History of the Arches

Underground resistance

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The Arches is 15 years old and plenty of people are celebrating, but getting here has been a rollercoaster ride. Andrew Richardson digs about in the mouldy old basements of the organisation’s past.

The look on Andy Arnold’s face suggests he’s more than a little bit gob-smacked to be sitting in his dapper office, in what could only be described as the cockpit of The Arches, talking about how an idea sparked over 15 years ago has led to an arts, club and live music behemoth. Down below us an enthusiastic team of staff buzz about like worker bees, laying the foundations for five furious weeks of forthcoming activities. With a nod to the venue’s punk spirit and anarchic past, they’ve dubbed the celebrations Fifteen Years, Two Fingers, a sentiment which ought to resonate with more than just the thespians and clubbers who’ve been dragged up at The Arches over the past decade and a half.

In 2006, The Arches ranks among the best multi-purpose arts spaces in Europe. Within its portals you can catch mind-altering physical theatre, swaggering indie heroes-on-the-make, esoteric world music legends and the odd globe-trotting DJ. On certain nights you could quite easily find yourself in thrall to all of the above. With 65,000 square feet of space, encompassing six massive arches, three bars, the studio theatre and the Playroom - not forgetting the half-dozen rehearsal spaces in the basement - The Arches is big enough, the staff keen and skilled enough to pull off the most ambitious multi-tasking.

‘It all started with a love of theatre, not commerce. No other venue has achieved or maintained credibility in the same way. Andy Arnold has a safe pair of hands, but he’s not scared to look, listen, or hand over the reins to the mad people on a regular basis.’ Ian Smith, co-director of veteran performing arts troupe Mischief La Bas.

So, how did these mouldy old Victorian railway caverns become such a vital hub for performing arts and entertainment? And how has the tiny production team managed to make so much happen so consistently for so long, often without as much as a speck of dust from the council’s purse - and all on a not-for-profit basis?

Rewind 15 years, and the place looked (and smelled) a bit different. Glasgow was buoyant after winning European City Of Culture in 1990; public money had poured into the city for various large-scale projects. One of these, a temporary exhibition called Glasgow’s Glasgow, led to the unused support arches under Central Station being converted. When everything was ripped out, the infrastructure of a public building remained: toilets, emergency exits, rudimentary lighting.

At that time there was no small-scale performance space in the centre of Glasgow; theatre happened under the proscenium archways of the Tron, the Citizen’s and the King’s. Enter stage left, Andy Arnold, his CV steeped in what he describes as ‘community and street art’, running Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh for five years and directing London’s Bloomsbury Theatre for another three.

‘At the time I was fighting to get a couple of thousand quid together just to get fire alarms and a theatre licence,’ remembers Arnold today. ‘I came back to Scotland because I got fed up with London. I was running a big theatre and I didn’t get any pleasure out of it. From an artistic point of view I didn’t like producing work on a big stage - I’d been in a little black box space at Theatre Workshop. In fact, when I tried to get the keys for this place, my aim was to open the perfect small pub theatre.’

The then Glasgow Development Agency agreed to pay the company’s rent for a year, while they sub-let the space on a lower rate, putting on small-scale productions and buying the time to find a way of making The Arches work. ‘During that year we didn’t come up with an answer,’ says Arnold, ‘but near the end we had Alien War, a large-scale installation visitor attraction, and then started the club nights with Café Loco.’

That was May 1992. Arnold was approached by Pedro McShane and Dave Clarke, who were running Slam at the Subclub. McShane recalls ‘I was looking for a venue to host a showcase event and I stumbled across The Arches. The space blew me away.’ McShane, Clark and Peter Irvine proposed to run a weekly club night as a vehicle for Slam on Fridays. Arnold agreed, on the condition that they assist him running Café Loco, an experiment in bringing theatre to clubbers, on Saturdays.

Slam’s rent, and Café Loco in its entirety, proved the lifeblood of the theatre company at this embryonic stage. Eight years ago, Friday Nights with Slam morphed into a massive monthly night, Pressure, which regularly pulls crowds of up to 3000 as well as the biggest DJs in the world. However, Café Loco was, by all accounts, another proposition altogether.

‘It was a zany kind of cabaret carry-on nonsense that we did,’ remembers Colin McCredie (DC Fraser in STV’s Taggart), at the time a drama student in Glasgow and regularly employed at the club alongside performance troupe Mischief La Bas. ‘Some of us in our final year did mad stuff every Saturday night: me, Tony Curran (now working in Hollywood, recently in Miami Vice and Red Road) and Paul Blair (recently in NTS’ Realism). I remember one time we made a suit of toast. We got a hundred pieces of toast and sewed them together and then put butter and jam on it. And we’d be running round the club giving people things. We used to get 20 quid, two places on the guest-list and a free pint. It was great fun to be involved with something like that as a student.’

McCredie went on to star in Arnold’s production of Glengarry Glenn Ross in 1994. At that time the theatre company was organised strictly on a profit-share basis, revenue from the clubs barely paying the rent. ‘You got no wage as such,’ explains McCredie, ‘just 60 quid cash in your hand every week. It was up-and-coming ?" you went because you loved the work. It was Andy Arnold’s troupe of different people. But it was a very grubby place. There were no showers. It had a real guerrilla feel which made it very special.’

And so it has been ever since. The clubs - massive nights Inside Out and Colours joining Pressure in 1995 and 1996 - have grown bigger; and as they grow, they make more money for theatre. Rent, door tax, bar takings, in fact, any profit at all, is reinvested into the arts programme. Your cloakroom pound funds an exhibition from an emergent local artist; the price of a pint helps fly an experimental musician from Japan to Glasgow. In 2001, using Lottery funding, the company knocked through the arches to their new entrance on Argyle Street, opening up a café/bar/restaurant wing downstairs.

Somehow The Arches still maintains that ‘guerrilla’ edge, though. As well as an adept arts administrator and shrewd media manipulator, Arnold is clearly a svengali who succeeds in inspiring those who work with him. Among the youthful team currently running the venue, theatre programmer Jackie Wylie (who Arnold describes as a ‘theatrical soul-mate’) and live music and clubs programmer Joe Splain are both overflowing with enthusiasm. As she waxes lyrical about the forthcoming programme for Arches LIVE (an annual showcase of new theatre talent), Wylie expounds her dream for the venue’s future. ‘People should always have a good time when they come and see a show here,’ she says. ‘It ought to be like a really good rock’n’roll night out. We’re in a unique position to provide that; because of all the clubs and live music, audiences definitely expect something different when they come here.’

Arnold himself continues to be inspired by the possibilities of the building. He’s staged large-scale promenade productions - Beowulf, an adaptation of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the recent version of Dante’s Inferno ?" and much smaller experimental theatre. His latest work, Spend A Penny, keeps both the audience and the cast to eight, and is staged in the club toilets.

‘We’re going to charge them a penny to go and see it, which from all points of view is ludicrous really,’ he says. ‘When we began, I was much more conventional, I suppose, even though the theatre we put on was irreverent and off the wall ?" deconstructing theatre. Nonetheless, it was always in a straightforward performance space with an audience sitting there.’

Theatre at The Arches doesn’t stop at the in-house productions. Clyde Unity, Raindog, Wise Guys, Vox Motus, Theatre Babel, Suspect Culture and Scottish darlings of location-specific theatre Grid Iron all started at The Arches or produced early work there while developing an audience. With free access to rehearsal rooms downstairs, many a simmering talent has grabbed the opportunities available with both hands, gaining the venue’s full support and a chance to try out new ideas on-stage.

One such company is Edinburgh’s Highway Diner, which produces bold experiments in what Arnold describes as ‘total, non-narrative, visual theatre’ and currently hold a residency there. Co-director Laura Cameron-Lewis explains why they enjoy working at The Arches. ‘It’s very difficult for artists at the beginning of their professional careers to contest with established methods of working and access institutions,’ she says. ‘Usually, by their very nature, institutions assess quality according to standardised parameters. The Arches is different. The freedom offered there is exactly what artists need, at ANY stage in their career.’

‘There’s an atmosphere at The Arches that I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anywhere else, a kind of frenetic, demented goodwill.’

Sandy Thomson, artistic director, Poorboy theatre company

At the heart of The Arches’ philosophy is a willingness for projects to be unsuccessful. If no one ever takes any risks, if no one is ready ever to fall over, then the pond becomes stagnant and all creativity just dries up. ‘We champion the right to fail here. That can be liberating and is necessary to move things forward and create better work,’ says LJ Dodd, who curates the exhibitions. ‘It’s also a nurturing environment ?" there’s an open-house kind of ease. Companies can pop into the office and chat and get advice rather than feeling detached from the venue. There’s something for everyone, too: the other day I walked out into the exhibition space and saw three boys aged about 13, in caps and trackies, who’d come on their own specifically to see the graffiti exhibition.’

Of course, when most people in Scotland think of The Arches, they think of top class clubbing and lots of sweat. Not without reason was this building ranked in the top ten club venues in the world by dance music bible DJ Magazine this year. Talk to anyone who’s ever lost themselves to the techno at Pressure, flailed under the hard dance at Inside Out, got dolled up for the glamorous house of Colours, or crimped their hair before Glasgow’s Saturday night destination du jour, Death Disco, and you get an inkling of why this venue is so important to clubbers.

‘12 or 13 years ago, Stuart Clumpus, founder of DF Concerts, said that The Arches had to decide what it wanted to be ?" a club, a concert hall, a theatre, or what,’ says Arnold. ‘We still, and quite deliberately, haven’t made up our minds, and I think that’s the key to what we’re about. Anything’s possible, really.’

Fifteen Years, Two Fingers, a celebration of The Arches including club nights, theatre, music and art, is at The Arches, Glasgow, from Thu 21 Sep-Mon 30 Oct. www.thearches.co.uk

April 1991
Andy Arnold receives the keys to the space under Central Station from British Rail.

May 1991
The Arches opens for the first time with Arches Theatre Company production Noise and Smoky Breath, as part of Mayfest. The production wins the Herald Spirit of Mayfest award and a much-needed prize of £500.

May 1992
Cafe Loco and Friday Night With Slam kick-start the Arches as a club venue.

July, 1992
Sci-fi visitor attraction Alien War runs for seven months and, with the clubs, helps pay the rent.

October 1993
ATC moves into promenade theatre with Metropolis: The Theatre Cut, an adaptation of Fritz Lang’s influential 1922 film.

September 1995
The launch of superclub Cream, the first of the clubs to use the whole building. 5000 people queued outside on the first night, and 1750 made it in.

October 1996
Cream morphs into Inside Out, one of the Arches’ longest running, biggest noisiest, messiest clubs.

November 1996
The National Review of Live Art starts its nine-year Arches run.

February 1997
Daft Punk make their first British appearance at Friday Night With Slam, soon to become hotbed of hedonism Pressure.

October 1998
ATC presents the Scottish premiere of I Licked A Slag’s Deodorant by Jim Cartwright.

February 1999
Catwalks run across the venue in all directions, as Intervention - the first large-scale Scottish designer fashion show - takes to the catwalks at the Arches.

January 2001
After a £3.7 million Lottery award, a year of building work and five years of planning, the newly refurbished Arches, with Argyle Street entrance and adjacent cafe bar, is officially opened.

April 2001
The launch of the Arches Award for Stage Directors, which offers emergent directors the chance to stage a fully-funded production.

June 2001
A bumper month for superstar DJs, as Paul Oakenfold plays Colours, Felix Da Housecat plays Pressure and Judge Jules plays Inside Out.

November 2001
The first ever Instal (the Arches’ own experimental music festival) is a lo-fi one-day event.

2002
The visiting theatre programme is channeled into festivals, with the launch of the Arches Theatre Festival (March) and Arches LIVE!, a festival of new work by emergent companies in October.

November 2002
The birth of Death Disco at the Arches.

October 2003
Soma Records run Soma Skool, and 500 young people turn up to learn how to get into the music industry.

October 2004
Jandek plays a surprise set at Instal: his first-ever live appearance in a 25-year career.

December 2004
ATC moves into uncharted waters with The Little Mermaid, the first ever Arches event aimed at young children.

February 2005
Beckett - the Basement Tapes - first theatre promenade show to use the basement spaces.

February 2005
Mylo and the Arches stage a benefit club night for Tsunami relief and raise over £2000.

April 2005
Derevo premiere Ketzal at the Arches Theatre Festival, and Davey Anderson’s Snuff wins the Arches Award for Stage Directors.

November 2005
TEAM, Highway Diner, and Pauline Goldsmith take part in the first Arches Scratch night.

January 2006
Our 15th anniversary year kicks off with Dante’s Inferno - a cast of 100 sinners take audiences on a promenade piece through every crevice of the building. Slam provide the soundtrack.

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