Repertory theatre is back in fashion. With the Secret Theatre ensemble working through a number of shows at the Lyric and the Royal Court producing its own six-play season last year, it seems the Old Way of structuring theatrical schedules might be making a comeback. Throughout August, the HopeFull Rep season at the brand new Hope Theatre in Islington hopes to plug into this trend, showcasing four new plays which play in various combinations throughout any given week.
This is all the brainchild of Sarah Berger, whose So & So Arts Club formed a couple of years ago as a collective of 1,200 artists and now stages a number of readings yearly. With so many scripts coming through, Berger saw an opportunity for a rep season which would involve a number of artists, thus helping some of this work to get staged in full-scale productions.
The four plays – Dirty Promises by Lilly Driscoll, Madame Bovary by Rosanna Lowe, The Flood by DHW Mildon and Long Road South by Paul Minx – were chosen based purely on merit, but now that they’ve been presented in rep, Berger has realised that “there are common theme. They’re plays about love, they’re plays about political struggle, they’re about loss, and they’re about redemption”. Hopefully, Berger says, they appeal to “a range of ages and cultural issues” (the youngest person involved is 15 and the oldest is 70). These four plays put together “appeal to a broad social audience, so that people who might not necessarily feel that the theatre speaks to them might find themselves sitting next to people who go regularly.”
Altogether, there are 23 artists involved in the season, with each play taking a different director in the hope that “the ethos of supporting and enabling each other” pulls everyone along together. Tom Latter, the director of Dirty Promises, was originally drawn to the project by a script with “a strong political message” and a “great story which mixes a blend of brutal realism with poetry and inherent theatricality”, but also suggests that the form of the rep is one from which others could learn. “The model of a larger organisation helping smaller-scale things is a really important one,” he suggests, as it opens the possibility of funded bodies helping emerging companies, allowing them “to take creative risks.”
Paul Minx, the writer behind Long Road South (a play about an African-American domestic couple in 1965 at the beginning of the civil rights movement), admits that the whole thing “worked better than I thought”, imagining originally that there would be a sense of “every man for himself. But the reality was tremendously supportive. We’ve gone to each other’s plays, lent props, given words of encouragement and had the stray drink here and there.” As a writer, this way of creating work is a pleasant departure from the norm: “it’s really hard to get plays on; after a while you get tired of sitting around and waiting. This is about artists taking the bull by the horns and just trying to do it appropriately.”
Both Minx and Latter have noticed a shift in energy during this process, with the shared goal helping the artists involved to push each other. Does the rep set-up also have a similar positive impact on audiences? Berger believes so: “They all work independently, but I think the idea that somebody might go because they’re interested in a particular thing and they end up watching Madame Bovary is great. They can see the parallels.” As well as allowing for connections to be drawn and discussed, having a double-bill presented on any one night also means audiences might be surprised. “It takes people slightly out of their comfort zone,” she suggests, thus allowing for a more fertile cross-pollination to occur.
With a chamber piece, a classical adaptation, a fast-paced semi-poetic contemporary play and an American drama, the selection “couldn’t be more different”. The small, intimate space of the Hope also allows more of a connection with audiences. As Latter explains, “it has its challenges because it’s a new venue which is small, so doesn’t have the resources or facilities of even slightly bigger fringe venues, but that’s the joy of it. There’s an energy about the space and the building, and it’s also got the advantage of being able to breathe with them and sweat with them. It’s a bit of a hot-box of a theatre, which is great.”
The HopeFull rep is already delighting audiences, and Berger is keen to continue expanding the reach and potential of season, allowing more actors and writers to become involved. The central idea of the So & So Arts Club won’t change, however, as it continues to nurture a culture of collaboration across the industry. Through it all, the structure and work of the organisation and the rep will demonstrate “that artists can do it themselves. Together you are much, much stronger. It’s turning into a little force to be reckoned with.”