In Spotlight On, we take a closer look at a company, artist or venue that excites us here at Theatre Bubble. After having seen Bring Your Own Collective’s Iron M.A.M., performed at the Camden People’s Theatre and developed through its ‘Starting Blocks’ programme, we spoke to Camden People’s Theatre Artistic Director Brian Logan and performer Owl Young about Starting Blocks and supporting as well as defining ’emerging artists’.
Theatre Bubble: Firstly, what is the Camden People’s Theatre, and what does it do that makes it different from other venues?
Brian Logan: To quote our tag-line, “Camden People’s Theatre is a central London space dedicated year-round to supporting early-career artists making unconventional theatre – particularly those whose work explores issues that matter to people now.” In plainer English, we’re a theatre near Euston in London that’s committed in equal measure to staging cutting-edge, unconventional performances and to helping (usually) young artists to develop them in the first place. What makes us different is that innovative work from emerging artists is our whole, 365-days-a-year focus, not an adjunct to other, more mainstream activity.
We’re also differentiated by our priority commitment to supporting and staging work that’s politically, socially or culturally engaged. That is expressed partly through our unique programming model, based around festivals of work tackling stuff that is current in the culture – feminism, the changing face of London, the right to protest, among recent examples.
We see these things as mutually reinforcing. We find that the faultlines in contemporary culture and society, the issues that are particular to 2015, are often best (most urgently, most excitingly) broached by young artists communicating in new ways.
TB: What are the Starting Blocks Programme and the Sprint Festival?
BL: Starting Blocks is an annual scheme for solo artists or small companies developing new projects from scratch over a ten-week residency, towards a work-in-progress performance in our Sprint festival. They don’t do so in isolation, instead as part of a tight-knit gang, whereby the 5 or 6 participating artists or companies meet regularly, operating as critical friends to one another’s processes and projects. We find that artists – while they welcome the rehearsal space, mentoring from CPT, and so on that comes with the scheme – particularly value this chance to forge new friendships and mutually supportive creative relationships.
Starting Blocks has been running since 2011. Sprint is far older. Since 1997, it’s been our flagship annual festival of “new and unusual theatre”, a concentrated shot of what we do year-round anyway – but it’s the concentration that’s thrilling. Unlike our other festivals, it’s not themed, it’s just a cavalcade of brand new theatre and performance, staged in our theatre, elsewhere in our building, online, in the community, in your head – wherever. We seek from as wide a range of sources as possible the wildest, most unexpected and most urgent stuff we can find, and we pile it high at Sprint to make those three weeks as tumultuous as we can, and if possible to ensure that even casual visitors to the festival will leave with a vivid snapshot of what bold new performance looks like in the UK today.
TB: Can you tell us about the artists you have supported most recently through the Starting Blocks programme?
BL: We supported Rachel Mars to make her show The Way You Tell Them, which went on to headline a bespoke festival (about the overlaps between theatre & standup) at CPT, then went to the Edinburgh Fringe, then toured internationally. We also built a festival around Louise Orwin’s Starting Blocks 2013 show Pretty Ugly, her extraordinary multimedia docu-performance about the activities of teenaged girls on social media. That project – which received international attention during its CPT stint – helped launch Louise’s career and our own, now annual feminism festival ‘Calm Down, Dear’.
In the last two years, we’ve supported the unique lip-sync artist Foxy & Husk to create Fox Symphony (due to tour next year); Tom Hughes, currently staff-directing I Want My Hat Back at the National and developing a new project, based on Greek tragedy and the Greek economy, at CPT; Cape Theatre, who premiered the finished version of their Starting Blocks 2015 show We Choose to Go to the Moon here last weekend; On the Run, who’re developing the excellent follow-up to their acclaimed So It Goes as part of the scheme. We try and find the artists who’d most benefit from what CPT can provide – and who have the most brilliant ideas, of course. And then, far beyond the Starting Blocks scheme, we want them to become part of the CPT family, making not only their SB projects but other work here well into the future.
TB: Dr Hannah Nicklin’s report “Camden People’s Theatre and Artist Development – How Are We Doing? How Can We Do Better?” makes a compelling case for what she terms ‘intermediary intervention.’ Have your practices and methods changed as a result of the report?
BL: Yes. We’ve become more proactive in ensuring that our offer to early-career artists is heard more widely. We’ve formed partnerships with various organisations working with diverse artists, and – among the other virtues of these new relationships – this is allowing us to get the word out more widely about what we do, and ensure that to as large an extent as possible we’re working with artists from a wide constituency in terms of ethnicity, disability, class, etc.
As per Hannah’s advice, we’re also more proactive now about seeking feedback from artists about their CPT experience, and seeking critical input about what we could be doing better. And we’re able – since becoming an NPO – to make strategic financial contributions as part of our artists development activity, which very seldom used to be the case. So, yes: that report was invaluable for us (and for others, I hope). We refer to it often, continue to respond to its findings – and indeed think beyond it about what artist development at CPT and beyond is and might be.
TB: In response to an issue raised in Dr Nicklin’s report, do you believe distinctions between ‘mid-career’ and ‘early-career’ artists is useful, or more of a linguistic problem than a practical one?
BL: Yes, I believe it’s useful. They’re just words. As long as we aren’t dogmatic about them, or the systems they imply. CPT is a theatre that exists specifically to support artists in the early stages of their careers or the start of their practise in this particular field. That’s not an exclusive, fundamentalist policy, but it is a priority. And yes, we know there’s argument about what constitutes “early” in this context. Two years? Ten years? But those arguments aside, we need to be able to express the principle, and I haven’t heard any better ways to do so than “early-career” (or even “emerging”). So – I acknowledge they can sound crude, and can be used crudely. We try to use the terms sensitively & flexibly, but we do need the short-hand.
Owl Young is a director, artist and video editor, and a member of Bring Your Own Collective, a company currently based in Cornwall that formed at the University of Chichester.
Theatre Bubble: First of all, who are you and what are you up to at the moment?
Owl Young: We founded the company in March of this year, mainly because we realised that we’d be a stronger entity together. We’re all interested in different types of contemporary performance, and we all have different sets of skills, but to be honest we just wanted a support system. The idea was that we would each lead on our own artistic projects with the other company members filling in for whatever role was required, be it actor, producer, designer, technician and so on. Iron M.A.M. is just the first project we’ve been able to get off the ground, and it’s been a great learning experience for all of us in what it takes to devise, market and tour a show in a professional context.
TB: Iron M.A.M was developed as part of CPT’s Starting Blocks program. Can you tell us about what this involved, and its impact on the show’s development?
OY: So CPT’s Starting Blocks was essentially a ten week residency with a group of likeminded artists. We would meet every Monday, discuss the states of our projects, show work to one another, get feedback and drink tea. It wasn’t unlike being back at university actually, though the difference being that everyone was equally respected as a professional, which was a new experience for me. CPT’s artistic director Brian Logan presided over the meetings, but he was never judging your progress – he would offer advice and prompt you towards new discoveries, but there was never any pressure from CPT, it was a very free environment. Then there was the rehearsal space, about two days per week, either in CPT’s performance space or downstairs in the basement. That’s really where I made Iron M.A.M., in those long sessions in the basement. But that’s the great thing about CPT and particularly the Starting Blocks programme; there was always someone around the building to grab for a few minutes, show material to, and then have a conversation with afterwards. By the end of the ten weeks I had the shell of the show finished, and though I’ve since developed it into what you saw this week, without CPT, there really wouldn’t be an Iron M.A.M. show.
TB: I was fascinated by the moment the audience volunteer for the paintgun shooting gallery game accidentally shot a member of Pussy Riot. It turned what had otherwise seemed quite a simple exercise into a really interesting examination of our disconnection from the exercise. Her genuine reaction of horror was fascinating because she hadn’t had the same reaction to any of the rest of the game – suddenly, this choice mattered when the others had been mostly arbitrary (or obvious – not shooting Mecca or children, for example). Does this happen often, or have other audience members reacted differently and to other elements of that ‘game’? I had no idea how intentional or typical that moment was, and that gave it a rare power that stuck with me.
OY: You’d be surprised by the range of responses to that game. It depends on a lot of variables, like the size of the audience watching and the age / temperament of the person playing, We’ve had trigger-happy audiences, sometimes shouting out which targets they would shoot at, and we’ve had pacifists who’ve refused to fire a single shot after satisfying their initial curiosity. The moment you’re talking about does happen every so often, and yes it is deliberate. I spent a while deciding on exactly how long each ‘target’ should appear. Because it’s not quite long enough, you tend to find that if a person hesitates on a previous shot, the paint is likely to spill over to the next person. The standout moment for me so far was when somebody shot the Islamic child and the entire room when silent. That’s a scene I love to talk to people about after the show.
The Camden People’s Theatre Autumn/Winter Season includes Barrel Organ, Licensed to Ill, the Christmas show Holy Presents, Beta Public V and more. You can check the programme out here.
Submissions for the Starting Blocks Programme 2016 are now closed.
Iron M.A.M. is currently on tour.