As of February 2011, Arcola Street will no longer be home to the eponymous Dalston theatre. East End thesps amongst you will be aware that the most forward-thinking venue on the London fringe, The Arcola, is soon to set up shop at the Colourworks on Ashwin Street. This is both a cause for celebration and for dismay, I feel. The theatre will relocate on a grander scale but is being forced out of its cosy, customised home to make way for yet more luxury flats.
Having spent a very happy year living 5 minutes’ walk from the original Arcola in Shacklewell Lane (and within striking distance of the renowned Mangal Turkish eatery) I feel the conflicting tugs of ownership and hypocrisy. Afterall, I was snugly (& smugly?) lodged in one of the neighbourhood’s original gated communities, doubtless the yuppie forerunner of these latest developments. So far, so gentrified middle-class guilt-laden. But what of the cannibalistic irony that I and hundreds like me were drawn to the area by the rich pickings of The Arcola, The Rio, The Vortex et al, and through our insatiable artistic appetites have unwittingly bitten the hand that fed us so generously? Urban neo-colonialism in action, I fear. I’d like to think that the council might have stepped in to safeguard our cultural capital, but as the Hackney Citizen reported in the case of the CLR James Library, it’s too often a case of out with the old, in with the new. In the library’s heritage case, people power eventually won through, though no amount of local activism could prevent the loss of the nearby Four Aces Club three years earlier.
But as I said, it’s not all bad news, as the theatre have been savvy and fortunate enough to up sticks further south to Dalston Junction, where the spotlight of redevelopment currently shines on divisive tube and skyscraper alike. The new, 300 seat venue is set to open to audiences on 13th January 2011 and will provide a dedicated studio for youth and community groups, in addition to the main house and visiting companies’ auditorium.
So they may not have needed a petition and picket line like their fellow endangered institutions but the Arcola team have not wasted any time in launching a public fundraising appeal. It’s hoped that this will source the initial £150, 000 of the projected £250,00 needed to make the disused warehouse space fit for purpose. Artistic Director and co-founder Mehmet Ergen is no stranger to this sort of pioneering graft- he oversaw the conversion of the original base from a clothing factory ten years ago and clearly has an eye for architectural potential. This time around he’s has been able to count on the backing of high profile names in the arts world, as well as a pat on the back from the Mayor. Artist Antony Gormley has donated an original art work for auction in December and designer Katharine Hamnett has reworked her iconic Choose Life T-shirt for those who wish to wear their support. Boris Johnson has yet to be spotted sporting the slogan Choose Arcola on his person but is quoted as praising the theatre’s commitment to energy efficiency: ‘Three cheers for Arcola for raising the bar.’
I went along to the Arcola Open Day on Saturday 2nd October to get a glimpse of the newly acquired premises. The former Reeves pigment-making factory stands proud behind the hoardings shrouding the building works connecting the new overground station with its shabbier forefather, Kingsland Station. The theatre will be in good company, nestled next to Cafe Oto, a laid back alt. performance venue, and beneath charity fundraiser Gogen. Saturday’s event had the feel of a squat housewarming; pitta bread and Bourbon biscuits were on the house and an artfully dishevelled jazz band entertained as locals and culture vultures milled around the bare, cavernous space. Chalk boards had been hung on the exposed brick inviting comments and suggestions from guests. Having relied on a 300-strong band of volunteers to clear the space of debris so the event could take place, the Arcola clearly recognises the importance of valuing and indeed galvanising its public. Welcoming and pleasingly low-fi as it was, the piles of rubble and roped off detritus still in evidence were a very visible reminder that they’ve still got their work cut out for them.
Arcola mark 1 will close its doors on 18th December on the last night of The Cradle Will Rock– fittingly, a plot of pure people power v. the establishment in riotous musical form.
Photographs by Kirsty McQuire