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The Blue Elephant Theatre never ever does things by

Please see our past programme section for reviews of past shows.


Interview: Jasmine Cullingford

Running in Heels
Date published
Thursday 17 February 2011
Alice Revel

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!

Dream purchase?

My dreams aren’t generally very materialistic… Maybe a Craigie Aitchison ‘Crucifixion’ painting?

Favourite movie?

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.

Favourite bar?

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!


Interview: Jasmine Cullingford

The London Word
Date published
Wednesday 6 October 2010
Nicole Rapaport

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.



London's secret dance spaces

Time Out
Date published
Thursday 5 November 2009
Lyndsey Winship

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.