On the 17th March, it will be exactly one year since UK theatre came to an overnight standstill. Every day as we approach the anniversary, Theatre Bubble will be releasing personal accounts from theatre makers across all areas of the industry, telling us what this unexpected and unprecedented year has been like for them. See the full series here: Hands Face & Empty Space
Peter Moreton: Artistic Director
It’s nearly a year since I turned the lights out and shut the door of Applecart Arts wondering if we would ever re-open. Over the previous three years I’d been lucky to work with a brilliant team of committed producers, creatives and community workers intent on building Applecart’s reputation as a welcoming creative hub for emerging artists. We’re grass roots at every level (there’s even grass growing out of some of the walls!) but, even though our building is in dire need of renovation, we’ve managed to build a high-spec theatre space, a welcoming café bar and a number of good-sized rehearsal spaces. As I walked away from the centre on a broody March evening, I looked back at the Victorian tower and wondered if all that work had come to nothing.
For us, Applecart was not so much about the building. We began as a small performing arts company that believed stories have the power to challenge, change and strengthen communities. Our new building was an opportunity to create platforms for other storytellers who could join us in celebrating the rich diversity of our surrounding community, speaking truth to power and challenging social injustice.
Newham’s been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. If anyone is unsure as to whether Covid 19 has highlighted the imbalance of wealth and the precarious working conditions of large sections of society, then they need only turn their eyes towards East London. It’s always been thus. From the industrial squalor and starvation wrought on workers by the Silver & Co Indian Rubber factory, through the early beginnings of the Labour movement and the doughty stoicism of the Blitz, Newham has always borne the brunt of world events.
But it’s also had the persevering tendency to bounce back like a plucky terrier.
After licking our wounds, we began to plan for what the world would look like in the months ahead. As a storytelling company, we’d worked with all kinds of media to explore ways of engaging with audiences. Previous projects had furnished us with extensive camera and film equipment, so we began to look at affordable ways in which emerging artists could continue to explore their creative ideas online.
We were interested in creating live, theatrical experiences that not only overcame the new restrictions but also turned them to our advantage, playing with the camera as a way of breaking the fourth wall into people’s living spaces and connecting them with a live and personal experience.
With the help of some amazing volunteers (pioneering technical brains who were restless at being furloughed from esteemed national institutions!) we began converting our theatre into a live-stream studio space and put a call out to creatives who were exploring positive narratives for the uncertain landscape that lay ahead.
After two or three tentative try outs with some brave musicians and theatre companies, we launched our Dazed New World Festival in October. The two-week programme celebration offered 14 theatre company’s an opportunity to test the water of the new habitat we are now finding ourselves in. The festival explored a plethora of themes including racial equality, mental health, environmental sustainability and bereavement, utilising a variety of truly live and kicking theatrical styles.
And we’ve gone from strength to strength, streaming to tens of thousands of people around the world. We welcomed in 2021 with four artist residencies developing performances featuring amongst other things, an airport made for aliens, a singer who sells her vocal cords to the devil, a Nazi murdering Polish dancer and a well-meaning, but failed, world coup.
I needn’t have worried that evening just under a year ago as I walked home and pondered on Applecart’s future. The invention, insight and courage of our theatre community will never cease to inspire me. During lockdown, I’ve been lucky enough to gain an inkling of the exploding avalanche of creativity awaiting us as we emerge from the oppressive horror of this pandemic. It’s been a sustaining privilege to play a small part in facilitating the stories off those who have been hit the hardest. They are potent, it’s never been safe to tell them, so why stop upsetting the applecart now?