how to run a DIY arts centre

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The Independent Culture
One summer's day in 1992, Simon Thackray went out into the garden at the back of his cottage, looking for something to photograph. He needed an image for a poster advertising a charity concert he was organising in his local village hall. "I started taking pictures of my shed door and suddenly found myself saying 'The Shed Presents'. It fitted perfectly." And thus The Shed was born: a new concept in performance space; a bright and bouncing ideal of creative community; a one-man arts centre in deepest North Yorkshire.

Three years on, Simon Thackray's wooden shed door has become the symbol of a determination to bring to the small Ryedale village of Brawby the sort of performers which make major urban venues lick their lips. During that time, he has squeezed some big names into an assortment of local halls. The first was the singer Labi Siffre, who returns this weekend to join scores of poets including Liz Lochead, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. Along the way, there have been the likes of folk duo Waterson Carthy, circuit oddball John Otway and even veteran barn-stormer, Tony Benn MP.

All of them performed in front of said shed door, which is taken off its hinges and carried by Thackray to every gig. The door appears tongue- in-cheekily on promotion leaflets with an old hub cap nailed to its centre like a polo mint halo, posing as a life-raft, or adopting coy behind-changing- scene/crucifixion poses (right). "It's both a prop audiences can enjoy and a marketing gimmick," Thackray explains. "It's also a bitch to carry - my own spiritual burden."

Although he has learned how to sell The Shed to the outside world, Thackray believes it is his Evangelical zeal that has helped most. A Christian by conversion and artist by inclination, he used to spend his spare time sculpting and drawing in his shed. "I was going slightly crazy and started wanting to do something for the place I lived in. My friends always used to say, 'nothing ever happens here', but no one ever did anything about it."

Making things happen involved not only personal financial commitments and copious amounts of performer-chasing, but also hiring PAs, bars and turning his house into an overnight hotel for the stars. "It's been a roller- coaster ride. Tickets can only cover half the cost, so you have to go through several financial pain barriers, tear your hair out with worry and plead constantly for sponsorship and funding," the 35-year-old says chirpily.

Finding performers is no longer a problem. Some initially worked for nothing and many are happy to return to venues where they can stand inches away from the front row. Although his efforts have finally been recognised by Ryedale District Council and Yorkshire and Humberside Arts (who are funding this year's pounds 35,000 turnover), he still has to win over the village in which his family has lived for the last two centuries. "I probably only get 10 people from Brawby coming during the year," he sighs. "There was Mrs King, who was 78 and turned up regularly with her Zimmer-frame - but sadly she died."

With around half the audience coming from outside Ryedale, Thackray believes he has brought together a far-flung community of like-minded people. "On one level, The Shed is unique, but the community that has grown around it can evolve anywhere."

Thackray dreams of expansion: more gigs and more ventures like his "What's Five Minutes?" slot, a warm-up act encouraging audience creativity. This has so far included a nun lecturing on art therapy and the entire audience being asked to draw a picture of "my mum" before a Brian Patten gig. If his ambitions occasionally seem over-reaching (a pedal-power-generated gig; a trilogy of dramatic monologues by the poet Ian McMillan about Elvis Presley living in Pickering), they stem from an imagination that grander arts administrators would probably give their entire budgets to possess. "You can go to Waterstone's for a reading," he says with intensity, "but by God let's listen to poetry with beer and candles and good vibes. Let's have some real life for a change."


The Shed Poetry Festival, 22-24 Sept, Brawby, Malton, North Yorkshire (info: 01653 668494)