Cultural Democracy in Practice – The Shop Front Theatre

The Shop Front Theatre

The Shop Front Theatre, managed by Theatre Absolute, is exactly what it says on the tin, a theatre in a shopfront in quite a dilapidated shopping centre in the centre of Coventry. It’s not flashy, it has a few lights and is a bit ‘dodgy and dirty’ as Co-Founder Chris O’Connell puts it, but that is at the heart of how it’s been adopted by artists, communities and people all across the city as a space that feels like theirs. Chris was initially inspired by Chicago storefront theatres, where empty spaces where given effective new purposes, beyond the short-termism of the pop up. Shopfront’s purpose is clear ’We don’t host your normal artistic fare, we ask how we can embed ourselves in a place and get to know our audiences properly.’


‘There was no conceit at the beginning,’ Chris says, ‘We just thought let’s just make some work in there.’ There is no curatorial approach, anyone can use the space and people just come in or knock on the door when they walk past. He says ‘cultural spaces are normally seen as bastions of culture and lots of people don’t feel like they belong there, those spaces alienate people.’ The Shopfront is designed to be a space that anyone can use and feel comfortable in, and now their users range from The Belgrade Theatre (the local NPO) to community groups, local breakers and artists from a range of disciplines. ‘We’re not interested in numbers,’ Chris says, ‘We’re interested in real relationships.’


Chris sees Shop Front as playing a clear role within Coventry’s cultural fabric, offering an outlet for emerging artists that couldn’t find their way into larger galleries and adding diversity to a city with only two large arts centres. The council-owned space is provided rent-free with business rates pegged at the lowest band. Shop Front Theatre receives no core funding, deriving income from Grants for Arts, foundation funding and the affordable fees charged to users.


Shop Front Theatre offers both space and facilitation. Some organisations come with a fully-fledged performance, ready to stage, others with an idea they want to develop, in some instances, Shop Front acts as a host, in others as a mentor and co-producer. In one instance, Chris worked with an academic and writer, encouraging her to ‘publish’ her poem on one of Shop Front’s internal pillars. From this experiment ‘poetry on a pillar’ emerged as a medium for new work to shared with an audience.


One of the organisations using the space is Grapevine, a grassroots community organisation that aims to make systemic change in services by listening in communities, feeling and thinking and what they want to take action around. They work with groups in the Shopfront because it feels ‘like having a living room in the city centre.’ ‘You can bring your own things to the space. Feel comfortable in the space. The informality of the space really helps – it’s a blank canvas so you can make it your own.’


Because the space is so flexible and open with no imposed rules, everyone feels comfortable there and so moments of connection are easier. Grapevine have worked with a group of local fathers there, young people have taken over the space and they’ve brought together social workers, local authority staff, students and community to debate big issues. The fact that the building doesn’t feel like a council space, or a typical cultural space means that everyone can take part on an equal footing.


Marius, a local breaker, came to the space in 2016 and uses it for rehearsal with his group. ‘We kept dancing as a result,’ he says, the flexibility and availability of the space meant they could rehearse around their jobs and whenever they needed to. They were given a key and made to feel welcome. As a result he has forged collaborations with other artists, has received help with a funding application from Chris and his Co-Founder Julia (although this was unsuccessful) and are making new work as part of the recent Shopfront Festival. Marius says that as a migrant to the UK, the community around Shopfront made him feel part of something and has been a bridge into ‘mainstream culture’ – being booked at festivals and local arts centres.


Shop Front Theatre
Photo by: Andrew Moore