Manchester's Greenroom closes its doors for good
Manchester's Greenroom closes its doors for good
There’s a fin-de-siècle atmosphere in the air as around 200 artists, performers and revellers pack into greenroom on Manchester’s Whitworth Street to mark its closure.
The DJs play everything from 50s rock n’ roll to bhangra to thumping techno, perfectly reflecting greenroom’s eclecticism, while the drink flows freely.
Established in 1986, greenroom has been a home for experimental art, music, comedy and theatre in Manchester for almost a quarter of a century.
It gave starts to much-loved Manchester bands like James and Doves, and leading comedians like Alan Carr, Steve Coogan, and Caroline Aherne.
A victim of the coalition government’s 29.6% cut to the Arts Council budget, the closure has left the Manchester arts community in shock. Taking a break from the partying, I talk to Jeremy Shine, who co-founded the greenroom in 1983 with Stella Hall.
Now Artistic Director of Manchester International Arts, he credits greenroom with setting Manchester’s arts community apart from other Northern cities. “This building was very important in the whole arts scene in Manchester.
"You look at places like Leeds, Sheffield, which never had a building like this, and they’ve been rubbish all the time. They’ve never had any serious artistic community, because they’ve never had a building to support it.”
Shine says that greenroom also played an important role in stopping the “permanent brain drain” of artistic talent to London.
As he puts it: “Having a place where you can make work, and present work, means that artists think it’s worth staying in Manchester. Places like the Royal Exchange have nothing to do with Manchester talent, they’re about something else.
"They’re not about maturing Manchester talent, building an artistic scene which strengthens the artistic community of Manchester, that’s what something like greenroom does. The building provided a focus for all that artistic merit.”
And as I talk to Jex Hawksley, a technician at greenroom, who ran their pioneering vaudeville nights for over ten years until the closure, I realise that’s not just empty rhetoric.
He says nights like his served as part of a circuit, giving experimental artists a credible home – as he amusingly puts it, “a place where people could, having done that one show, use that as part of their CV to go to other venues and go ‘I’m not just some maniac’.”
Asked to name a favourite greenroom moment, he tells me about a one-off sock puppet production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, adapted down to 10 minutes in one afternoon.
This commitment to new work will be sorely missed by Manchester artists. I talk to Jaye Kearney, 35, who took part in a performance art workshop, Locked In, in October 2009 with Hawaii-born artist Stacy Makishi. Artists developed a piece of work over 24 hours, performing it in the 25th hour.
Says Jaye: “I was absolutely gobsmacked at the openness greenroom offered. We literally turned up on the Thursday night and they went ‘we’ve filled the kitchen full of food, help yourself to anything you want, there’ll be breakfast bagels and croissants brought in in the morning, but basically this building is yours. If you need a space, a corner to crash, or a private space to work in, any room you want.’
"Steve, the technical manager, stayed all night in case any of us wanted to do anything. They literally said ‘this is your playground, do whatever you want – for tonight, this is your building’, and I’d never encountered that before.”
The idea of greenroom as unique – a place where creativity was truly valued – is echoed by almost everyone I speak to at the closing party.
Alex Herrod, performance artist and deputy editor of ForBookSake.com, says: “When it shuts, we’ve got Bury Met, Oldham Coliseum, Bolton Oct, Royal Exchange and The Lowry, all of which do really good productions, but they’re all very much in the same vein.
"Aside from the studio at the Royal Exchange and The Lowry, there’s not much space for experimental performance. Greenroom really supported new artists, and emerging artists as well. It’s the loss of a Manchester institution.”
Alongside the shock, the closure has provoked real anger. Shine has some less than flattering things to say about the Arts Council’s decision to withdraw funding.
“For Manchester and the current generation of artists who use it, it’s a disaster,” says Shine. “The Arts Council – and you can quote this – is f**king useless.”
Some even see the closure as politically motivated. I talk to the founder of TransAction Theatre Company Joey Hateley, 36, who performs under the alias The Gender Joker.
“I’ve been coming to greenroom since I was 18. This is the left-wing political venue of the North-West that involves queer, disability, black and Asian artists, throughout the genres, whether it’s Manchester or international work,” says Joey.
“To close this venue is representative of the new political times. All the theatres that are already sustainable, that are middle-class, are being sustained by the Arts Council. Peripheral venues like greenroom are being annihilated, and it’s completely strategic and political. I can’t believe that people aren’t strapping themselves in chains and making a link around the building.”
Joey’s view is challenged by Julie Leather, Communications Officer for Arts Council England, who tells me that despite the 29.6% grant in aid cut to the Arts Council’s 2011-15 budget (entailing a 14.9% cut to the budget for funded organisations), funding to the region will actually increase by 7%.
In 2010, for the first time in the Art Council’s 65-year-old history, it unveiled an open application process with published criteria to make its portfolio funding decisions as part of its 10 year strategic plan, Achieving great art for everyone.
Says Julie: “Because of the reduced budget, regretfully we had to turn down many good applications and, nationally, cease funding 206 of our existing portfolio organisations.
"We made the decision to fund fewer organisations at a reasonable level that would enable them to thrive, and to achieve the ambitions set out in their applications, rather than just to survive.”
There’s no question though that arts funding across Britain has been hit hard. While the Arts Council pledged to keep funding going for another 12 months to let organisations seek alternative avenues of revenue, the greenroom team decided it was an uphill struggle.
“You can’t expect greenroom to carry on with such an insult,” says Joey.
I speak to Councillor Mike Amesbury, Manchester City Council’s Executive Member for Culture and Leisure, who tells me that the council’s Cultural Strategy Team had already agreed to continue their contribution towards greenroom before the closure was announced.
He is scathing about the Conservative-Liberal coalition’s contempt for the arts: “You have a culture Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, claiming to be a champion of the arts and culture, and yet seemingly delivering for the likes of the Prime Minister and the coalition almost the maximum amount of cuts he could.”
Whereas arts funding in Britain has traditionally been based around a mixed economy of central and local government funding, the voluntary sector and private patrons, Councillor Amesbury says the coalition are moving the arts towards a reliance on benefactors.
“They’re rolling back the support that the state’s traditionally given, with a large focus on philanthropy. It’s an almost Victorian, or American approach to funding the arts and culture. It just doesn’t recognize that things have moved on considerably. This country is not the United States of America.
“There’s got to be recognition actually that Manchester isn’t London, thank the Lord. We don’t have the same scale or numbers of people that may be in that position to be major patrons of the arts.
"We do have some wonderful individuals and charity organizations, but you cannot rely on those individuals, it’s got to be a mixed economy approach.”
While the future might look bleak at the moment, Councillor Amesbury ends on a positive note: “The thing with Manchester is we’re always looking for the next adventure, the next journey.”
He cites the Art Factory, the new home of the Cornerhouse and Library Theatre, to open in 2014.
“I would hope that some of the spirit of greenroom will survive and thrive. It may be under the remit of another organization, or something else may emerge. Manchester bounces back, and we’ve still got some exciting projects going forward. That kind of greenroom spirit will live on.”
He’s right, of course. But the loss of the greenroom will reverberate for a while yet. As David Wheeler of IOU Theatre tells me: “Rebuilding a venue with such a strong identity on that very intimate scale is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.”
To learn more about the history of greenroom, check out www.greenroomutd.org