“a lot of things that we do are of a moment” — alex wright, the fleeting armsBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
“We’re tied to a pub company so we started off with a beer and a cider, and then we got draught, and then the cellar flooded, and then the cellar broke, and then we had nothing, and finally we got Tuborg back. We mainly sell bottles, and a lot of trendy hipster ales. People like a hipster bottle of real ale, it would seem. These are things I’ve learned, things I didn’t know before.” Alex laughs. “I mean, I write plays for a living.”
On the first Thursday of February 2015 Alex Wright, Artistic Director of The Flanagan Collective — a cross-genre arts group and travelling theatre company — published a new post on the organisation’s public blog.
The title: ‘Opening Space — Yay or Nay’.
‘We have been given the potential of opening a new, temporary space in York,’ it began.
Alex and The Flanagan Collective’s producer, Brian Hook, had been offered an empty three-storey pub for an indefinite amount of time by their longtime friend Brian Furey, landlord of The Gillygate Pub in York. The company that owned number 54 Gillygate was waiting for planning permission to open up a 59-bed hostel, and were willing to let Brian use the boarded up space — rent free — under a temporary lease, meaning that when the permission was granted they’d be given a week’s notice to leave.
‘It’s not often that spaces can pop up in York, everything is usually very expensive and protected,’ Alex wrote. ‘We shouldn’t leave spaces empty if we can use them locally and independently.
‘So, that’s the question — do you think we should open and run a pop up arts and community space? It’s just fallen into our laps and we feel like we’d be rude to ignore it, if we can make something good come out of it — even if it’s only for a few months.’
The following Tuesday, Alex, Brian and Brian Furey hosted an open chat at The Gillygate, to continue the online conversation that had erupted about the boarded-up space two doors away. Four days later Alex published another post on the blog, titled ‘Pop Up Space? YAY’. People in York had liked the idea and wanted use of the space. The two-person administrative team of The Flanagan Collective were opening a pub.
‘We’ll call it The Fleeting Arms,’ Alex wrote. ‘It will last for about six months. It’s temporary, but valuable. We hope.
‘I’m proud this is happening,’ he added, signing his name at the end.
The boarded-up, empty space has been, as Alex tells us, the home to a “series of difficult endeavours.” Once The Bay Horse — a while later, The Speakeasy. Then Stereo, The Pink Pony, and finally, Monroe’s Showbar — one of the city’s only drag bars — which opened in 2014 but closed that same year, leaving black carpets glued to the floor and dark paper on the walls.
‘We’d like your help,’ Alex had written in his post. ‘We need to clean, tidy, paint, find furniture, fill a skip or two, tile a shower, staff a bar, build a website, paint the door, pull up the carpets and sand the floor, drive a van around to pick stuff up, figure out a booking system, mount work on the walls and put together a damn good opening party.
‘We’ll be starting next weekend, four big days of work. We’ll be rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in. We’d like you to join us — the door will be open, maybe being painted.’
Alex and Brian showed up with a few friends that Friday morning and stood in the cold, empty building that they’d agreed to transform into a pub. Alex paused, and watched the dust cling to the grey light trickling in from the open door.
‘You’re crazy!’ his wife Veronica had said to him when he told her about the plan. She’d smiled — it was just like him to come up with some wild new scheme. But she was concerned all the same. ‘You’ve not got time for that, you know.’
Romeo and Juliet, The Flanagan Collective’s newest show, was just one month away from rehearsals and they were still one cast member short. But they had asked, and York had said yes. Alex leaned down and pulled at the edge of the worn, black carpet.
So they really did glue it to the floor, he thought, putting one hand to his forehead before rolling up his sleeves.
And then, people started to show. They brought paint brushes and floor sanders, light fittings and bin bags. Some brought artwork, and others brought friends along to help. They would stay for a few hours, or a few days, working to transform the space into something they could use, that they could share with the city.
‘I had expected a few known faces,’ Alex wrote in a post published a few days later. ‘People who I know — ones who work all the time to make things happen within the community. But I have met so many people. Word is spreading and it’s lovely. You are wonderful, folks.’
“Just By The Goodness Of People’s Hearts”
On Friday, March 6th, The Fleeting Arms opened its once boarded-up door to celebrate all that could happen in the next six months, if people in York only took the opportunity to dream it up. That night a crowd drank, conversed, listened to jazz and poetry among donated furniture in a once boarded-up space.
‘It is temporary, but valuable,’ Alex had written. He was used to working on five week productions — half a year felt like a very long time. But York had said yes; The Fleeting Arms would exist.
We’ve come to 54 Gillygate, home to a series of difficult endeavours, to meet Alex Wright and have a chat about The Fleeting Arms. After six successful months, the pop-up bar and arts space extended its residency into December, and will close on New Year’s Day after a final performance of The Great Gatsby, a play directed and produced by Alex’s new theatre company, The Guild of Misrule.
“It’s kind of come full circle,” says Alex. “It’s weird, because what we do is to make work for other people’s pubs and other people’s spaces that aren’t theatres, and then we’ve come around to running a pub and offering it up to other people. The Fleeting Arms has felt like it has belonged to a lot of people, which is nice.”
Alex is a chatty, approachable person with loud gestures and the controlled, dynamic vocal range of a good storyteller. He has an enthusiastic, agile energy about him that lends itself to performance; as he sits across from us in the empty, daytime cold of the closed pub we imagine him in character, entertaining a crowd.
He also speaks quickly, with a confidence that weaves its way between consonants through the vowels. When we ask if it’s alright to record the interview he replies quickly, “Please do.”
“I went to university in York, and when I was there I met three other guys and we set up a theatre company called Belt Up Theatre,” says Alex. “At that time we made a very specific type of theatre, and I wanted to create a different organisation that would involve more people making different types of work.
“People have loads of ideas, and really want to do stuff, but sometimes they need a banner to do it under; it’s like once you’ve got a name, you can give yourself permission to make something. So we set up The Flanagan Collective, but now it’s turned into a much bigger organisation.” He pauses, then says, “Well, not organisation, but we do a lot of work with lots of different partners and lots of different places.”
The most recent place is New York, where The Flanagan Collective’s show Fable has just finished a small run at the Soho Playhouse.
“It was the first time we’ve taken a show to the United States, so that was great,” says Alex. “There was one cast in Soho and the original cast touring the show around the Highlands of Scotland at the same time.”
Meanwhile, Alex and Brian were organising a seven-person cast in Birmingham for Romeo and Juliet, while helping run the pub in York.
“I suppose that running a pub wasn’t high on my list of possible career paths,” he laughs. “We make a lot of work for country pubs, we tour work around pubs. That atmosphere is very usual for us. But the day-to-day of running a pub was very different.
“You know, boring shit costs a lot. Business rates cost a lot. Energy costs a lot when you’ve got a three storey building that’s open all the time. Gas costs a lot when you’ve got beer pumps. Sometimes finances are great, and sometimes finances are really tight. We said to the artistic community that we’ll do the boring stuff, we’ll order the beer and run the accounts and pay the bills and stuff, if you think there’s use for a space like this. And it turns out there is.”
After the launch party, Alex and Brian began to call in favours from friends. If they were working on something, wanted to perform a gig or show, could they do it at The Fleeting Arms? People in York who had supported the idea kept their word, and their bookings schedule began to fill.
“People were really wanting to use the space,” he says. “For great stuff, for bonkers stuff. There’s been a cosplay event, a retro gaming event — stuff that I would never even dream of.
“Oh,” he laughs, “and there’s The Fleeting Quiz.
“The Fleeting Quiz is like the success story of a generation. I mean, it’s just all geek quizzes. It started off with the Star Wars Quiz on May the fourth, and that was rammed. And then they did Game of Thrones, and then Lord of the Rings. The Harry Potter one we had to do over two nights because three hundred people wanted to come. It was ridiculous.”
Alex and Brian weren’t really concerned with who used the space — as long as they weren’t being offensive or exclusive, people could do what they liked with it. And so, things happened. Things like:
‘Shatterfest is back! We thought it was dead after Stereo closed and there wasn’t anywhere in York where we could keep the same format with two stages running all day. Then The Fleeting Arms popped up!’ a group posted on an event’s Facebook page.
The Clandestine Cake Club wrote a blog: ‘A pop-up art space was the backdrop to our “Art Attack!” June event in York at The Fleeting Arms pub. Resident artist Katie Lou McCabe told us about her “liquid light” installation alongside willow sculptures, which opens to the public on Friday.’
‘It’s the final night of Obsidian tonight at The Fleeting Arms in York,’ a theatre group posted on Facebook. ‘It is a play. Tonight. About witches.’
Theatre productions, gigs, rehearsals, performances, exhibitions — experiments. The Fleeting Arms was a place where you could make and do what you wanted and share it with the city.
“This is an exhibition by a guy called Mario of Things Found and Made,” says Alex, pointing to the display of objects, prints, letters and photos tacked on the wall. “The stuff behind the bar is the tail end of an exhibition from a woman who was moving. She was a stonemason, and she couldn’t take her art with her, so she left it here for us to use. We had an illustration exhibition from a collective called DogEatCog before this.
“The amount of stuff that has gone on in The Fleeting Arms is incredible. People just used it and used it and used it — it’s been quite amazing that it has happened like that. Just by the goodness of people’s hearts and their imagination, and us being able to offer up a space without any financial restraint on it.”
The three floors of The Fleeting Arms have been free to use with the only request being a donation in return, by “whatever means they can.” Financial transparency has been at the core of The Fleeting Arm’s communal ethos, which Alex has published matter-of-factly on the blog.
‘We need to clear £1,500 per week over the bar,’ Alex wrote on the Monday after the launch weekend. ‘At 50% gross profit on each drink, that covers our running costs of approx £750pw. So, we need a good night like Friday night every week to help hit this target — one or two events a week which will pull folks in and have a good night at the bar. This weekend we banked £1,080 of which £700 came from opening night.’
Alex hired two general managers to help them run the pub for the six month tenancy, a role that has been taken over by The Flanagan Collective’s associate producer Jane Veysey. All the bar staff are paid living wage, and profit has otherwise gone back into keeping The Fleeting Arms open for the community.
“There’s a huge value, that I constantly underestimate, in giving people space, and there being available space,” says Alex. “The value of that is massive, especially if it’s space you can’t lose on. So if it costs you nothing to be here, then even if it really fucks up, you’re no worse off than you were before, which means more people can take risks. The value of being able to get things wrong, and being able to go and get it less wrong the next time, is huge.
“That’s no commendation to us,” he adds. “It’s just not charging people for things, and understanding that the value of something is greater than the financial return. I think that’s quite important, because that means that new stuff will happen, and new people will meet each other. People will have a daft idea, like, ‘we should do a Star Wars quiz,’ and then end up running it for seven months because other people really like it.”
On the 19th of September, Alex announced on the blog that The Fleeting Arms’ residency at 54 Gillygate would be extended by another three months. During that time there would be three more quizzes, A Rocky Horror Halloween party, more gigs and exhibitions, and The Great Gatsby show running for a full month from the third of December.
“It just seemed like such a shame to stop,” says Alex. “And the choice to stop was ours. I’m used to running things that last five weeks, so nine months is pretty long for my attention span. There will be new stuff to do, new stuff to run, and we’re out of the country for a while. A lot of things that we do are of a moment, and in that moment feel phenomenal, but when you try and do them again, say, three years later, it doesn’t feel the same.
“Ideally I’d love just to pass it on for someone to do something entirely different with. We’ll be closing with The Great Gatsby on New Year’s Eve, so that’s going to be a really good evening.”
He pauses. “And then yeah, it will be sad. We’ll have to take all our stuff out. And give the keys back. Which will be a shame. But it would be more of a shame to run something into the ground.”
We ask Alex how it feels to look back on it all.
“York is an ancient city, where a lot of people come to look at all the old stuff. And there is a lot of cool old stuff. But to know that there are this many people really wanting to make new stuff is nice. There’s not always a lot of money, or a lot of resources. But when you get given something to offer up to everyone else, and people then take it, run with it, and turn it into something far greater than you’d have done on your own, well, that’s amazing isn’t it?”
Originally published in The City Talking: York, issue 2