Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Stella Duffy on Fun Palaces and “saying Yes to everything”

In my search for stories about how we might invite the imagination into our public life, how we might create spaces where people can come together to meet each other, to play and to dream, one of the finest examples I’ve come across is Fun Palaces.  Fun Palaces is an organisation which describes itself as “a campaign promoting community at the heart of culture and culture at the heart of community, with an annual weekend of action created by, for and with local people”.  People, wherever they are, take over a space, during one weekend in October and transform it, for a day, into a Fun Palace.

Stella Duffy is the co-founder and one of three co-directors at Fun Palaces.  She is also an award-winning writer who has written over 70 short stories, 14 plays and has had 16 novels published in 15 languages.  She has also worked as an actor, director, playwright and facilitator in theatre for over 35 years, and is an associate artist with Improbably Theatre.  In the Queen’s Birthday honours in 2016, she was awarded an OBE for services to the Arts.  She regularly writes and speaks on diversity and inclusion issues, especially in the arts sector.  We chatted by phone (the recording was too poor to create a podcast from, sorry!), and I started by asking her, in her own words, to tell me what a Fun Palace is:

“A Fun Palace is an event led by a local community for a local community, by which we mean a geographical community. Often in Britain when people talk about ‘community’ they mean ethnic communities or family communities, but we’re aware that most people don’t get to contribute to where they live, and Fun Palaces supports local people to be as creative as they would like to be and to support each other in creating their own culture.

Stella Duffy.

We don’t believe that the only people who should be in charge of culture are artists and scientists and professionals in tech and digital and heritage and sports. We believe that every human being has the ability to contribute. As we know, throughout history, there has never been a group of human beings who haven’t created their own culture, and by culture we mean arts, science, craft, tech, digital, heritage and sport.

We support people to create their own local events, all on the same weekend of the year, which means we can then give some attention to places that don’t get it, and certainly to some local communities where they don’t normally get it, and while we welcome in large organisations, for example Sadlers Wells made a Fun Palace this year, the Royal Shakespeare Company made a Fun Palace, major arts and science centres around Britain have joined, our real emphasis is on supporting people who may not consider themselves cultural leaders, and certainly aren’t considered cultural leaders by the cultural mainstream, because our ethos is that most people have not been invited in by the cultural elite and we genuinely believe in our motto, “everyone an artist, everyone a scientist”, and “the genius in everyone”, which goes back to Joan Littlewood who had the idea for a ‘Fun Palace’ in the 1960s but it was never built.

On your website you describe Fun Palaces as “tiny revolutions” and as “radical fun”. What are the gaps in society that they are filling and what are you compensating for?

In terms of what are the gaps we’re filling, it would be the fact that most culture in Britain is run by white middle class men. Just look across the board. I mean, most things in Britain are run by white middle class men, but our cultural life is particularly that.

What we saw with Fun Palaces last year (we don’t yet have all the data in for this year) was that 64% of our maker teams included people from ethnic minorities, a phenomenal number given the lack of people from ethnic minorities leading the majority of culture in Britain. That’s not true of who we are in our day-to-day lives, but it’s absolutely true of us in our cultural life. Similarly, last year, 11% of our lead makers identify as disabled or having a health condition, again, we are not seeing people who identify as being disabled or having a health condition leading in our cultural life in Britain and everywhere else. This is the crux of it.

Photo: Helen Murray.

We acknowledge that our cultural life is unequal in Britain at the moment, and has been for ever. And not just our cultural life, although that’s the angle we’re looking at it from.  Therefore our emphasis is on how we can support in the people who have not been welcomed in before, and we are not supporting them in to recreate what has been established as a white middle class standard of excellence or quality, we are welcoming them in to support them to create what they want to create, and part of the problem is our current standard of what is excellent or high quality is that it was decided by a lot of white, rich men 100 – 150 years ago.

I say this as a novelist, that the form of the novel is only just beginning to be cracked open by the amazing young new writers, think of the half-dozen fantastic young Nigerian writers, and that’s come about because of publishing in Nigeria being led by women, therefore they are giving more of a push to young women. Because we have a mainstream that is predicated on hetero-normative white middle class society with men as the norm, therefore everyone else is seen as a minority.

With Fun Palaces, we are hoping to help the white middle class man to understand that he is the minority, because look at all the rest of us! So our dream is that everyone can contribute and that everyone is welcome to contribute, and that their contribution is valued, and that’s the key. Not “your contribution will be valued if you follow this format”, or “your contribution will be valued if you do these 28 exams”, but that whatever you want to contribute for your own community, from your own heart, and spirit and interest and passion, that’s the thing of value.

How would you evaluate the state of health of imagination in our culture in 2018?

Oh, I wouldn’t evaluate anything to do with imagination if I could help it, because we literally don’t have the language. Our language was invented by the mainstream to maintain the mainstream in charge, so it’s almost impossible to say how we can study the state of health of imagination in Britain at the moment without reinventing how we analyse things.

Photo: Helen Murray.

However, from my perspective of having run Fun Palaces for the past 5 years and seen phenomenal things happening all around the country, particularly in places that are well outside the mainstream, I think people are doing fantastic stuff. Sadly the fantastic stuff they’re doing is hardly ever being reflected back to them as being brilliant. It is hardly ever being amplified so other people can hear about it, and it’s hardly ever being shared. One of the things we do with Fun Palaces is we’re very clear that we are not saying people aren’t already doing this, what we’re saying is “you’re already doing this, if you do it on this one weekend together with us, we can help to amplify that voice and share the phenomenal stuff you’re doing”.

For example, I was in Cornwall over Fun Palaces weekend, the Treneere Estate in Penzance is a very large estate which ticks all those “how deprived is your estate?” boxes – they made a phenomenal Fun Palace, made entirely by local people. There was no flying in artists or scientists or communications people, no flying in people who knew about ‘engagement’, these people, of course they did, understood how to engage with each other because they are human beings. They ran their own Fun Palace, and THEY invited in the museum, and THEY invited in the library – they were in charge.

Their work was really exciting, I went to see. They’re fantastic people. Mostly what they do, which they do year in and year out, month in and month out as part of their Residents’ Association, doesn’t get shared with everybody else because it isn’t on the mainstream’s radar. So one of the things we are hoping to do with Fun Palaces in the long term is to share more of that kind of work, really strong, grassroots work where people are doing phenomenal creative stuff, but they’re doing it all the time, but no-one knows about it because they’re not in London, because they’re not in a big shiny building, because they’re not the standard of what we have come to expect to be our cultural leaders. They’re not that person. They’re just not. And yet they are doing amazing work. So, a lot of what we want to do is to share that sort of work.

Photo: Helen Murray.

How have you seen the austerity cuts impact creativity and the arts?

We only started 5 years ago, so we started when everyone was banging on about austerity being necessary. I personally think that’s a lie. I know many people who think that’s a lie. But we work with people who weren’t funded by the mainstream anyway. They weren’t funded by the Arts Council.

They weren’t funded by mainstream arts organisations or mainstream science organisations. They were just local people getting on as best they could. What we’ve seen very clearly is that it doesn’t matter whether you believe in austerity as a methodology or not, there’s no austerity of amazing people. The people we have worked with over the past five years are just phenomenal people anyway. They are mostly outside the mainstream funding streams anyway. They mostly didn’t benefit from the things that have been cut.

So while I, as an art maker for the past 35 years, bemoan the cuts, I’m also very aware that only some people benefitted from that funding in the first place. If we are to have genuine arts by, with and for all, if we are to have genuine inclusion in sciences, tech and digital, then we’re going to have to look at who gets funded and why, because from my perspective it is not good enough to merely fund the great and the good because art is apparently “good for everybody”.

From our perspective with Fun Palaces, it’s involvement that’s good for everybody. We come from a very strong concept of supporting people into being audiences which still maintains the status quo. Whether you’ve got austerity cuts or not, if you’re only supporting people into being audiences you are still keeping them in their place. What Fun Palaces is about is supporting people into being creators.

Photo: Helen Murray.

You have a strong ethos of moving away from the idea of the ‘lone artist’ and towards the idea of the genius in everyone…

I’m 55. I got my Equity card at 18 when I was first with a company making community theatre. I have worked in the arts all my life as a freelance artist. I’ve never had a ‘proper job’ in my life. I’ve never had sick pay, holiday pay, compassionate leave, any of that support. I don’t believe that there is a ‘lone artist’. They don’t exist. The lone artist also has a family, some neighbours. The lone artist often, if you think of classical music in Britain at the moment, has a family who supported them into playing music.

Dr Anna Bull at Portsmouth University did a fantastic study called ‘McDonald’s Music’ Versus ‘Serious Music’: How Production and Consumption Practices Help to Reproduce Class Inequality in the Classical Music Profession’, which says “you know what, people have assumed that people who got involved in classical music in Britain were just from musical families. They weren’t. They were from middle class families. Because you have to have access to an instrument, to go to classes at 5. You have to have parents who care about music already, and support you to do that.

Now what we acknowledge in Fun Palaces is that we don’t know at the moment who is brilliant in our nations at the moment, we have no idea because we’re not supporting not just every child in classical music, but what about their 45 year old who hasn’t had the opportunity to pick up an instrument before? What about the 65 year olds who are going to live for another 25 years and who may be, for all we know, capable of putting in those 10,000 hours of practice from the age of 65 onwards? What about those people we are not engaging?

So from our perspective yes, lone artists, whatever, it’s a bit of a myth. I don’t know a single artist who believes themselves a solo creator. Everyone is connected to other human beings, and I’m really not certain why anyone would create art not for other human beings. From Fun Palace’s perspective, we take the concept of other human beings being at the core of it.

Photo: Helen Murray.

If you had been elected as Prime Minister of the UK and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’, what might you have done in your first 100 days? Where would you start?

One of the main difficulties is that we have both denigrated and over-emphasised the role of the artist. So there’s all this horrible “oh they’re just a luvvie”, or “they’re just an artist”, kind of utter denigration, and at the same time, this lauding of the artist. I would, if it were at all humanly possible, wipe that, and go back to the concept of “everyone an artist”, by which I mean scientist too.

It’s no accident that Einstein was a violinist. It’s no accident that so many of our brilliant scientists have also been musicians, or visual artists in some way. Because we’ve over-elevated the concept of the artist, that means that most people feel they can’t attain any artistry, most people feel it’s not for them, and because we’ve over-elevated them then of course we are trying to knock them down, and go on about how terrible artists are, and how selfish they are, and how they make it all about them.

If we got rid of the over-elevation of the artist, and we went back to an idea that everyone is creative … we know that everyone is creative! Every 3 year old is creative, why on earth did we stop thinking that every 30 year old was creative? Or every 80 year old? We know that every 3 year old is creative. That didn’t go away. We just live in a culture that said no to us too often.

That would be your starting point then? To shape your policies around that concept of “everyone an artist” and “everyone a scientist”?

“The genius in everyone”, rather than “everyone an artist”. We’ve got a real problem with that word ‘artist’ so let’s just go back to Joan Littlewood’s phrase “the genius in everyone”. If we acknowledged the genius in everyone, we would genuinely consult. You know people do consultation exercises constantly.

They do it about parking here, or housing there, or this shopping High Street over here. They don’t actually hand over power. There is no point in consulting people if you’re not going to hand over power.  Our concept around Fun Palaces is that we try to make it easy for big shiny buildings to hand over power, we say “make a Fun Palace for 3 hours” … just 3 hours, once a year, genuinely give over your public space, that is funded by public money, to your local people and see what they do. That’s not even asking a great deal! But it does put back a tiny bit of faith in the genius in everybody.

We’ve had Fun Palaces led by young people. Fun Palaces led by people in care homes. The concept is that we might trust each other to screw up as well as to succeed. Einstein wrote the special Theory of Relativity and it wasn’t quite it, that’s why he used work with Minkowski and Hilbert on the spacetime theory, and then came up with the General Theory of Relativity. I only know that because I had a writing commission to do that work! We have to go through our mistakes to create our successes. If we allowed people to fail within the creation of success, that would be phenomenal. But we will not do that until we acknowledge that everyone can contribute.

Photo: Helen Murray.

What are the key ingredients for creating a community space, like those you create with Fun Palaces?

We spend most of our time saying “yes”. When I say “we”, we are a team of 3 people 2 days a week, and we have created this on a tiny budget, utterly minimal. Now that’s been really hard, but in a way, the fact that we didn’t have any budget meant that we couldn’t say “you can make a Fun Palace and you can’t, we’ll pay for you but not for you” … we pay for nobody! 71% of Fun Palaces last year made their Fun Palace with no extra funding.

Many of them made it certainly on less than £150, including sponsorship from, I don’t know, a local organisation or something. What we’re saying is if we trust that people can give, and that people want to contribute, we’re one way in for people who don’t normally don’t get to contribute to their community, who aren’t normally given leadership possibilities, we’re one way in. We’re not the only way, but we are one way in for people to step up.

But our main way of doing that is that we just say yes. We run workshops all over the country, and we get on the other end of the phone, and people will ring us up and say “I’d like to do this in my Fun Palace is that ok?” and all we ever do is say yes. We don’t care what they’re asking, unless they’re asking if they can charge people, that’s not ok, but we say yes, go for it.

And because we live in a culture that mostly says no, because we live in a culture that says “well, I’ll only say yes to you if you’ve spent 3 years learning to become a musician and then I’ll let you do it, we say yes to absolutely everyone. What that does is it brings together people with utterly astonishing lifetimes of skills with people with no skills in the arts or the science worlds, but a deep amount of passion and enthusiasm.  What we hear back is that the people who have been working in those fields for a very long time are tired, and they need the support of the people with the passion and the enthusiasm, and the people with the passion and the enthusiasm also need the support of the people with the professional skills.

It’s a really good relationship of working, but mostly it comes from us saying yes. Our barriers to access are as low as we can possibly make them, in that we hope that they’re non-existent, but we acknowledge that for some people it is always going to be hard if their little village has no actual physical venue then they’ve probably got to get a tent or a marquee from somewhere. If they’re an entirely physically disabled group, then they might need some literally physical support in erecting a marquee, who knows.

But the other thing we then do is we try and link groups with other people who can do that support for them. We do a massive amount of saying yes, and after that we step back. I wrote a piece recently where I wrote “we say yes, we trust they can do it, we support them to do it in whatever way we can, and then we step back and let them get on with it”. That stepping back is key. People learn from doing, not from hearing about it. People learn from the experiential practice of creating their own Fun Palace.

I have been asked many times over the past 5 years “but Stella, what about the quality. What will the quality be like? Will it be high quality?” And I genuinely don’t care, I care about the quality of engagement. What we have seen, literally with every Fun Palace, year after year, is that the people running it want ‘better quality’ next year, they want more, and different, people to come. They want to have a better offer. But if we leave the quality decision to the people that will happen anyway. We need to get out of their way, and stop telling them you can’t do it unless you fit my quality criteria. The more we welcome people to create for themselves, the more brilliant stuff they create.

Photo: Helen Murray.

What would our democracy look like if it were modelled on Fun Palaces?

Interestingly for the three of us at Fun Palaces, we have also done a lot of work in Open Space Technology. We facilitate Open Space events, we run Open Space events, we’re all very passionate about Open Space. Open Space is an open forum for meetings. I grew up in smalltown New Zealand, and the Maori word is ‘hui’, and at a hui people step up and they say the thing they are passionate about, and they host a discussion about it.

An open democracy that genuinely trusted everyone to contribute to the best would be modelled on hui, would be modelled on Open Space principles, would be modelled on Fun Palace principles. You know … “who cares about this? Great! You go off and sort it… Who cares about that? Great… you go off and sort it”.  It’s about trusting people. If I happened to not be the person who cares passionately about, I don’t know, recycling plastic bags this week, but somebody else does, then allowing their passion will be enough for me to then go “ok, they made this decision, I’ll abide by it, because they’re the passionate ones”. Trusting that our passions can guide us I think is really hopeful, and trusting that we can all give, that all of us are passionate about something…

So many times people step back from stepping up. They sit back from stepping up because they know that we are giving lip service to genuinely sharing power. People go “ah well I could contribute but I know you’re not going to do anything about my contribution”. In a Fun Palace people can contribute and that’s it. Great. We’re not saying “fill this form in first”. We do get them to fill in a form so they can tick some terms and conditions to use our website … that’s it. And then they go ahead and make it.

We try to keep our limits to who can join in really low. It’s got to be free, it’s got to be on the same weekend so we can do the publicity for everybody because we just don’t have a big enough team to do it all year round. Other than that, go for it! Make the thing that your local community wants to make. I think the local part, the hyper-local part, is really important.

It’s really really hard to run freely an organisation of 64 million people. It’s much easier to run freely a group of 30 people or 60 people. But we can link together, and when our Fun Palaces link we see the same ethos coming through.

Photo: Helen Murray.

That’s all my questions. I wondered if you had any final thoughts on the topic of imagination that I haven’t asked you the right question to elicit the answer for?

In my other job as a writer, a teacher of improvisation for writers and writing for improvisers, as someone who runs a lot of those kinds of workshops, I really mind that we live in a culture that says “only some people are creative, only some people are imaginative, only some people can make, only some people can be writers”.

It’s a lie. It’s a terrible, brutal lie. We don’t live in a culture that supports everyone to be creative, but the minute we start saying yes to each other in our creativity, that supports us individuals to say yes to our own ideas. My hardest thing is the empty page. When I say yes to myself, to “I’ll write 500 words now, and they won’t be brilliant, and it doesn’t matter that they’re not brilliant, because later on I can make them as brilliant as possible, that’s what makes the difference.

If everybody had those opportunities, we’d have such a different world! I’m the youngest of 7 kids from a council estate in south east London. I only got the opportunity to even have this conversation because I’m the youngest of our 7, so I got to stay on at school, and got more education than most of my siblings did. I’m the one who got to get involved in the arts because I’m the one who went to university.

The minute we start saying yes to everyone, and to everyone’s creativity, we’ll have a really different culture. But unfortunately a lot of the people who are in the creative world are scared of letting other people in. And I get that. It’s scary. There’s no money. There’s not enough of it to go around. The scarcity thinking is terrible but the scarcity thinking also limits our culture. We could do astonishing things but we are going to have to say yes to everyone.

Photo: Helen Murray.







  1. Kitty
    October 29, 2018

    there is an abundance of creativity and Stella you are a genius with vision and passion, it’ s so inspirational this interview , thank you, Kitty

  2. Jeremy Holloway
    November 2, 2018

    When I was running the Acorn Arts Centre in Penzance Stella came to see me about running a Fun Palace. Lovely lady, passionate and committed. So much about this article is spot on, including artists not letting anyone else in. Great post.

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