Devon invests in the cream of the theatre crop

Natasha Tripney
Natasha is The Stage's reviews editor and joint lead critic.
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The question of whether ‘regional theatre’ is in any way a useful term was being debated once again over on Lyn Gardner’s Guardian theatre blog recently. One of the comments made under the post, in reference to the New Wolsey in Ipswich, was that - terminology aside - “good ‘regional’ theatres, like all theatres, are efficient businesses, community hubs, artistic playgrounds, places of learning, and incredibly exciting places to be”: places that nurture, places that educate and support.

It’s in this spirit that an interesting event at Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre has been created.  Beginning this week on January 14, the venue will be hosting a ten-day showcase of the work of locally-based companies, From Devon with Love. Every artist on the bill is linked with Devon in some way, whether they have lived there all their lives or moved there to study or work.

Callum Elliott-Archer, the season’s producer, calls the festival a “safe space”, a place where new work can be developed and vital industry experience gained. He stresses how “an opportunity like this is rare for emerging artists, especially in Devon” but that the Bike Shed, described by Gardner on a separate occasion as “keeping theatre alive in Exeter” - is committed to staging work by local artists. This is, he says, “vital to the progression of the arts sector as a whole.”

[pullquote]Given the right support then we could be seeing some, inspiring, quality and progressive work coming from the South West.[/pullquote]

The festival has been put together with the intention of allowing emerging artists to try out new ideas “and ultimately progress upwards.”  Companies featured include Baram Theatre, with a production of Sarah Kane’s Crave; SourDough Theatre, with its version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Maiden, and Tumbling Hat with The 100m Sprint. Local storyteller and performer Jack Dean presents Rain and Parapet Theatre will be staging a version of Mike Bartlett’s contractions.

“There is a diverse and vibrant performance sector in Devon,” says Elliott-Archer (which is particularly well documented by Belinda Dillon in her blog at Devon Life), “and if given the right support then we could be seeing some, inspiring, quality and progressive work coming from the South West.”

Fin Irwin, co-director of The Bike Shed along with David Lockwood, echoes his sentiments, saying: “Theatre can only thrive if the local community is given the opportunity to be a part of it.” Local audiences, he says “engage very well with local companies and local stories; theatre that touches something tangible in your life, be it a story or people you know - especially in an intimate space like The Bike Shed - can have a profound effect on people.”

The current cultural recession of course means that many “young and emerging theatre companies face the prospect of little or no funding and there are less spaces willing to take risks on new work - it’s a tough environment in which to start out - however, the flip side to this is that companies have to be more resourceful, resilient and open minded about collaboration, and new ways of working. “ The Bike Shed, with From Devon From Love and with later planned seasons and events, is providing the space for that to happen.