From St Pauls to Shirehampton: Circus company YardArts aim to turn leaving the city centre into an opportunity, but will local people allow it?
Photos: YardArts/Craig Kirkwood
“With developments and gentrification, prices are going up and the city centre is turning more and more into luxury apartments, so artists are being priced out of the city centre. The only place left to go is outwards.”
With crisis comes opportunity. Liz Atherton is head of administration at YardArts – a performing arts and circus company, which used to be based in St Pauls, but is now hoping to move out to Shirehampton on Bristol’s outskirts.
YardArts are crowdfunding £30,000 to set up a new ‘village’ by the end of 2018, which will include a tented theatre stage for shows, 15 rentable workshops, 20 spaces for tenants in vans and a cafe. However, it would appear that some local residents remain sceptical about the project.
“We’re on the precipice of this huge expansion while everything else is closing down, which is quite scary, but obviously because of that there’s the need for it,” Atherton tells the Cable.
“It’s a case of letting people know that the arts isn’t giving up, just because the council has given up, just because all these places are closing. The arts is going to fight to stay in Bristol.”
YardArts moved into a site in St Pauls in 2014, but were moved on in August 2017 so the land could be developed. Since the planning application was turned down, the space lies empty.
Scarlett Lowin moved onto the St Pauls site after studying for two years at circus educational centre Circomedia. She had experience in theatre and costume design so YardArts presented a unique opportunity.
“I was really excited by this new development going on in St Pauls. It was really vibrant – the whole package,” she tells the Cable.
In St Pauls, she was able to do a bit of everything – from artist liaison and stage management to welcoming guests at the box office and even organised her own nights.
“It was a really good central location near Stokes Croft so people could come to a show on a Friday night and then into town to carry on their night. It was a really good thing being part of someone’s night,” she says.
Since September last year, however, they have been based at a temporary site in Kingswood, where performance opportunities are limited and living conditions for the tenants of vans are below par.
“It has felt very temporary being here, so we haven’t been able to invest and have been on the lookout for something else – we’ve just been treading water,” Lowin says.
“It’s been really difficult here because we haven’t been able to have our venue up, but also it’s not hardstanding here, which has made a huge difference in terms of the quality of our everyday life – it’s treacherous just walking to wash room because of the mud.”
The new village out in Shirehampton will hopefully solve these problems with hard, flat ground and a large performance area.
At the village, which Atherton likens to “a mix of St Nick’s market, the Island and a big top all in one”, there will be the space to do more ambitious projects that weren’t possible in St Pauls, as well as much-needed training spaces and an on-site cafe to provide day jobs for performers.
However, concerns have been raised by local MP Darren Jones, who told the Cable he wouldn’t support the YardArts project unless he gets a “clear message of support from the residents of Shirehampton”.
He said residents had contacted him raising concerns. He has since set up a residents survey and public meeting on this issue, “in order to get confirmation of the view of local people in Shirehampton”.
“I have been clear that Yard Arts mustn’t occupy the site before getting public support and planning permission. Kingsweston Park is a site of natural beauty, with city planning policy set to prevent further development on it. Any changes must therefore be with consent of residents and the council,” he told the Cable.
However, Bristol City Council said they would not be intervening after an investigation by found no rules had been broken by preparatory work done by the landowner. The council said YardArts would still have to get planning permission, which would allow the local community to have their say.
Atherton said that “the work that has been undertaken was planned before meeting the landowner”, and that as far as they were aware “no illegal work has been done”.
Misconceptions about van living
Lowin says the lingering concerns from local residents are influenced by the negative associations with van living.
“We want to create this vibrant community of art and culture. It’s frustrating when they can’t see what you want to do. People really enjoying going to the theatre but they really object to the way we have to live in order to provide that, which is disheartening,” she says.
“There doesn’t seem to be a distinction between people like us, who live in a mobile home because we travel a lot in summer and can’t afford to live in a house, and others who attract quite a lot of violence, are quite untidy, and generally don’t look after the local area, which couldn’t be further from what we want to do.”
While Lowin says she is referring to specific experiences, rather than whole communities, this prejudice against traveller communities is both problematic and part of the reason YardArts exists.
Atherton says it was founded because Christo Machon, now director, would perform a show, get a standing ovation and then come home to his vehicle to find people rocking it, tagging and abusing him.
“They assumed things about him purely because he lived in a vehicle. He was fed up with that and wanted to provide somewhere for people to go,” she says.
“YardArts want to fight generalisations about the different type of people who do live in vans. Because of rent prices and austerity a lot of artists are forced to live in vans in order to maintain their business.”
Living in a van is part of the lifestyle of a circus performer, but also because these artists have little other option because of financial struggles. Rent will be £250 a month for those living in vehicles in the new village.
Daniele Panecaldo is a clown juggler, who currently lives on the Kingswood site but wants to move to the new village in Shirehampton. Originally from Italy, he moved to Bristol six years ago and studied at Circomedia.
“When I came here from London, the first thing I noticed was the rent and the cost of living was really cheap, but in the last two or three years it has grown really quickly and now it’s similar to London,” he tells the Cable.
“I was renting a house and it was much cheaper than it is now, so I decided to move into a van because it’s cheaper and also easier to do this kind of lifestyle. Now I can’t even think about renting.”
He does busking and performs at festivals. “It’s difficult to perform and to find gigs, so hopefully with cheap rent the village will help lots of people to follow their dreams.”
Money is also a worry for Lowin, who is currently working full-time in education to pay off her student debts. She too has been thinking about moving out of her van, but couldn’t afford the spiralling rents.
Not only does lack of state support for artists make their lives more difficult, she says, but stifles innovation and kills diversity – because only those from a wealthy background can afford to do it.
“You have to slog so hard just to even get the smallest thing off the ground and it has to have a wide commercial appeal or satisfy certain criteria to get funding, so it’s really disheartening sometimes to see just how difficult it is,” she says.
“In most other countries, circus and the arts are really well funded, because it’s recognised how valuable a contribution culture is. It seems to be a uniquely British thing that the arts aren’t provided for.”