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Tara for now

The offices of Tara Arts [1] in Earlsfield, London, have a distinctly domestic feel. Though the company has inhabited this space above the Tara Theatre since 1983, it still feels like a place in which people only recently lived, complete with Artex ceiling, old fireplaces and floors that slope and creak. The upstairs rooms overflow with posters, props, costumes, Chinese lucky cats and old Panama hats. The company seems on the verge of bursting out of the space.

Tara Arts was founded in 1977 by artistic director Jatinder Verma, and the company moved into the current building 30 years ago. From 1985 onwards it operated as the Tara Arts Centre, staging a mix of in-house and touring productions. Funding cuts in the early 1990s meant that the building was used only as a rehearsal space, until it was relaunched as a theatre venue in 2007. Now Verma has plans to take things to the next level, creating a new, small-scale theatre that better reflects the company’s cross-cultural ethos while also providing a more comfortable audience experience.

Verma shows me the architectural drawings for the proposed new home, spreading them out on a table in one of the cluttered rooms that doubles as a rehearsal space. The new building will retain its original Victorian facade but this will be supplemented by a new structure, an extension of the current space. Designed by RHWL Architects’ Arts Team, which specialises in creating spaces for the performing arts, this structure will feature a bold terracotta frontage bearing the motif of a tree.

These additions will both maintain a sense of visual harmony with the Garratt Lane terrace, of which it is a part, while also making it stand out. The idea of the tree is central to the design, Verma explains, because it is a symbol of storytelling – and therefore, by extension, of theatre – in much of India and Africa, as trees were, traditionally, the places where people would join together to share stories, sheltered and shaded by the branches above.

We go downstairs into the performance space, once a Salvation Army hall, its flat roof prone to leakage. The current theatre, with its walls of chilly brick, is capable of seating 80, but the new space will be capable of seating a minimum of 100 people, and Verma is particularly excited about the fact that it will have an earth floor – another link between traditional and contemporary forms of performance and storytelling.

The toilets will be relocated to the basement, freeing up crucial space at ground level, allowing for the possibility of an all-day cafe. More excitingly, discussions with Network Rail – the building is situated directly next to the railway line – have resulted in the company acquiring some outdoor space, which will be used as a social area but also potentially for performances. The rooms above the theatre will be converted into rehearsal and development space, with another floor being added above to house the administrative offices.

The new building will also be as carbon-neutral as possible, with solar panels and ground source heating. Tara’s work has always been about the “crossing of cultures”, says Verma, and it is their intention “to inscribe this into the new building”, to create a space with a greater sense of identity, bridging two cultures. In addition to the earth floor, the doors and windows, architraves and lighting will be sourced from India in an attempt to create a stronger aesthetic reflection of the company’s philosophy.

Architectural drawing of the Tara Theatre’s proposed new building [2]
Architectural drawing of the Tara Theatre’s proposed new building

All this, of course, costs money. A “muted local campaign” has raised £53,000, but the company’s target amount is £800,000, so there is clearly still some way to go. To this end, it is appointing a permanent in-house development director and approaching trusts and foundations while also stepping up the local campaign. Tara’s seat-naming scheme is more personal than most, allowing donors not only to name a seat, but also to pick the fabric with which their seat will be covered – the donor’s name will then be embroidered on the back.

Currently, 49% of Tara’s audience is local. The theatre is less than 20 minutes from Waterloo, and its location means that it acts as both a local and a London venue, catering to the community while also staging work that appeals to, and attracts, a much wider audience.

According to Verma, the venue has adapted over the years to reflect social shifts in the Earlsfield area. A significant population of young professional South Africans and Brazilians now lives nearby, as well as a growing Polish population, and the company has tried to programme work to cater to the tastes of these groups.

One of the most significant changes in Tara’s programming policy over the years is the recent introduction of an annual pantomime. In 2011, Hardeep Singh Kohli’s Bollywood Cinderella took the classic fairytale and gave it an Indian twist. This show proved so popular that Tara tried it again last year, staging Dick Whittington goes Bollywood [3]. There’s an affinity between Bollywood and musical theatre, Verma says, and the success of both shows means pantomime is now a staple of the company’s line-up. High-quality children’s theatre will also be central to its programme and identity as a venue.

All these creative threads contribute to Tara’s continuing aim to be a venue that fuses the global and the local under one roof. Verma explains: “I hope the new Tara will enshrine multiculturalism as an elegant and inspirational bricks-and-mortar reality of 21st-century Britain – a reality that helps link our local community to a global sensibility, provides a home for a diversity of artists young and old, and sustains Tara in building imaginative bridges across cultures.”

Read Natasha Tripney’s online regional theatre blog at www.thestage.co.uk/columns/nationwide [4]