Amid traffic cones and breeze blocks, the diggers are out in Soho. Nothing new there: central London has been a building site for years, not least due to Crossrail. But these diggers are tiny pink toys, the blocks are decorated with candles and the scene is in the display window of a soon-to-be demolished building. This weekend, it will become the stage for a series of short, hourly pop-up performances before the real diggers move in to start work on a luxury hotel.
The installation and performance, entitled Dismantle, have been devised by Josie Dale-Jones and Philippa Hogg for ThisEgg theatre company, partly as a tribute to the artists who have been working in the Poland Street building. Since January 2019, the arts charity the Koppel Project has provided subsidised studio spaces there as part of its mission to enable creatives to make use of empty buildings which are being developed. For their project, Dale-Jones and Hogg will be interviewing some of the 70-odd collection of designers, painters, sculptors and tailors, several of whom switched to making PPE masks and gowns for the NHS after the coronavirus outbreak.
The pair’s friend, costume designer Lydia Higginson, was among the artists who had to vacate the building. After moving frequently between studios, Higginson has now left London. Dale-Jones describes the capital as “a city full of art that doesn’t always look after its artists”. They hope the project will celebrate community and creativity at a time of gentrification and economic turmoil that has also seen local, independent businesses shut temporarily and permanently. Hogg says Dismantle “came from the desire to fill the empty spaces that have been appearing more and more through the pandemic and to highlight how the arts can bring people together, stop you in your tracks and make you think”.
With venues closed for months by Covid-19, performers have been finding new audiences not just by streaming online but also by using public spaces for wondrous interventions, such as the canalside DistDancing events that have given many a first taste of ballet. Hogg and Dale-Jones hope to intrigue passersby with fleeting glances of their performances. It’s a way, says Hogg, of marking artists’ spirit of resilience during adversity and reminding the public that while the theatre industry has largely gone quiet, “we’re still here”.
The pair believe the project also signals a fruitful direction for theatre during and after the pandemic, exploring alternative places to present work rather than traditional stages. “Theatre should be responsive to what’s happening now,” says Dale-Jones. “What needs to be made now and where does it need to be made?” The site of the performance, she says, can sometimes be “as important as the mission of the show” – and perhaps, as with Dismantle, inseparable from it. Although specifically responding to the recent history of one building in Poland Street, Dismantle reflects wider current concerns in light of the controversial “complete overhaul” of the English planning system, recently announced by the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick.
Hogg and Dale-Jones are wary of how their industry in particular could be changed by the Covid-19 crisis, with funds swallowed up by keeping buildings running while freelancers, emerging companies and grassroots theatre suffers. “My fear is that it’s going to become even more elite,” says Hogg. “Big venues putting on big names because it’s the only way they can sell very expensive seats at half capacity.”
Theatre can’t return to “the old models” warns Dale-Jones, who hopes that Dismantle will challenge the status quo, even for her own company. “What we usually show audiences is a finished product on a stage,” she says. How would it be if the public could see their process as well as the end product, she asks. The pair are still devising the show that will take place on Saturday. One idea is that another set of artists will be seen in the background, at work on their own creations, while ThisEgg’s company of six perform.
Until Saturday, the space will be given over to Camilla Clarke’s installation, with its altar of breeze blocks, grid of arrows and desperate mantra “BUILD BUILD BUILD” scrawled on the wall. Alongside it a projected montage features footage of demolitions (in slow motion and reverse), speeches given by Boris Johnson and Soho’s glory days of the 1950s. ThisEgg will also be filming the demolition of the Poland Street building and incorporating it into future versions of the project.
Maggio Carizi of the Koppel Project says artists are always aware that the charity operates a building for a limited period of time but that having to leave Poland Street during the pandemic still destabilised them. While performances have often taken place at their buildings, Dismantle is the first one “that has something to say about us as well”, adds Carizi. She says she is thankful to Hogg and Dale-Jones for turning a sorrowful occasion into a celebratory one with their weeklong tribute to this latest group in a long line of Soho-based artists. A time of destruction, Carizi says, can also become an opportunity to create.
Dismantle is at the Koppel Project, 48 Poland Street, London. The installation runs until 21 August, with pop-up performances every hour from midday to 10pm on 22 August. Performances will be live-streamed on Facebook and Instagram.