We are doing this next year

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

Joan Littlewood

Hats off to Joan … Littlewood had a vision of fun palaces as cultural spaces welcoming to all. Photograph: Jane Bown

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 the fun 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, the Liverpool Everyman, Manchester’s Royal Exchange and Sage Gateshead. 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 (working one paid day a week from this month, thanks to Arts Council England, and with generous in-kind support from Theatre Royal Stratford East among others) 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. So join in, either online or by coming to visit our fun palace open space at Theatre Royal Stratford East, on 7 October 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2013/sep/18/theatre-joan-littlewood-culture-fun-palaces

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About La (Paula) Mor

La (Paula) Mór is a theatre teacher and director. She has taught and directed in the UK and internationally for 20+ years, both at Secondary and University level. La is currently working on Jeju Island in South Korea at Branksome Hall Asia where she develops original, contemporary theatre with her students and continues research into the applications of the Viewpoints in Theatre Education. La has been trained in Anne Bogart's 9 Viewpoints by SITI Theatre Company and Zen Zen Zo and delivers international Viewpoints training to young people, undergraduates, performers and lecturers. Academic background: BA(Hons) Bristol University; PGCE Leeds University; MA Applied Theatre, Central School of Speech and Drama.

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