By Stella Duffy, Founder, Fun Palaces

For the past three and a half years, I have worked with a tiny, part-time team of four people to create Fun Palaces – a campaign for full cultural democracy, (and by 'culture', we mean all arts and sciences), with an annual weekend of community-led action. This all came from an unplanned chat and a passing remark from someone I didn’t know – and yes, of course, an enormous amount of follow up and ongoing work. Through this work, I have been reminded that it is never too late to find new ways to participate, new ways to approach creativity. That’s why we are pleased to partner with the British Science Association (BSA) on their first Culture Shock event. Culture Shock will offer new ways of looking at how we work and give fresh perspectives on engagement, all with an interdisciplinary approach.

Here’s how one conversation changed my life...

In January 2013 I was a writer and theatremaker attending Improbable’s annual Devoted and Disgruntled (D&D) event. Held in Open Space, D&D gives people devoted to and disgruntled with the current state of British theatre the chance to do something about it. I love Open Space for the opportunities it gives for strangers to work together and to have serendipitous conversations that create new and unexpected possibilities.

My suggestion was that we ‘do something’ to celebrate theatre director Joan Littlewood’s centenary in October 2014. Joan was a champion of working people, and of theatre by and for the community. Of approximately 200 people attending D&D that day, 16 of us had a chat about Joan and her work, her ideas that had come to fruition and also those that had not. One of those ideas was the Fun Palace. Developed in collaboration with architect Cedric Price, the Fun Palace was to be a building housing arts and sciences that’s free to access and open to all; a space that was malleable and changed depending on use. It was never built.

We talked around the idea of creating a Fun Palace. Would we need to build it? Would a large tent work instead? Could it travel around the country or the world? At which point, someone taking part in another session walked past our little group. He looked over at the scribbled note Fun Palace??  and said “I have a venue; we could make a Fun Palace”.

That’s all he said, and he didn’t make a Fun Palace. But after that 45-minute session I followed up on the idea - some people told some other people, and in the three and a half years since, a small discussion between strangers followed by a chance remark has become an ongoing campaign for cultural access, using arts and sciences as the catalyst for public engagement and community-building. We had two weekends of action in 2014 and 2015, with 280 Fun Palaces in 11 nations led by over 5000 local people and community groups, with 90,000 people in total taking part.

As I write this we already have over 200 Fun Palaces signed up for October 2016 – from UK-based libraries and community groups, to large established theatres and museums, and even a surf club in New Zealand – anywhere that people might engage with science and arts, and use that engagement to develop community ties and local links.

In 2013 I was a writer and theatremaker with a novel to deliver and two plays to direct. Now, in 2016, I am still a writer and theatremaker, but I’m also the co-director of a UK-wide organisation increasing access to science and arts, supporting communities to create their own engagement events and empowering individuals to make a difference right where they live.

This is why I personally, and Fun Palaces as an organisation, are supporting BSA in developing Culture Shock. Events like Culture Shock help to spark brilliant ideas by increasing the chances of serendipity, of unexpected conversations, and of useful surprise. We cannot plan to have astonishing ideas that take our work and our life on an utterly unexpected and joyous trajectory – but we can make the possibility of the unexpected more likely. One of the ways to do this is to take ourselves out of our usual comfort zone and meet people we might not normally meet, hear speakers we might not usually hear, engage in unusual conversations – the more eclectic the better. This is what Culture Shock aims to deliver – we look forward to your brilliant ideas that grow from it. 

Culture Shock: Chapter 1, will be at Conway Hall on 17 November. Tickets are £100-£120.