The Boat Shed: An Introduction

It was a beautiful summer’s day when we walked into the building for the first time

Improbably, it was a whole four years ago. The plan was to turn it into a pop-up venue for a summer season. Two things quickly became apparent:

1. It would cost more money than we had to create a pop-up

2. The scale of the building meant it could be so much more than just a pop-up

Fast forward to now. We’ve spent the last four years creating and refining plans for how the building could be used and be sustainable. We’ve begun building relationships with arts and education organisations, our neighbours on the quay and those with whom we’d like to share the building. We’ve prepared the ground for funding applications (this grand project costs an eye-watering £6 million – or a quarter of a swimming pool, as it is known in Exeter).

And now, finally, we’re trying the pop-up – the reason we came down in the first place. This has been generously supported with donations from 500 people and, with a little financial speculation from our bar and other catering collaborators, we’re planning to create something a little different for Exeter and, indeed, we think unique in the world.

Each component part isn’t unusual. One of our three spaces will start life as a gallery – there was a gallery two doors down ten years ago. It’ll then become a theatre – again, these spaces have been used for performance in the past. And then it’ll be a mini golf course. I’m not sure these spaces have ever been used for mini golf but perhaps there’s a reason for this…

The other spaces will house a couple of bars, a barbecue and ice cream parlour. Someone has been in touch to offer us a photographic archive of the quay in the 1960s and 1970s, which we hope to display. Another person plans to take photos of people in the bar with his home made camera the size of a shed, complete with dark room.

In June, we’ll host a craft market, a mini music festival and a hustings. And in September, we’re planning a flotilla.

None of these things is new. What is a little different is putting them all together. And that’s where we start.

In ancient Greece – bear with me – each city had a place for artistic, spiritual, political and athletic life to coexist. It was called the agora. Over time, artisans would make use of this public space, turning it into a market place of produce alongside ideas. Distinctions between commerce and art, socialising and health, civic engagement and philosophy blurred. Or, perhaps more accurately, they benefitted from their close proximity to one another.

Around the same time, along the Exe estuary, the Dummonii settled. Greek coins from this time have been found in Devon showing trade existed with the rest of the known world before the arrival of the Romans in Britain. For the next two thousand years, Exeter continued to trade with the rest of the world, refining its exports – notably wool, which made the city the third wealthiest in the country in the seventeenth century – and importing products and ideas from other places. We simultaneously celebrated the skill of local craftspeople – and local sheep – whilst being influenced by those from elsewhere.

And it is this that we’re keen to rediscover with the Boat Shed. We want it to be a new type of cultural building, harking back to historic precedents.

It feels to me that we’re living in a time where the irresistible drive of globalisation is leaving people disempowered and frustrated. In the face of multibillion-pound corporations, we are insignificant cogs in a machine that doesn’t seem to be operating for our benefit. And so many of us work in jobs where the product of our labour is either intangible or doesn’t seem to relate back to the places in which we live. The rise of automation and of digital technology was meant to free our time for leisure and recreation. And yet here we are, more trapped than ever, our actions more remote from their impact.

What do we do about this?

Some believe the response is to pull up the drawbridge, that globalisation can be stopped and the lack of empowerment that this has engendered can be reversed.

Others believe the forces are so strong that the end result is inevitable. They argue that we should resign ourselves to a world without borders.

As ever, though, there’s a third way. And I believe this is to learn from the past as we go forward. We need to rediscover the value of place-based, human-made stuff. That means valuing what is made locally as much as bringing in things created globally.

That’s how we plan to run the Boat Shed once it is fully opened. In our market place, in our co-working spaces, in our restaurant and bars, in our rehearsal rooms and in our theatre, we will give equal weight to the global and the local. In the theatre, this means half of the work presented will be created within a thirty-mile radius. The other half will be from anywhere in the world. In the restaurant, our ingredients will be grown, reared or caught locally, though the dishes may have global influences. Our market will give space to the thousands of craft makers in Devon. And our rehearsal rooms and co-working hub will have students, emerging Exeter companies and invited international creatives in adjacent spaces.

All of which makes things sound rather set, almost as though we’re ready to open tomorrow. We’re not, of course. Which is why we’re doing the pop-up.

This is an experiment. We want to test a few of our ideas and see whether they’ll work. Do you want a barbecue? Do you agree with me that goats milk ice cream is tastier than cows milk? Are mini golf courses a revolutionary idea for theatres or a silly waste of space?

Our plans are a long way from being finalised. Through this summer, we’ll discover some of what works and what doesn’t. Your experiences will directly inform how this building is realised. And, as ever, we’ll provide you with plenty of opportunities to let us know what you think.

Things don’t stay put. One of the main reasons why I love theatre is its live nature. As an audience member – in the same place, at the same time – you are a vital part of a live experience. Come on a different night and you’ll see a different show. We’re aiming for the same thing with this new venue. The frame will be fixed, but what happens within it will flex and shift as the years go by. It is yours as much as it is ours and its future use will be defined by how you want to use it, not by how we – or anyone else – think you should use it. A bit like an agora.

But that’s enough theory.

Come on down. Watch, listen, talk, taste, enjoy. You’ll be very welcome.

David Lockwood
Director, The Bike Shed Theatre