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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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Review: And We Gather

Posted on 29 July 2012 by Amelia Forsbrook

There are many different ways to be conventional. We can dress the same as those around us, we can fall in love with the kind of people our parents expect us to and we can subscribe wholeheartedly to the cultural traditions established many decades ago. In And We Gather – two dances split down gendered lines – the A.D. Dance Company shed light on many of these patterns of conformity, and manage to explore how we might break the mould.

The first of the two pieces has an intelligent feel. The two graceful female dancers assert a rare and delicate control. They lean, they fall and they are carried, and yet the choreography is so nuanced that they never let their four male counterparts dominate the stage.

Throughout this work, the performers exhibit a real togetherness and attention to detail, even when they are still. Held glances and frozen embraces are charged with meaning, breeding numerous little erotically-charged interactions and sub-stories.

But while we are led to speculate on the nature of these relationships, the real narrative of the first piece traces the history of dance. The A.D. Dance Company specialises in contemporary ballet, and this work exposes the somewhat oxymoronic quality of this discipline. Beginning with a single dancer showcasing classical moves, the piece developes to echo the styles of important modern British choreographers. As the company dancers speechlessly demonstrate their rich education, the piece leaves many of us in the audience behind. That said, there is something special about being lost in UK choreography, navigating without a map.

And there were plenty of opportunities to stop and admire the scenery in this beautifully lit production, where shadows are choreographed with as much artistic vision as the dancers. In one particularly striking moment three dancers knit together, their double shadows combining so that nine figures move on stage. This poetic visual quality is reinforced by the sound design: buoyant tracks in minor keys contribute to the occasional hypnotic moment.

While the first piece seems largely concerned with how we break from cultural conventions, the second tackles more personal takes on conformity.  The dancers return to the stage wearing white shirts in a nod to City conformity, yet the subtle variety of styles and accessories immediately suggests a group ready to break free. This move away from expectation is reinforced as the performers reconfigure the stage using rolls of masking tape. As each dancer bends down to seal off their own small box to stand in, the company adds a welcome playful element to its interpretative challenging of those who stay within the box.

In this second, more masculine piece, the dancers stand statuesquely in their own defined areas, waiting for their choreographed moment to kick in. As they look out fiercely at their audience and demand interpretation, they charge the atmosphere with expectation. This mood is reinforced by loud electronic feedback that blends into operatic squeals. Evidently And We Gather is not meant to be comfortable watching.

The division between the two gendered pieces is communicated with sensitivity and flair by artistic director and choreographer, Holly Noble. Yes, the dancers may try to pull off the pulled heart-string move a little too often, and some of the discussions relating to sexuality may be lost in the liberal form of contemporary dance, but overall And We Gather uses soulful, sophisticated choreography to showcase a skilled and promising body of dancers.

And We Gather is playing at the Yard Theatre until 28th July. For more information and tickets, see the Yard Theatre website.

Amelia Forsbrook

Formerly one of the Wales Arts International critics, Amelia moved to London in early 2012 with two big aims: to continue working as an arts writer, and to discover whether it's ever possible to pull off both telephones and flying in theatre. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance and twentieth century European theatre, Amelia writes for a number of other publications, as well as being an Off West End Assessor.

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Review: An Oasis In 5 Parts

Posted on 20 July 2012 by Amelia Forsbrook

“Do pop along if you are in London,” tweeted performance artist Pat Ashe. “It’s only £6 to watch me doing stuff on stage.” Now, I don’t know how much thought went into this marketing campaign, but the man has got the tone spot on; this is exactly the kind of humble understatement that powers Ashe’s piece, An Oasis in 5 Parts.

As the title suggests, this work is split into five segments: four experimental and digitally-driven performance pieces that explore the artist’s hometown Ashby-de-la-Zouch and one ’zine designed to be taken away, so that we can also carry a little bit of the memory with us. Throughout, the tone is personal and tightly knotted to Ashe’s own experience but, as the piece develops, it also starts to represent more general ideas and urges us to think about ourselves.

It’s not until the third piece that we hear from Ashe directly. In parts one and two, the performer talks to us through projected text, using music and doodles, which he scrawls over the top of maps. Through these indirect modes of communication, Ashe documents the process of reminiscing about a place. His poetic image of a passing year being “counted only by the places I’ve slept” is compelling, and the contrast between the distanced and digitally-mediated single voice and the plural pronouns that liberally scatter the text conjures up a gentle, dreamy nostalgia that links place with people and emotional experience or, as Ashe articulates, “the ghosts of events that have gone”. There is indeed an unquestionably warmth in Ashe’s textual snapshots, as he describes being huddled in music rooms and crammed into cars. There is warmth, too, in the comic scenes, such as when the textual voice affectionately mocks the GCSE students who have just discovered that they can swear in drama class.

Yet it is hard to appreciate the personal before we’d had chance to meet the person, and so it was difficult to stay focused throughout these early sections, which were indulgently swollen with the artist’s own experience. Yet, looking back, these scenes seem to have a functional role, as if the performer was quickly jumping through inevitably awkward hoops in order to establish a mutual history upon which to build a friendship. Indeed, the further we progress into the piece, the easier it is to develop a fondness for its creator as he delivers an organic and truly live journey of understanding; cleverly, Ashe supports this view by revealing that he is fully aware of the irrelevance of his material: “‘These moments are nothing; I guess they are nothing to you.” The facts are recited and the details are lingered over, yet we get the sense that the specifics are immaterial and this is a piece as much about moving on and away as it is about looking back to a specific, lost town.

This idea is developed later in the production, when Ashe brings a video of his town to life through an enthusiastic commentary. As the video powers forward along the streets of Ashby, the artist points out the route he used to take to school, his best friend’s old house and his favourite chippy. Just like the paper maps used at the start of the piece, this video provides a canvas upon which experience can be illustrated. The filmed first-person perspective takes us to a fork in the road, and while the camera takes a left,  Ashby points to the other road, which would take us to Measham in “a whole different show”. His comment raises a laugh, but it makes a key point about the different paths that we can take. And so, while this production roots us emphatically in this artist’s hometown, this is not a tale with a rigid postcode. For me, An Oasis in 5 Parts is as much about my hometown located just the other side of the Midlands – a place that has left a similar influence on me.

An Oasis In 5 Parts is certainly inventive, but there is a refreshing absence of pretentiousness throughout. This is a creative journey across place and through time, navigated by a likeable and honest artist who occasionally rushes his delivery, misses his apostrophes and lets his boxers show. This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a professional piece. With messy sound design and text often obscured by light fittings, Ashe’s piece was a reminder that the gloss of theatre, used to neatly get a message across, isn’t so necessary when the message is already so clear and endearing.

An Oasis In 5 Parts is playing at the Yard Theatre until 21 July. For more information and tickets, see the Yard Theatre website.

Amelia Forsbrook

Formerly one of the Wales Arts International critics, Amelia moved to London in early 2012 with two big aims: to continue working as an arts writer, and to discover whether it's ever possible to pull off both telephones and flying in theatre. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance and twentieth century European theatre, Amelia writes for a number of other publications, as well as being an Off West End Assessor.

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Yard Theatre accepting submissions for new season

Posted on 06 January 2012 by Laura Turner

The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick reopens for its second season of theatre, dance and opera on 6 April 2012, and the theatre is now accepting submissions of work from artists and companies.

Made with recycled and reclaimed material in a vacant warehouse, the theatre seats 130 and the programmers are most interested in work that plays with well-known stories or texts (plays, novels, poems, etc).

The 2012 season will run from 6 April to 1 December, featuring productions that each run for three to four weeks. Submissions are not limited to theatre, proposals are welcome for opera, musicals and dance. Whatever form submissions take, the focus must be on developing new work rather than pieces that have been seen elsewhere.

As well as short runs, there are also opportunities for one-nighters on Sundays and individual festivals in July and October.

For more information on how to submit work for consideration and what the Yard Theatre offers artists, see the theatre’s website here.

Opportunities are also available for creative and managerial volunteer and intern placements at the Yard.

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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