Origins of Chats Palace

Adapted from ‘Community Art an Anthropological Perspective’ by Kate Crehan, 2011 

Up to this point (early 1970’s) virtually all of Free Form’s events were primarily geared to children. Increasingly, however, partly as a result of their experience of the fun festivals, adults began asking for events designed for them. This brief would, through Free Form’s collaboration with Alan Rossiter, lead to the creation of an arts centre aimed at adults rather than children.

A year or two after graduating from the Chelsea Arts School, Rossiter began work as the senior play leader at the GLC-funded Hackney Marsh Adventure Playground. He first came across Free Form when he visited Stratford Fair. This led Rossiter to involve them in a large-scale fireworks show he organized at the playground. He and Free Form then collaborated to organize a fun festival, the Hackney Marsh Fun Festival (HMFF), in which the neighbourhood children from the adventure playground played a prominent role.

The HMFF itself, as happened with several of the neighbourhood festivals, became a regular event with its own organizing committee, chaired by Mike Gray, a prominent activist and local historian. In HMFF’s third year, Gray was approached by a local social worker, Joe Noble, who asked if the HMFF Committee was interested in joining an effort by local people to turn a disused library in Homerton into a centre serving a range of local community groups. The Committee, which was already looking for a place to hold regular meetings and a more permanent venue for its growing programme of events, was very much interested, and a joint campaign was launched to persuade Hackney Council to allow the library to be transformed into an arts centre. The council finally agreed and in 1976 the library, renamed Chats Palace, was reborn as an arts centre.

The centre was used by a wide range of community groups, including Free Form and HMFF. It was run by a management committee made up of representatives of the different groups and chaired by Gray. A small grant from GLAA funded a programme of live arts events and paid the salary of a festival coordinator for the first year. This coordinator was Rossiter – the title artistic director, as he explained, would have been considered too hierarchical – and he took the idea of play, albeit geared to adults rather than children, to the new venue.

During its first year, Free Form ran a series of workshops. They also worked with the Management Committee to secure a grant from a government job-creation scheme, which over the course of the next year paid for the transformation of the library into a functioning arts centre. Over the years, further grants were secured, and Chats has now been operating for more than thirty years.

At a time when many arts centres were being established, this one was unusual in that it originated in the demand of a working-class audience. All the Chats Palace live events were rooted in the local community, both in their subject matter and in their performers, many of whom were local residents.

To open Chats Palace, for instance, Rossiter and Free Form devised The Hackney Show, a theatre performance telling the story of Hackney. Martin Goodrich describes how they ‘went round all the community centres in the Hackney area doing this show and then inviting people to come to Chats Palace to see the show and then at the end asked them to be the creators of the next show’. A whole series of productions, most notably an annual lavish Christmas show, were created in this way, with Free Form organizing workshops for volunteers in which the new show would be developed. The substantive role of local people in creating the shows themselves, rather than simply serving as spectators, makes this endeavour very different from that of even such avowedly populist theatre groups as Littlewood’s.

Joan Littlewood’s aspiration for a People’s Palace played a role in the naming of the new venue, however. It was Michael Gray who came up with the name Chats Palace; he picked it partly, according to Rossiter, because it resonated with Littlewood’s People’s Palace and partly as a tribute to the Palace cinema that had once existed on Chatsworth Road. The general thinking behind the naming of the new venue gives a good idea of the spirit of the place and the determination that it should be somewhere working-class people would identify with and to which they would want to go. This is how Goodrich remembers it:

[The library] was on Chatsworth Road…Alan [Rossiter] was always saying, ‘Well, when I was a kid, I used to go to the local Palace…it was like’ “Yeah, the Palace, let’s go to the Palace!”’ Magical name. Glitter! A ‘good night out’ feeling rather than ‘the community centre’, which you knew that people were going to go, ‘Well, I don’t want to go there – it’s full of social workers!’ So it was called Chats Palace; it was definitely marketing itself along the line of ‘it’s a place of entertainment’, it’s like Caesar’s Palace.