Goodbye: The Exeter Bike Shed Theatre shuts down

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On March 31st Exeter will be saying farewell to one of its smallest, cosiest and most welcoming theatres. For many this will be a sad blow to the heart. The Bike Shed Theatre on Fore Street has been a place to socialise and a place to enjoy wonderful cocktails, lovely food and superb music for so many people over the years. Needless to say, the theatrical creations that have been produced there have been some of the most entertaining, mind prodding and innovative on offer. But as their ‘Over and Out’ announcement says ‘Nothing lasts for ever’ and that time has come.

It will be sorely missed.

When Fin Irwin and David Lockwood first opened it in September 2010 it was, in many ways, the only place like it in Exeter. The two cellars that now make up the establishment were transformed into a bar and theatre space creating its own totally unique atmosphere. It offered the city an alternative to pubs and nightclubs; a place where people could go to relax, as well as appreciate performances (and intellectualise them if you so wished). You could go on a night out there and feel safe and at ease in a way that you couldn’t anywhere else at the time.

The 8 years since then have seen it go from strength to strength: securing Arts Council England funding, becoming part of the National portfolio, winning multiple awards, and helping multitudes of performers develop and show off their work. Most importantly an excellent relationship with the population of Exeter and beyond has developed. So much theatre has been performed in the building and so much music, dance, food, drink, laughter, poetry, colliding imaginations and resulting creations have been seen by its walls that it is almost inconceivable that it will now stop.

One of the greatest achievements of The Bike Shed Theatre was to provide a space for the for ideas to grow and stories to be told. So many talented people have created so much quality work there, much of which has gone on to tour the country and propel new theatre companies into the national limelight.

We chatted to David Lockwood, the co-founder and director of The Bike Shed, about all that had passed and why The Bike Shed is closing. The theatre is a charity that is supported by the profits of the bar and as David tells us:

Well personal circumstances changed. Fin left the organisation in early 2013, I have a small child. And also, The Boat Shed. Interest in other projects… and then there’s the third point which is, ‘What are the material circumstances that have changed in a city like Exeter?’ In terms of social cultural activities; people go out less. You’ve got a delivery culture. People drink less; that’s probably a good thing. So, you’ve got that as a global trend in the west which is a challenge for us. And then the other thing is the number of new places opening with deeper pockets.

In theatre, where the artform is an ephemeral artform, to think that something is going to last for ever is just crazy.

Naturally there is a worry that, without The Bike Shed, innovative people will have far fewer opportunities to try out their ideas and to develop new things. Exeter has been a hub of creativity over the years that has hosted, and still does hosts, many theatre companies, youth theatre groups and creative events. There’s a lot the city has on offer to inspire creative minds. For instance, the annual Respect Festival, the concerts that take place at the cathedral or university and BBC Radio One’s Big weekend in 2016, to name but a few. Exeter College even has an entire building dedicated to teaching the creative arts. Those initial steps are well catered for, but without the venues for those people to go onto, where they can experiment and hone their skills in front of live audiences, there is a possibility that they will have to go elsewhere to find those opportunities. The Bike Shed Theatre was a venue leading the way in this respect and the loss of that support and space is going to be one of the biggest loses for Exeter.

Of course, it does not do good to dwell on what has already been decided or to lament the past. Beyond the 31st it is worth looking to the future. As David says:

The Bike Shed is dead. It’s not coming back. - Well it’s not dead yet, it’s got a month to go right? So, let’s celebrate that. We’ve got another month of excellent theatre, comedy, music dancing, beer, wine, etc. So, let’s go down there and enjoy it. - Nothing will replace it, but nothing ever does. The Bike Shed of 2018 is different to The Bike Shed of 2016… And so is true of the city. The Bike Shed won’t be replaced, but other things could grow.

There is a movement to have a big conversation in the city about what replaces The Bike Shed and I am really loath to do that. My reason is that The Bike Shed didn’t start from a big conversation, you would never have come up with The Bike Shed. It started because there was a personal desire to do something.

With the death of one organisation comes the potential for others to develop, and indeed there are a few likely candidates already popping up. David mentions The Hall on Stepcote Hill (a new Community, Education & Arts Centre currently waiting to open) and Kaleider (the Exeter based studio that brings people together to crunch ideas and create work) and there are always the wonderful opportunities that the Phoenix has to offer. There are regular events taking place at Poltimore House along with opportunities at Exeter’s 4 other main theatres. David also has his own project, The Boat Shed; a theatre and arts venue in the making. It is formed of four 200-year-old warehouses down by the historic Exeter Quay and if the project can be realised then the buildings are set to become a mix of spaces for creation, entertainment and socialising, designed to last and adapt for many years to come. A space that has potential to become a real community hub.

During our conversation a garden ecosystem analogy comes up:

If you think about it like a garden. If you’ve got loads of big trees, they’re sucking all the nutrients up from the ground and you can’t allow these little flowers to grow. A good gardener would make their garden I such a way that you don’t have things that are destroying the soil for others.

With it comes a warning for Exeter as a whole:

The city council is spending a lot of money in terms of trying to get people (businesses) into the city. Not necessarily supporting those who are already here and the ones that they are interested in supporting tend to be smart and shiny, rather than the underground subcultures. That’s a question in terms of what kind of city do you want to have. I think that’s really dangerous. Obviously, I have got a vested interest in this, but I think it is dangerous because, as we are seeing, 20% of chain restaurants are about to fold. It makes things very very fragile in terms of what your city centre is like. You’re better off supporting independents because they are going to want to stay in the city. As an independent you won’t just pull out of Exeter because the market looks a little bit different. You’ll try and find a way of adapting what you are doing to make it work. As a chain, why would you do that?

It’s an interesting thought and one that is definitely worth considering in light of The Bike Shed’s closure.

At any rate, The Bike Shed Theatre, as something that was originally only supposed to last for three weeks, is brilliant and we can rejoice at the fact that it has been around for so long and brought so many peoples’ dreams into reality.

All that needs be said now is well done and thank you.

With thanks to David Lockwood for the interview he gave us

Traveling explorer and general person with a background in Geology, Creative Arts and Communication Skills.