Anyone in the early stages of a theatrical career will be familiar with how daunting and frankly terrifying it all seems. Taking your first steps into the industry one can be hit so hard by the ambition (and competitiveness that goes with it), the insular society and the seeming lack of support that you may consider giving up and going home. Associate Director Lucy Morrison, however, assures me that the Almeida Festival is on event offering young companies nothing short of a haven.
From 2 to 28 July the Almeida Theatre in Islington – a celebrity of Fringe theatres – is opening itself and its audiences up to an adventurous theatrical experience, a festival of work from emerging companies making and thinking about theatre a little bit differently. Morrison is the first to say that the work shown in this festival is “not what the Almeida would normally present”. Often known for presenting brilliant new writing, the festival’s focus on “new work not new writing” (that which is process-led) is an attempt to introduce “a different culture of theatre making to our audiences”.
This of course raises questions – and possibly eyebrows. Isn’t it a risk for an established theatre with a safely established audience to start introducing something new? Morrison stresses the importance of established institutions to be “thinking about work in different ways [having] conversations about the way theatre is made and to never be stuck in a default position”. This is where talk of the Almeida Festival must surely prick up the ears of any young theatre maker, as Morrison goes on to emphasise the importance of the festival as an exchange. It’s a dialogue between a “fairly established company with a brand and a profile” wanting to share its expertise and resources with young companies but also to “talk to young theatre makers” and really listen to what they have to say.
Morrison acknowledges that there are some brilliant platforms for new theatre out there such as BAC and the Barbican, but that the Almeida sits somewhere in between these. It’s the role of the Almeida Festival, then, to help develop the work of those companies who are on the way to performing on these stages in a future years. So what does the Almeida Festival offer the emerging companies taking part? One major benefit is the support provided both in financial terms, and the production assistance and expertise of such a venue. The aim is for the artists to feel challenged whilst in a very supported environment, enabling them “take risks where they might not otherwise and reach higher heights” in their work. Then of course there’s the benefit of the Almeida literally and figuratively being a bigger stage, introducing the artists’ work to more audiences, partners and funding opportunities.
So what can the companies involved in the festival offer the Almeida and its audiences? Morrison enthuses about the passion every company involved has for the work it makes, and comments on how the Almeida will first develop significant relationships with companies before commissioning them to be part of the festival. The companies they are interested in getting to know are those for whom it is their “raison d’etre to make the work”. She cites Ben Duke, Artistic Director of Lost Dog – presenting It Needs Horses/Home For Broken Turns – as an example of this point. Duke formed Lost Dog after having trained as both actor and dancer and finding a gap between dance and the theatre world. The work made by Lost Dog is his specific calling; the Almeida Festival is not interested in those who have made a company “just as a stop gap for another job” but those who have “identified a gap that they need to make work in”.
Greyscale, which is presenting Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone, “came into being because they were bored of theatre”. There is a revitalising spirit behind the Almeida Festival, one that keeps the venue young and stops our theatre brains from falling asleep. There’s an educational side to it that is shown in two productions presented by Young Friends of the Almeida, The Mini Dream and Parallax. The Young Friends is the education department of the Almeida and Morrison doesn’t think people know enough about “how deep it goes”. Essentially it is a theatre company for young people that mirrors the exact set up of the Almeida company, offering participants a vital chance to gain hands-on experience of the theatre industry – so perhaps they won’t have so daunting an experience when they first step into it.
Another piece of work that Morrison is very enthusiastic about is Mass Observation from Inspector Sands – a company with a “very egalitarian way of making work where the traditional hierarchy of theatre making is torn up”. Mass Observation tackles the huge subject of the Mass Observation Archive set up in 1937 to chronicle everyday life. Morrison describes the production as “utterly charming and disarming” and shows amazement at how they are “biting off the head of a big theme but are able to bring such a gorgeously light touch to it”.
It is an appreciation of different ways of making, approaching and thinking about theatre that marks the Almeida Festival. The importance placed on relationships with young theatre makers certainly gives hope to those struggling with their first steps. However, Morrison also acknowledges how hard the companies involved have had to work for every hand-out and bit of support they’ve received. If you continue work whilst struggling through every pitfall and hardship then it seems support eventually is out there. The overpowering message of those behind the Almeida Festival seems to be to make the work you want to make and “absolutely believe in it”.
The festival runs until 28 July, presenting “a kaleidoscope of theatre for the culturally curious”. For more information on the shows and to book tickets, visit www.almeida.co.uk/festival-2012.
Image credit: It Needs Horses/Home for Broken Turns by Lost Dog