Being led up the stairs to through Theatre Delicatessen’s current building, Marylebone Gardens, is like being backstage of the biggest show you’ve never seen. Each corner of the building’s 45,000 square feet is being made use of, as artists’ studios, rehearsal spaces or in an immersive piece of theatre. Theatre Delicatessen – whose Artistic Directors, Roland Smith and Jess Brewster, I’m here to interview – have turned the former home of BBC Radio London into a temporary hub for the arts, ahead of the site’s redevelopment. And what a hub it is. Downstairs, a gallery is being constructed to host two exhibitions in the next few months. Last year it was a studio theatre. This is the type of space Theatre Delicatessen run – flexible and open to any artist with a bright idea.
In their adopted office, Smith and Brewster sit opposite me, their desks at right angles to each other and covered in power drills, laptops, and reams of paper. It’s a set up like an interrogation, though it’s the most affable interrogation you could imagine. We’re here to discuss Spaced 2014 – a festival of emerging theatre-makers that they host and produce at the Marylebone site. Smith tells me Spaced is “a marketplace of performance where the audience are free to haggle with performers”. Audiences will be plunged into the building’s depths, through a dance-hall and pop-up bar, to a stock-market site where they can see the current value of any one of the fifteen shows happening simultaneously in nearby rooms.
The ideas for these shows are still being drawn up, scribbled out, and revised as part of an intensive development process with Smith and Brewster. The performances fall under what Brewster calls the “immersive umbrella” – a pretty flexible, nifty little umbrella that is all about theatre in non-conventional theatrical spaces. As well as the artists’ shows, part of the idea of Spaced is to create a world where, Brewster says, “for every door [the audience] are brave enough to push open, they will find themselves in a different world”. The provocation for the artists Theatre Delicatessen is working with, and the idea behind the world of Spaced, from the artistic stock-market to each hidden corner, is the question, “is it worth it?”
At this point in time, audiences can haggle over include a Cornish apothecary shop where, for the right price, you can buy eternal youth, the cure for a lazy eye and, rumour has it, beauty itself; an auction of all the remnants of past relationships, from sordid sex post-it notes to a lonely hair on an ex’s used roll-on deodorant. Most intriguingly of all, there’s a video performance installation of the chicken and the egg set in a fertility clinic, where the audience rent white T-shirts, and a film of someone giving birth is projected onto it. It’s not been finalised yet, but then, “Lenny hasn’t given birth yet…”
To me, asking artists questions about the value of their art, and examining more generally how money shapes the theatrical experience, seems political. But when I ask them if they consider their work to be political, the free-flowing conversation falters and tenses. Brewster is quick to say that their work is “not consciously political in that way – we’re more focused on artists and their development”. The value question is “a provocation to see how they [their collaborators] respond”. It feels like a partial and inadequate answer. After a few mouthfuls of pauses and hesitations, Smith says, “the reason we’re not – we’re an unfunded company – and the reason we survive is by playing a fairly capitalist system. Shakespeare’s company weren’t called Shakespeare’s company, they were the King’s Men.”
They are still angry about arts funding cuts, but are self-consciously cautious about being outspoken. Perhaps it’s a consequence of their innovative business model, which relies on the goodwill of private companies, who give them the run of vacant sites before these sites are redeveloped. It’s a reciprocal exchange, but one in which they are the junior partner.
When the interview returns to more comfortable waters there is no doubting their integrity or their commitment to developing the work of new (not necessarily young) artists who struggle for opportunities to develop immersive or site-responsive work. Spaced is an iteration of a formula that received huge acclaim in 2010, as Theatre Souk, and in 2012, as Bush Bazaar. Only this time it’s bigger, brasher and more focused on creating long-term partnerships with the artists on display. Theatre Delicatessen is also working on expanding the charity side of its operation, expanding its artist development programmes and touring immersive theatre to regions. They’re stressed, overworked, underpaid, but most of all they are incredibly excited about taking immersive theatre to new audiences, with new artists on board too.
At its best, this type of work aspires to a sort of alchemy that Brewster admits to having first seen in as a kid in Starlight Express in the West End. She says it’s “a sense of wonder in the world”. Smith echoes this, talking of “an ephemeral moment between audience and performer which is kind of breath-taking when you do it well”. With such a range of shows, some of which are unbearably intimate, you could think that Spaced is almost a mechanism for making sure that kind of immersive magic happens. It is, but it is also, Brewster says, “a space for emerging artists to get it horribly wrong”. Smith grins, “…or horribly right”. If I was a gambling man, I’d have my money on the latter.
The work that arises from Spaced will be shown between 18 and 22 March. For more information on Theatre Delicatessen and Spaced, visit the website.
Photo from last year’s SOUK Festival.