Poles apart?

Open Court at The Royal Court
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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A couple of weeks ago at the Warsaw Theatre Meetings I found myself defending the vibrancy of London theatre with examples of fringe programming. A Polish colleague had said - albeit sheepishly - that London theatre was boring and I had to admit that a lot of mainstream work could be considered rather samey.

Theatres in London were very good at doing ‘well made productions’ of ‘well made plays’, he said, but innovation in our theatre practice was somewhat lacking. I nodded sagely and then thought about it and said "but not on the fringe".

[pullquote]Fringe programmers are proving ever more collaborative and adventurous[/pullquote]

As unconventional work from pop up spaces such as The Yard and companies like Shunt proceeded to roll off my tongue, I realised that in the context of this discussion – where each Polish production in this brilliantly outlandish festival had taken place in a traditional theatre space – it was the recent programming decisions of some established fringe and Off West End theatres that it was best to champion.

While big theatres could be accused of getting caught in a circle of polished but desperately straightforward productions, fringe programmers are proving ever more collaborative and adventurous.

Forest Fringe’s recent residency at the Gate Theatre is a great example of this. A festival designed to create collaborative environments for performance artists, Forest Fringe is nomadic for most of the year. While this enables it to spread its branches more widely, it also means that for an audience a unified context around this playful work is sometimes difficult to come by.

By giving Forest a platform, the Gate frames this experimental work within a proscenium arch, exploring the tensions in this partnership and inspiring discussion about traditional and avant-garde work. The resultant program is anything but ‘boring’ or ‘samey’.

This type of thinking is perhaps expected at the Gate, a venue with an already proven international reach and imagination. Perhaps more surprising is that it is happening over at that bastion of British new writing, The Royal Court too. This summer Vicky Featherstone will hand the keys over to the writers themselves in an artist curated six-week season called Open Court.

Open Court will provide a wealth of new theatrical experiences including – better take a breath – “a weekly repertory company performing a different new play each week; a surprise theatre experience; a chance to hear a Royal Court playwright read aloud one of their plays; a nightly soap opera in Peckham; a weekly big idea, exploring sex, age, death, collaboration, European austerity and a week of workshops, plays and events for 8-11 year olds and their families”.

Such a democratic spirit sees Featherstone eliminating any perceived hierarchy within the Court in a move that, as Matt Trueman eloquently tweeted, “will abolish the Upstairs/Downstairs model @royalcourt. Temporarily, perhaps, just these things leave indelible traces”.

By opening up their spaces in this way, Chris Haydon – artistic director of the Gate – and Featherstone are enabling new forms of work to be experienced on established off west end stages. It may be a while before we have main stage work in the capital that is as inventive as continental Europe, but surely this is a step in the right direction.