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Company number: 3724349
The Blue Elephant Theatre never ever does things by halves
Please see our past programme section for reviews of past shows.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and we’re showing Strawberry Starburst at the Blue Elephant.
Strawberry Starburst is a fierce new play about a teenager developing and battling an eating disorder. When Bram Davidovich first sent us his script, it hit a chord with us which has only strengthened as he has developed the play to include a more medically accurate description of Shez’ recovery process.
The Blue Elephant has had a strong focus on mental health and well-being for some time. Our forum theatre project, Speak Out, which tours to schools around Southwark has long focused on supporting young people to better understand their own mental health and how to cope in overwhelming situations and where to go to ask for help. We run 2BScene, an adult drama group predominantly made up of those with lived experience of mental health problems, which produces theatre pieces addressing the stigma attached to poor mental health and highlighting the isolation and vulnerabilities that can be both a cause and effect of mental health problems.
It follows that we were very receptive to Bram’s script and the story it contained. As a theatre, we try to address big issues and one of the strongest aspects of Strawberry Starburst, in our opinion, is that it doesn’t give a single reason for Shez becoming ill. There is a lot going on in her life; her dad leaving, her unfaithful boyfriend, her unwittingly harsh mother expecting certain things of her. But there are also chance remarks, certain memories, insidious thoughts, her own perseverance and her strength of character turning back on itself. Somewhere in this melting pot of reasons may lie the cause of her illness but the play isn’t going to give us an easy answer on that.
At the end of the play, Shez is in recovery and it’s tough. It’s not a happily-ever-after ending, but a step on a long road. Our mental health is fragile and recovering from bad times isn’t a simple thing. It can take a lot of time and effort and there may be setbacks and relapses – it’s not fair to make that look pretty or easy because it belies just how much strength goes into recovering from, and indeed living with, a mental health problem.
Strawberry Starburst runs at Blue Elephant Theatre until 28 May. For tickets, book here.
Eating Disorder charity Beat has helplines and an email service for adults and young people offering support and information about eating disorders and difficulties with food, weight and shape. We also have an email service and an online one to one service.
Now it may surprise you to know that I’m not a full time journalist- although I do find talking to myself is becoming more and more of a regular occurrence. On weekdays, I’m often found at a buzzing little theatre in Camberwell, where community is paramount but so is bringing through young artists and enriching the local area with international talent. Sound familiar to West Ham yet? Okay, I understand that the areas are completely different in terms of product; my scintillating spiel about Guy Demel’s poor positioning goes down as well at the theatre as Butoh inspired dance would amongst these pages (although something tells me we’d be up for anything after the exciting signing of Andy Carroll). Still, I got talking to Blue Elephant Theatre’s very own Participation & Development Director, Jo Sadler-Lovett, over how important it would be for the club to keep engaging with the East End territories long after the move to Stratford.
I’ve known Jo for a number of years now and three words that you would use to sum up Jo are busy, energetic and extremely generous. As if to prove all of these points, she allowed me to speak to her over lunch which not only took up some of her free time but meant that she had to dodge the spray of Camberwell’s finest sandwich which I happened to be eating.
“While we are clearly different organisations with different personnel and budgets, there will be a lot of similarities between what we are trying to achieve at the Blue Elephant Participation Department and West Ham United” she begins.
I interject, saying that one of the reasons we were awarded the Olympic Stadium was because of our promise to extend our community programmes.
“Well this is it”, she says, “There’s a lot of benefit for communities when they have these kinds of programmes, regardless of whether it’s sport or the arts. One only has to look at the Olympics to see that the two have worked side by side to create excitement and good feeling- and those are just the more obvious benefits.”
That sounds good. I beckon her to go on.
“To start with charities can benefit from more flexible funding. They can suggest areas where funding is needed the most. In turn, businesses can see where their money is going towards and see that it is really helping.”
So in short, West Ham wouldn’t just be putting the money into their different initiatives and schemes but appropriating it effectively?
“Exactly. Businesses and individuals can also supply certain expertise. Bookkeeping for example. They can provide all the right personnel that charities may not have to make sure things are running smoothly.”
It’s fine to do this but on a ground level, how does it help people in the local community?
“More than you’d realise actually. For example, we give young people a place to go after school and at weekends. Not only do our activities give them a real sense of purpose and help them to learn about responsibility but it makes them more aware of the community around them and how they have an impact upon it. What is also satisfying for me is that I can help supplement their development as people but also get them interested in theatre and other aspects of culture that they may not previously have had access to.”
This is certainly food for thought. I can see what the Blue Elephant is achieving. Having worked there for the past two years, I know that the Blue Elephant isn’t a large theatre but its participation department is making huge leaps to help young children.
“It’s not just young children!” Jo smiles “We also have a community play for adults, we run projects tackling mental health and we go into primary and secondary schools and help to supplement their curriculum. We work with all kinds of age groups.”
So, one must consider the fact that if the tiny Blue Elephant is able to do this amount on quite a large scale, one can only dream of what West Ham can do as a club with their community projects.
“There’s no hiding that we get people involved in theatre. West Ham will be the same. Not only will people gain from their schemes but they will see the club as a great place and will more than likely support it back.”
So West Ham are reaching out to people and will more than likely be building their own ‘community’ of supporters and potential employees?
“It’s a win, win situation. If the people in the local area aren’t fans already, they soon will be. They feel a sense of cohesion and belonging plus they have role models in their facilitators and the players on the pitch.”
It does sound good. The club are helping the local community and creating a sense of unity. One concern is that all the West Ham fans have moved to outer Essex and that the East End is no longer dominated by Hammers, as it once was. It seems as if the locals aren’t involved with the club. These initiatives could not only help the local area but will help bring the community of Newham back into the West Ham community.
“It’s obviously great to involve locals but at the same time it doesn’t stop anyone else getting involved. Whether it’s time or money that you’re offering, everything will be appreciated. I know that we appreciate all the help that we get.”
I thank Jo for her time. It’s great to know that the club are trying to engage with the community. No matter how low key it seems to us, there is an awful lot going on. As discussed, this is participation on a massive scale. The Blue Elephant and Jo engaged 1,069 people alone in 2011 (the 2012 results haven’t been published yet but it’s expected to be a larger number!) If you’d like to get involved in volunteering projects you can go to www.do-it.org.uk . Community matters and the people in it make that community. Come on you Irons/Elephants!
WOW! HOW many ways can I find to tell you that I absolutely loved this piece of theatre? I guess I will just have to give it a go...
I've not been to the Blue Elephant Theatre before but if this production is anything to go by I hope to become a regular! The venue itself is tucked away in Camberwell like a lost gem. The staff are friendly and I sensed a passion for the work created here. Jimmy in the bar deserves a mention for his smile and attention!
Roger Simeon's You and Me is physical theatre in its most delicious sense. Music, dance, and expression beautifully crafted by Patricia Rodriguez and Merce Ribot. The energy of this duo did not diminish and they cleverly enticed us into their world. This was the sad and touching dwelling of bathos. It only took moments to believe that the two young actors were in fact two elderly Spanish sisters, bound together by age, history and life.
The dialogue moved swiftly from absurd conversations of death-'Life is a very tiring activity'-to what to wear when one dies (A red or green dress? Green brings out my eyes), to the issue of laziness, how shoes are made and so much more. This production never allows you to become bored and the coffin scene, amongst others, is brilliantly choreographed. Surrounded by brown cardboard boxes there is also the conversation of words versus numbers...Ingenious!
As I laughed my way through this couple's eccentric behaviour I was aware of something more poignant lurking beneath hilarity. These sisters were lost and isolated and as one looked after the other we felt the anguish and frustration that bound them: who really needed who?
You and me is basically a story of human emotions and lost lives, told in such a way that you will want to jump for joy one moment and cry with remorse the next. This is due in part to the skilful writing, the inspired directing and perfect timing and acting of Rodriguez and Ribot. My companion giggled then wept at the end-she had never seen physical theatre and was totally immersed and converted. Physical theatre can be misconstrued as slapstick or farce, this piece proves that the addition of imaginative movements, music and dance we can be transported to a magical, enchanting landscape with tender moments.
I was fortunate enough to interview Jasmine Cullingford, Artistic Director at the Blue Elephant (BET), and find out a little more about BET, the theatre world, lovely old Camberwell and an embarrassing story or two.
What makes Blue Elephant different from other theatres?
The fact that we defy categorisation… Our work can’t easily be pigeon-holed, although it is usually non-naturalistic and off-beat. We also don’t just specialise in ‘theatre’ in the traditional sense, but value all art-forms, from music to visual art, creating theatre which crosses genres, from dance-theatre to ‘concert-theatre’, a term newly coined for Sonata Movements earlier this year which was simultaneously a recital by pianist An-Ting Chang and evening of plays directed by Jude Christian.
Describe BET in 3 words…
Ambitious, alternative, challenging
How did you get into Artistic Directing?
Through hard graft and an obsession with theatre from an early age! I did my school work experience placement at the Contact Theatre, Manchester, and during my student days was a Rep for the Royal Shakespeare Company and an intern at the Royal Court. After graduating I worked at the Orange Tree, Richmond and then Theatre Royal Stratford East before coming to the Blue Elephant Theatre. Despite their completely different remits, I loved the work of all of these companies – what they have in common is how good their shows are. I have tried to reflect this appreciation for all forms of theatre as Artistic Director of BET, by programming eclectic seasons united not by theme or genre but only by quality.
Describe yourself in 3 words…
Small, sociable and smiley :)
What’s the best thing about working at BET?
Being able to support amazing people to develop their art and careers. I love hearing how well our ‘alumni’ are doing, knowing we made a difference by giving them vital opportunities early on. Artists and companies we have nurtured are many and varied, including: Evening Standard Award-winning designer Mamoru Iriguchi, Paul Morris (who won the OffWestEnd Adopt a Playwright Award), Levantes Dance Theatre (who won the Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award), and Bush Theatre Associates Theatre Ad Infinitum.
…and working life in Camberwell?
Being part of the creative community in South London. A lot of people we work with live a short walk or bike ride away and I’m always bumping into them and stopping for catch ups on street corners! Being close to but not in central London is a bonus too. I can get into the West End very quickly, but can bypass it on days when I want to stay away from the hustle and bustle.
How do you select the productions shown at BET?
We receive proposals in lots of different forms, from an unsolicited script from a writer, to footage of scratch performances, to invites to see productions from companies whose next piece we might programme. We also have a lot of returning companies with whom we have an established relationship and can sometimes programme their work just from an idea that’s in their head. All our work is new so every show is a risk, but it usually pays off!
What does the BET do to encourage community involvement?
We have a thriving participation department which works with local residents from primary age upwards, delivering workshops in schools, providing after-school and holiday activities and producing community plays. All our education and outreach work is at no cost to participants. We also have a discounted rate for Southwark residents on all our productions.
How has BET changed over the years?
The theatre used to have an international remit, but since starting to co-programme the venue in 2006 and becoming Artistic Director in 2009, I have focused on home-grown talent: London-based, and Southwark in particular wherever possible.
Is your audience made up of the general London public or mainly south Londoners?
Much of our audience is South London based (because North Londoners often don’t seem to want to venture more than a minute from a tube station!) but we do get London-wide theatregoers as well. There aren’t many venues which feature the cross-platform & physical theatre work we do, so people do travel to come and see it.
What’s the future for the Blue Elephant? What are your wildest plans and hopes for 2013?
The theatre goes from strength to strength and, as ever, we hope to continue in this vein! We don’t programme too far in advance as we would hate to have to refuse an amazing project because of lack of space, but we’re very excited about our new season which has just opened. We’re working for the first time with physical company Glass-Eye Theatre, devising company Tattooed Potato (beat that for an unusual name!) and Joon Dance. We’re building on our relationship with Spanish company Little Soldier Productions, and we’re welcoming back Lazarus, our resident classics company, and Lecoq performer David Ralfe – working with newcomer Hannah Moss. We are also starting work on our in-house show, a one-man adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s ‘The Boy in Darkness’ with Gareth Murphy, directed by Aaron Paterson.
What’s your favourite London theatre/play?
I love outdoor theatre (when it doesn’t rain!) and festivals where you can see a variety of work, often site-specific. So I always try and get to see Steam Industry’s work at the Scoop, the Watch This Space season at the National and the Greenwich & Docklands Festival. I also enjoy going to other venues specialising in cross-art-form work such as Kings Place & the Barbican, as well as seeing ENO’s innovative work at the Coliseum.
What is your favourite place in south London and why?
Ooh, there’s definitely more than one so I’m going to have to choose a few! I think the Horniman Museum is fab (and free!), with its stuffed animals and instrument collection vying for your attention. I love the Bonnington Cafe in Vauxhall, a co-operatively run vegetarian cafe where you can eat delicious and cheap home-made dinners, but with other people making the culinary efforts! I also like the House Gallery & Cafe in Camberwell where you can do food and culture at the same time!
What do you like to do on your day off?
I’m not one to stay at home, nor to stay still for very long, so days off are usually packed (much to my husband’s chagrin! I do allow us a lie-in at least!). Typically I might go on a walk exploring areas of London I don’t already know, hoping I might find a hidden museum or gallery to get a bite to eat at and then look at their collection, and then meet friends for an evening out at some arts event.
What advice do you have for theatre newbies?
Get some good work experience… This will help you build contacts and gain an invaluable working knowledge of theatre. Sometimes placements can lead directly to paid work too. Southwark Playhouse Associate Director David Mercatali started his career as a volunteer with us, going on to assistant direct and then direct shows with us. Also see as much theatre as you can (it always helps if you have seen work by companies before you apply for jobs with them) and not just of one kind or at one theatre – go out of your comfort zone: this will either broaden your tastes or help you appreciate your preferences more and enable you to talk knowledgeably about theatre you do and don’t like.
Dinner before or after the theatre?
I’m going to sit on the fence on this one… Shows at BET usually start at 8pm and end at 9.30pm so you can fit in dinner either side!
Any embarrassing stories you would like to share with us?
In the middle of leading a post-show discussion once, I realised I had a big hole in my tights and had to position myself in such a way that it couldn’t be seen. I looked like I needed the loo the entire time!
A promotional video for Lang Lang’s new Chopin album has the pianist playing Etude Op 25 No 12 while a dancer called Marquese 'Nonstop' Scott responds to the music (in what I now know to be dubstep style) across the floor of a voluminous warehouse. It’s not the first video to combine music and similar dance – in the past we’ve sent Gramophone readers links to the spirited video of Alexandre Tharaud playing Couperin’s Tic Toc Choc, accompanied by a hip hop dancer and beat boxer, and there’s also a sublimely surreal dance response to Yo Yo Ma playing Saint-Saëns at the White House.
Like them, Lang Lang’s video is a fun and thoughtful attempt to bring together two very different artistic forms – and, crucially, two very different audiences. When most people encounter such collaborations it is, however, almost invariably in short-form high-profile experiments such as Lang Lang’s, designed to grab wide attention. That’s not meant to belittle them – that’s part of their point. But elsewhere such collaborations can, and do, create something deeper and more meaningful.
At a formative, grassroots, level, I personally see this a lot. My wife runs a theatre, the Blue Elephant in London, which offers a nurturing home for this sort of cross artform collaboration. Having regularly accompanied me to classical events over many years, she possibly has a uniquely rounded perspective on both ‘worlds’; but it’s clearly an appetite shared by many young artists she works with, and for whom this isn’t so much cross artform as just art. Earlier this year she staged a performance by a group called ConcertTheatre, led by artists from the Royal Academy of Music and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which combined music by Chopin and Schubert with texts by TS Eliot and Chekhov. This was not a pianist offering background mood music - rather the words, their rhythm and cadence, were intricately interwoven with the score. It became something quite different to what either could achieve on their own – and was poignant and beautiful.
Talking after that performance with the principal of the RAM (and Gramophone critic) Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, I was thrilled to hear of his commitment to the potential such exchanges of ideas can have for creativity. The RAM has form here, whether that be links with the Bristol School of Animation, working with the British Film Institute on presenting a newly restored print of Alfred Hitchcock’s first film The Pleasure Gardens at Wilton’s Music Hall, or drawing on elements of choreographed design, theatre and puppetry for a new opera by Peter Maxwell Davies. It’s also currently working on a collaboration with the Wallace Collection to help explore and contextualise an exhibition. And, from a different group, earlier this month I reported on the first collaboration between The Sixteen and the Queen’s Galleries, linking Josquin and da Vinci.
Elsewhere, two years ago, Aldeburgh Festival’s ambitious enthusiasm for ignoring boundaries saw me walking through a rain-swept Thorpeness, from Britten concert to concert, beside sculptural installations floating in the Meare and young actors resplendent in vintage Fred Perry playing tennis or thwacking the rough, illuminating the Edwardian resort’s origins. Next year’s festival promises a Peter Grimes-themed walk through Aldeburgh itself courtesy of immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, about which I’m very intrigued but slightly apprehensive.
English National Opera is also to be praised here, the hypnotically meditative music of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha not so long ago given vivid visual manifestation by theatre company Improbable. The project attracted one of my theatre friends to his first opera – this is what ENO should be doing more of if it wants to attract the artistically committed and curious new audiences it seeks, not obsessing over what audience members wear (for the record, I doubt it even crossed my friend’s mind whether his attire was or was not suitable). And if any individual artist embodies such work, it must surely be Michel van der Aa, his compositions embracing film and movement not as a way of simply staging them, but as an integral part of the scored piece.
Cross art form collaboration is not always the right approach, and sometimes it doesn’t work. Blending genres, or adding elements to established works of art, needs to create something different and of worth in its own right – otherwise it detracts. Sometimes music requires an approach of uncompromising purity to achieve an entirely immersive level of emotional understanding and engagement. After all, what could anything other than a single violin add to the solo Sonatas and Partitas of Bach? Yet even there, I note Alina Ibragimova recently collaborated to critical acclaim with film-makers the Quay Brothers on a work involving the deeply spiritual Chaconne.
This article began with the headline ‘where Lang Lang led’. I wasn’t implying that he was leading the charge towards a new way of working – there are others far further down that road, though I hope that with his talent and ability to inspire others it’s a road along which he will continue to journey – but more that he’s led this article a long way from a short promotional film of a pianist and dubstep dancer. So let’s return to where we began: here’s the video.
Blue Elephant Theatre’s Speak Out! Project gives disaffected students a means of exploring tough issues impacting on their lives, aiming to develop pupil’s aspirations, as Susan Elkin discovers.
“I’ll be the grandmother and my name’s Sue”, says one girl. “And I’ll be Lia’s boyfriend, Tom. I’m 20 and I’m a mechanic,” declares another, while a third decides to be the main character’s ten-year-old younger sister.
These girls are students at the City of London Academy in Bermondsey, South London. The drama group consists of about 12 girls, who look rather smart in their purple blazers. However, problems and issues are simmering not far below the surface.
The girls all year 10 students aged 14 & 15, have been handpicked by their teachers from different classes as being the young women most likely to benefit from Blue Elephant Theatre’s ongoing and developing Speak Out! Project.
Under the skilled and sensitive leadership of Jen Camillin, BET’s facilitator, the girls are sitting in a circle developing a story based around a made-up character named Lia. They decide that Lia doesn’t get on with her mother, doesn’t know her father, has had at least one abortion and is sexually promiscuous. Encouraged by Camillin to add positive ideas to make Lia a rounded character, they agree she is also caring, popular at school and quite intelligent.
This is the fourth week of the eight week project. The girls still find it difficult to take turns to speak, and there is much talking over each other and the adults. However, Lucy Oragano, head of arts at CLA, says their listening skills have improved markedly since the first session.
During that initial class, it emerged that what the girls hated most was being “labelled” or called names, with “slag” being the most detested term of abuse. So Camillin, calmly and assertively adept at focussing on the behaviour she wants rather than getting irritated by participants who don’t follow the rules, allowed the work to evolve around this name-calling issue. The fictional Lia typifies the sort of girls’ own lives and what they see going on around them.
The project will culminate in an informal performance so the students can demonstrate what they’ve learnt and have achieved. Oragano would like this to be a presentation for an audience of the academy’s female staff, on the grounds it would help to establish some woman-to-woman solidarity in the school and do wonders for the students’ confidence- the core aim of the Speak Out! project.
Based in Camberwell, South London, Blue Elephant Theatre has an extensive and imaginative education outreach programme. “Speak Out! is a forum that began at BET three years ago, funded by the Alan & Babette Sainsbury trust,” explains artistic Director Jasmine Cullingford . “The project has used forum theatre to tackle issues that affect young people, such as knife crime, bullying, confidence, anger and, most recently, the role of young men. We’ve usually toured with a 25-minute play followed by a workshop.
“Then CLA said they’d like to devise a project with us. Lucy Oragano was looking at using arts activities to find ways of encouraging young women to be more confident, outward-looking and to develop higher aspirations. So Speak Out! sponsored by Team London Bridge and the philanthropist Peter De Haan, was born.”
And it seems to be working. “Many of these girls have a history of poor attendance,” says Oregano. “But it’s improved noticeably in the last month because they like this work and make the effort to be in school for it.”
Although the sessions are partly about developing self-control and respect for others, Oragano also makes a point of it being fun. She provides a little feast of chocolate brownies and cola drinks halfway through the session, for example.
A special trip is planned for the group- to cost the students nothing- to Broadway Theatre, in Catford, a few days after my visit. They were going to see Present Theatre’s production of Stop Search, which raises issues around police powers and would probably have struck a chord with this group of urban young women.
Taking part in the project means the girls are withdrawn from their other lessons for two consecutive 50-minute sessions- a total of more than an hour and a half a week. Oragano tactfully placates her colleagues by moving the time each week so the students do not repeatedly miss the same lesson and thereby fall behind with other work.
Meanwhile, back at the school’s main drama teaching space- the girls are producing some pretty slick improvisation in which one or two characters and Lia argue, persuade, encourage and debate.
Yet another imaginative way of using drama in education.
Jimmy Chamberlain was the winner of the Rising Star Award 2012 and has been volunteering with the Blue Elephant’s Education Department since he moved to London to start university.
He is only twenty but the commitment he shows to the organisation, and the Young People’s Theatre in particular, is exceptional. He supports various groups for young people participating in our theatre giving encouragement to local young people, who might otherwise be unable to access the arts for social, economic or other reasons.
He also bends over backwards to help out whenever the need arises. This may be doing ‘front of house’ for a school performance at the theatre, rigging lights for a Young People[‘s Theatre performance, being an escort on a trip to the theatre or lending a hand to other education projects when needed.
He is completely devoted to any project he undertakes and a key part of the team at the Blue Elephant.
His award was presented by Cllr Dora Dixon-Fyle, cabinet member for young people and children’s services.
I’m at Comber Grove Primary School in Camberwell watching a class of lively but impeccably behaved Year 5 children enjoying a drama lesson with a difference. I’m intrigued to be in this Southwark school, actually, because in education circles it is legendary - although I doubt these Year 5 pupils are aware of that.
Comber Grove’s Head teacher, Mike Kent, has been a regular contributor to the TES, the paper which does for teachers what The Stage does for actors, for decades and is the author of several books. He is famous for inclusive, rigorous, creative education especially in the arts and you can sense that ethos as soon as you walk through the door.
The lesson I’m sitting in on is no ‘ordinary’ drama lesson though - if indeed there is any such thing? This is a 45 minute workshop set up by Blue Elephant Theatre which is just round the corner. Stuart Cox, BET’s full-time Education and Development Director, works in the school regularly and is clearly well known to the children.
BET’s new production for Christmas is Noah’s Ark by Mervyn Peake. It opens later this week and I shall be reviewing it for The Stage. Today’s workshop is led by three of the Noah’s Ark cast, Gareth Murphy, Lawrence O’Connor and Claire Sharpe, who have just come from rehearsals.
First Murphy warms the group up with games involving animals in the jungle and movements standing in a circle. Then O’Connor, a charismatic storyteller, tells them the Peake version of the Noah’s Ark story. Small group freeze-frame activities follow, along with songs taught by Sharpe, who is a skilled actor musician. Some more games round the workshop off. By the end of the session, as O’Connor points out to the class with gentle strength, the children have acted out the entire Noah’s Ark story.
Some of the children have seen shows at BET which is in the heart of Camberwell’s almost iconic, tower block, social housing estate. Most have not and Cox gives every child a flyer in the hope that some might persuade their parents to take them to Noah’s Ark.
At the end, one positive but not in the least pushy little girl comes straight up to Sharpe and hugs her spontaneously as a way of saying thank you and goodbye. Then she solemnly hugs Murphy and O’Connor. What a joy to see such natural good manners and evident pleasure in the work and those who have provided it.
Meanwhile, another workshop led by three more actors from Noah’s Ark’s cast of nine is taking place in another nearby school because this is a densely populated area and BET takes its community and education work very seriously indeed. It has Arts Council Funding for it and is able to offer workshops like the one I saw free to the school through partnership with Children in Need.
In fact BET has so much excellent work going on that I hope to write a more in-depth piece about its youth theatre, community plays, projects in schools and so on in the new year probably for the Training pages of The Stage. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to Noah’s Ark on Friday, having also sat in on part of a rehearsal last week. And feel quite privileged to have seen those children getting such a lot out of their workshop.
It’s probably a little-known fact that the Blue Elephant is the only theatre in Camberwell, writes Yvonne Gardon…
Artistic director Jasmine Cullingford says the theatre, located in the middle of a large residential estate, is a theatrical resource for people living in Southwark and south London generally.
She says: “We are Southwark Council-funded, so are keen to get in local audiences who can get a discount. The people who surround us here are very important to us. “They can literally step out of their front door and into the theatre, without the need for transport. We are inclusive in the broadest sense of the word and want people to know they don’t have to cross the river to see good quality theatre”
Jasmine admits it has been a slow process to bring their vision to fruition of producing shows in-house. She says “I just want to carry on concentrating on creating great non-conventional work, which is often neglected and not put on elsewhere.”
She says the Blue Elephant, which also hosts art exhibitions, remains true to it’s philosophy of staging brave, non-commerical and thought-provoking theatre. She adds: “We want to be different. This is expressed more by our approach than by what work we put on. For example we stage traditional classics in a radical way”
The 50-seater theatre holds free workshops in Southwark schools and holiday clubs and staged its first community play earlier this year, which was a great success.
Although the theatre, which also stages contemporary dance, puts a lot of emphasis on local playwrights’ work, quality is of the essence. Jasmine said: ‘Nearly every show we do has a Southwark base. We do want to support local writers, but the quality of the work always comes first.
“I have always loved theatre, but never dreamed I would end up running one. I love my job.”
Jasmine comes from a PR and marketing background, which enables her to maintain a sense of realism about the productions. She explains: “Not having an artistic background helps, because it means I can see the shows more form an audience perspective.
“I give honest feedback based on my love of theatre and the artists find that really refreshing.” “I would describe the work we do as weird, wonderful and cutting edge, but with a serious core at it’s heart.”
Watching a theatrical production, it may seem to us, the humble audience, that the stars of the show are the actors performing on stage. But in fact, it takes a huge team, all working hard behind the scenes to put a production together. And so, we’ve taken a peek behind the curtain and found out a little more from one talented young lady working at one of the UK’s most innovative performing arts venues, The Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell. Meet Jasmine Cullingford…
Have you always wanted to be an Artistic Director?
I’ve always wanted to work in a theatre, yes (I did my school work placement at the Contact Theatre), but I never thought I’d be lucky enough actually to run one myself!
How did you get to where you are today and would you do anything differently?
I did a lot of work experience and part-time work whilst still at uni: I was Student Rep for both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court Theatre, where I had a three-month summer work placement, and on my year abroad (I studied French and Italian), I volunteered at Franco American Cinema Theatre, a drama school in Paris. I also worked at my university’s theatre, The Bloomsbury. On graduating, I went to work for the Orange Tree Theatre and then on to Theatre Royal Stratford East before coming to the Blue Elephant. I have learnt something from all my jobs and met great people along the way – I don’t think I would do anything differently.
What does being an artistic director involve on a day-to-day basis?
One day can be dedicated to artistic work, seeing productions, reading plays or casting actors. Another can be deciding what cover to choose for our brochure and how we’re going to market the season. And yet another can be entirely office-based working on balancing the books or writing contracts. Each day is very different.
What do you think is the biggest problem in British society today?
So many people’s lack of respect for others and for themselves.
And what is the most positive thing?
Our tolerance of difference.
How do you feel about the funding crisis in the arts?
A particularly pertinent question given our main funder, Southwark Council – which has kindly supported us since we were founded – has yet to make its arts funding announcements for this year… The arts enhance and transform people’s lives and can play a vital role in motivating young people. I strongly believe in state sponsorship of the arts, particularly of grassroots organisations such as the Blue Elephant which cannot rely on audience members being rich benefactors, or corporate companies who understandably want something in return for their money: they support blockbuster exhibitions and nights at the opera; they rarely give to fringe theatres where they can’t easily entertain clients and where their name can only ever be advertised to fifty people a night…
Charities such as ours provide incredible value for money, functioning on minimal subsidy, relying on the hard work and dedication of our volunteers and the goodwill and support of the community. Yes, there are trusts and foundations that arts organisations can apply to but not only is demand for grants exceptionally high now, but these do not provide the secure long-term funding that the state can provide. It is unrealistic to think otherwise.
Is theatre essentially quite elitist in the UK?
When you can go to the National Theatre for a tenner, no, I don’t think you can say that…!
What does the BET do to encourage community involvement?
We have an extensive education remit which encompasses working in local primary and secondary schools, after-school and holiday clubs and two youth theatres. We have just put on our first community play which local residents wrote and starred in and produced themselves, a project we very much hope to do again. All our outreach work is provided free of charge. We provide work experience placements to local students and residents and we also have a Southwark residents’ discount for all our shows.
How easy is it for young playwrights to get their work on stage?
The Blue Elephant supports new playwrights of whatever age, but there are a number of theatres in London which particularly support young writers (such as Soho Theatre, the Royal Court and the Old Vic New Voices scheme). If they have the potential to be the Next Big Thing or hit on the new zeitgeist, they might be lucky enough to have work premiered at one of these venues. If their writing is not in vogue for whatever reason, however, it can be very difficult to get work on stage.
Do you feel British or European?
How are theatres using the online space today?
The web is very useful as a marketing tool. Theatres usually have Facebook, Myspace and Twitter accounts (we have our own Social Networking Co-ordinator for example) and well-developed websites with cast members writing blogs and YouTube trailers. Theatre is so much about the live, shared experience in the real space though, that there is a limit to what one can or needs to do in a virtual arena. You can’t replicate being in the theatre and feeling the rush of air as performers glide past you or being part of a cumulative build-up of laughter at a comic scene. At the Blue Elephant you can also usually find the cast and crew in the bar afterwards so you can give feedback directly rather than online (although I would advise the latter if your comments are negative…!).
How do you feel about celebrity involvement with the theatre?
Not something we’ve ever had a dilemma about here at the Blue Elephant, given we work with new and emerging artists (the celebrities of the future perhaps…?!). Personally I’m not very up on who’s who – I don’t have a TV so I generally never know who the celebs are! I would never be interested myself in seeing something just because someone famous was in it, but if it gets someone into the theatre who would otherwise not go, I see nothing wrong with that.
One production that you’d like to see at the BET?
All our work is new so that’s a difficult one for me to answer… The production that I’d like to see is probably still a seed in the head of an artist at the moment…!
Who are you listening to at the moment?
The new British Sea Power album, Erland and the Carnival (who were my band of 2010), Lully (whose opera ‘Bellerophon’ I’ve just been to see at Versailles), and old favourites The Bluetones.
What has been your favourite production (or productions) at the BET to date?
I think I might upset a few people were I to pick out personal favourites, but our most critically successful or artistically ambitious productions include Theatre Ad Infinitum‘s ‘Behind The Mirror’ (a tale told entirely through mime), Swedish cabaret duo Scandimaniacs’ ‘Take Me To Hollywood!’, Sebastian Rex Dance Group’s ‘God Cried Woof’ (Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony choreographed in its entirety), Lazarus Theatre Company‘s ‘Othello’ which won the Broadway World Best Regional or Fringe Play Award 2010, ‘Jukai’ (a Japanese-drumming piece), and the world premiere of ‘The Cave’ by Mervyn Peake, author of ‘Gormenghast’, directed by Aaron Paterson.
What couldn’t you live without?
The calming influence of my husband!
My dreams aren’t generally very materialistic… Maybe a Craigie Aitchison ‘Crucifixion’ painting?
Another tough question! There are so many… After Life (Hirokazu Koreeda), The Colour of Paradise (Majid Majidi), The Band’s Visit (Eran Kolirin)… My favourite movies of last year were Of Gods & Men (Xavier Beauvois), and A Single Man (Tom Ford).
Favourite European city and why?
London of course! Paris and Rome are other obvious choices for me as I know them well, but as I’m sure most people will already name these, I’ll just put a ‘shout out’ in for Ghent where I went to the Flanders Festival a few years ago (a wonderfully eclectic mix of classical music and the performing arts) – it’s as equally picturesque as its more touristy neighbour Bruges. I think Belgium is very under-rated – its people are friendly and unassuming and it has great food and drink.
How do you stay motivated?
Very easily… At each performance when I see the artistic results of what our creative teams have worked tirelessly towards, the dedication of the Blue Elephant team in promoting that work and good feedback from audience members, I know all the hard effort is worthwhile.
Desert island book?
Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.
I like bars where I can do something cultural first (so I don’t feel so guilty when I spend the rest of the night drinking…!). In Manchester, where I’m from originally, I love the Cornerhouse, and in London I like the Young Vic bar and that at Tate Modern with its view overlooking the Thames. The National Gallery Café is also a great place where you can easily get a seat on a Friday or Saturday night; very rare for central London.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that despite the economic climate, financial and public support for the arts continues… So I hope I’ll still have a job in the arts come then!
Can you run in heels?
I know I can run as I’ve been told that I never seem to walk anywhere! But I don’t know if I can do so in heels… I generally wear ballerina pumps or run around the theatre barefoot!
My knowledge of Camberwell is rather limited. But a quick Google search informs me it’s home to London’s largest teaching hospital, a host of elegant and well-preserved Georgian houses, and one of the oldest pubs in south London. A good start by all accounts.
And amid the ‘Saaf London’ hustle and bustle, not far from Oval station, lies a cultural gem – the Blue Elephant Theatre. The only theatre in Camberwell, BET was established in 1999 by writer and director Antonio Ribeiro, and was originally known as a showcase for foreign political theatre.
It is an intimate, 50-seat space where audiences can enjoy a varied programme, often showcasing emerging artists, and meet for drinks and a post-show natter in the bar upstairs. Hailed as the epitome of London fringe, the no-frills venue promises quality shows at affordable prices.
I spoke to Jasmine Cullingford, Artistic Director of the theatre, to find out what makes her – and the theatre – tick. An aficionado of the arts, adventurer, keen swimmer and wife to a music journalist, Cullingford has worked at BET for six years, clinching the job of artistic director in 2006.
A tiny theatre in Camberwell is putting itself on the dance map. Lyndsey Winship visits the Blue Elephant.
Tucked around an unassuming corner amid the tower blocks and low rises of a Camberwell council estate, a small but thriving theatre is probably not what you'd expect to find.
'People are always amazed: they say, “Why is there a theatre here?" says the Blue Elephant's artistic director, Jasmine Cullingford. 'And I say: “Well, people live around here, so why shouldn't there be a theatre here?"'. She's got a point.
Now celebrating its tenth year in the business, the Blue Elephant is one of a growing number of venues off the beaten track where dance fans can get their fix without even denting Zone 1.
Although the main thrust of the programme is theatre, the Blue Elephant is presenting an increasing amount of dance. This week, for example, sees the start of a two week run for director Sebastian Rex, who is creating a dance theatre piece set to Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony. Next month there'll be a showcase of work from choreographers Hagit Yakira, Maria Korsnes, Vanessa Abreau and Lorraine Smith of Silversmith Dance.
The theatre itself only has a capacity of 50, so even in the back row you're up close to the action. For dance audiences it can be an intense experience - especially if you're used to studying abstract geometry from the heights of the upper circle. These are real, powerful bodies, right in front of you, complete with flesh, discernible faces and flying beads of sweat.
The audience is a real mix : some locals from the estate and around, some regulars from Southwark (borough residents get cheap tickets) and curious theatre lovers from across South London. Cullingford is aware of having to get the balance right, programming accessible work and education projects for young people from surrounding estates, without sacrificing quality.
'A lot of people associate community theatre with amateur dramatics, but everything we do is professionally based,' she says 'People start here and go onto the bigger venues. It's high quality work'.
So if you want to catch emerging artists while they are still genuinely emerging, and perhaps you're the proud owner of an SE postcode, then it's worth remembering that as much as we may love the big guys, there is life beyond Sadler's Wells.