Want to see something a bit different this spring? The Roundhouse might have just the ticket. Earlier this week, I sat down with Roundhouse producer Lucy Atkinson to discuss the current spoken word season at the venue, as well as the developing place of spoken word in the Roundhouse’s mission to provide young people with access to new and innovative ways of engaging with poetry.
“We launched The Last Word, a festival celebrating spoken word, last November,” Atkinson begins. Though she’s not entirely certain, she believes this is the first festival of its kind in London, if not in the UK as a whole. From next year, the festival will be taking place in May, so although “it’s too soon to do another festival six months after the last one,” the team felt that they wanted to “cement this as a period for spoken word” in the Roundhouse calendar. A second, and perhaps more immediate, benefit of implementing a whole season so soon after the festival is that “the artists we’re working with in this period made work during the festival that was a bit more scratch-y, and this is the development of those pieces.”
Kicking off with a performance of John Berkavitch’s Shame last week – which combined spoken word with hip hop dance – there’s still time to catch showings of Glasshouse, a new touring play by Kate Tempest (commissioned by Cardboard Citizens), Howl 2.0, a reimagining of Alan Ginsburg’s seminal poem with a performance of the original by Poejazzi, and Rogue Teacher, by poetry whiz and ultra-hip English teacher Mark Grist.
“The artists we’re working with this season have got a very clear link in terms of a follow on from working with them in November,” says Atkinson, and indeed, in many cases the groups and artists featured have had a relationship with the Roundhouse for several years now, affirming their strong dedication to development. Although Atkinson is thrilled that all of the artists are bringing their work back to the theatre, she confesses to being particularly excited about Poejazzi’s performance of Howl. “It was just a really innovative, clever idea to take this really famous, great poem that a lot of people – and this includes me – have never read, have never seen performed before, even though they might be aware of it. Poejazzi have come along and demonstrated that all the scenes in the poem are still really relevant today. To them, it’s one of the greatest poems of all time, so to actually see five young, emerging poets take scenes and areas from that poem and interpret them in their own words, in their own style, shows how powerful and relevant it still is.”
Along with reinterpreting a seminal work of poetry, Poejazzi has also updated the possibilities of its performance, by commissioning visuals and music to accompany the reading. Atkinson is keen to emphasise the importance of this multi-disciplinary approach. “The tag line [of the season] is ‘spoken word, storytelling and theatre’, so its about exploring and celebrating these boundaries,” she explains. Of course, multi-disciplinary exploration is central to the Roundhouse’s mission, and the space lends itself particularly well to this kind of collaboration. “There’s a lot of brilliant minds here, and producers working together and sharing ideas,” she adds, “it’s really exciting that there’s lots of us here working together to challenge and develop this art form”.
The Roundhouse has been “supporting and developing spoken word for about five years,” which initially began, as many of its programmes do, though its extensive creative projects with 11-25 year olds. “It really spoke to a lot of the younger and emerging artists we work with, and it’s them that inspired the programme really. It’s through working with these young artists that we started developing relationships with professional artists.” In 2011, it first commissioned Polarbear, who had previously been running its young poetry collective, to create a show, which proved “very successful, and it’s just spiralled from there”.
“We find that it just works really well in our studio theatre,” Atkinson clarifies, “and it felt nice to find a way of having something that was – not unique, because a lot of people do spoken word – but we felt that it was very ‘Roundhouse’ and was something we could focus our energy on and do very well”. Although poetry has existed for thousands of years, and spoken word as a modern art form has been around for much of the twentieth century, it is rarely given space along side other forms of theatre. “I guess at the heart of everything we do is platforming new and emerging voices,” which Atkinson feels is a particularly applicable mission in this case since “in spoken word, there’s not a huge difference between emerging and emerged, and that’s very special. Some of the youngest and earliest voices can be the most powerful”.
The Roundhouse seems to have found a new mission in nurturing and providing a platform for spoken word artists, and as such it’s a particularly exciting time for interested young people to get involved. The theatre has £5 tickets for 16-25 year olds available for all its shows, making it accessible for anyone to go and experience a live spoken word performance. It also runs loads of projects, including a poetry collective and various short courses and tasters, which can all be found on The Roundhouse’s website. And if you want to something to watch right now, Atkinson points out that “spoken word films really well, and we do a lot of digital production making here” including a project called Talking Doorsteps, where poets take their words to the streets, and of course Mark Grist’s Girls Who Read video, which was a Roundhouse production. Search, visit, watch, and even write away; spoken word has arrived in the twenty-first century, and it’s more exciting than ever.
For more information about the Roundhouse’s programme, and tickets to the shows mentioned above, please visit the Roundhouse’s website.