We love theatre for it’s ability to ‘take us away’, to transport us from where we are sat or stood, whether that be in a £200 seat in the West End or out in the cold in the Yard at the Globe theatre, in a familiar sitting room or on a strange street corner. It’s a comment you hear time and time again, whatever the venue, whatever the budget. It’s one of the beautiful qualities that makes the art form unlike any other.
Emily Souter Johnson is a producer at The Bike Shed Theatre in the centre of Exeter, Devon. This month she produced her own work there for the first time. In her monologue, Polyester, she transports us from the small, underground, brick-lined cavern of the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter to a Georgian house in the centre of Dublin. The house she spent a happy childhood in, and where her late father breathed his last.
As she guides us, room by room, through the house, she recounts in exquisite detail the features and decor, as though seeing them in that moment with her eyes, as though tracing them with her hands. But between the details of the fireplaces and antique chairs, stories of people and places flow as memories return to the surface of her mind. The red wine stains from parties soaked into the carpet, a wonky picture hanging from her father’s final week’s… the spirit of the man she so misses is captured in these accounts. By revisiting the house in her mind, she is revisiting the past, and her time with her father. How do we cope when a place of childhood comfort becomes in adulthood, a place of pain and loss? How can we reconcile and keep memory alive in the objects and spaces our loved ones leave behind?
How do we cope when a place of childhood comfort becomes in adulthood, a place of pain and loss? How can we reconcile and keep memory alive in the objects and spaces our loved ones leave behind?
In a cruel twist, the day following this production became the day the Bike Shed Theatre announced it is to close its doors for good in less than three months time. A space that has meant so much to the theatre community of Exeter, Devon and further afield for the last 8 years will now be relegated to the scrapheap of redevelopment. Perhaps this dark, slightly damp little theatre will become another soulless chain restaurant like one of the many others that have cropped up along Fore street in recent years. Perhaps, to add insult to injury it will simply remain empty and fall into disrepair. I like to imagine it would be haunted by the ghosts of the thousands of actors, directors and other creatives who have passed through.
The theatre may be finishing, but the company are resolute that they will carry on. The Boat Shed, their new enterprise, will undoubtedly be entered into with even more fervour and hopefully be met with more fervourent audience and financial support to match. But the space itself will not hold the memories of it’s predecessor. These must be kept alive by the community. These must lay the foundations for what comes next. The afterlife, if you will.
As Emily reconciles her loss in her honest but tender recollections, so must the theatre community of Exeter. The theatre made there was not, it must be remembered, intrinsically tied to the space itself. It lived beyond it, and will continue to do so. When we revisit the productions in our minds, the theatre space forms a visual part, but the transportative quality of theatre work ensures it is the places it took us that are the most important recollections, and not the four walls of the the Bike Shed itself.