After Coventry’s successful bid for the City of Culture in 2021, the city are thriving with their innovative and creative arts scene. This March, Theatre Absolute are presenting the UK’s first Shop Front Theatre Festival UK’s featuring some of the most exciting new and established theatre makers and performers.
I spoke to Artistic Director of Theatre Absolute, Chris O’Connell about the company’s journey and their plans for the new festival.
Theatre Absolute formed in 1982 alongside other successful companies like Talking Birds and Stan’s Cafe. “I started off as an actor and writer, then Julia our producer and my partner, thought why don’t we just put something on?” Chris said. “I wrote something which I directed and starred in, Julia was in it as well and we did it for no money at the old depot store opposite the Belgrade and that was the start of us really.” Gradually they formed Theatre Absolute and were engaging actors and making work.
“What I say to a lot of young actors now is that you have to be prepared to do a lot of different things, not just sit and wait for the job to come because you’ll sit around for ages,” Chris explained. “For us it was really taking control of the means of production and what we wanted to do as artists.”
Then Chris’ interest transitioned into writing and directing, which led onto the creation of Shop Front Theatre. “I am a real believer in that idea of creative life. In all walks of life we deal with transitions and creatively I am quite aware of where all those sign posts have been for me,” he said. “We toured a lot, in the UK and America and in 2009 a play of mine was performed in Chicago and I went over to see it and these guys were working in what they call Store Front Theatre.”
This sparked an idea in Chris’ mind, and seeing a cluster of theatre companies working in disused retail units. He then approached the local authority in Coventry through their commercial properties team after identifying a shop on the corner of City Arcade.
“In 2009, deep in the heart of the global crash, a lot of shops were standing empty,” Chris explained. Then when asking to take over the building, the owner said: “I am a money man, not a theatre person, why should I give it to you for free?” Chris explained it is an experiment in how the theatre would contribute to the cultural profile of the city.
“We have brought countless artists to work in that arcade who come from all over the country and they all buy their food and everything in that little area. Amplify that and you bring audiences in there that all buy their lunch in that area,” Chris explained. “We can’t solve empty shops or global banking crisis but the arts can play a role in the regeneration. It is an ongoing experiment about making work and trying to build an audience which we have done.”
The festival taking place on March 23-25, is a way to amplify what they’re doing at the shop and extend it across the city centre. “What is unique about Coventry’s cultural offer, is that there is no space like the shop front as a professional space and it offers so much creatively and across the community in terms of access,” Chris said. “It has very grass roots and earthy quality, we just work with what we have, we don’t want to install lots of lights and plush red seats.”
Immersive and interactive performances and artworks in empty shop spaces, cafes, retail spaces and outdoors. Most of these are FREE and suitable for people of all ages. With performances, talks, works in progress, outdoor events and much more – it’s set to be an exciting weekend in Coventry.
All details on the festival can be found on their website here.