Croydon’s cultural innovators

By - Friday 24th February, 2017

Croydon’s artists are pushing boundaries as much as their counterparts in business

Photo by Theatre Utopia, used with permission.

Croydon’s innovating. Even the haters have admitted it at this point. The borough has now got more tech hubs than it has branches of Wimpy, you can buy Korean fried chicken from a shipping container, and now we even have a high-tech car park not unlike the one at the end of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Croydon the identikit suburb is well and truly buried, and a flat white is its headstone.

Where does Croydon’s cultural scene fit into this pattern? The answer, as I discovered when I spoke to just a handful of the relevant movers and shakers and writers and makers, is ‘very strongly indeed’. But cultural activity in Croydon has not simply innovated because it has the opportunity. It’s innovated because that’s the only way it can survive.

“We’ve never had fewer places for performing arts”, Anna Arthur tells me as I sip coffee and munch banana bread. Anna is the artistic director of Croydonites Festival, which returns this March with a programme of theatre, showcasing Croydon artists and big names from the UK fringe theatre circuit. She’s upbeat, frank and friendly. Animated at all times, her manner often doesn’t match the concerning implications of what she’s telling me. We’re chatting in popular South Norwood haunt, Coffee Craft. The café is inside the Stanley Halls, reopened by the community as a performing arts centre in 2013, and a poster on the wall implores visitors to vote for Coffee Craft in the Citizen’s Independent Café of the Year competition. It’s an appropriate venue in which to discuss how Croydon’s cultural organisations have innovated in a time of severe challenges.

Right now we have hoardings and not much else

“We’re sitting in a really good resource”, she expands as we discuss the space shortage, and tells me of some of the innovations being attempted in the name of performing arts in Croydon. Cabinet member for culture Timothy Godfrey said in 2015 that “we have to be creative about spaces”, and the council has certainly done so, offering up the council chamber itself and reopening closed parts of the Clocktower. But they’re not without limitations. “Using the council spaces and the Braithwaite [Hall, in the Clocktower] has been useful”, Anna says, “but I have to bring all the technical gear myself and kit it out. It puts a ceiling on what can be done with budget when you have to build every venue from scratch”.

There are other options out there. Some local schools have great theatres and are open to sharing them. But a spectre hangs over our conversation, one that stays with me as I head back through central Croydon for my next interview. It’s inescapable when I walk right past those purple hoardings.

The Fairfield Halls debate is over. The venue is closed. When it reopens, we are promised a rival to the South Bank, so we have much to look forward to. But in the meantime, we have hoardings and not much else. The Warehouse Theatre is gone, and a Taiwanese street food outlet sits on the ashes of its box office. The food and drink – like much of Boxpark’s output – is delicious, but man cannot live on bubble tea alone. Croydonians need a cultural fix from their local area.

“We put our own money into it. It’s exciting to call it our own”

The Fairfield pantomime, always Croydon’s biggest annual cultural event in financial terms, displayed some innovation of its own when it went searching for a venue. It found one in the shape of Waddon Leisure Centre, where a hall was converted into a 400-seat theatre space.

Arriving at Matthews Yard, I’m on my way to meet a man who put on a play in what was then ‘the Matthews Yard studio’ and soon found himself being asked if he wanted to run the place. Jamal Chong was the beneficiary of some very lucky timing, but it’s clear upon meeting him why he was a preferred candidate to take over the theatre when Matthews Yard’s concessions model – itself a community and economic innovation – got underway two years ago. “We understand how expensive it is to hire theatres out in London”, he tells me during a tour, “so we offer a 50/50 split for everyone. It makes it a low risk for anyone”.

Jamal shows me how he and his team turned the old storage room into a proper dressing room, encouraged dance classes to use the space by installing floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and generally refreshed the space to create Theatre Utopia. How did they pay for it? “We put our own money into it. We saw it as an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. It was exciting to have something we’d be able to call our own”.

Who knew that Croydon Village Outlet housed an experimental artistic goldmine?

That last point is a phrase that will ring true to countless artists around the country, but particularly in Croydon. With the borough’s cultural space shortage now nothing less than a crisis, the prospect of ownership – legal or metaphorical – of a space would have anyone jumping at the chance. Utopia has been a success story. “Since we opened in October 2015”, Jamal says, “more than eighty companies have been welcomed, we’ve had more than 300 nights of shows, and 3,000 audience members. That’s with a capacity of seventy, and attendance-per-show is going up and up”.

Meeting two individuals who are rising to the challenge faced by Croydon’s performing arts gave me renewed hope. They both independently raised the need for a ‘medium-sized’ space – about 200 seats or so – as the one thing Croydon has never really had and desperately needs as its cultural future takes shape. As Anna put it, “it’s about creating an ecology where if you’re a local theatre maker you don’t just leave when you find success, you can work in the borough. You can do a work-in-progress in a small space, progress to a medium space, tour the studios, and so on – all in Croydon”. At the moment, this crucial second step is impossible.

What of non-stage work? Citizen contributor Owen Kingston runs Parabolic Theatre, which is planning an ambitious programme of immersive theatre pieces, theatre that frees itself from the requirement of a traditional space by being performed in ‘real world’ environments. In visual art, when John Reeve realised Croydon needed an art gallery, he put the bare walls of the Clocktower Café in Katharine Street to good use as the Click Clock Gallery. The varied and often open-air work of the chic rebels at TURF Projects needs little introduction as an example of innovation.

And before there were bigger galleries in the town centre, there was the ‘guerrilla sculpture park’ on the third floor of what used to be Allders department store in North End. I was lucky enough to see some of the work produced by local artists Tom Milsom and Jack Greening, which was exhibited under the name ‘Metro Croydon Outlet Village Acid Money Death Space’. The exhibition was completed unbeknownst to security guards in late January 2015 after, in Milsom’s words, “almost getting caught twice”. An official opening was even held with wine and snacks – though Milsom also tells me that “it ended with twelve people hiding in a side room after security heard our footsteps and came to investigate”. Eventually the piece was discovered and dismantled in March 2015. Most shoppers had no idea what awaited them if they simply climbed up a deactivated escalator.

Croydon has traumatic memories of delayed openings

While undoubtedly ambitious and impactful, Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison and the team at RISE Gallery may not seem to own the most strictly innovative arts venue at first glance – it’s a gallery. It exhibits art. But wheels are turning there too, with art spilling out into the streets thanks to projects like the planned Warhol festival this July which will take over the town’s streets, not just its galleries. And the gallery itself has shown how innovative thinking can solve some of Anna and Jamal’s theatrical problems, too – in November last year, it was home to its first play. There is hope of more.

Croydon’s artists have shown the resilience we associate with our town’s residents. Yes, they don’t have any other choice but to innovate. But what they’re up to is worth a tip of the hat, and the very reasonable ticket prices are too (to say nothing of the number of free events and exhibitions).

There is much to be excited about in the plans for the Fairfield Halls, planned as the hub of Croydon’s new ‘Cultural Quarter’. But it’s far off, and Croydonians have a lot of traumatic memories of delayed openings. What should we do in the meantime? I asked Jamal at Theatre Utopia this when we had our chat. His answer was simple. “Support what we have already. The more data we have about audiences, visitors and users, the easier it becomes to apply for funding to do bigger and better things”.

You heard the man, Croydon. Get down to your next local cultural event. It’ll probably surprise you.

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Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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