An online writing project during our closure
Something Like Theatre – the virtual Old Fire Station project – will use a series of short plays to build up virtual, immersive theatre tours of our building. These can be rooted in historical fact or entirely fantastical – they can include monologues, duologues or group scenes, of any genre. This is a writer-led process, so what you create will dictate the form the piece ultimately takes.
Whether you’re a writer, actor or director or want to get involved in another way, you can register your interest via this form (please do this even if you’ve already commented on Facebook or contacted Dave Hollander via email). If you’d like to submit a play, upload it here.
Further details including images are released daily on the Write Club Facebook page; scroll down to read the text of these updates, listed with the most recent first.
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: 3rd-Floor Flat
We’ve now reached the top floor of the building, which was inaccessible to all visitors until the building reopened in 2018, as it was a private residence – the caretaker’s flat. Although a new kitchen and bathroom were installed as part of the refurbishment, no-one lives here any more. In fact, the Building Preservation Trust applied for (and received) permission for change of use so the rooms can be hired out commercially as office/studio space.
Coming from the old staircase, the first room was the building manager Bex’s office when we moved back, but is now in the process of being converted into a Library and archive room. The next two rooms – Prompt and Bell – are named after SLT’s former theatre spaces: respectively, the black-box studio that was constructed in 1975 to house more experimental work, and the original main stage theatre that opened in 1967 and was renamed Bell Theatre in the early 1980s. Here in the flat, Prompt has now become Bex’s office and Bell is set up for counselling sessions run by therapists who are regular hirers.
Though relatively small, these attic-like rooms could be the ideal setting for an atmospheric monologue. Who might lurk here, neglected, biding their time? As well as the Rapunzels, starving artists, misers, maids and Miss Havishams of the popular imagination, think about the ever-invading pigeons of the past, forever being fended off by caretaker Alan Buckman with his air rifle. Where were the holes that let the rainwater in, eventually causing bits of ceiling to collapse?
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: To the tower!
Heading up the stairs to the top floor of the building, on the left as you reach the landing is the door to the watchtower that makes the Old Fire Station a particularly prominent landmark. Of course, this area is generally out of bounds to visitors, and the hatch at the top is locked to prevent snoopers going out to enjoy the spectacular views from the top: the parapet is not high enough to prevent someone falling off.
When the Old Fire Station was built in 1881, this was a vantage point from which fires in the vicinity could be spotted. And during the Second World War, former member Bernie Bullbrook remembered watching from here as the bombs fell on London. In theatrical terms, perhaps a monologue written for the tower is less about visiting the space itself than what it has represented in the past or how it could be used for dramatic purposes.
In last year’s murder mystery, this was the location of the (literal) downfall of one of the victims, but think about the value of high places as viewing and communication points: the crow’s nest of a ship, a watchtower on a contested border, a lighthouse. Could you be looking for potential danger? Or a signal from a faraway friend?
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Plant Room
Let’s pop our heads briefly into the Plant Room. Most visitors never get to see this space on a visit to the Old Fire Station. Behind a locked door on the second floor lurks the air handling system that (with varying degrees of success) controls the flow of air around the building in the large, obtrusive ducts through backstage, into the theatre and down to the bar in the basement.
Formerly, this was the flat roof above the big wardrobe room, sometimes used for corralling excess furniture, at other times used for impromptu rehearsals.
So, what dramatic potential does this place hold? Obviously there’s no space to coax a large audience past the threshold, but perhaps this could be the domain of a silent controller, benevolent or otherwise. What manner of nefarious activities could be coordinated from this lair? Or how might the plant room be a pivotal location in an urgent piece of site-specific drama?
Think about how a dramatic monologue set here could provide a glimpse of unfounded insecurities, thwarted ambitions or unfulfilled dreams…
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Wardrobe and Wardrobe Office
Moving from the Silk Screen Room, we’re going to head into the main Wardrobe – another spaces that’s full of costume rails. Like all the rooms on the upper floors, when the Old Fire Station was built, this provided accommodation for the men who worked here and their families – subdivided into sleeping quarters, with a corridor along the west side (past where the lift is now). After the building’s conversion to a theatre, this room was directly above the fly loft and main stage (later Bell Theatre). Initially kitted out as a green room with speakers to broadcast the stage manager’s announcements and a show relay, it later became the rehearsal room. I remember its dwindling floor space cluttered with furniture and more rails from SLT’s burgeoning costume collection. Once a year, the carpet and floorboards were pulled up to inspect the bolts holding the fly loft pulleys in place, to ensure the lighting bars remained securely in place.
Though essentially the same size and shape as the room below, this space has a very different feel. If you were creating a piece of theatre set here, how many actors might you secrete among the forest of tweed, crinoline and corduroy? Rather than simply imagining an actor in period garb, try to evoke the essence of the place and its purpose – what kind of non-human creatures might you find? Who knows ? This could be the setting for the great battle between the moths and the mice of 1983.
Heading out of the door at the far end, we’ll take a left into what is now the Wardrobe Office. This is similar in size and shape to the Green Room directly below (which was, in fact, the wardrobe office’s location until 2015). For part of the building’s life as a theatre it was known as the ‘committee room’, used for meetings, but latterly it became another outpost of Alan Buckman’s props empire, full of china tea cups, walking canes and a large, walk-in sarcophagus from SLT’s 1991 production of The Man Who Came to Dinner (pictured in gallery).
As this room is linked to collections and inventories, imagine what the guardian of this place might be like. Now consider the character of a protector in a wider sense: a hen protecting chicks, the giant serpent guarding the Golden Fleece (or a dragon guarding treasure in a fairytale), perhaps a prison officer or a security guard outside an important building. How might they speak to a stranger who enters the room? Is the value of what they’re guarding tangible and tempting to steal or symbolic and worthless in the wrong hands?
Though currently closed like the rest of the Old Fire Station, costume hire might be one of the first areas of SLT’s business that is able to recommence following the lockdown. Find out more about our wardrobe collection here.
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Silk Screen Room
Heading up the new staircase and back into the original building, we’re going to pop into the room to the right. During its time before and since the Old Fire Station’s renovation, this space has housed rails of costumes (informally known as “the panto room”), but earlier in the building’s theatrical career, it was where show posters were printed – giving the room its current name. Evidence of this is visible on the walls, where some of the designs have also been transferred on to the paintwork. These have been left intact and “framed” as a reminder of the room’s former use.
Though largely superseded by digital printing techniques, silk screen printing remains a cost-effective way of reproducing striking designs in bulk. I remember learning how to do it at school with a screen made of an old net curtain. The technique is still sometimes used commercially – this site shows how it’s done; if you have children at home, it could be an ideal craft project.
From a theatrical perspective, the costumes and poster designs could provide inspiration for the characters you might find lurking here on a virtual tour. Again, try to avoid the more obvious ‘actor’s ghost’ tropes and think about how others involved in a production might haunt this space. Think about the power of imagery to sell a production. Consider how and why this might be a place to hide or to hatch a cunning plan.
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: New staircase
Coming back out of the props room, we’re going to head left past the lift and into the corridor that leads to the new staircase. This passageway was once also a small props store, but through the door at the end we reach an entirely new section of the building, constructed in 2016-17 above what was once Prompt Corner, and providing secondary access to all floors. Turning back, you’ll see bricks that were once the exterior wall of the fire station building – the graffiti left in place as a reminder of its former state. There was once a void here, with a large shed on the roof of the old black-box space that was strictly the general stage manager’s domain. Further back in time, there had been no building on this side at all: it was an open yard through which the horses could be led off the street to the stables at the back.
Facing the door we’ve just come through from the original building is a mosaic that was made as one of the heritage projects during and after the building’s refurbishment. It combines themes from the building’s past incarnations in a charming, jaunty fashion. Now seen by relatively few visitors to the building, it feels a little unloved in this location. Perhaps we’ll find a more prominent location for it in future.
Like the old staircase, this space is one of transitions and access – as a fire escape and a secret route for actors to reach the theatre without going through the foyer or backstage. Imagine how you would dress the blank canvas of the modern part – and what lighting effect you might use with its translucent polymer panelling. Imagine what character might lurk here to transport visitors between worlds – could they be a modern counterpart of a period character on the opposite side of the building?
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Props Store
From the Fly Loft, we’re going to pop into another room that used to be part of the accommodation for those who worked here in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Instead of taking the door by the lift towards the new staircase we’ll take the door to the left, leading to a room that usually locked to keep Kay and Carole’s precious properties safe. In fact, this was also a props room until 2015, when accessing it required tiptoeing around the fly loft gallery with Alan Buckman clutching the keys to a Tardis-like repository of knick-knacks of all styles and periods, crammed on to shelves, in biscuit tins, boxes and wooden trunks.
Though you couldn’t accommodate much of an audience here, there’s still plenty to see from the doorway, so might be an interesting place to stage a monologue. The dramatic resonances might have less to do with this room’s previous guises than the potential locked within it: the trappings of onstage lives, the artefacts of past lives, the memories of past joys and sorrows.
So perhaps rather than visualising the space, imagine several objects that might have particular resonance for you character: a wooden cotton reel, a wine goblet, a sprig of artificial flowers, a pair of handcuffs, a gas mask, a dagger, a rosary, a china teacup – the list of potential items is endless…Then write a monologue that brings three disparate props together, each having evoking turning points in the protagonist’s life.
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Fly Loft
Turning left out of the Green Room, we’re heading into one of the spaces that has changed most drastically over the years: the Fly Loft. This room is named after its purpose between 1967 and 2015 – as a working area above the stage of Bell Theatre. During that period, there was no floor. Instead, a narrow gallery around its perimeter gave direct access on to the stage. Pulleys still visible in the ceiling were used to rig lighting bars and black borders (masking curtains), but although it was possible to lower pieces of staging, there wasn’t enough space to lower a full-height set on to the stage. And on at least one occasion, a badly behaved patron has disrupted a show mid-performance from here…
In the building’s early days, this room had a narrow corridor along the back (west) wall, with the rest subdivided into cramped sleeping accommodation for the firemen and their families. So although the floor has been restored to make the space suitable for rehearsals and larger gatherings, it’s considerably more open than it would have been.
Think about this space in terms of its varied uses and occupants – weary firemen returning from a shift or awaiting the next callout; technicians lowering lighting bars during rehearsals, operators and stage-hands working in the gallery during the show.
Next look at the topography of the space: doors at either end of the west wall, with another leading to the props room. The lift, a new addition, opens straight on to the room’s south-west corner. How could you use these entrances for theatrical purposes? This is now a rather light, airy space with windows looking out on to the high street and back over the flat roof – would this aid or impede your dramatic vision?
Most importantly, if you’re considering writing a piece for this room, you need to remember how difficult it might be to explain how the space used to be configured (especially in a 10-minute play). Perhaps refer to former inhabitants obliquely – or simply take advantage of this big space to let your imagination run riot.
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Green Room
Opposite the Kit Room, this small and square-ish room is directly above the Watch Room. It’s now a changing room – and a place for actors to wait while they’re not performing on stage. A row of hooks on the wall is the only fitting that might predate SLT’s occupation of the building, but they’re probably not from the Victorian era. Until 2015, this room housed the wardrobe office, from where the sprawling costume operation was run. Like the room opposite, it had shelves floor to ceiling, crammed with boxes full of costumes and accessories of every variety and period. One window was block up, but the other, almost obscured by bags, masks and feather boas, looked down on to Norwood High Street.
While its relatively nondescript current state would make the Green Room ideal for dressing up as a setting for almost any piece of theatre, its previous incarnation offers more scope for theatrical invention. What kind of people work in and hire from a theatrical wardrobe? What shows might they be dressing actors for? And what period might the costumes be from? Think about costume in terms of disguise and transformation: what does dressing up as a character do to an actor? How might this process be harnessed for real-life, off-stage intrigue?
Next, consider the anticipation of actors waiting here to be called by the stage manager to the theatre. How could you depict pre-show nerves? What would the atmosphere in here be like at the interval if the play is going disastrously wrong? Or after the show if it was rapturously received at the curtain call? How would these tensions be played out in the light of the real-life relationships between the actors who share this space during the run of a play?
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Kit Room
Climbing the old staircase from the bar to the first floor, we pass the entrance to backstage and another (permanently shut) door through which you can look down into the Watch Room. At the next landing, we’re going to turn right into the Kit Room, which is now used for rehearsals and occasionally as a changing room, as well as being available to hire during the day.
The room’s current name comes from the building’s time as a fire station as this is where the firemen’s kit was stored. However, the cupboards and shelves are most likely from its subsequent ownership by the church: here, the choir would hang up their robes and stack sheet music. When SLT came into being, this was the largest wardrobe room, with two levels of rails, boxes of breeches on the shelves and shoes, wigs and hats stored in every available nook and cranny. Many generations of directors, actors and costume designers can here in search of the perfect pillbox hat, Shakespearean robe or 1920s fishtail trousers and, like today, the wardrobe provided a valuable resource for external companies to hire period costume for their theatre, film and TV productions.
Though less suitable for a game of hide-and-seek than it once was, this space is full of history, yet presents a relatively blank canvas for a piece of theatre. Imagine who or what could lurk behind the door as you lead someone into the space. Would you keep the natural light flowing through the windows – or might it be more atmospheric to block them off and create a more ‘theatrical’ space? For the former, think about what you can see through those windows: on to the (inaccessible) flat roof and the station beyond, and down to the yard and Norwood High Street from the other side. As a reasonably large room, how many people might it accommodate? With a small group of audience members (up to 8), how many actors could also perform in here?
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Bar
Heading downstairs, we head to SLT’s basement bar. Used for storage during the building’s life as a fire station and church hall, this room has been the beating heart of the members’ club since the theatre opened in 1967. Anyone who has spent time at the Old Fire Station in the past 53 years will remember this room full of theatregoers buying interval drinks, cast and crew enjoying a quiet drink after rehearsals or desperately hungover souls sipping a lime and soda and munching on bar snacks after a Sunday get-out. Here, we have hosted numerous social events, organised and spontaneous: Sunday evening poker sessions, film quizzes, costume parties and more. Once wreathed in a haze of cigarette smoke, this low-ceilinged room is more likely to whiff of wolfed-down Chinese take-aways these days.
The dramatic possibilities of this space are endless… Start by considering the memories of past events in this space, the social gatherings that have marked momentous events in many lives – joy, sadness, listlessness, exhilaration, cosiness, debauchery, disappointment, conviviality, solitude, celebration and every shade of offstage drama.
Next, think about how you might incorporate the bar itself into a scene. Who would be serving and what might the customers be like? What drinks would you serve? Would the audience be able to buy drinks – and if so, how would performers interact with them?
Finally, think about the potential of this space in terms of its physical form. It’s fairly large, there’s no natural light and there are plenty of doorways – not to mention the lift for a dramatic Stars in Their Eyes-style entrance. If you were to lead a stranger into here, how might you surprise and delight them? Would you dress up the room like the interior of a spaceship? Or an enchanted cavern? The inner chamber of a palace? A doctor’s waiting room?
One last thought: from a stage-management perspective, would it work best to bring visitors down here first, to wait before being led through the building? Or as the destination at the end of a virtual tour?
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Old Staircase
Turning right out of the Watch Room through the foyer and past the reception desk, the next area we’ll explore is the original staircase, connecting all floors from the basement to the Watch Tower. Though the ground floor level of the staircase was remodelled in 1967 to give access from the foyer and the stage door by the ladies’ loos, access to the upper levels has remained unchanged throughout the building’s history. The original configuration has more or less been restored, with new sections of wooden bannister, a lick of heritage cream paint and quotes from plays stencilled on the walls. Further up, you can see where the firemen would have hung their hoses to dry.
As the sole means of access to all floors for much of the building’s history, this functional space has always been a place for comings and goings, fleeting assignations and chance encounters. Think of the the staircase as a portal between worlds. In theatrical terms, how might you use it to indicate the transition from one space to another. How might a guide bring you through the space and what features might they point out along the way?
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Watch Room
This was the operational hub of the building as originally built. Located next to the appliance hall, the Watch Room had a map on wall showing call points when telegraph messages came in and someone was always on duty – usually the station superintendent. Hooks still on the wall may have been used to hanging the kit for those on duty. This room is now home to replica helmets and uniforms, alongside a few items to illustrate the history of the building. Today, it’s probably used more as a meeting room than anything else – visitors often remark on the doorway set into the wall at an odd height.
From 1967 to 2015, the room was no less important to the operation of the building – located in the wings, stage right, it provided two entrances on to the Bell Theatre stage. Known as the stage manager’s office/room, it was used as a paint and wood store. Coiled sash cord (used to lash flats together) hung on the hooks instead of helmets; drawers and rickety cupboards housed mismatched collections of screws, castors and doorknobs. The infamous deathtrap known as the cellar hoist (to lift casks to and from the bar) greeted hapless visitors at the top of the stairs when they ventured in through the door by the ladies’ loo. When SLT moved out for the renovations to begin, we found a long-disused desk, from which the stage manager would once have called the cues for shows.
Though relatively small, this room’s rich history gives lots of potential for theatrical reinterpretation. Imagine how successive sets of occupants might interact: is there a connection between the station superintendent in charge of operations and a stage manager running a show? How might the listless anticipation of Victorian firemen waiting for a callout relate to a nervous actor in the wings about to go on stage? The Watch Room is notably rather compact but has a high ceiling. Would it suit an intimate, confessional scene? Or something else entirely. Moving beyond the historical and current reality think about what fantastical creatures could live here: how could you use its proportions and quirks to theatrical advantage?
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Foyer
First, think about what this space represents now. Who might be in here at different times: in the daytime? On non-show nights? When a performance is about to begin? How do the pictures on the walls and and uncovered original features give a sense of the building’s purpose – and what it has represented through its existence?
Now try to visualise how this space has metamorphosed since the Old Fire Station was built in 1881:
- As the room where the horse-drawn appliances were kept before bursting out through the doors in the event of a fire in the vicinity.
- From the 1920s, as the church hall pictured in the exhibition panels on the side of the lift shaft: a focal point for the local community.
- From 1967 to 2015, as the main stage of what was later renamed Bell Theatre, with the ceiling removed to create a flyloft and a curving cyclorama in front of the fire doors.
The most recent transformation of the building when it reopened in 2018 essentially restored the building to its former configuration. Think about its time as a theatre, how has your impression of the building changed since its entrance has moved from a small door to the side, to the prominent original doors at the front? Because of its multiple identities over time, the space we now know as the foyer is rich with historical resonance and provides an evocative introduction to the building. How would you guide someone into, around and through this room? What characters might you find lurking here? Aim to go beyond the factual historical people who inhabited this place: go for unexplored angles, quirky characters and attention-drawing intrigue.
Virtual tour of the Old Fire Station: Exterior
Consider what passers-by see from the street. If you were visiting for the first time, what would entice you through the doors and what might put you off? Think about location and context. What other buildings and landmarks are nearby? Think about all the ways you could view or encounter the building, whether from a passing bus or train, on foot or by bike.
Next, imagine ‘entering the building’ as a concept – not just the current and previous means of human access into the building, but also pigeons getting in through a broken window, rain coming in through the leaky roof, mice scurrying in through gaps in the walls and skirting boards, the waters of the River Effra seeping up into the basement and so on…
If you were to imagine a guide to bring you into and through the building, what would they be like? What kind of person would they be? Or might they be a different kind of creature altogether? Try to avoid the more obvious characters such as a Victorian policeman or an ageing luvvie…