UCLU’s Arts Officer has lambasted the university over theatre closures and rehearsal space shortages.
Matt Aldridge called diminishing society space a “massive problem”, and said college management was not doing enough to ensure a thriving arts scene at UCL.
He said: “It’s a travesty that UCL doesn’t have dedicated rehearsal or performance space any more. […] With so many former rehearsal spaces being turned into cafes it makes it harder to find spaces to practice. You end up in some tiny seminar room.”
His comments follow the closure of UCL’s West End scale theatre, the Bloomsbury, until 2018, and the permanent closure of the Garage Theatre Workshop, which has not been replaced. Interim external venues have been found for both, but arts society members are becoming increasingly disillusioned.
According to Aldridge, the loss of the Bloomsbury Theatre “really diminishes what [arts societies] are capable of.” He said funded replacements such as the Shaw Theatre and the Almeida were “not of the same quality”, and that students were not able to “let [their] imagination[s] run wild” in the same way. “Not having the Bloomsbury Theatre means that we don’t have the same quality of productions,” he added.
Following the announcement of the Garage Theatre’s closure in 2014, a student campaign with strong alumni support secured the promise of a replacement theatre, which never materialised. Arts societies’ Bring Back The Bloomsbury campaign initially declared victory last summer after a replacement for the Bloomsbury Theatre was promised, though perhaps prematurely. Aldridge described the current situation as “echoes of the same thing happening again”.
He cited a “lack of transparency” in the Bloomsbury Theatre process, and promises made to the campaign that had already been broken, such as student input in discussions of the theatre’s future, and the release of a timetable for consultation. He said: “It worries me that by the time UCL gets round to consulting on the operating model of the theatre, there will be no-one left at UCL who has been in the Bloomsbury Theatre. Students won’t know what to expect. […] I think there’s a generation of students that won’t know what they could get, and will be sold – I worry they could be sold a second rate product.”
The worst-case scenario would be if arts societies found themselves in the same situation with the Bloomsbury Theatre as they have done with the Garage. “UCL promised us a permanent replacement,” Aldridge said, “And that hasn’t happened, and doesn’t appear to be happening. There’s no work being done as far as I’m aware towards achieving a permanent replacement, and it seems to be being swept under the carpet.”
He also expressed concerns that the effects of UCL’s lack of support were putting people off participating in arts activities. He said: “If you turn up to get cast in a show, and you don’t have a room to rehearse in and you’re performing in a classroom, it doesn’t really smack of a world-class university with a good student experience.”
Aldridge, who has sat on arts committees since starting at UCL, added that the decline of the university’s arts scene would “put people off coming to UCL in the first place”. He said: “One of the reasons I chose to come to UCL was because of the Bloomsbury Theatre, other people had seen shows in the Garage before they even applied to UCL, and now it’s all gone.” He also questioned what UCL had to offer students interested in pursuing careers in the arts if it no space was provided for them to practise and perform.
Arts societies’ demands for better provisions seem to be going unheard. Aldridge said the few people within UCLU who were helping arts societies to survive the period of turmoil appeared to him to be “fighting a losing battle”, particularly as no one within university management was helping.
He also claimed that UCL ignored the pleas of the arts community even when it specifically asked for student feedback. At a consultation about the new student centre on Gordon Street, to be built between UCLU and the Bloomsbury Theatre Building, he told bosses more rehearsal and performance space was needed.
He said: “They said, ‘We don’t have room for that’. But they do have room for a café, so Gordon Street will get I think its fifth café but not any new rehearsal or performance space, which is what UCL really needs, not more money-making cafes. It’s hard to swallow because it really makes UCL come across as much more corporate than interested in student experience.”
Crucially, he highlighted the toll this takes on dedicated arts organisers. Having been president of Drama Society last year, and being on its committee this year, he describes the first few weeks of term as, “Basically constant fire-fighting”. He is also all too familiar with the stress of having to disappoint society members expecting quality rehearsal and performance space, when none is available.
“Poor management,” he says, “trickles down to the people who don’t get paid, who just volunteer in their time, at the expense of their degree, to run societies. […] It’s not fair on them.”