Theatre: The power (and irony) of gentrification
Bristol is a “sticky city”, apparently. When someone comes to study here, they stay. When someone gets a job here, they stay.
London was like that once. That was before everyone one was priced out by cereal-eating hipsters on fixies.
But Bristol’s only ever five years behind the capital, and it’s inevitable that gentrification will catch up and wreak its havoc, destroying communities in its wake, right?
“It’s not quite that simple, we’ve realised” says Corinne Furness, 33, one of the writers behind Regeneration, a play showing right on the front line of gentrification at the Wardrobe Theatre in Old Market this week.
Sipping a juice before rehearsals at the theatre’s home in the Old Market Assembly bar-cum-theatre-cum-artisan bakery, she says that during her time working on the play for production company Write By Numbers, she’s concluded that it’s not so black and white.
It was in London, she says, where Write by Numbers first became aware of the wider impact of creative types moving in for cheap rents after they were invited to use space in empty market places rent-free to help regenerate an area, only to be accused later down the line of contributing to social cleansing.
“We wanted some time to think about that and one of the best ways to do that for us was obviously to produce a play,” she explains.
“To be honest though, we haven’t come up with any answers. It’s too complicated. All we realised is we could make 10 plays on this subject.”
The play they have made is made up of three strands: a fairytale, a life story and a drama based on true stories. Running from 1900 to 2017, it explores morphing neighbourhoods in New York, London, Sydney and, of course, Bristol.
Borrowing the voices of Spike Lee and Boris Johnson, it looks at stories of “angry planning meetings in Bristol, of the empty shops we’ve turned into theatres, of some times being the insiders but often being the outsiders”.
“Regeneration is our playful, epic and urgent exploration of urban regeneration, gentrification and what makes us call a place ‘home’ as we invite audiences to join us in imagining how we might together create the cities of the future.” Or so the show’s pitch goes.
“The thing about gentrification is it is happening everywhere,” actor Andy Kelly says at our table in the corner of the bar as lunch service is prepared in the open kitchen. “I live around the corner from Stokes Croft and that’s an area which has seen protests.”
Talking about the empty Carriageworks building set to be redeveloped this summer and featured in the play, he says: “This has been derelict for years. Now that a London property developer has found there is a market for people moving into Bristol, it is finally changing.”
In his five years in Bristol, Andy, 27, originally from Hertfordshire, says he’s seen gentrification spread through Stokes Croft and Easton as far as the very place we are sitting.
But he’s not one for apportioning blame for all the bad bits that have come with it, like locals being forced out as rents soar.
“It’s a complex thing to protest about. In London with the cereal cafe, people have been blaming the hipsters when this is essentially a problem to do with housing and the property market in the UK.
“The new trendy places popping up are just a symptom of success. Towns and places come in and out of fashion, that is the most visible thing we’ve realised. It wouldn’t matter if people were priced out so much if there were more affordable housing for them to go. But there isn’t.”
So what’s making places like Stokes Croft and Easton so attractive to moneyed Londoners? Well, it’s the affordability, the jobs and the prosperity of the whole city. But it’s also the lifestyle and culture – including plenty of theatres – that come with it.
Corinne says she’s fully aware that artists like herself are often “part of the problem”. Andy even admits to a sense of “unease” and “embarrassment” about the show.
“There’s a sort of inside disquiet for me,” Corinne says, speaking from experience of her production company moving into areas and becoming part of the catalyst for change.
But perhaps the biggest irony in this whole vicious cycle is that self-employed actor Andy, considered a catalyst by some, is, in reality, also a victim.
“I’m hanging on by a thread in my place. I got a note through my door the other day from estate agents telling my landlord he’s not charging enough rent. I’m feeling the pressure.”
One of the great things, Corinne says, about the Regeneration production is that it broaches the too often shied-away-from subject of gentrification and explores the little quirks that makes it so complex.
“We throw a lot of ideas out to the audience throughout the show. People come out talking about it and realising how complex it is,” she adds.
“We hope the subject is being discussed enough now to be creating a real public debate.”
Read more: What makes Bristol so successful?