Today I took myself, my phone and a bag of nibbles (a girl needs to eat after all) and, in aid of Empty Shops Day, walked around my neighbourhood taking photos of – well, as the title of the day may suggest – empty shops. There was a bit of added fun in there as I only moved to Lewisham – South East London – three weeks ago (obviously I had to leave Streatham – in South West London – just before it turned into a political hotspot). Lewisham, or to be more specific Forest Hill, isn’t entirely an unknown quantity for me – I lived here for seven months when I first moved to London. So I was intrigued to see what has (or hasn’t) happened to the area in the time I’ve been away.

First the good news – there was a cute coffee shop in what had formerly been an empty shop at the bottom of my old street.

And – well, that was that. None of the other shops that had been empty back in 2008 had been occupied. And there was now a whole new bunch of empty shops to go with them. Empty breeds empty – after all why would you choose to open a shop in an area that is pretty much deserted?

Empty Shop (Clothing Retailer)

It seemed even more acute to me after attending Brixton Village’s first late night opening the previous week. I think everyone involved in the #BrixVill project knows this is still a work in progress but if I think back to the space merely six months ago it’s difficult to comprehend how much has changed. As well as some of the start-ups continuing after the rent-free period has finished there are new businesses that started independently of the project. There’s a real buzz about the place. And I’m incredibly proud that Write By Numbers got to be part of the story (as much as I blushed hideously when Lovely Julia introduced me to one of the new shop keepers as being from the theatre company who were instrumental in getting people into the market for the first time, I’m intensely proud that we – and the other brilliant, crazy, hilarious art projects that occupied the market over the course of the three months – made a difference).

Empty Shop (Blockbusters)

In two days time I’m going to be voting for people who are going to have to take responsibility for what has happened to Forest Hill’s shops. As I see it nothing short of something on the scale of Brixton Village will do. It doesn’t need to be the same plan – but it does need to be as audacious, to take risks, to look to the surrounding area, to see that trade and arts and communities are all bound up. Empty shops speak loud for a community. What we do with them speaks louder about who we are – and who we’d like to be.

Empty Shop (Post Office)

The odd thing in my walk was that the area with the biggest concentration was, without doubt, Forest Hill – an area notoriously full of reasonably comfortable commuters. Where do they shop? Sainsburys aside, not in Forest Hill that is clear. If this decline isn’t halted what will Forest Hill be in ten years time? A notch on the East London line with a fabulous museum, a lot of flat conversions and a population who spend their money in chain stores in central London.

Empty Shops (Pets, Cafe, Junk)

I think as a theatre maker I react to all this space with the awe of endless possibility. What I could do with just one of those spaces. What we could enable other people to do. All the ideas and experiences it could generate – not just for me, but for others too. The arts matter in lots of ways but I think the Empty Shops movement shows how they have a real, direct effect on communities. Waiting for what Friday morning will bring, that’s the challenge we all face.

NB: You can see all of my photos on the WBN Flickr page whilst all of the photos from Empty Shops Day are here.

“We could have a meeting on Saturday night – “.

“I could do that.

[pause]

Though I want it noted that it means I’m going to be missing Doctor Who and will have to watch it on iplayer on my laptop that keeps switching itself off”.

There’s a moment of nervous laughter down the phone.

“Is that going to be a problem?”

“Nooo…I mean I do miss Doctor Who…Some times”.

“Because it sounds like it might be a problem”

“No, really it’s not…though, crap it’s the second part of a two-part episode”.

There’s a pause.

“Look, you could come to mine and watch Doctor Who and then we could have a meeting”.

“Yes, that would be acceptable”.

1. Writing.

2. Plotting.

3. Pestering.

4. Packing.

5. Going on holiday for the first time since 2005 (that would be the Charlie half of WBN, Corinne is not quite so selfless in the holiday stakes).

6. Moving house for the third time in 18 months (that would be the Corinne half of WBN, Charlie is not quite so foolish)

7. Moving Corinne’s shoes across London for the second time in 11 months (see above).

8. Talking, talking and then talking some more.

9. Coming pretty close to doing a deal on an empty-shop and then it not happening.

10. Almost having a panic attack over a dying laptop (erm, yes, me)

11. Spending 18 hours trying to fix said laptop, diagnosing it with syphilis, cancer and a stroke along the way so that Corinne could understand.

12. Finding a play we wanted to stage and then realising that someone might have gotten there first.

13. Plotting how we would get it any way.

14. Meeting the wonderful FIXT POINT Theatre (who are giving amazing – some might say awesomely good – blog) and deciding that Canada isn’t actually that far away.

15. Eating awesome brownies at Corinne’s new local.

16. Wearing an “old lady scarf”. (erm, yes, me again)

17. Thinking of blog posts (cheers, Charlie)

18. Going to Brighton, riding the dodgems and drinking champagne on the beach.

19. Wanting to punch David Cameron in the face.

20. Being in pain due to Arsenal.

I suspect that this is a subject that I’ll be returning to in more detail in the coming weeks but I think Sam West’s speech at Manifesto for Theatre Conference deftly makes the case that everyone in the arts should be shouting loudly about now.

Back at the start of The Brixton Project I did an interview for IdeasTap for an article about empty shops and it went live on Friday. If you don’t know IdeasTap it’s a website that has many, many goodies (including information, advice and even money) for people who are twenty five or under and interested in working in the arts. And now some of my “wisdom” graces the site. Currently (though this is changing) you can only read the  content if you’re a member so I’ve put my part of the article below. To give you some context, the article consists of some really cool people like Dan Thompson from the Empty Shops Network, Hannah Hooks from Space In Between, Emma Rice from Kneehigh (given that I wrote a study of Kneehigh for part of my Masters degree I’m quite happy to be in Ms Rice’s company) and, erm, me talking about the good, the interesting and the difficult about puting art/ performance into unsual spaces:

“Licensing issues can be a real pain,” says Corinne Furness, co-founder of Write by Numbers who last month staged Ovid Reworked in a disused shop in Brixton. “Very few empty shops will have a performance license so you’re in the position of either going through the paper-filled and expensive business of applying for a permanent license or using a temporary license which lasts for a maximum of four days. There can be a lot of administration that you don’t have to consider if you take a show to a traditional theatre.”

And then:

“For me, empty shops are quite literally a blank canvas,” says Corinne. “The only limit is your imagination. It makes you engage with the building, the area and the community. With shops it’s quite accepted that you can step through the door and have a peek, they’re inclusive spaces. There isn’t a barrier that says ‘this is a theatre, and this is how I must behave’.”

Over the course of Ovid Reworked I did end up talking to a number of people who were interested in the ‘how’ of the process and – though we’re taking baby steps compared to someone like Dan Thompson – in putting on our first production – or rather festival as it turned out – we had to learn a lot very, very quickly. I’ve got lots I want to say (and maybe help others to avoid some of the holes we fell face first into) so in the coming week’s I’m going to do a post/ article for either this blog or the WBN website talking about some of the practicalities of specifically putting theatre into an empty shop. As a warning I will most likely feel the need to excessively use capitalisation to display trauma levels.

I’m going to talk about hat wearing.

And that’s not just because I like hats (though I do) but because it’s something I’ve been very aware of since, just over 18 months ago, I decided to stop writing in my spare time and decided to do the thing that paid my rent in my spare time and write in my full time. Being a writer means you’ve got a lot of hats to wear.

“What do you do?” is an easy enough question. But how do I answer it?

Well, there’s my Writer Hat. I write plays. I’ve got a half written novel. I write blogs.

Then there’s my plethora of Write By Numbers Hats. I’ve got my Artistic Director Hat. I’ve got my Marketing Hat. I’ve got my Accountant Hat. I’ve got my Tea Making Hat. I’ve got my Planning Hat. I’ve got my Workshop Leader Hat.

I’ve got my Literary Associate Hat. My Dramaturg Hat. My workshop Assistant Hat.

I’ve got my Journalist Hat. I’ve got my Columnist Hat. I’ve got my Reviewer Hat.

I’ve got my Shakespeare Hat. Given that this is the hat that (most regularly) pays my rent I’m reasonably fond of this one. But it’s the one I define myself least by.

And what do all these metaphorical hats mean? Hat- hair I guess.

Having had the luxury of spending a good chunk of January/February entirely wearing my Ovid Reworked – The Brixton Project Hat I’m very aware now that I’m back to the hat swapping routine. Some of that is very exciting – I am itching to get back to work on some of those stories that are floating around my head and commit them to the keys on my laptop. My head is buzzing with new plans, new opportunities which The Brixton Project has opened up for us. But some of the hats are, I know, hats I wouldn’t necessarily choose to wear if choice were an option. They’re hats I wear, to borrow a phrase from Avenue Q, “only for now”.

But I know if I were to go back to Writers School (if such a thing exists) I would tell anyone thinking of writing to get ready for the hats.

Just over a week ago – during the day where I was asked lots of questions and I gave vaguely coherent answers to about 33% of them – I ended up being interviewed by Katharine Hibbet for an article about arts and empty shops. And obviously I’m being cool and nonchalent about this (and not shrieking – Write By Numbers is in the same article as Punchdrunk and The Royal Court!!!! Or, as Charlie pointed out to me, that I’m quoted in an article before Dominic Cooke is. Hi Dominic. ) but the article was in today’s Sunday Times Culture Magazine.

Obviously Ovid Reworked – The Brixton Project is Write By Numbers’s first production so we’re just a little bit (read: a lot) merry about this.

In the next few days I’m hoping to have the chance to catalogue all of our Brixton Village responses to our Wall of Change on our website but for now, they’re all up on our Flickr page which you can see here. The range of responses is both interesting and touching.

On pretty much the first day we opened our shop this tag appeared:

Brixton Theatre

I nodded when I read it but, two weeks later, I’d changed my mind slightly. I wouldn’t build a theatre, I’d ensure there was a space for theatre. And that space doesn’t need to be a theatre-building in the traditional sense. It just needs to be somewhere where people can perform – theatre, music, dance, spoken word, fire-eating – whatever category of performance they choose.

It doesn’t need to be the same space every week, there just needs to be a space. And while we’re at the subject of space, I’d throw in space to rehearse, space to workshop, space to meet. And I think we proved during our residency that all that space doesn’t need to be traditional either. Crikey, we rehearsed, workshopped and performed in a series of empty shops without heat at the end of January. Forget money (well, not entirely some of that might be nice but I know we’re looking down the shrinking corridor there), give me space.

For think of what we could do with that space. What the others like and unlike us could do.

And the first thing I’d do?

I’d start this process by making Shop 82 the first space for performance.

Audience - by Ash Finch

Everyone involved in the Space Makers project have proven that the audience is there.

Snap - by Ash Finch

So, just the space then.

I get a phonecall from Designer Emily:

“You know where we should be tonight?”

The proverbial penny drops.

“Oh”.

That’s an “oh” with the emphasis on the ‘h’ rather than the ‘o’.

During Saturday night’s get-out from Shop 82 when we were working out how to get all of our furniture into one car in one trip the decision was made that, quite frankly, our bench wasn’t going anywhere. On a majority vote our bench (pretty much the staple piece of equipment for our fortnight residence, what with it being seating, barrier and set) would have been consigned to the ‘anybody who would like these items please TAKE THEM’ pile.

But Emily and I had other ideas. Given the fact that a second empty shops project is looking very likely (we’ve got the bug it seems) we wanted the bench. And if there was no other way to keep it then we were jolly well going to carry it from Brixton, up the hill, to Streatham where we could store it until its next outing.

Full of our final meal (for now) from Etta’s Kitchen we left a luggage tag on the bench apologising for leaving it and promising to collect it on Tuesday night.

Only, we both manage to forget this until it is far too late to do anything about the bench, let alone walk it to Streatham.

Which is why, this morning, Emily and I ended up in Brixton Village Market contemplating exactly how good an idea it had been to want to preserve our bench. A bench that, though its legs fold up, is still awkward and heavy enough that you wouldn’t want to carry it from Brixton to Streatham. And when half of the people doing the moving bit is me (who Charlie pointed out that when he saw me lift a chair during our get-in that this was the first time he had seen me lift ANYTHING) there might be a problem.

After deciding that no busdriver was going to let us on a bus and that Brixton Hill is indeed a hill and, oh, MY ARMS and the bruise that is now on my thigh and, come again, why exactly did we decide that we had to get this bench back? we re-thought, got on the phone and found the bench a temporary home in Brixton Hill. And thereby decided that from now on everything that Write By Numbers does will involve this bench.

Endings...

Write By Numbers is a new-writing theatre company. This is where we blog.

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