“So what are all the baths for?” I asked Alan Lane, the theatre’s artistic director as he watered 20 or so baths of all shapes and sizes lined up in the yard outside the entrance “And why are they filled with soil?”
The answer was as surprising and as heartwarming as the Slunglow Theatre Company itself. The fruit and vegetables growing in the baths and huge plastic containers were to feed the theatre-goers. For free, or as much as they were prepared to pay. Clearly this was no ordinary theatre, though anyone approaching the five converted railway arches near Leeds’ red light area could have worked that out.
There’s no box office, because there are no tickets to sell. Instead, theatre-goers pay what they think the performance they’ve seen is worth and put donations in a jar. Beer’s just £1 a bottle, tea and coffee are free, play your cards right and there’s brandy-soaked Tipsy Cake, but only when Alan’s wife has leftovers.
The space Slunglow occupies in a not-very-well-heeled part of Leeds enjoys the name of Holbeck Urban Ballroom. Yes, technically a ball could be held there, but there’s no polished floors, no polish anywhere, really, but no-one’s complaining, other than the Guardian critic Alfred Hickling who was more than a little unkind. Now anyone wanting to go to the loo can find relief in the Hickling Wing. That’ll learn him.
“Some of the performances are fantastic, others are, well, crap,” said Alan as we warmed ourselves in front of the Aga where Slunglow soup is prepared. “But if you don’t like it, you don’t pay,” The average donation is £8 and proceeds shared equally. Alan gets the same as everyone else. So if there’s nothing in the jar, there’s nothing in the pocket.
I think I’d re-name it the Slunglow Sharing Collective, because that’s what happens. Their van is there for arty types to borrow, paying as much as they can afford and er, well, do arty things with. Yes, some do just use it to move house, though it could be argued that that is an art in itself, but they are in a minority.
Then there are the facilities, a place to write, a place to play, a place to perform, a place to photograph, a place to garden in the couple of dozen baths full of rather healthy-looking fruit and veg. The baths were cheap or free and the compost kindly donated by the cannabis growers who were doing their own cultivation in the building next door. The donation was indirect as the growers were busted by the police who destroyed the crops, but left the soil in a pile for the legal gardeners to help themselves. Waste not, want not, eh?
You’d think it wouldn’t work, but it does, people don’t take advantage, in fact they err towards the generous. I love it and am looking forward to photographing their next great idea with my mates from Exposure Leeds. That will be a modern-day Moby Dick. In the canal. With explosions. And a helicopter. And yes, it will be free. Watch this space!