Eddie Elks

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There are four of us, I think. Five if you include Eddie. One is Colin (more on him here). Colin falls happily asleep early on. I keep looking round to see if the other two in the audience are enjoying it as much as me.

The play is Botallack O’Clock. It’s September 2011 and Third Man Theatre have taken a risk and brought their newest show to us en route from Cornwall to London. It’s a solo show with two actors, biographical, absurd, brilliantly bizarre. It explores the work of Roger Hilton, the production’s style reflecting the artist’s work. The play is performed once more in Exeter – this time in front of an audience ten times the size – word of mouth having spread as three quarters of the audience shouted the productions praises.

Indeed, those who’ve seen Eddie’s work and liked it, always tend to rave about it. Third Man were the first company to undertake a Bike Shed residency, during which they began early development on Mugs Arrows, which in turn was performed in Exeter the following year. Few liked the play. Some hated it. Most, though, loved it. The absurdity this time applied to directionless thirty-somethings playing darts following the wedding of their old friend. Blue paint, karaoke, goats and patatas gravitas combined to present the gnawing emptiness of being a grown up without having really done anything, of a world moving on without you.

Thought of by the team at the Bike Shed as one of the family (probably the cool uncle who lives in Cambodia and shows up every other Christmas), Eddie is always a gloriously welcome presence in the Bike Shed – dancing, drinking, talking. His next piece, concerning Nicky Reilly, the man who failed to blow up the Giraffe restaurant in Exeter in 2008, will begin development later this year (funding permitting) – whilst Botallack O’Clock is currently getting a rerun in London at the funky-and-even-more-intimate-than-the-Bike-Shed Old Red Lion in London. If you get a chance, see it.

Val Wilson

Maisie Hill - WeightingnewsWe’d been open barely a week when Val paid her first visit. She hadn’t been invited, as others had. She’d sought us out and wanted to find out for herself.

This is almost certainly a slight embellishment. Val Wilson, Exeter City Council’s Arts and Events Officer, knew Fin from his days trying to set up the Tabernacle Arts Cafe. So this new project wasn’t a complete unknown. And yet, her attitude in coming to us rather than the other way round, made a strong impression.

Val is incredibly loyal and tenacious in fighting for support for projects that she thinks worthy. Whilst local authorities across the country have cut their arts budget, Val has managed to keep hold of hers. Indeed, she’s done more, creating and leading on Unexpected – a city centre festival focussing on outdoor work, Val’s specialism. She puts her whole life into her work, something undervalued of those in the public sector, though not rare. I’ve admired her personal bravery, her stoicism and her kindness, her willingness to stick her neck on the line and risk being unpopular.

Without Val’s support – and others like her – Exeter City Council wouldn’t have found the funding to support us back in 2013 when others didn’t much like the look of us. It isn’t much, but the council’s £10,000 a year helps unlocks over one thousand per cent more from foundations, sponsors and the Arts Council.

Exeter City Council were there first. And whilst the politicians may take the credit – they like credit – it was Val, their quiet arts officer, who was the first through our doors.

Callum Elliott-Archer

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Having wanted to return to this blog for some time, I feel a great pressure to get this first one right and timely. With From Devon With Love on the horizon and a new Producer for Framework (our artist development arm) about to start, the initiator of both has been on my mind a lot recently.

Callum directed one of the first things that appeared in the Bike Shed, a sketch show from the university company Theatre With Teeth. Improbably mature for his twenty-or-so years, Callum’s confidence instantly impressed.

Along with a number of his friends, Callum stayed after graduation to form Sourdough, three of whose productions we presented in their prolific first year. Aware of the need to test ideas in front of an audience, and spotting a gap in Exeter’s fractured theatre scene, Callum asked to run a series of scratch nights, one a week during November. The pieces presented were hugely variable in quality, but the spirit of the evenings was fantastic. A community gathered where those on stage and those in the audience were equal, not least because they often exchanged places each week.

These scratch nights became the base of Framework, to which was added the festival From Devon With Love, which Callum managed in its in augural year of 2013. By now though, three years out of university, he seemed a little disillusioned. His theatre company – Worklight, formed with two other members of Sourdough, Michael Woodman and Joe Sellman-Leava, along with designer Sam Hollis-Pack – had received acclaim for their first show How To Start A Riot, but more muted praise for their follow up I Think I’m A Feminist. Callum past over the reins of Framework to Chloe Whipple, made a solo piece for our New Blood festival and then chose not to make theatre any more.

It’s been very hard writing this, thinking of Callum. A talented theatre-maker, someone who made things happen and who cared about the wider sector. Someone who stopped whilst we went on. His legacy continues. Worklight won a Fringe First in Edinburgh last year and the Bike Shed’s work with emerging artists continues to be vital to our artistic output.

And yet. And yet I can’t help wondering what greater contribution he’d have made had the disillusion not crept in.

So, whilst I want this blog to celebrate the achievements of the many brilliant people who’ve been involved with the Bike Shed over the years – and Callum scores highly here – this first post back is, for me, tinged with sadness and regret. Not for Callum, who I’m sure is far happier out, but for us not having the value of his contribution. I blame the Arts Council. But then, I always do.

Ben Bradshaw

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We’d only been open a week. Then, on Monday 15th February, 2010, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport paid us a visit.

Despite my best efforts to cajole others to join us. there were about eight in the audience. The production was The Distance, one of my favourite plays but one that, even the writer would agree, wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser. In the interval, I quizzed the reluctant Minister about his relations with Gordon Brown. As he tried to leave, I insisted he meet the cast in their dressing room, which had been converted from a kitchen.

This was Ben Bradshaw’s first visit. He’d be forgiven if it was also his last. That it wasn’t is a testament to the man’s patience.

Ben has been a great supporter of the Bike Shed since its infancy. Over the years, he has spoken on a panel on democracy in the twenty-first century, hosted a fundraiser and seen countless productions. He’s given money to support refurbishment work, spoken about us in the House of Commons and shouted about us in the press. Perhaps some could claim this of their MPs too. But have yours also done the limbo in your bar at two in the morning?

Obviously, the timing of my writing this isn’t coincidental. Tomorrow there’s an election. Now, I’m not quite arrogant enough to think that I’ll persuade any to vote differently. But I wanted to put on paper the reasons why I’m voting for a Labour candidate for the first time in my life.

As anyone who saw Thursday’s debate on creativity and culture will testify, Ben knows this city inside out. He advocates for Exeter nationally. On the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, he holds funders to account, specifically on the fairness of support for the arts outside London.

Ben’s quiet support for the Bike Shed has meant a huge amount. It’s been wonderful to have him in our corner for the last five years. I hope we have him for another five.

Le Navet Bete

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“They say it’s family friendly but when I took my mum to their last one, Matt was thrusting his groin in her face for three minutes. Not that she minded.”

I shan’t name the person who shared that anecdote with me last week, because I fear I’ve embellished it somewhat. But I think it gives a good flavour of the strange tension between innocence and naughtiness that characterises Le Navet Bete’s work. In the darkest moments, there’s silliness. In the lightest, dangerous unpredictability. Always, there’s a groin.

Matt, Al, Dan, Alex and Nick first performed at the Bike Shed back in the Fringe Festival of 2011 with their production Napoleon: A Defence, in which a bunch of clowns retold the story of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. For four years, they’ve provided Plymouth Barbican’s Christmas show and brought the first of these – The Greatest Story Never Told – to the Bike Shed in the first few days of 2012. Here, amongst the dancing donkey, the attention-seeking star and the Devonian shepherds, there was a surprise. For a few moments, laughter stopped and Silent Night was sung as a baby was born. I can’t write this in a way that doesn’t make that sound awfully corny, so you’ll just have to take my word. It was good.

The company returned to present a first draft of Once Upon a Time in a Western, which has since traveled across the country. They’ve been regular supporters of the theatre (and bar…) and there generosity to other companies has made a significant contribution to the developing local theatre ecology.

More than that, they’re one of the most loved companies I’ve ever come across. Their fans adore them. When I was interviewed by John Govier on Radio Devon, he asked me more questions about Le Navet Bete than the Bike Shed. Ali Robertson, the Director of the Tobacco Factory, made sure I met one of his technicians who couldn’t wait for them to come back. Village halls snap them up, they perform in festivals and outdoor events across the Summer.

Their new show, Dick Tracy, opens tonight at Exeter Phoenix. But it’s probably already sold out. They’re that popular, that loved.

Abi Matteson

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On the Cathedral Green is one of Exeter’s least well-kept secrets. Hidden behind the drug addicts, PCSOs and seagulls is The Plant, a gorgeous miniature vegetarian cafe.

The cafe opened in 2004 and five years later, it was bought by three of its staff: Polly Barnes, Hannah Parris and Abi Matteson. Abi was just 22. As Fin and I were testing the Bike Shed in 2010, we would refresh ourselves with coffee, frittata and cake from up the road. And so it came to pass, that when we decided to make a proper go of it, we turned to The Plant to provide the food.

They took a risk on us, and for the first year and a bit they served up beautiful plates of pies, salads and frittatas. It was sad for us both when space and staffing made it too difficult for the cafe to stay in the Bike Shed. But Abi has stayed around. She’s organised quizzes, DJ-ed and drunk and danced many a night away. Abi works incredibly hard, is always courteous and has a keen eye for the bigger picture.

She’s been a great friend of the Bike Shed, a loyal supporter, often in the audience, always asking after the business. I’ll always be grateful to her (and Polly and Hannah) for taking a chance, for seeing an opportunity and, beyond all else, for continuing to care.

Ben Crispin

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“Ben Crispin is a force of nature”.

That’s The Guardian, in the Summer of 2010, the first time they came down to the Bike Shed. I doubt anyone who saw Ben as Steamer in Shaun McCarthy’s Beanfield – a play that told the story of the 1985 Battle of the Beanfield as though it were Henry IV mixed with A Midsummer Night’s Dream – would deny him as a force of nature. In every scene, he drew focus, showing off, quietly. He was flamboyant, heart-breaking, angry. He was a joy to work with in the rehearsal room and drove the whole team to greater and greater heights, forbidding complacency.

Six months later, Ben returned to devise and perform in The Little Prince, the show that opened our new space. Here his character couldn’t have been more different from Steamer in Beanfield, as he embodied the other-worldly, innocent-yet-wise prince. Ben moved to Exeter, worked behind our bar, performed in Cul-de-Sac and then took the lead in A Christmas Carol. This was a challenge, but one that Ben embraced with courage and commitment.

Writing this now, it seems such a shame that Ben has not graced our stage in over three years, having been such a central part of its first two. His magnetism, versatility and danger make him one of my favourite actors.

An image of Ben is spinning in my head. It is the opening scene of Beanfield. A light finds him, he is silent, still. Finally he speaks. “O for a muse of fire” – a cruelly difficult first line in a new play in a supposedly cutting-edge theatre. Ben says it simply, gently, a slight break in his voice. He pin points his character in one line – and its one of the most ubiquitous lines in theatre. My memory, of a character, evoking Shakespeare, to remember the past. The pain, the suppressed fury, the utter hopelessness.