Almeida Festival 2013: Have we misunderstood the nature of tradition?

Big hits
I’m about to let you in on a round-table discussion I had with three artists presenting work at Almeida Festival 2013. Helpfully, one of them, Lucy Morrison, is wearing two hats: one as director of Little on the Inside by Alice Birch for Clean Break and one as a curator for the festival itself.

She’s here with Hester Chillingworth, (one third of GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN alongside Jennifer Pick and Lucy McCormick) and Tim Cowbury of Made in China (with Jessica Latowkicki). Tucked away in an Islington meeting room, talk begins with thoughts on putting together a festival of “companies who really believe something about theatre and about the world.” It meanders to the pronunciation of Almeida (Almeeda, Almayda, who knows?), takes a few stabs at understanding the different notions of ‘tradition’ and settles on the need for pairing risk-taking with established practices.

Theatres already tread carefully when it comes to messing with the established and what’s needed is a frank discussion about what they are trying to do and why they’re doing it. Launching his Secret Theatre season at Lyric Hammersmith, artistic director Sean Holmes recently gave a clear speech on “challenging existing structures.” He centred his talk on the rehearsal room and creative processes but he also mentioned equality in the number of men and women on stage and the presence of non-white and disabled actors. “This” he said, “is just one way you can fundamentally change the conversation.” Sitting with Tim, Hester and Lucy, I get the sense Almeida Theatre are trying something similar with their festival but doing it with much more caution. I think they’re on the road to achieving a better balance with more lasting effects when it comes to challenging tradition and increasing the crossover between mainstream and left-field audiences. While I admire the intent, I worry that in the long-term Secret Theatre might be a flash in the pan.
Almeida Festival 2013

As I understand it, tradition can be something customary, something long-practised and something with authority; but it can also be something that is inherited, passed on from one generation to another. So could it go both ways, from the older to the younger and vice versa? Can a younger generation create a tradition for their elders? And if we’re going to challenge tradition, shouldn’t we give tradition its due credit for adapting to a changing society as exemplified since the beginning of time? Maybe we’re talking about developing new traditions and in terms of theatre practices where money is tight and audiences too often pigeon-holed, that is risky.  But risk-taking, from an audience perspective, is as Tim puts it, “a logical response to cultural overload. An experience that someone actually bothers to leave the house for, given that you can feel like you’ve experienced the whole world through your laptop, has to have something unexpected to it.”

This comes after we reel off on a tangent about London’s love of anything ‘secret’. Secret locations, secret cinema, secret suppers, we seem to love a bit of the unknown. But key to these events is their careful balance of traditional practices and non-traditional context and sometimes (though not often enough) non-traditional content. Ticket selling for example, hasn’t changed much in recent years. Marketing too, isn’t often as radical as it likes to think.

But for the annual Almeida Festival, now in its third year, Lucy acknowledges the theatre’s ever-changing approach to these necessaries and the things that “the Almeida needs to hold its nerve on”. They’ve dropped last year’s expensive day passes and are instead encouraging double bills for £15-20 while keeping a maximum ticket cost at £15 per show (lowest price is £5 depending on the concession).

The marketing, which highlights themes of capitalism, culture clashes, and the relationship between education and class, is franker about what’s being explored at this festival although, as is always the case with theatre,  nothing should be taken too literally. Like Tim says about Made in China’s Gym Party, “we say that this show is about capitalism, the free market and the psychology that is almost implanted in us by society. But if you see it you might come away thinking, that show had no mention of bankers or government. Instead you’ll see marshmallow eating competitions, you’ll hear quasi-religious rhetoric and there’ll be wigs.”
But the festival will maintain the customary press night which, as Lucy explains, “helps the more traditional Almeida audience connect with the festival. But” she goes on to say “I think the festival should ultimately break apart those traditions. It’s about bridging the gap. There’s room for lots of different types of traditions in left-field theatre, I think it’s good to rub up against them all.”

Dream Pill

Hester, whose show Big Hits was last in London at Soho Theatre, makes a good point about what this kind of support means for audiences: “It seems to me” she begins, “that this festival is being quite overt but not in a stressful way. It’s saying you will be somewhat challenged, which I think is really important. Because what’s not good for anyone in the equation, is if audiences end up somewhere that they really don’t want to be. If they feel they’ve come in under false pretences or that a trick has been played on them, no one’s happy. This [the festival] will be almost a bit theme park-y. You know there’ll be rides that shock you and rides you didn’t expect to like but you’ll be supported on those rides. As much as there is context for us [the artists], there is context for an audience too.”

Also significant for GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN is the space. The festival houses its shows in all kinds of areas including dressing rooms, where Clean Break’s Dream Pill will be. In addition, it hands over its main space. “To be in that main legitimate space, architecturally and also culturally brings connotations and history,” Hester explains.

Her final word on the festival’s approach sums up a lot about the rubbing together of different traditions and the openness needed for longer lasting change. “Being in an established place and building,” she says “means we can really play the games we want to play. It’s that pairing of risk-taking and establishment that really makes it.”

It will take more festivals, more revisiting and revising of ideas, traditions and practices to help us create new ones and adapt the old ones so that they benefit more people from across the wide, complex spectrum of theatregoers.

Almeida Festival runs from 9th July to 9th August 2013.

Images: 1 – Bit Hits, 2 – Tim Cowbury of Made in China 3 – Dream Pill

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