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A home for new work: the Yard Theatre

Posted on 11 August 2012 by Laura Turner

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

Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura trained as a writer with Hull Truck Theatre, BBC New Talent and the Royal Court Theatre. She has worked extensively with touring theatre company Chapterhouse, where she is currently Writer in Residence. Laura has previously written for BBC EastEnders: E20 and her adaptation of Jane Eyre toured theatres with Hull Truck Theatre Company at the start of 2013. She is now working on an original play for the theatre, as well as projects with Bolton Octagon, Middle Child Theatre and The Ashton Group, Cumbria. She has been long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting and the Adrienne Benham Award.

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“New work not new writing” at the Almeida Festival

Posted on 07 July 2012 by Ellen Carr

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

Ellen Carr

Ellen Carr

Ellen is Artistic Director of Witness Theatre, a company she established after graduating from the University of Sussex in 2011. Ellen writes, directs and produces for Witness Theatre and spends the rest of her time doing more writing. She is currently writing her own blog witnesstoexperience daily, contributes regular features to One Stop Arts and can also be found writing the occasional screenplay.

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1927 at the National Theatre: a strategic move or just common sense?

Posted on 07 September 2011 by Jake Orr

The National Theatre has announced its Autumn/Winter season of shows, and whilst in true NT fashion there are the usual star-studded performances (Lenny Henry and Simon Russel Beale) and top directors (Dominic Cooke, Danny Boyd and of course Nick Hytner), there is a surprising Christmas show in the mix. This year the Cottseloe Theatre will be on the tour path of 1927′s production of The Animal and Children Took To The Streets taking up a three-week run, alongside Daniel Kitson’s solo piece It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later.

I first saw The Animal and Children Took To The Streets at this year’s Latitude Festival having sadly missed the initial run at the Battersea Arts Centre, which sold out. On a Saturday night I joined a huge crowd of people at the theatre tent to witness what was to become my highlight of the festival. Whilst sitting on the back row of the theatre tent, I was literally transfixed by the production. It is breathtakingly skillful and inventive and like nothing I had seen before. I was hooked. Before I knew it, the Edinburgh Festival wheels were moving and 1927 was playing for the month at the Pleasance Coutyard, this time as part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase (you can read my review here).

Now the journey of this production is an interesting one to think about. From its first production, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which played at BAC in 2008, the company was a hit. This debut led to it being co-comissioned by BAC, Malthouse Theatre Melbourne and The ShowRoom, University of Chichester to create The Animals and Children Took To The Streets. The work naturally grew out of the input of these commissioning theatres, and had its premier at the Sydney Opera House, before moving to the Malthouse Theatre and finally back to home turf at BAC. This is logical, although the Sydney Opera House did come as a surprise to me (and I only learnt this after writing the bulk of this blog). The sub-sequential tour also seems logical, hitting upon festivals that thrive off the kind of new imaginative work that 1927 has brought to its work, but the announcement of the NT Christmas run has me stumped.

The reason is quite simple: the NT’s audience is not one I imagine to be flocking to witness The Animal and Children Took To The Streets. In fact, I couldn’t imagine an audience more out of reach for this show. The BAC, Latitude Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival… there is a certain energy and life to these places. They invoke a certain audience who like to be challenged, or at least be willing to be challenged.

Now, of course I’m not going to ignore the space that the production will inhabit. The Cottesloe Theatre is often considered the experimental space for the NT, presenting an eclectic work, and I have to admit that the productions I’ve seen here are often the most exciting from the building. The recent London Road is a fine example of the sort of gamble that the NT can take – who would have thought that a verbatim musical about a serial killer in Ipswich could sell out and include an extended run? So is The Animal and Children Took To The Streets a gamble for the NT? Is it a way of bringing in an audience it might not already get?

I’ve thought about this a lot since the announcement. I’ve tried to think of other work that the NT does that could match this programming. The Watch This Space season that plays outside the front of the NT seems like a more experimental programme, but that is mostly because it’s all free, and the audience are those that drift by on the South Bank, there’s no financial risk. Then I think of Matthew Robins, a brilliant puppeteer whose shadow puppetry was shown on the Fly Tower of the theatre during the Fly Films season, but again this was outside the building.

You could of course look at it as a way of the NT experimenting slightly with its audience, willing to push them towards some work that they might not expect from it. Or, on the flip side, perhaps I’m over-thinking the whole situation and instead should just see the NT as a stopping-off point along the 1927 tour. But then when did the NTbecome just another tour venue? So perhaps it’s a clever move to bring in an audience, I imagine a younger audience, one that the NT hopes would return again.

Whatever the reasoning behind the companies choosing to work together, whilst slightly bizarre, it can only be a good thing. The Animal and Children Took To The Streets is an exceptional production, and the more people who get to see the work, the better. If the NT’s often older audience come to see it and love it, then excellent – they’re broadening their experiences of theatre. If young people come flooding through the doors thinking that they never knew theatre could be so cool (because let’s face it, any production that uses such funky animation has got to be called cool), then excellent. It’s been obvious that since the company emerged it was destined for greatness. This step into the NT is a stamp of that level of excellence, and I commend them for it. But it just makes me wonder… if you get programmed at the National Theatre, what’s next? How do you further this with such a young emerging company? Perhaps you don’t, perhaps I’m just over thinking this whole thing, but I hope I’ve unearthed something to be talked about.

So, what do you think? Is the Christmas run of 1927′s production of The Animal and Children Took To The Streets a strategic move on both sides? Or is it simply someone at the National Theatre seeing the excellence in a company that deserves a bigger platform? Discuss.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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