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Interview: Fun Palaces go back-to-basics. Co-director and founder Stella Duffy gets us connected.

Image credit: Stella Duffy


Ahead of their annual weekend of action (3-4 October), Annabelle Mastin-Lee spoke to Fun Palaces co-director and founder Stella Duffy about what we can expect from the events this year.

Annabelle Mastin-Lee: What is a Fun Palace?
Stella Duffy:
A Fun Palace is an opportunity for local people to connect with their neighbours by sharing a skill, a creative passion or an enthusiasm. It’s a way for people to come together using something they care about as a way to get to know each other.
 
Annabelle: With the ongoing crisis, how will things be different this year?
Stella:
In the past (Fun Palaces first annual weekend of action was in 2014), there have been Fun Palaces with 30 people, 300 people or even 3000 people. This year we are actively recommending that people make Tiny Fun Palaces if they are making them in real life and they have maybe 3 people attend. We are really pushing for people to remain socially distanced as it’s the connections that are made which are important. Yes, it was really nice when some were making Fun Palaces with loads of people, and I am sure we will do that again, but the concept has always been about connecting one to one. So, this year we are just going back to basics. If you happen to be making a Fun Palace at your front door, with two neighbours socially distanced, that still counts. Or if you happen to be in a carpark with five others learning dance moves, that still counts. While the majority are actual, there are many signing up to make Fun Palaces online and people can share their skills with as many as they want in this form from around the country. The ethos is still the same it’s about connecting - it’s a dialogue not a monologue.  

Annabelle: Are you doing anything differently to respond to current events?
Stella:
The main thing we’re doing is telling people that if they are doing Fun Palaces in real life it’s important to check with news and local boroughs about updates to the situation as you never know what could happen in a matter of days. Our advice to people is go ahead, but keep it tiny, keep informed, wear masks and remember that it’s about that one to one connection.


We also commissioned six artists of colour to create provocations based on the idea of tiny Fun Palaces and tiny revolutions of connection. Their responses have ranged from carpark opera to making tiny commitments to change to a film sharing the learning of BSL alphabet within the cityscape of Bristol – all work that anyone else could attempt, all work to inspire others to join in.
 

Image Credit: Photo by Roswitha Chesher.


Annabelle: Tell me about the London Fun Palaces, how many are there and in what areas?
Stella:
You can find your local Fun Palace on the map on our website. There are around 25 signed up in Greater London and we know there are also several that will confirm in the next few days so I would say we’ll likely have around 30 or more. Quite a few of the libraries who have worked with us like Blackheath are joining in but not in the same way they usually would, they are looking at outdoor activities or creativity packs that they’re sharing with their neighbours. This is hugely different from what the libraries usually do, where it is kind of a free-for-all with all sorts of people coming along sharing their skills. It’s nice to see that they are going hyper local instead, handing over creativity to the community which is something we’ve always carried in our ethos. In North London there’s the Clitterhouse Farm Project who are doing an outdoor, socially distanced Fun Palace which must be pre-booked in groups of no more than five. It’s really exciting to hear that people are still trying to go ahead and adapting. You can find all of these on the map on our website. Anyone in London could come along to the Fun Palaces, even mine as I’ve recently qualified as a yoga teacher and I’m also a writer. I find that yoga and writing go together really well so I’ve set up two half hour sessions just to give it a go. The great thing about the virtual Fun Palaces is Londoners aren’t restricted to the ones taking place in London. We have so many great opportunities like Flower for a Friend Fun Palace which is based in the Highlands, who are hosting an origami workshop online. We’re interested to see how people will compare their online experiences to the ones in real life.  
 
Annabelle: What can people expect from going along?
Stella:
As ever, have a look at the map just before you go/log on! We expect late sign ups, especially for a small Fun Palace but pre-book if you can for anything happening in real life, given the current circumstances. The main thing you can expect is to get to know a stranger or a neighbour a little bit better. Not all of us are extroverts who get to know others by just having a conversation, it can be quite daunting. Particularly after what has happened this year, it’s hard to know what we should talk to strangers about. Whereas, when a neighbour you don’t really know is teaching you something they care about, sharing ecological ideas or a hobby like crochet or a skill like storytelling, it is just such a nice way of connecting locally. You don’t have to engage in heavy conversations about Brexit or the effects of coronavirus, unless you want to. We are stunned by how many people are getting involved this year, we have almost 200 Fun Palaces on the map already. Back in March, a lot of other nationwide organisations had to cancel things, but we’ve always said it doesn’t matter if the event is tiny, it’s still a connection and it’s still coming together as a community. It’s also really exciting to see that a lot of people who haven’t done this before are signing up. In a way not having to worry about 300 people turning up may be quite freeing. By having so many new people signing up and giving it a go we’re succeeding in one of our main goals which is to support people to do more in their communities.  
 
Annabelle: How can readers get involved?
Stella:
Go to funpalaces.co.uk. Either check out the map to find a Fun Palace near you or online, or offer to share your own skill and click the make a Fun Palace button to sign up - you still have plenty of time!

We have always said that creativity happens in every community, but there isn’t always a light shone on it.  A lot of the people we work with aren’t the ones who get mentioned in the news, they’re just ‘ordinary’ people who are on the PTA, who like helping neighbours or who are active on their local WhatsApp. We want to shine a light on those people because they are so valuable to their community day in and day out. Fun Palaces are about celebrating those people, the ones who get on and do the work of connecting locally and contributing to community.

Stella Duffy is a novelist, theatremaker and founder/co-director of Fun Palaces. For more information, go to funpalaces.co.uk


Image Credit: Photo by Roswitha Chesher.

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