Announcement: Over and Out
Nothing lasts forever.
It’s curious how many people remember their first visit to the Bike Shed. For most it was through the front door, along the alley and down the steps. But for the early adopters it was through the back, past the sign that still reads “Mad Meg’s Feasting House”. Fin and I took this journey on a cold November afternoon in 2009, exploring through torchlight like Howard Carter uncovering the tomb of Tutankhamen.
And what wonderful things we discovered. There aren’t many people who will take on a business that still has vomit in the toilet (courtesy of one last illegal rave), but we weren’t normal people. We had a lot of passion and a little bit of business sense, a generous landlord and a hungry audience. After four months of making do, we set about forming a proper business, ignoring all warning signs and embracing uncertainty.
And so, The Bike Shed Theatre and Bar was born, two cellars nestling side by side, conjoined twins sharing a single heart and an occasionally tempestuous relationship.
Our early years had an equal share of hiccups and pleasant surprises. Getting permission to open the theatre was tougher than we expected, forcing the majority of our opening season into the bar. But just before our first Christmas, the objections were lifted and the theatre buzzed with thousands of people seeing our production of The Little Prince in which a child sees a snake in an elephant where others see a hat. Meanwhile, queues began building outside the bar as our reputation for cocktails and dancing grew. In these days, the sentence we heard most was “thank God you’re here, there’s nowhere for people like us to go”.
A heady mix of audacity and project funding from Arts Council England, amongst others, allowed us to punch above our weight. Indeed, The Guardian was kind enough to credit us with “keeping theatre alive in Exeter”. Our productions transferred to bigger cities, got mostly glowing reviews and we won a shiny award.
As we grew, we started to look out more. We shared our space with others, inviting our favourite companies from across the country to present their work. We provided incubation space for new ideas and created a festival with colleagues across the city. We teamed up with venues across the country to share productions and work developed in Exeter travelled out around England and the world.
And every Friday and Saturday, back in Exeter, the bar would hum with the eclectic sounds of bands and DJs, friendly people dancing and cocktails shaking.
But things change.
Some of you will know the unusual structure of our organisation. It’s actually two businesses, one supporting the other. Our bar – owned by me and Fin – has given its profit to the theatre, which is a charity. So every time you’ve bought a pint in our bar, you’ve been directly supporting culture in Exeter. Thank you. But for many reasons, largely the fantastic range of drinking establishments in the city, our bar is not turning over the vast profits it needs to keep the theatre at a high standard. We don’t want to go backwards. Moreover, we don’t want to sell out our bar to a national chain. And so, with a very heavy heart and after a lot of attempts to find a way to keep on going, we’ve decided to close up.
On March 31st, the curtain will fall for a final time, the last orders bell will fall silent and we’ll be left with memories.
Which is kind of ok. Theatre is ephemeral, as a friend reminded me yesterday. And I’ve often spoken about the need for things to fall for others to grow. There’s every chance that our exit leaves the scene free for others to create their own things, better things, wonderful things.
We’ve a few exciting ideas that we’d like to pursue outside the building, most notably, of course, the Boat Shed. And we’re being supported in our plans by our very understanding funders Arts Council England and Exeter City Council.
But that’s for another day. For now, perhaps we could all sing the Bike Shed out. We’ve a glorious programme until the end of March, the fantastic Powderkeg are putting some lines in for beer on tap as you read this and we’re serving pizzas from The Flat all evening. So come on down for one last time (or a few last times). Or have a party here. Maybe make that event happen that you always dreamed about. You can get in touch with me here.
Thanks so much for making the Bike Shed happen.
Until we next meet,