Company of Angels have been working for over a decade with the aim of “fostering and producing challenging theatre with and for young people.” But when it comes to their Theatre Café Festivals in particular, it’s fair to say that they shake up expectations of what “theatre for young people” is or could be. These events, which have been run successfully in York, Oslo and Berlin, curate new writing from all over Europe in rehearsed readings. And soon after we meet at Company of Angels HQ, Artistic Director Teresa Ariosto is telling me that there are “no taboos”, that plays for young people can say or do what they like.
“European plays are often very dark,” she tells me. “Friends have teased me before that our festival should be renamed ‘Theatre Cafe: Festival of Death’. There’s always someone dying! Which goes a bit against the notion that too much death for young people doesn’t work. I’m also very into political themes, and I think young people seem very engaged by that.”
Indeed Ariosto, along with Associate Director Ben Kidd, share various anecdotes with me about how “appropriate” themes vary across the international scene. Apologising in advance for the generalisation, they note that Dutch plays are often particularly heavy, and their suggested age limits have to be raised by a year or two when they transfer to Britain.
Yet the results of this kind of “boundary pushing” are clearly very interesting, proving that young people don’t need to be patronised. “When I think about theatre in school, I remember a lot of plays about drugs, ‘issues’ plays,” says Kidd. “Or just doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream over and over. But when I did my first Theatre Café, a lot of the works were about death, but none were sad… or rather, they had a sort of multiplicity of tone, if you excuse the pretentious expression. Just that thing you get in all the best theatre where you feel happy and sad at the same time.”
If the works are thematically complex, they are also notably imaginative in form. “I don’t mean to do down British theatre culture, but it seems there is more sniffiness here about trying new things out with form, about thinking very theatrically”. Ariosto agrees, and points out that this kind of work is often well-received by young audiences, since they are forced “to use their imaginations. Young people deal well with open-ended plays.”
Run over two days in collaboration with the University of Greenwich and Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre (GLYPT) the festival involves a series of rehearsed readings followed by discussions with playwrights and translators. Young people are also given the chance to write response pieces to the works shown, and as Kidd says “the vibe is Cabaret-ish”, allowing people to feel they can “really engage, to say, I didn’t like that, I didn’t quite understand that. We’re not forcing them to just sit down and watch something perfect.”
But if the festival hopes to include and speak to young people, it is also very much aimed at the industry crowd. Ariosto says that the event in Woolwich will be a kind of “symposium”, a chance for theatre practitioners to get together and see a “snapshot” of the best work being made on the continent. She herself reads five languages, and works closely with international collaborators to find and translate plays which might otherwise be unavailable for an English-speaking audience.
This year’s festival features plays from Italy, Finland, The Czech Republic, Germany, Spain and Slovakia. Many of these works were popular, often award-winning, in their own countries, but there is little knowledge of them here. “There’s a new generation of British directors who are really interested in talking about, and putting on work from other European countries,” says Ariosto. “We want to help them to get something different and exciting produced over here. One of our major aims is to inject this kind of work into the British theatre industry.”
At a moment when Britain might be heading along the path to an in/out EU referendum, there could hardly be a better time to pour a coffee and start that conversation.
Theatre Café Woolwich is playing at The Tramshed and Bathway Theatre, Woolwich, on Friday 8 & Saturday 9 May. For more information and tickets, see their website.