshops and deliver inter-active performances to other teenagers. This is now making links with businesses – mainly in the Shard area, delivering training for employees and LB Plus recently won the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) award for innovation in youth work.
And another award from United for all Ages was won for our intergenerational project Grandchildren of the Blitz, which built a show from interviews conducted by children with elders who had been children themselves during the war. Out of it came Blackbirds a beautiful intergenerational show which we took to the Albany as well as the new Canada Water library and a couple of other Southwark venues.
We’re now running 8 participatory groups – for adults, teens and children and run workshops in two residential homes. It’s all very busy – 900 events last year and each week the company makes theatre with a population equivalent to a primary school.
While money is very tight the last piece of good news is that we have raised the £280,000 needed to make our building (2 old sacking warehouses in Rotherhithe) fully accessible, in order to function as a “creative hub” – used by other companies as well as Bubble.
This is all very well I can hear the Phantom thinking, but when are we going to see you in Oxleas Woods again?
Ha – you read my mind.
Well I’ve written into our Business Plan the aspiration to bring back the summer show for 2015 – quite possibly people who once brought their children will then be being bringing their grandchildren, but that would be a lovely thing.
Fantastic news. I’m there.
But before then we can be seen in another park – the regenerated Ladywell Fields, when on the 16th September we will be producing an event called Rivers and People. Starting about 7pm and running through to 9pm, it includes formation dog walking, a cycling barn owl and excerpts from our last big piece The Great Outdoors (check out the website for footage).
Okay – count me in. Aw, c’mon folks – Ladywell Fields isn’t that far… And Formation Dog-Walking. That’s like the canine equivalent of Rhythmic Gymnastics. And that’s Bubble for you…
Lastly, It’s our 40th birthday.
Blimey – I had no idea – I thought they started in the 80s.
We’re holding a series of events to mark the occasion and learn more about our history. The next is on the evening of the 29th September, 3 of my predecessors will be talking about the 80′s and the perils that befell the company during that heady era. Do come along, do encourage others to do likewise.
Then the other event that might be of interest is one that will mark the 90′s – a rehearsed reading of one of the pantos. This will take place on Sunday 6th January – and the exact script will be chosen by public vote.
Well, my vote is for Cinderella, merely for the inspired choice of characters. I mean – who else would dare start a panto with a death scene (Cinders’ mother) and have the dame go off to the bar, only to be physically dragged out of it when our heroine needs a fairy godmother, just in time for the slop scene? Brilliant – and not something I’ve ever seen done before or since.
Of course my choice is only Cinders because I wasn’t around the year my gang went to see – actually, I still don’t know what the show was because all they ever talk about is meerkats. If there’s no reprise of the Meerkat Song, there will be a lot of startled heads popping up.
It will feature Simon and Eric and others from our panto ensemble, and will include a ceremonial re-enactment of one of the slop scenes. Perfect for that dark and dead time just after crimble.
Cinderella it is then.
If you have a moment please consider becoming a member of the company – more and more the Bubble is becoming a shareholding type organisation. That way we widen our support and you get regular information and invites. And exhort your friends to help us build the company back up.
I point you all towards our snazzy but not yet fully completed new website at www.londonbubble.org.uk for more details, and to enjoy the partial but already interesting Bubblepedia.
Delighted to say that the new site is much, much easier to navigate, though I still can’t find out how to book for things and it’s quite hard to find out how to join as a member if you don’t know that they’re called MoBs.
Seriously folks – if you’ve not come across this company before, it’s fantastic – and if you, like me, remember happy evenings in torrential rain (or the odd balmy heat) following strangely-attired people through woods to find a magical world that only Bubble could create, do get involved.
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