Palaces of Fun

I have been collecting material for today’s post for quite a while and following the development of one aspect for most of this year. 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of Joan Littlewood, the celebrated founder of the radical Theatre Workshopand director of the internationally renowned Oh What A Lovely Wara piece that was widely recognised as changing attitudes towards World War I, as this recording from the BBC Witness programme describes.

Another, longer, programme broadcast yesterday, also by the BBC, talks about the creation of the show and is really fascinating.


joanlittlewood460Outside theatre circles, Littlewood is largely remembered for Lovely War but she in fact had an impact on the development of theatre and theatre practice to such an extent that she is credited with being a radical theatrical visionary and one of original figures responsible for the regeneration of the British theatre. Her obituaries in the New York Times and The Guardian paint great pictures of her life and career. However, having had an incredible impact on the development of British theatre, there was one aspect of her work that was never realised – The Fun Palace. An article by writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy in The Guardian explains:

Celebrating Joan Littlewood: it’s time to build her fun palaces

The trailblazing director wanted to create cultural spaces across the UK. In 2014, her centenary year, you can make it happen

In January, at Improbable’s annual Devoted and Disgruntled event, I called one session:“Who wants to do something for Joan Littlewood’s centenary in October 2014, that isn’t another revival of Oh! What a Lovely War?”.

Oh! What a Lovely War, which Joan developed, is brilliant, but with the first world war anniversary next year, there will be many revivals and Joan was more than a director. She was one of the few British directors (before or since) to work fully with an ensemble, from training to performance. She made “immersive” theatre long before immersive was cool. She kick-started improvisation in the UK. She was political, formidable, inspiring, and far ahead of her time.

In 1961, Joan and the architect Cedric Price came up with the idea of thefun palace. Their blueprint says:

“Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”

An idea descended from pleasure gardens, the fun palace was designed to link arts and sciences, entertainment and education, in a space welcoming to all – especially children and young people. Joan knew she had not yet discovered a way to welcome those who found buildings and institutions daunting – the fun palace would be about public engagement at its most open and inclusive. Perhaps because they wanted to make links between places such as the zoo and Wembley, via screens and technology that did not yet exist; perhaps it was just too soon. But the councils wouldn’t give the land, the permissions and money did not eventuate.


In the D&D discussion we talked about fun palaces maybe happening anywhere. I tweeted that maybe, and there were dozens of immediate responses. It helped that some were from big buildings like the RSC……. I thought we might make three or four fun palaces for Joan’s centenary.

Today we have 134 venues, companies, schools, universities, museums, arts centres and digital companies engaged, as well as hundreds of independent artists. There are scientists, film-makers, fine artists, walkers, storytellers, a cub scout pack, massive venues and tiny two-person companies, wanting to make their “laboratory of the streets” on 4-5 October 2014.

Sarah-Jane Rawlings and I……. aim to bring it all together with a brilliant, yet-to-be-created website, digital and physical links. We don’t know what your locality wants – but you do. Together we’ll make fun palaces 2014, across the UK and beyond, a step towards the kind of engagement many of us believe in and most of us have yet to achieve. Doing it together, jointly and uniquely, will be a huge shout about the value of cultural engagement, just as 2012 was for sport.

And if we don’t change the world next year, we’ll do it again in 2015 and 2016.

Since then, individuals, groups, theatres, companies, professionals and amateurs from across the world have signed up to take part. Theatre Royal Stratford East, Littlewood’s own theatre,  has become the organising hub and their website is hosting The Fun Palace site. Stella Duffy is an avid tweeter and there is clear excitement from people on there. You can read the Fun Palace 2014 Manifesto here which also gives you the statistics for who is taking part as of this month – 264 and rising.

Untitled_FotorI think this is a great idea and I am looking forward to see how and where it develops over the next year.

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