London’s Yard Theatre is well into its second year of operation over in Hackney Wick and has rapidly become a thriving hub of theatre, music, dance and of course, cocktails. If you’ve tried to visit over the past week or so, you’ll have learnt that this reclaimed and recycled theatre space has become a casualty of the Olympics – but this is most definitely a temporary state, as it’s back at the weekend with its usual nights of music and dancing followed by some pretty exciting theatre shows. Deputy Artistic Director Tarek Iskander tells me about the theatre’s dedication to producing new work that feels honest, trying to remove the financial barriers that prevent so much work getting off the ground and truly creating a home for new work in the capital.
From where did the idea for the theatre come?
Jay Miller (Artistic Director) conceived it; it’s his baby. He had grown frustrated that there weren’t really spaces in London that were looking to programme the kind of work he wanted to make – that experimented with form and narrative structure and didn’t really fit into a simple box like ‘new writing’ or ‘classics’. Moreover, most fringe venues charge exorbitant hire fees (typically £1500+ per week), which is a serious barrier to most emerging artists. So he, quite rightly, wanted to create a venue that challenged this artistically damaging financial model.
How did you get involved?
I was introduced to Jay via a mutual friend in 2011. We had a rather pleasant meeting in the sun outside the British Library, where he was chewing on some sandwiches (and didn’t offer me any though!) He was just meeting lots of directors to get advice and gauge whether there was really a demand for such a space.
I must confess, I approached the meeting rather tentatively. Half the directors in London always talk about opening a space and never get anywhere near achieving it. But I was impressed by both Jay, and his wonderful vision for the space – and left our first meeting feeling that this was something that was a good idea, and might actually happen. So I started off by offering my support and slowly but surely our relationship developed from there. And I’m glad it has, as it’s easily been one of the most satisfying and remarkable projects I’ve ever been involved in.
Can you describe the theatre?
First and foremost, we wanted The Yard to be a space truly run and designed forby artists. We are all working directors and know what it’s like to work in a great space that encourages your vision – and the frustrations of working in the opposite.
The Yard is radical in that it goes to great lengths to remove the financial barriers to artists making work on the fringe. So from the outset, companies are able to make the work they want to make, and take risks along the way, because they are not financially burdened before they’ve even started. Moreover, we’ve also insisted on making our theatre as accessible as possible to our audience by keeping our prices low – tickets never go over £10 and are often as low as £4.
We’ve also made our space constantly available to local theatre groups, artists and performers to exhibit their work, free of charge to both them and their audiences. Hence, The Yard has quickly become a much treasured feature of the local cultural landscape.
I remember describing our proposed financial model to a few colleagues and the answer was always the same – you’ll be bankrupt in a few weeks. But we haven’t gone bankrupt, quite the opposite. Of course we’ve benefited from enormous generosity from others to make this possible, not least the owners of the warehouse, Pearl and Coutts, who lent us their space for free. But I hope that The Yard proves that a new kind of way or working, (that doesn’t involve impoverished artists handing over large sums of money to venues, or relies on enormous amounts of government subsidy), is not only possible – it can be a key driver for success.
Is there a particular focus or theme to programming?
We wanted to programme work that was risk-taking, experimented with text or narrative structure, or took classic stories or plays and reinvented them in new ways. We were also interested in pieces that dealt with the theme of ‘impermanence’ because in many ways, that reflected the unique, temporary architecture of our space. But as guidelines go, that church was very broad and we’ve ended up with a hugely varied programme that has embraced a new Opera, dance pieces, newly devised works, adaptations of Shakespeare and Greek classics, and so on. I’m very proud of the breadth of our programme. Some pieces have been short ‘one man shows’ while others have been epics with large casts. The beauty of The Yard’s stage is that it is architecturally generous to productions of all sizes – and feels flexible enough to serve many different forms of storytelling.
There is clearly a huge demand for making the kind of work we are interested in and the financial package we are offering. We advertised for open submissions and received over 250 submission in a fortnight, many more than we were administratively set up to cope with. We interviewed over 50 artists and companies to develop our programme.
It’s always interesting how programming decisions are made. In the end, you can have all the guidelines in the world, or think you know what you want your theatre to be about, but at the end of the day, what attracted me personally the most to particular artists, was that they had something meaningful, honest and personal to say. For me the subconscious contract was ‘ok, we will take a punt on you, even if you haven’t got much experience or track record, and we’ll put you in our theatre and give you rehearsal space, and not even interfere much in how you make your work – but the quid pro quo is we want you to really take some risks, don’t hold back even if it might not work, and really EXPOSE yourself in your work.’ That’s the thing that matters most to me and the thing that I’m most proud of when I see any show at The Yard. Clearly, by the very nature of what we’ve programmed, some pieces have worked better than others, but whatever the show, you can see directors and performers have really cared about their work, have been bold in their decisions, and have not shirked from exposing what is personal and important to them. That’s why I think audiences have loved our programme so much – because no matter what it is, it feels ‘alive’ on stage. At that only comes with artists and performers being honest about who they are and what they have to say, even though that can be very hard to do. The shows have all been very brave in that way – and only by being brave can you really touch other people.
It feels like the Yard is establishing itself as a place for emerging artists.
Artists are really a varied bunch and do come to their professions at very different stages in life – but ‘emerging’ is a good word. Saying that, we have had some very experienced theatre makers come through our building and make some great work. But yes, I know for a fact that without our way of working, some artists we’ve programmed would never, and I mean never, have got their remarkable work made, and audiences would never have ventured to an abandoned warehouse in Hackney Wick to see their work.
You know, I think this issue of financing is really very serious. It’s very hard for emerging and directors and companies to make work in London unless their lucky enough to be born into money. I know many directors who scrape at menial jobs for months to save enough money to make their pieces. This has two negative outcomes. The first is there becomes an enormous pressure to create something that is either commercially successful or outstanding enough to get them paid work at a bigger theatre. Neither of these pressures is conducive to making good work. Moreover, it often means directors can only afford to make one or two pieces a year – which is a terrible way to develop your skills. We are in serious danger of creating a theatrical landscape that only produces work that consists solely of classics, or commercially safe options, or controversial ‘new writing’ that will guarantee some press. But where is the room for unique and individual voices that don’t fit these pigeon holes? The issues are obviously complicated and are driven by the uncontrolled cost of property in London, and general lack of government subsidy. But with such a context, is it any surprise that (and I know this is a contentious statement) that our London fringe theatre scene is often considered dull and inferior to that of much of the rest of Europe?
Has there been funding assistance for the project?
We’ve had very little, but what we’ve had has been invaluable. The Arts Council gave us £10,000 and Tower Hamlets gave us £1,200. That’s all the money we had to set this up. And of course Pearl and Coutts kindly gave us their warehouse for free. But our incredible theatre, bar and café were built by Practice Architecture using reclaimed and recycled materials including offcuts from the Olympic Park for less than £7,000. I am still gobsmacked by how much has been achieved, starting with so little.
So you try to exist beyond the usual boundaries: money, programming constraints.
That lies at the very heart of our ethos. We make all our money in the bar and the café and hence can keep our ticket prices low and make our spaces as freely available as possible to artists. And we’ve made it work. But it’s worth saying that we’ve absolutely relied on the generosity of others to make this viable and our hardworking, committed staff who earn a very low wage. But even if it’s not sustainable in the longer term without more funding, making it work for three and half months, when most people thought it was impossible, feels like a huge achievement.
It’s also worth saying that The Yard is certainly not unique in this. There are remarkable companies and venues up and down the country who are also trying to make interesting work on a shoestring budget and finding ever-more innovative ways of doing so. It’s very important that their superb and selfless work is recognised and championed by the press and are warmly supported by audiences, as it’s the life-blood of our future theatrical landscape.
How has the local community responded?
Brilliantly! I think they feel it’s their own. Hackney and Tower Hamlets are areas undergoing great change because of the Olympics, not all of it welcome. But by opening our doors to the local community, inviting them to use our facilities as much as possible, by being transparent that we haven’t got a lot of money and are just sweating buckets to make it all work, they seem to have embraced us. We want to do more, and work harder to be part of local community, but it is definitely happening. These days, people are constantly coming in asking us what our future plans are and imploring us to stay open. That’s the most rewarding part of all – to feel cherished by the people who live there. A theatre can only exist if it is truly owned by its neighbours.
Is it this that makes the theatre unique?
You know, I was having this chat with Jay the other day and I said that what I love most about The Yard is that it really is a ‘giving’ organisation. Despite its modest means, it’s a place that bends over backwards to try to make everything possible for its artists and its audiences – and tries to say ‘yes’ much more than it says ‘no’. The entire team is just brilliant in this regard, and that general generosity of spirit is seared into the the DNA of the building now.
And the remarkable thing about being a ‘giving’ organisation that rarely asks for much in return, is that you actually end up receiving back much more than you can possibly offer. I’m always astounded by the help we’ve received: the volunteers who give their time unstintingly, the talented or important artists who’ve come in and manned our box office when we’re short, the great staff who work tirelessly despite the low pay, the generosity of our landlords and those many organisations who have lent us their spaces to rehearse in. And so on, and so on. The Yard really is a place that has asked for very little, and received back so much more than we expected.
If The Yard is proof of anything, I think it is proof that our society is so rich in ways that can’t be counted in money.
The Yard Theatre reopens at the weekend with its usual Friday and Saturday nights of music, food, cocktails and dancing. If you’re missing the Olympics on your screens after that, the theatre shows A Progress until 1 September. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.yardtheatre.co.uk.
Image credit: Yard Theatre