In order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix first must burn―Octavia Butler
Two years ago, a behind the scenes tour of Battersea Arts Centre led by the venue's box office manager and unofficial archivist Philip Payne cemented my great fondness for the place.
In the article that resulted from that visit and an interview with the inspiring artistic director David Jubb, I waxed lyrical about a building that seemed destined from the outset to house the radical and innovative and "walls [that] echo everything they have ever been" over their more than one hundred years.
At my 2016 visit, I had been taken by Philip to the boundary between the functioning building and a building site, a cordoned-off area around the Grand Hall which was almost entirely destroyed by fire in 2015.
The fire happened as a three-phase, 12-year capital project to reconfigure the building was drawing to its end.
The project had opened up spaces of various shapes and sizes and linked them in new ways: a courtyard performance space opened beneath a stunning roof-top level terrace, lifts were installed and virtually no area was out of bounds for creative endeavour or the audience that would come to witness it.
All that had been put at risk by the fire but, thanks to some 80 firefighters, the front of the building and the magnificent glass ceiling of the Octagonal Hall were saved and the fire contained to the zone around the Grand Hall.
All that was left of the magnificent hall were walls and gable ends that swayed perilously in the wind.
As a matter of policy at Battersea Arts Centre, no surfaces get repainted or refurbished until the need arises. It makes for an often tatty look but the distant and recent past resonate around the building as a result of this barefaced honesty.
It stands to reason then that in recovering the Grand Hall, multi-award-winning architects Haworth Tompkins left its surviving fire-scorched walls uncovered in stunning contrast to its impressive new ceiling.
The lattice design is inspired by the ceiling that preceded it and the effect of its interpretation in plywood is striking—I found myself sitting under it in something akin to awe at the milestone moment of the reopening.
In his speech, David Jubb looked back at the proud history of the building and acknowledged the contribution of around six thousand people who had ensured its future following the fire.
There were those who came forward immediately with practical help, those who raised and sent money and those who sent their love and support from near and from across the globe. With breath-taking resilience, BAC opened only 24 hours after the fire to cheers of local support with business almost as usual.
For Jubb, the reopening of the Grand Hall is the culmination of "the six thousand people's individual acts of kindness"—a testament to "people's belief that their actions can make a difference".
The outpouring of goodwill was extended to acclaimed physical theatre company Gecko who, six weeks before a tour to Mexico, were playing their show Missing in the Grand Hall when it was destroyed by the fire.
The whole show was recreated and the tour went ahead. Missing now opens The Phoenix Season, "a five-month celebration of risk-taking and renewal", and for Gecko finishing what they had started.
There has never been a better time to go to Battersea Arts Centre—to see a show, to see the Grand Hall, to see the sunlight stream through the Octagonal Hall ceiling, or to see the beautiful backdrop to the Grand Hall Bar which has been created by artist Jake Tilson.
He recorded the damage to the building in the period after the fire and has taken inspiration from it for the luminous design which is embellished by pieces recovered from the debris.
Like the building itself, it has one foot in the past and one foot in the future. And the future is bright and interesting.
There are discrete shows across Battersea Arts Centre's 35 spaces and building takeovers such as Rallying Cry from performance poetry and spoken word company Apples and Snakes celebrating its 35-year anniversary.
A new initiative sees Battersea Arts Centre working towards becoming a 'relaxed venue'. This takes the principles of relaxed performances and extends it to further welcome those who might struggle to follow the conventions of theatre etiquette.
The Grand Hall will be home to the work of Phoenix Award recipients.
This new Award offers financial and mentoring support (and accommodation in the venue's lovely artists' bedrooms) to talented creatives to enable them to to present their work to larger audiences—something that wasn’t possible without the Grand Hall.
As was said at its reopening, "visitors will never know the space that was here, but they will know what is here… we look forward to the shows not created, the tears that will be shed and the laughter that will be heard".
Gecko's Missing continues until 15 September. The Phoenix Season continues with National Theatre Scotland and Adam Kashmiry's Adam, Bryony Kimmings's I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, BAC Beatbox Academy's Frankenstein, the UK Beatbox Championships, Dead Centre's Chekhov’s First Play, Lekan Lawal's SUPERBLACKMAN, Battersea Arts Centre fundraiser A Grand Night Out hosted by Daniel Kitson and featuring Nish Kumar and Bridget Christie.
The Phoenix Season Christmas shows include Return to Elm House—presented by Sarah Golding and Battersea Arts Centre, this is an immersive adventure for children and families about local social pioneer and Britain’s first female civil servant Jeanie Nassau Senior—and Little Bulb Theatre's Orpheus which reimagines the Greek myth with a live score of hot club jazz, opera and French chanson.
Two thousand £1 tickets for Phoenix Season shows are available through Battersea Arts Centre’s Local Roots programme with Wandsworth and Lambeth voluntary groups for those with low incomes.
Battersea Arts Centre spaces are available for weddings, conferences, parties and similar events. There is inhouse catering from head chef Nigel James.
My thanks to Executive Director Rebecca Holt, Chair of Capital Group Bruce Thompson and producer Nassy Konan who took the time to speak with me on the evening of the reopening.