REVIEW: Work the Runway (Battersea Arts Centre)

Battersea Arts Centre is a pioneering venue which puts accessibility and inclusivity at the heart of its activities. In Spring 2021, a year after launching itself as the world’s first Relaxed Venue, BAC moved to a universal Pay What You Can pricing model. Mummy and the munchkins made our first ever trip to BAC this half term to check out these initiatives for ourselves at a performance of family catwalk extravaganza Work the Runway.

Josh and Darnell in Work The Runway. Credit: Joshua Cadogan

Pay What You Can

We used the Pay What You Can scheme to purchase tickets for the show, so the first part of our review explores our experience of this scheme. Designed to remove financial barriers, the scheme allows audiences to choose what they pay. You don’t get absolute free choice but there are eight prices to choose from, including a recommended price. For Work the Runway, the recommended price was £12, with prices starting at £3 per ticket. It is also possible to pay different prices for different tickets within the same transaction.

The terminology “Pay What You Can” makes clear that this is intended as a social initiative, rather than a consumer-led decision based on the perceived value of the ticket. The idea is that customers who can afford to pay more help fund the scheme for those who cannot. It’s a laudable concept and an interesting alternative to the strategy we have seen at some other venues where you add a donation onto the price of your ticket to contribute towards tickets for others.

It certainly makes you think carefully before selecting a ticket price but it’s hard to entirely disentangle this decision from the judgement as to what the tickets are worth; it’s difficult to decide what you ‘can’ pay as opposed to what you are willing to pay. The top price of £35 per person feels quite steep for a short children’s show (especially for a large family) but there is a sense of guilt in selecting to pay less, knowing that you would pay the same (or more) for a West End show.

Clearly this viewpoint comes from a place of privilege and, in particular, from a family who choose to spend a lot of their disposable income on theatre. We cannot speak for those who struggle to afford it, but we would hope that they feel comfortable using the scheme as an opportunity to purchase tickets at a very low price rather than pressured to stretch to the recommended price.

We do wonder whether the terminology presents something of a barrier to those who technically ‘can’ afford the recommended price but are unsure whether to take a risk on spending that much money on something they’re not sure they will like. Will they pay lower than the recommended price or will they just not attend at all? Might branding it as “Pay What You Want”, “Pay What You Decide” (or – our personal favourite – “Pay What Makes You Happy”) encourage a reticent first timer to take a chance on live theatre? We’re not sure we have the answers to any of these questions but we do like a theatre that makes you think – and, in this case, before you’ve even walked through the door!

Fortune in Work the Runway. Credit: Joshua Cadogan

Relaxed Venue

As for walking through the door, we mentioned above that BAC is a Relaxed Venue, but what does that mean? Developed in conjunction with Touretteshero, the Relaxed Venue scheme aims to make visits to BAC more welcoming, accessible and inclusive. This means that the majority of performances at the venue comply with the principles of Relaxed Performances, which include the establishment of a permanent chill out space in the venue and other initiatives designed to remove barriers created by the traditional rules of theatre etiquette. This was made clear at the beginning of the performance, with a reminder of the availability of the chill-out space and express encouragement to move freely, make noise and stim. It’s really fantastic to see a venue being so welcoming to diverse audiences, and embedding these principles into all their work, instead of simply offering a small number of token Relaxed Performances.

What we did find, however, is that a lot of the focus of the seemed to be on people who need to move or make noise, and there was perhaps less thought given to those who have the opposite issue. There was some (admittedly light-hearted) pressure (on adults in particular) to join in during the show and while that is perhaps in the nature of a production about expressing yourself, we feel that there is benefit in being mindful that some people find audience participation uncomfortable and want to observe quietly instead of being pushed out their comfort zone.

On a slightly different point, given the venue’s emphasis on inclusivity, we think it’s worth highlighting that referring to the adults at a family show as ‘parents’ is not very inclusive, particularly to children who cannot live with their birth families. We would love to see BAC making a commitment to encouraging the performers at their venues to using more neutral terminology such as “grown-ups” or “adults”.

Work the Runway

As for the show itself, Work the Runway is inspired by the LGBTQ+ ballroom scene* and features dancers from the House of Ghetto (a Manchester based organisation which promotes equality and diversity through black lead LGBTQ arts activities) competing to be crowned the audience’s winner in a series of challenges. The House of Ghetto also offers free, low key workshops ahead of the show, allowing the children to learn some of the moves and get a flavour of what’s to come.

With most of the adults plonked firmly on their seats, the majority of the children were soon strutting their way up and down the dance floor, with varying degrees of enthusiasm that largely correlated to their age. After getting some initial embarassment out of the way (mostly on the part of typical pre-teen Crotchet) both munchkins really enjoyed the workshop and found it a great way of getting to know the performers. It certainly worked to the advantage of Reece, the dancer leading the workshop, who became Crotchet’s firm favourite and received her steadfast support during the subsequent dance battles.

Towards the end of the workshop came the first taste of mass audience participation, with everyone up on their feet to strike a pose before ‘melting’ back down to the ground to watch the action unfold. Hosted by catty compere Stuart, we were treated to fashion, dance and lip sync battles, with the audience voting for their favourite in each. Sitting on cushions around the edge of the dance floor was intimate, exciting and just a little bit scary as the performers sashayed, kicked and dropped mere inches away from us. The atmosphere was fantastic, with the audience encouraged to make as much noise as possible (and it was clear there were a few young Drag Race fans in!) With an emphasis on self-expression and celebrating diversity, it was a really positive experience for children who might see themselves represented on stage and a great way for all families to experience something quite different to the sorts of dance acts you might see on a mainstream, commercial stage. (Where else will you come across vogueing to Baby Shark?) The munchkins had a fabulous afternoon and were very excited to show Mrs Mummy their new moves when they got home!

Reece in Work The Runway. Credit: Joshua Cadogan

We enjoyed our visit to Battersea Arts Centre and are sure it will be the first of many. The organisation’s commitment to diversity, inclusivity and accessibility is inspiring, and we look forward to seeing what else they have in store.

*Work the Runway was originally named Family Vogue Ball but was renamed following concerns expressed on social media about the appropriation of ballroom culture. We don’t feel that we know enough about the ballroom scene or the parties involved to comment, save to say that what we witnessed felt very much like a celebration of diversity and queer culture. We appreciate that the issues are more nuanced than this and understand from their posts on social media that Battersea Arts Centre is open to engaging in conversation with the affected community.

Work the Runway is produced by Switchflicker Productions. It was commissioned by Z-arts, Homotopia and Black Gold Arts and is supported by Arts Council England. It was due to play at Battersea Arts Centre on 17 and 18 February 2022 (but the 18 February performance was sadly cancelled due to Storm Eunice). We purchased tickets for the 3pm performance on Thursday 17 February using the Pay What You Can scheme.