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Feature: The Faction – “a very European approach to running a theatre company”

Posted on 11 October 2013 by Conori Bell-Bhuiyan

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Mark Leipacher is one of The Faction. This may sound like the name of a shady secret society, but in fact, The Faction is a London-based ensemble theatre company exploring and revitalising classic texts, and performing them in its own style with a unique approach. Mark Leipacher is the Artistic Director of all of this. I recently had the chance to speak with him, catching a quick interview in the days after the company’s fifth birthday celebration, and he told me what The Faction is all about, and its slightly different way of approaching UK theatre.

“What we’re looking to do is build a permanent ensemble. We aren’t the only ensemble theatre company in the UK by any stretch of the imagination, but the idea of having a home venue with a rolling repertoire of shows that stay there… it’s much more like the way opera companies work in the UK, not so much how theatre companies typically work.” From what Leipacher tells me, this is a very European approach to running a theatre company, and one more and more young companies in the UK are starting to pick up on, if not quite with the same conviction as The Faction: “A lot more theatre companies now are moving towards the way European theatre companies are run, but I don’t know of any other companies that have that idea as part of their vision – their core values… or are quite as interested in that European model the same way as The Faction is.”

Part of this vision is that The Faction will have a permanent base to host its growing repertoire, and for now that base is the New Diorama Theatre. Leipacher’s relationship with New Diorama began in 2010, when The Faction preformed what is now one of its repertoire pieces – Robbers – at the theatre. From featured artists, it quickly moved up to become one of New Diorama’s associate ensembles, to Leipacher’s delight. The theatre’s support for new theatre companies, both artistically and in the more practical terms of marketing and press, has given The Faction a freedom and ease of working that opens up opportunities that other theatre company’s can only dream of. Leipacher agrees: “Few theatres would give that amount of time to a small company… it’s a very rare relationship. They [New Diorama] are absolutely fantastic in all that they do.”

To me, a theatre company staying pretty much in one place and playing the same shows time again sounds like it could get a tad dull, but Leipacher is quick to talk me round to the idea. “It allows the audience to have a much longer association with the company. I mean, members of our audience follow actors though to see them perform different roles in different plays, that can be really exciting for an audience – people feel like they can have a dialogue and a connection to a company on a long-term basis that you don’t really get with other theatre companies. Some people might follow star actors around – like a fan base!” And this goes not just in terms of watching the shows, but directing and performing them as well – an ensemble company such as The Faction can build stronger bonds, and come to trust each other to experiment with new things. “It’s very good for directors and other creatives to have the framework of the context of the company in which to explore their ideas… it cuts out a lot of the groundwork of having to meet and greet, and getting to know people, so you can just hit the ground running and, by and large, create high quality work straight away. ”

And that quality work will all bear the unique Faction flavour, a flavour born of Leipacher’s self-confessed passion for classic texts – although his definition of ‘classic’ may not be the same as yours. “We’re always questioning what is a classic text, and I don’t think it always relates to time period, it’s must more about the… epic quality and universal themes of very human stories.” Another Faction hallmark is the company’s very raw way of performing – few props, a stripped back stage and a very physical theatre dynamic. It’s a very robust and visceral style of performance, and one that’s bond to make an impact.

Leipacher ended out interview with a word of advice for anyone else out there with an idea for a theatre company. “I think the only advice really is to make your work. Go and do it. If you have an idea and you’re passionate about it… find a way of making it happen. On whatever sort of budget and whatever sort of scale, and with people who share your passion for it. Just go and do it.”

For more information about The Faction, visit the company’s website.

 

 

Conori Bell-Bhuiyan

Conori Bell-Bhuiyan

Conori Bell-Bhuiyan is a student and arts and culture blogger from Manchester. She wants to end up working as a journalist somewhere warm, and she loves anything artsy, off-beat or slightly wacky.

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Spotlight On: Unicorn Theatre

Posted on 08 August 2012 by Holly O'Mahony

Purni Morell, new Artistic Director of Britain’s largest children’s theatre – the Unicorn Theatre – is far from crumbling under the pressure of such a role, or the task of ensuring the Unicorn raises the £500,000 it needs each year to keep on running. In fact, when I caught up with her, Morell explained she is expanding the age range that the theatre caters for, to incorporate the interests of those aged between 2 – 21, making sure there is a show to suit everyone’s taste.

“The Unicorn is in a unique position as a large, purpose built theatre for young audiences. We put on productions for young people from ages 2 – 21, and this means we put on a broad programme of work, so that any person who has an interest in the Unicorn, be that a mother of a two-year-old, or a 14-year-old coming to town for the first time on his/her own, or a teacher of Year Seven, we’ll have something that is aimed at that particular group of people, once every month or so.” Morell is convinced, however, that through such expansion of age range, nothing will be spoilt or lost in terms of what this theatre specialises in. “What makes the Unicorn special are the shows, and the Unicorn lives and dies by the shows that are on, and each show that’s on will be wonderful in its own right.”

Morell is keen not to make the building one that is preserved in assets, as she believes theatre should be seen as a contemporary art form. “What I’m very keen to do is to encourage regular visits, because the thing about theatre that is so interesting is that it comes in many, many forms, from the big sorts of shows that you see at Christmas, to the much smaller intimate shows which invite you to look very carefully at a particular problem.”

Hoping to make the Unicorn a go-to place, Morell wants young audiences to find it a venue in which they feel absolutely welcome. This, she believes, would allow them to develop a language and opinion about all the different kinds of performance that exist. “The arts aren’t taught as part of the mainstream in most schools and so it could be quite intimidating, regardless of what age you are. If you go to the theatre once, you may or may not like it, but if you don’t have the chance to speak about how you feel at the end of the performance it could be quite intimidating to be asked your opinion or to comment on it, and I think that kind of confidence can only be built by regular attendance.”

Having seen a lot of children’s theatre abroad in other parts of Europe, Morell views the variation in style as a reflection on how children and young people are treated differently in different countries. “One of the things that really excites me is bringing international work over here. It gives theatre makers an opportunity to discuss some of these subjects among themselves and incorporate some of that into their own work. The way children’s theatre unfolds in Sweden, or the way it happens in Belgium, or Italy or Britain, is very much informed by the way we speak to young people in every day life.”

For Morell, there are positive qualities in European countries in terms of how young people are considered part of society, and she is bringing those qualities to her work in bridging the cultural gap and incorporating aspects of other theatrical traditions into this country’s children’s theatre. “In England, unfortunately, we sometimes slip into a tendency to see children as waiting to become real people when they grow up,” she explains.

Many theatre practitioners are disappointed that theatre studies is not part of the national curriculum in most schools, but through the Unicorn’s Learning and Participation team offering a full programme of workshops and classroom resources, the Unicorn is doing what it can to normalise theatre in the minds of the masses and encourage today’s children to explore what it offers. Theatre is not, however, about learning. Morell argues: “At least not in the normal sense or application of the word ‘learning’. The thing about theatre is that it is a place like no other, which combines a very personal engagement with the story that you may be watching, and doing so within a public, live environment.” In contrast to recorded media – television, film, computers – “there is something very interesting about simply being in a room with other human beings, and watching, or participating in a story that other human beings are telling you about the world in which we share.” She insists “It’s not learning about theatre, it’s more to do with having a space where you can expand the way you think about the world we are living in.”

The Unicorn Theatre is committed to keeping ticket prices low and making the venue interesting and accessible for people. “We want people to come and see whether they like it. When they come, of course, we hope they will like it and then come back!” There’s no need to try and compete with other modern media – “the important thing is to give people the opportunity to see that there are many ways you could spend your time, and all these different activities don’t need to compete with each other for people’s attention.” Morell explains, “Finding out more about the world is something humans have always done and I think that the arts are an important part of that. I think that it’s very much about giving people the opportunity to come and see a show.”

Many of the plays put on at the Unicorn Theatre introduce children to the problems and harsh realities that we face and have to find a way of dealing with in life. In June, the Unicorn staged Something Very Far Away, in which the big taboo of human death is tackled. “The problem with death is that it happens and there’s no getting away from it,” says Morell. “I don’t think that theatre is necessarily the best way to introduce children to the idea that people are going to die, but I do think theatre is a place to experience emotionally how you feel about the fact that death is going to happen.” Morell bravely chooses to acknowledge that “we are all mortal” and believes there is no point in pretending that this is not the case, even in children’s theatre. “There’s great comfort to be found in honesty about subjects that are difficult,” she explains. “What the show is really about is how someone copes with grief. I think what this show has in it is an enormous amount of emotional truth about what it’s like when you lose someone that you love – which is a problem that’s around us every day – so it’s a good idea to talk about it.”

For Morell, staging theatre specifically for children is no more or less important than theatre for adults. “What theatre allows us to do is to create a space in which we can look at the world we live in, look at ourselves and other people in a heightened reality which is a lot like the world we live in, but slightly different from it, because the possibilities in it are different and the outcomes are different.” And that is something which is extremely valuable for adults and children alike.

The Unicorn’s new season includes I, Malvolio, Dr Korczak’s Example, A Winter’s Tale and The Prince and the Pauper. For more information or to book tickets, visit www.unicorntheatre.com.

Image credit: Unicorn Theatre

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Spotlight On: Simon Stephens

Posted on 12 July 2012 by Chelsey Burdon

Simon Stephens is truly on the cutting edge of British play-writing: the man that boldly brought the London bombings to the stage in 2008 with Pornography and tackled teenage murder in Punk Rock is also an Artistic Associate at the Lyric Hammersmith. This year the Lyric takes the world premiere of his new play Morning to the Edinburgh Fringe, not with professional actors but with the venue’s own youth theatre. I met Stephens in his cosy Shoreditch office to talk about how this project, with the Lyric’s  Artistic Director Sean Holmes at the helm, came to being.

“I’ve been Artistic Associate at the Lyric since Sean became the Artistic Director there in 2009 and one of the first things that struck us was how, unlike nearly every other theatre in London, it not only feels like it welcomes young people,  it feels actually as if the young people are welcoming the older ones in. It feels like it’s their theatre because there’s such a energy brought about by the young company there. It brings a real sense of ownership.”

The Lyric Hammersmith is renowned for the commitment it places on working with young people. By casting members of the existing young company in the world premiere of his new play, Stephens is offering these aspiring actors a unique opportunity in a country where youth theatre is rarely given the attention it deserves. The inspiration to do this seems to have come from his work with German director Sebastian Nubling. Stephens has the rare accolade of being performed extensively throughout Europe and particularly Germany, where he formed a creative relationship with Nubling, who presented the critically acclaimed Three Kingdoms at the Lyric earlier in the year and who Stephens describes as “one of the most significant directors in the German-speaking world”.

“It’s really interesting to me that every year, or every two years if his schedule permits it, he does a show with the youth theatre in Basel in Switzerland. So you’ve got this kind of curious situation where one of the best directors in the country is making a show with young amateur actors in his home town in Basel and that’s the kind of thing that would be difficult to imagine in the UK. Someone like Marianne Elliot making a show with amateur teenage actors and applying the same kind of level of rigour and hard work and determination that she brings to all of her work to them.” Inspired by the enthusiasm injected into German Youth theatre and the readiness to present it on stage, Holmes and Stephens decided that they would come together to write and direct a play for the young company that could be taken seriously as a piece of work rather than sidelined as a youth theatre production. Stephens was keen to produce something that could translate well not only onto the German stage but throughout Europe.

“I came up with the idea of writing a play and removing all references to real nouns, so this is a play that really could be set anywhere; it could be on the edges of any major city in Europe. Sebastian’s going to direct it in January with the youth theatre in Basel and Sean’s doing it at the Traverse in the summer. The idea being, hopefully, that we bring the Basel production over to London and then take the Lyric production over to Basel, so we do a kind of school exchange. They can all stay in each other’s houses.”

The term coming-of-age can be a very vague and limiting one that suggests a play made up of young teenage characters who must, almost by default, deal with the trials and tribulations of that transition into adulthood and the often hard lessons that are learnt along the way. But what does the term mean for the characters in Morning?

“It’s not a term I’d use to describe the play because I’m not entirely sure what it means. It denotes the possibility of accruing experience but it kind of suggests that after a certain point you stop accruing experience. I can understand why it [Morning] is described as a coming-of-age play. That kind of makes sense on a marketing level, but I think the play is the most moral play that I’ve written. It’s a play about murder and the emotional consequences of having murdered, and what it feels like to kill and how you continue to live, having killed. I think that’s something that fascinates me – it’s always been something of on obsession, especially in my writing about young people.”

He goes on to jokingly suggest that Herons, Punk Rock and Morning could be described as an accidental trilogy of plays about teenagers killing each other. All jokes aside, it is surely this tendency to delve into complex and unsettling ideas that truly marks Stephens out as a great British dramatist.

“The play started off  interrogating the question, ‘is it possible for people to behave without motivation?’ Recent neurological science would suggest that the way we’ve interpreted behaviour for the post industrial period – along the linear lines of causation and action - is inaccurate, by which I mean it’s not as we thought for the last 100 years that people do things for a reason, but rather they do things randomly and then in the aftermath of behaviour they make sense of what they’ve done by imposing a narrative upon it. I was really interested in finding a form that dramatised that.”

The play centres on Stephanie, a young girl who kills her boyfriend in a seemingly unprovoked attack, something which Stephens tells me was influenced by the horrific true story of a young man in wales. “The play is not about that, but it’s a consideration of what that must have felt like. I started off with the question, ‘is it possible for somebody to do something as extreme as murder without any apparent motivation and without any consequence?’ What I ended up writing about was the moral horror of what it feels like to kill. You take an action as horrific as a murder and staging that necessarily demands the question, why did she kill him? And actually by creating a dramatic language that forces the audience to think, it engages not just the intellect and the process of constructing narrative, but also the intellect and the process of constructing morality. Structurally, the comparison was made by someone yesterday that it’s like Macbeth in that the murder happens really near the beginning and the play is about the fallout of the murder. In that sense, like Macbeth. There is a sniff of a morality tale about it but y’know, there are some good jokes in it as well.”

Morning will be presented at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh from the 1 to 19 of August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, after which it will return to London for a short run at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Image credit: Simon Kane

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Crossing borders at BE Festival

Posted on 03 July 2012 by Catherine Noonan

In what Co-Director Mike Tweddle calls an “opportunity for people to learn about other backgrounds and cultures”, BE Festival (Birmingham European Theatre Festival) is back for the third year running, celebrating both our differences and shared experiences by bringing together a multitude of international performers. From 2 July, the European arts festival is taking over an old metalworks factory in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter – “the perfect frame for all these encounters” – as a flexible space to house multi-national collaborations, performances, workshops and audience-artist exchanges.

And BE is not just about theatre; it’s a truly inter-disciplinary festival that features live music and visual arts as well as inviting guests to share meals with artists in between performances. “It’s a really nice opportunity to meet in an informal way, to talk about the work, get to know each other and make some lovely new friends in a celebratory setting,” says Tweddle of this immersive format. “We want to bring people into contact with ideas and languages that they’ve never come into contact with before.”

Tweddle makes it clear that BE Festival is very much about the joy of the unknown, with its structure encouraging audiences to embrace its inherent diversity: each evening contains four 30-minute performances by different international companies, with an interval for dinner that allows audience and artist to discuss the piece. “If a show was an hour-and-a-half long the public might not buy a ticket for it, but they’ll see a half-hour version and hopefully be inspired to see more international work,” Tweddle explains. “We don’t make it all about the show or a particular star – it’s about the ride of the evening. People don’t buy into the festival for a particular company, they do it knowing that they’ll discover something new.” Clearly audience members must be in it for the long haul, a standard that is also upheld for the artists, as Tweddle states: “A rule we’ve had from the beginning – it’s slightly vicious of us, but we keep to it strictly – is that the artists have to stay for the whole festival. If a company performs on Thursday, they can’t leave until Sunday. They have to see all the other pieces.”

Fully experiencing what Birmingham has to offer, it seems, is unavoidable for the European visitors – as well as seeing the whole festival, artists lodge with local residents. This tradition that can be traced back to BE’s 2010 conception, when its tiny budget couldn’t be stretched to include hotel rooms. Yet this money-saving tactic turned out to be an unexpectedly brilliant idea. “The performers really got to know Birmingham life,” Tweddle says. “In most festivals you get parachuted in and out and you don’t necessarily feel that you’ve learnt about their way of life. But this way, all the hosts came to see at least the night of their guest’s performance, so there’s a real feeling of pride and connection, and many hosts and performers kept in touch. So that’s something that’s remained even though we’ve got a bit more funding now – this year, the vast majority of artists are staying in the spare bedrooms of 65-year-old ex-teachers.”

And BE Festival’s incredibly immersive approach seems to have paid off. “The artists really communicate with each other and learn a lot about their work; they explore techniques together in the workshops, and new collaborations have occurred as a result of that laboratory space. It’s a real cliché, but the constraints [of having a small budget] have brought about creativity – all the best things that have happened in this festival have not been our ideas, but it’s exciting to open a space and discover much better ideas than you could have ever imagined that come about because of these collaborations. The biggest challenges have also brought some of the biggest surprises.”

One such surprise is BE Mix, a new company compiled from other festival participants: one artist from each company that performed last year was nominated to stay in Birmingham for an extra week to create new theatre. BE Mix’s “really beautiful, very daring piece”, which is all about the city of Birmingham, was instigated as a result of the performers’ requests. “[BE Mix] came about because the artists in 2010 said, ‘These workshops are not enough; we are learning to know each other and we’re discovering things in common, but a morning workshop over five days is not enough time to really cement these new bonds,’” Tweddle explains. “They suggested an extra week in which some performers could stay and work together more intensively. So that idea – it has been a wonderful project to see grow – was not our idea, but we’re very excited about it.”

BE Festival has also resulted in another offshoot company in the form of BE Next, a company of teenage theatre makers who participated in a free programme run by BE and the Birmingham Rep Young Producers programme. The young people – many speaking English as a second language – have devised their own theatrical creations with the help of Danish and American professionals. “It’s a really wonderful experience for those young people,” Tweddle says. “They really do get brought into the fold of the festival and surrounded by all these new ideas; their work gets taken very seriously and I think they are inspired to strive towards excellence.” And Tweedle is keen to engage other young theatregoers. “I feel that this is a very inspiring programme for young people. It’s all devised, brand-new work that brings together a host of different ideas and starting points. It’s a master class on all the possibilities for surviving theatre for young people.”

BE Festival’s ethos is “crossing borders”, whether it be internationally, artistically or that of Brecht’s infamous fourth wall. By bringing together acts from across the world and encouraging audiences to engage with these theatre creators, it seems BE is doing a brilliant job of sticking to its philosophy. To experience a diversity of European arts and great conversation in a welcoming environment (BE hosts a cocktail bar and dedicated space for massages, so I’ve heard), BE Festival, it seems, has it all.

BE Festival, presented by A E Harris and mac Birmingham, will be running from 2-8 July in three Birmingham venues. For more information see their website and buy tickets online.

TICKET OFFER: For £6 tickets to the grand opening for arts and drama students, call mac Birmingham on 0121 446 3232 and quote ‘BE FEST SIX’.

Image credit: David Martin de Juan

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