We spoke to Calum Campbell, who was behind the piece – originally titled The Empty Space – to find out more about it.
How did the idea come about for The Empty Space?
The Empty Space is a title we came up with for the whole project, alluding to the book by Peter Brook on the need for vibrant theatre. It also referred obliquely to the National Theatre of Scotland's vision and practice of Theatre Without Walls.
Our performance is quite literally in an empty space and, being the site of a demolished theatre, it really is theatre without walls! We do realise that Theatre Without Walls refers to taking theatre to any space and this project does that whilst also protesting against the loss of a physical building which provided a creative and community hub. After discussion with cast members, the final title of the filmed Five Minute Theatre piece was altered to reflect their feelings in relation to the protest. The Empty Space film is called Gone (A Civic Protest).
The idea came from my own disillusionment with arts policy in Ayr, the demolition of the town's Civic Theatre (the site of our performance) and the long-term temporary closure of the Gaiety Theatre. Ayr was left without a traditional theatre and many people lost access to entertainment, employment, community activities, and an outlet for their creativity.
The protest, however, is not just about Ayr. It relates to the choice to target the arts as an easy option for cutbacks whilst ignoring its value in both verifiable and unverifiable ways. Shops, hotels and other businesses receive financial benefits from tourism or day visits generated by the draw of the theatre and people are employed directly in the auditoriums. The unquantifiable benefits come from enjoyment, escapism and even education received by audiences.
Local amateur theatre companies and dance schools, for example, create supportive communities and have the confidence building experiences of working as teams, learning skills, and performing in a theatre. There are so many benefits for the community including the generation of self-belief and the development of a strong, healthy ethos which can percolate through society.
I found that there were so many like-minded people in Ayr, and around the UK, that Five Minute Theatre seemed like the perfect vehicle to voice our protest in a theatrical manner!
Where was the piece performed?
It was performed at the site of the now demolished Civic Theatre in Ayr.
What was the intention of using flash mob tactics?
The format is one I had visualised since the Civic Theatre was demolished although it has changed and developed over time.
We felt that we were reclaiming the site for the arts. The idea of using 'flash mob tactics' appealed to me as the space could be quickly occupied with the suddenness, along with the strangeness of the action, providing shock value. This was intended to encourage people to look, to question, and to discuss the activity.
Leaving the site as quickly as we arrived was intended to provoke those who saw it to feel that they should ask others if they saw it too and so spread the awareness of the action and increase the reach of the debate. A group of people suddenly appearing on a grassed-over area beside a busy round-about where nothing usually happens, prancing about in Pierrot costumes and sitting on chairs ranging from bar stools to prams is, let's be honest, quite surprising and memorable.
Did it work as you expected?
The answer is yes. It was really rewarding and has attracted comment and debate. How far that debate has gone or what affect it will have is impossible to tell. I know that details appeared on Twitter and Facebook and people were asking me about it all last week after it was filmed (even one from Australia).
A protest couldn't be valid without the police turning up, and they did just after we stopped filming. One of our Pierrots spent five minutes with them discussing what we were doing and they drove away wishing us the best of luck as it was a good cause!
Our actors didn't know how the protest would be carried out or where until 20 minutes before the performance. They turned up with a variety of chairs, were rehearsed (in a car park) and what is seen in the film is the five minutes exactly as it happened. After being given their roles they were told that there would be only one performance and no edits: what they created would be what the piece became. It is different in some ways to what I had imagined but better because of what the actors brought to it.
What debate do you hope to trigger with the piece?
I hope that there will be a greater debate about the value of the arts and the recognition of the benefit to society which result from support for them. We hope that the powers-that-be see beyond the simple in-house finances of the running of theatres and factor in the 'value +' to the wider community – economically, creatively, educationally, socially – whilst promoting well-being, and giving entertainment.
I also hope that when the Gaiety Theatre re-opens this year that people are challenged to support it and not just to feel comfortable in the knowledge that it is there. Complacency could result in its closure forever.
- Tune into STV’s streaming of Five Minute Theatre this evening at programmes.stv.tv/five-minute-theatre to watch the piece, with sixty five-minute productions – from all over Scotland, the UK, and the rest of the world – scheduled for live performance and online streaming between 6pm and midnight.