Each week one of the collective’s ten artists takes charge (click the tab above for an interview with one the collectives members), putting on their own productions or selecting other theatre groups to come in use the space. Alongside the theatrical performances patrons are able to enjoy live music and installation art — or whatever else takes the whim of that week’s commanding artist.
The simple fact that Shunt manages to put on a constantly changing display of so many creative artefacts through its darkened caverns makes it a significant venue, but if you pay a visit the first, and possibly most enduring, impression is of the incredible space it occupies.
Entering down a long corridor with unlit archways either side, which, for all you know, indicate more corridors that recede into the darkness forever, sets the mood for the evening. The rest of the venue is enormous, with three performance areas, a large bar area and seating areas.
Despite this there is no sense that the various stages are squeezed in, indeed most of the place is simply left as it was when Shunt arrived. I spent my first hour trying to get a sense of the layout and exploring — a milk float round this corner, a piano round the next.
Most incongruous is a disused two story television set of a roofline, complete with real satellite dishes and windows. It’s not what you’re expecting in the bowels of a railway station.
Being able to buy a beer in a neglected industrial space is not a novelty – if that’s all your looking for then there’s plenty of warehouse parties to suit your needs. It’s also true that theatre in abandoned buildings is a well established phenomenon; indeed site specific theatre is increasingly common at the moment.
However shunt isn’t really about either of these two things. The fact that the space is so charismatic helps, but the real reason that it’s a cellar is that if there were any natural light then it could be turned into office space, making it far too expensive for anyone with artistic ambitions.
What it does offer is a space and an audience for theatre that might not otherwise have either, as well as a venue that allows performances that don’t suit a conventional theatre setting.
It plays much the same role for artists, particularly those who create projections and installation work, for whom its darkened environs are perfectly suited. Finding a place to display this kind of work in London isn’t an easy task, and Shunt not only offers a space but also guarantees that thousands of people will walk past it, if only because most of the art is displayed in the corridor that you have to go down to get to the bar.
I’ve been to Shunt several times now, and I always leave in a good mood (that’s not a euphemism). It’s cheap (£5 including all performances), and even if you only have a few drinks and leave you’ll appreciate the pleasant relaxed atmosphere that the unusual setting seems to engender. Socially its a million miles away form the bustling commuter node that it lurks below, but it’s equally far away from the formalised strictures of theatres and galleries, which makes it an ideal place to get drunk and pretend you’re doing something cultural.
We used to have a smaller place in the railway arches in Bethnal Green, and when we saw the opportunity at London Bridge we took it.
So it’s a commercial arrangement, not space that’s been awarded to you charitably?
We pay commercial rates for it.
And do you have the space indefinitely? Obviously there’s a lot of development in the London Bridge area at the moment.
We don’t know, I’m sure it won’t last forever, but there is nothing specific on the cards at the moment.
How do you make decisions within the group?
We are a collective and have been for 10 years, so we all have a stake because of the work we’ve put in, as well as some other people who have been very involved with us over the years. The situation is very much that if you are about when a decision needs to be made then you get a say.
Would you characterise what you do as site specific theatre?
No. We really respond to the place that we are in, but the site is really our home, not something we visit for its theatrical characteristics – we’ve been here for 4 years. Our performance is specific to the site, the time, everything really.
The thing that has been the same for all the shows is the core of 10 people, so in a way its people specific. I think the term site specific is a bit restrictive and places the wrong emphasis.
Have you noticed a resurgence in theatre that’s not in a conventional setting? It seems quite prevalent at the moment.
That’s definitely the case, it’s exciting to be able to construct performances that are not designed for the particular kind of theatre architecture that was prevalent when a lot of the theatres in London were being built. When we started we just wanted an environment to perform in, and we did have a stage, so it was more conventional. The thing about our current home is that it suggests many different kinds of relationships with the audience.
Would you consider moving on when people become more familiar with your current venue?
I think we’ll have to move on at some point, but there is still a lot to find in our current location. We were in our last location for 5 years before we did our big show. We’re still building up a repertoire of little tiny spaces which people learn how to use in performances.
Is your status as a theatre eroded by the fact that people could go into Shunt for a pint and not see a performance?
It’s about trying to turn the whole space into a theatrical event, even if you’re not participating. There is a danger that it just becomes a club, but we’re not the kind of theatre company that only exists behind the closed door of a “show” happening.
The long corridor is something that everyone sees, and that always has something going on in it – even if you just come in for a drink you experience that.
I think a lot of people who wouldn’t travel across London just to see a show will come down and watch a show as part of a night out at Shunt, which means that performances will always have a full house to play to. Nearly all of our performances sell out.
I understand it’s your week to programme events for Shunt, what sort of things have you lined up?
We’ve got a band playing on Saturday, and I’ve got a piano in the long corridor should have some interesting stuff happening on and around it. That’s something that might be a grower, I want to see how people interact with it. The stuff in the main corridor is an opportunity to explore the space, and that exploration feeds into informing our shows.
The most important thing about Shunt is that we get the most amazing mix of people and all of the Shunt artists have very different taste so there is also a very eclectic mix of art and performance.