Rachel Chavkin: Riding the Elephant

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Originally written for Exeunt.

For a theatremaker whose work has a distinctly American flavour, Rachel Chavkin has a surprisingly close relationship with British theatre. The artistic director of The TEAM, a company who have made a name for themselves interrogating modern American identity, was last over here with Mission Drift, which had its first London run at The Shed last summer after premiering on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011. When we speak, she is in Newcastle for rehearsals of her new stage version of Catch 22 at Northern Stage; other ongoing projects include a collaboration with Chris Thorpe and a new TEAM show being made in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland.

“It’s the culture of theatre here,” Chavkin explains the continuing appeal. In contrast to American theatres, which rarely have in-house bars or restaurants, she is drawn to the community that gathers around theatres in this country, where people meet to socialise and extend the conversations started on the stage. “The idea that the theatre is a building of culture and life has had a huge influence on my work with The TEAM and my sense of what I want theatre to be doing in the world.”

For her latest project, however, Chavkin is making work for British audiences without the company of The TEAM. The idea of adapting Catch 22 for Lorne Campbell’s first main stage season as artistic director of Northern Stage was first suggested in early conversations about the programme, as it emerged that Chavkin had long nurtured an interest in Joseph Heller’s novel. When they discovered that Heller himself had already written a stage adaptation of the book, Chavkin was the obvious choice for director.

She describes the novel, which follows the nightmarish experiences of Captain John Yossarian during the Second World War, as an “extraordinary piece of philosophy and absurdism”. The novel offers a formidable challenge in its presenting of events out of sequence, mirroring the rule of its title in its circular, repetitive structure. It is the book’s more philosophical strands that Chavkin hopes her production can draw out, conveying the “feeling of existential despair” that the narrative builds to.

“The sense of purgatory, of Yossarian caught in this kind of purgatorial loop, that’s the driving idea behind this production and behind the staging,” Chavkin explains. While Heller’s script brings with it certain limitations, she tells me that “the back story and wealth of worlds that Heller presents in the novel has a profound impact on how we’re able to understand the play”. The novel is informing how she presents the “space around the text” and has influenced an aesthetic which contrasts an atmosphere of celebration and fun with the unremitting devastation of conflict. “War is great, other than the war part.”

The advantage of the novel is that, despite not being able to directly consult the writer about the production, there are pages upon pages of additional material available at Chavkin’s fingertips. In this sense, she suggests, “you sort of do have the writer with you”. Chavkin explains that as a freelance director she is more accustomed to working with writers on new plays, a practice that has increasingly fed into the way she creates work with The TEAM.

“When The TEAM was first beginning to create, and for many years of our company’s life, we would always try to fix problems by rewriting them,” Chavkin recalls. “We always turned to writing first and foremost if something didn’t make sense to us. And actually now I have become much more protective of each individual writer’s contribution within The TEAM. Because as a freelance director I have to protect a new writer or a new play all the time, from both myself and the actors, who just may not understand it yet. Sometimes it means that there should be a rewrite, but very often it means there’s some different logic at work in a play and you just have to work a little bit harder to understand that.”

While Chavkin’s different creative processes have points of convergence, she also discusses contrasts between her work as a freelance director and her projects with The TEAM. Whereas The TEAM’s process tends to be “very gnarly and pretty horizontal”, there is a much clearer hierarchy in place when Chavkin is directing elsewhere, though she stresses that she is still “deeply interested in what the acting company and designers might bring to a show”.

Chavkin is working in a slightly different way again on Confirmation, her current project with Chris Thorpe. It is being written by Thorpe, but as director Chavkin has been deeply involved in the research and development of the show. The piece, which is going up to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, investigates confirmation bias – the unconscious bias that leads us to interpret the world around us in ways that support our existing beliefs. Chavkin describes it as “a very aggressive force in our lives” and discusses how eye-opening their research has been.

“The image that a lot of the research uses is the rider and the elephant,” she says, explaining that the rider represents the conscious, rational brain, while the elephant is our unconscious. “The elephant is a much, much larger force than the rider, and the idea is that the rider can to a certain degree guide which way the elephant wants to go, but actually in most cases our rational brain exists to try to explain and justify to ourselves why the elephant is doing what it’s doing. The most surprising thing is the degree to which we are governed by our unconscious.”

It is going to be a busy Edinburgh Fringe for Chavkin this year, who is also presenting a workshop performance with The TEAM and the National Theatre of Scotland. The new collaboration between the two companies indirectly approaches the question of Scottish independence, exploring the national mythologies of both Scotland and the USA. Using the Scottish Enlightenment as its starting point, it traces the journey that the ideas emerging out of that era have made over the years, right up to the present day.

“The idea is that America was this place where all the ideas coming out of the Scottish Enlightenment actually got, like a petri dish, to act upon,” says Chavkin. “350 years later, I think America is finding itself in a somewhat bankrupt place with this radical misunderstanding of what Adam Smith wrote as our national religion, in terms of this incredibly unfettered capitalism.”

Talk of unfettered capitalism recalls Mission Drift, which took an epic, breakneck ride through 400 years of American history, from the earliest settlers to the twinkling spires of Las Vegas. There is undeniably a certain continuity that can be traced in The TEAM’s thinking, from the research into disaster capitalism that informed Architecting through to this latest project. “I think that’s a common theme in all our work,” Chavkin admits. “Something that comes up as an idea in one piece ends up developing and shifting and morphing into the germs of what inspire the next piece.”

Chavkin makes it clear that the new show, tentatively titled Scottish Enlightenment Project, is not explicitly dealing with the Scottish independence referendum and will not appear in its finished form until after the vote, which is a very deliberate decision. But again, as with so much of her work, it asks the questions that sit right at the heart of national identity. “Who do we want to be? What kind of democracy do we want to be? What are our values?”

Building Innovation

NORTH14 group photo credit Topher McGrillis

Originally written for The Stage.

Theatregoers and theatre-makers alike can breathe a sigh of relief as The Shed, the National Theatre’s temporary riverside venue, is granted a longer life. The 225-seat space could now be open for up to another three years, extending its programme of new and experimental work. Under the National Theatre’s associate director Ben Power, this little red powerhouse has stretched the remit of the theatre’s programming since opening last April, bringing in exciting new artists and different ways of working.

But The Shed is not alone. Across the country, a range of subsidised venues are investing in innovative, experimental programming, developing the next generation of artists from within their walls. From festivals to scratch nights, artist residencies to audience development initiatives, these regional producing houses are dedicated to developing the theatre ecology around them, even in lean times.

For Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, new ways of working with artists are not an accessory to the theatre’s core work – they are essential. “The old systems simply aren’t of use,” he says simply, referring to how funding cuts have altered the landscape. In their place, the venue is looking at strands of work that feed the ecosystem of young artists – such as its NORTH scheme for performing arts graduates – and offer the space for new companies to test their work in front of audiences.

This latter need is filled by the theatre’s Stage Three space, which Campbell is developing into a fringe venue for the city. The work on this stage will not be produced by Northern Stage, but instead the venue will be thrown open to Newcastle’s young artists. “Unless there’s a space for those artists to get their work on and make their mistakes in public, they aren’t going to evolve,” Campbell explains the intention. “Unless those young artists can grow an audience at the same time as they’re beginning to grow themselves as artists, nothing is ever going to change.”

For Emma Bettridge, curator of Bristol Old Vic’s artist development department Ferment, it is equally important to offer artists the opportunity to evolve within the theatre’s programme. She describes Ferment’s work as “an ongoing conversation with artists”, emphasising its flexibility in response to artists’ needs. “It’s become about working with artists that we’re really excited about and facilitating them in whatever way is suitable for them,” she explains.

One development in which Bettridge has been instrumental since joining the Old Vic is the backing of more work to full production. It is essential, she stresses, to get the work seen and give it a longer life, as well as connecting it to larger audiences. This is partly achieved through the two Ferment fortnights of work-in-progress showings each year, but Ferment also now supports between six and eight productions a year.

Elsewhere, festivals have become an important outlet for experimental and often unfinished work. Two such examples are Transform in Leeds, produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and the New Wolsey Theatre’s Pulse Festival in Ipswich. Both festivals feature a mixture of finished productions and works-in-progress, placing the work of young artists alongside more established companies.

Rob Salmon, associate director at the New Wolsey, explains that the theatre has honed the Pulse Festival over the years in order to be able to simultaneously support bold programming and retain an audience. The festival now supports a mixture of high profile work and embryonic scratches, combining these different levels of experimentation in a way that manages the risk for theatregoers. Similarly, this year’s Transform Festival includes full-scale commissions, visiting shows from mid-career artists and showings of work in development.

What both Salmon and West Yorkshire Playhouse’s associate producer Amy Letman are adamant about, however, is the need to extend this kind of work beyond the isolated pocket of a short festival. Salmon has recently started up Pulse Presents, a strand of work that keeps the festival’s spirit alive throughout the year. The aim behind it, he says, was to “keep that work ongoing rather than it being something that crashed into the programme at one point in the year and then disappeared”.

Letman agrees: “I think the key thing is people know that there’s an ongoing commitment and desire for this work, and that it’s not something that flashes up and that we do once, but that it’s an ongoing part of our programme. The fact that the work is coming back helps to develop the audience.”

For all of these theatres, they understand this commitment to pushing their programming and supporting new artists as absolutely key to their artistic purpose. Asked how this work fits into his vision for Northern Stage, Campbell responds, “it is the vision”. Meanwhile Peter Rowe, artistic director of the New Wolsey, describes it as the theatre’s “particular mission” to help companies make the leap from small-scale to mid-scale work.

These sentiments are echoed by James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, who tentatively suggests that theatres like his have a leadership role in their regions. “The problem with leadership roles in the past with big organisations is that they set an agenda which is about how you should do it, and that isn’t what I mean by leadership role. What I mean by leadership role in a city, in an area like this, is that our leadership role is about facilitation, it’s about collaboration.”

In times of stretched funding, that notion of collaboration could become increasingly crucial. Importantly, in all of these examples it is the theatres’ status as larger, regularly funded organisations that allows them to take the necessary risks in showing and developing new work. About the necessity of subsidy, Bettridge is unequivocal: “We fill a gap for risk-taking. We always need to have a subsidised pot of money that can we can invest in the ideas stage.”

Photo: Topher McGrillis.

Dark Magic

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Originally written for Exeunt.

No jingling sleigh bells or yells of “he’s behind you” at Northern Stage this Christmas. Dark Woods, Deep Snow, the theatre’s main stage Yuletide show, is certainly festive, but perhaps not in ways that theatregoers have come to anticipate at this time of year. Think less Santa, more magic. “It’s not what an audience will expect coming into a Christmas show,” admits director Lorne Campbell, “but also it’s got all the things that an audience can and should expect coming into a Christmas show; they’re just a little bit in disguise.”

Dark Woods, Deep Snow is Campbell’s first main stage production at the helm at Northern Stage, testing the new artistic director’s commitment to staging work that is large scale, exciting and powerfully local. While his debut might be a family Christmas show, typically seen as a low risk staple of the yearly programme, for Campbell this is the perfect challenge to create a theatre that is at once “populist and sophisticated”.

“We’ve tried to do something really ambitious,” he tells me. “The production is massive, it’s non-naturalistic, it’s visually – I think – absolutely stunning.” For the show, Campbell has brought together a group of artists, including writer Chris Thorpe, designer Garance Marneur and choreographers and performers RashDash, whose “spirit of experimentation” he wanted to free from studio theatres and unleash on a bigger stage. The hope was to retain the mischief and ingenuity, but expand the scale.

This marriage of experiment and scale, tradition and reinvention, is immediately evident at the level of the show’s plot. Charged with creating a narrative that was rooted in this time of year without conforming slavishly to Christmas show conventions, Thorpe was immediately drawn to the idea of stories. He was intrigued by “why there’s this urge in us to get together at this time of year, when the nights are the darkest, and try and turn things around and tell each other stories”.

Captivated by the image of tales shared at the fireside, and drawing inspiration from the story gathering project undertaken by the Brothers Grimm, Thorpe dreamed up a group of characters who live at the edges of the human world, in the “infinitely large forests outside of the human reality, where the stories go after we’ve told them to each other”. Here, they collect the narrative refuse of human society, piecing together the once upon a times and happily ever afters.

“The idea is that there’s a group of characters who have been engaging with these stories for as long as humanity has been telling them,” Thorpe explains, “almost behind the scenes of our reality, and they have observed the way that we tell them, but they themselves aren’t necessarily human. I think that’s a really interesting perspective to have on it.”

As an audience joins this group of characters at the start of the show, human stories are under threat from an external force that wants to rob these narratives from our universe, setting up a classic scenario of conflict and peril. Campbell describes it as a “big, exciting, what’s-going-to-happen-next adventure”, with a “big heart of narrative underneath it”.

While driven by a strong central narrative, however, the show simultaneously operates on a number of levels. As Thorpe explains, his invention has allowed him to incorporate both the familiar and the surprising, as fragments of well known stories meet the strange world of the characters he has created. “And also, because you’re not just retelling old stories in a show like this, it allows you to bring a whole bunch of people into the theatre and ask the questions that theatre is really about,” he goes on. “It’s really focused on everyone coming to the theatre and having a brilliant time, but it’s nice that it also links into what the theatre is there for year round; this place where we can all come and we can all share an experience that isn’t replicable in any other medium and we can all ask questions.”

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These subtle layers equally apply to Marneur’s set design, which couples the recognisable, magical aesthetic of the forest with other unexpected, dazzling and occasionally dark elements. “Our styles are all quite dark,” Marneur says of the creative team. “They appear very beautiful at first, but once you dig a little bit deeper there’s always a second layer, a third layer that gets you to ask questions and provokes you. So the forest is the magical forest of a Christmas show, but it’s also diving into one’s subconscious. And of course that’s a beautiful place to be, but it’s also a very scary place to be. As a festive performance, one might not want to go into those dark places. So keeping the high vibe of the Christmas show with such heavy content and such existential questions being asked was my biggest challenge.”

This begs the question of what a Christmas show really needs. When I put this to Campbell, he pauses for a moment. “Joy, scale, chaos, irreverence,” he eventually answers. Thorpe also points to the spirit of Christmas theatre rather than its explicit themes or imagery, referring to a “feeling of coming together at this time of year to do something celebratory and exciting”. While insisting that he’s not trying to “de-Christmasify” the Christmas show, he adds that “it’s not necessarily about saying ‘hey kids, it’s Christmas’, because the entire world is saying ‘hey kids, it’s Christmas’ at this time of year”.

Getting away from the iconography of Christmas might not have been difficult for Thorpe and his fellow theatremakers, but creating a theatrical language that speaks to both old and young has proved to be more of a challenge. Thorpe, who is more accustomed to writing for adult audiences, is adamant that it is not about adjusting down to the children in the audience – “there isn’t a down, there isn’t a hierarchy”. It is instead about “simply and honestly just saying what you think” and finding common ground.

One way to do this is to recapture the thrill and imagination of childhood for all members of the audience, an aim that was essential to Marneur’s design. She describes her set, an otherworldly maze of towering white trees, as a “flexible playground” for the performers to explore. It is also a playground that can be transformed through the art of projection, allowing Marneur to “play with the audience’s perception of the forest” and conjure some of the magic of the fairytale – a form that translates across all ages, just as the show hopes to.

“It’s hopefully a very accessible family show,” Campbell stresses, “but simultaneously it’s a very sophisticated bit of theatre that’s taking its aspiration very seriously, while being irreverent and ridiculous and funny and fantastical and all of those things at once.” None of this, he adds, is specific to Christmas; as always, they are “just trying to make a really great, exciting bit of theatre”.

There is, however, a certain responsibility that the creative team acknowledge towards audiences who might only attend one show a year at Christmas. Realising that this is the first contact many children have with theatre, Thorpe emphasises that “you’ve got to make that count for them”. He and his collaborators also recognise the unique opportunity they have to attract and engage new audiences by demonstrating that theatre is something they can enjoy all year round. Convince them at Christmas, and they might keep coming back.

“It’s for life,” says Thorpe, “it’s not just for Christmas.”

Lorne Campbell

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As I talk to Lorne Campbell about Northern Stage and this year’s programme at the Edinburgh Fringe, one word keeps stubbornly recurring: “conversation”. The theatre’s new artistic director, still only five weeks into the job, shows a profound understanding of the role of organisations such as Northern Stage in the many current dialogues around theatremaking – dialogues about funding, about politics, about artistic practice. As a key regional producing theatre, Campbell believes that Northern Stage has a responsibility to engage in, respond to and act as a catalyst for those conversations.

“The theatre is a regional theatre,” he says, “and for me that’s about connecting to all of that region. The theatre’s identity is a conversation with all of those multi-faceted communities and identities, rather than a clear thing that you can point a finger at.” When I ask about the importance of a theatre like Northern Stage reflecting its locality, Campbell pauses. “I think that’s quite a complicated question,” he eventually answers. “I think if a theatre like this isn’t local in profound and complicated ways then it’s completely irrelevant, so we have to find a way that our work is of the city and is of the region.”

At the point at which Campbell is taking the reins at Northern Stage, this conversation and these understandings of regional identity are particularly urgent. As he explains, “everything’s on slightly shifting sands”; the organisation is currently coping with cutbacks from the city council and Arts Council England, at the same time as bracing itself for further slashes to its funding. “In the face of all of that, it’s about trying to find the most dynamic and optimistic model you can, but it’s quite difficult to plan into the medium term,” Campbell admits.

While the necessity of protecting the theatre in the short term makes longer term visions difficult at this stage, Campbell makes it clear that Northern Stage’s community of artists is a key priority. “I’ve arrived at a very interesting moment where there is a hugely exciting cohort of artists and companies and writers and actors all coming through in the North East,” he explains, “so a big challenge for us is how we not only protect that generation of artists, but continue their momentum.” He describes the present as a “really potential-filled, optimistic moment”, but he’s under no illusions about how easily that potential could be wasted if the theatre is not able to continue supporting the development of those artists.

Another repeated word in Campbell’s vocabulary, despite the difficult times that Northern Stage and other organisations currently face, is “optimism”. He remains hopeful about the theatre’s ability to harness its resources in support of the artists it has discovered and nurtured over the years, as well as about the potential of the main stage. “We need to make more work on it,” he states, firmly and unequivocally. “More of our own work and work which tells exciting, contemporary stories about not only the present of the North East, but also the future.” He imagines this stage as “a political space, sort of inspired by Joan Littlewood and John McGrath”.

“So much of it is about exercising community,” Campbell explains as he outlines his approach. He smoothly segues into talking about St Stephen’s, the Edinburgh Fringe venue that Northern Stage first occupied last year under previous artistic director Erica Whyman, and the range of different communities surrounding that project. Linking together artists from across the North of England in an ambitious curated programme, St Stephen’s offers an overlap between different areas, companies and artistic practices, as well as opening a dialogue with other venues and with the communities of both Edinburgh and the Fringe.

Stressing the importance of engaging with the people of Edinburgh as much as with the festival as a separate entity, Campbell insists that this balance is “absolutely vital”. “I think it’s one of the great ignored truths of the Fringe,” he says. “The majority of tickets are sold to Scots who come to the festival; the tourist ticket buyers are still in the minority. So if you don’t connect to a local audience, you’re going to have a very hard time.” Having been brought up in the city and worked at the Traverse Theatre earlier in his career, Campbell has an obvious advantage here. “It feels like an old biorhythm waking up,” he laughs, adding, “it’s going to be lovely to be embedded in it”.

One way in which Campbell is facilitating this dialogue with the local area at St Stephen’s is through The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project. The driving impulse behind this project, he explains, was born out of what he felt was a divide between English and Scottish artists. “I was really struck last year by the real functioning sense of community within the artists at St Stephen’s, but I was also aware that there wasn’t a huge amount of conversation with a very similar group of Scottish artists who were also in the city.”

“I wanted to try and find a project that brought those communities into contact with each other,” Campbell continues, “to talk about something in the political zeitgeist, but also to exchange practice and to be in the same room together.” His unique artistic solution was inspired by border ballads, “a narrative folk tradition that belongs as much to Northumbria as it does to the Scottish lowlands and the borders”. Campbell has commissioned six artists to write their own versions of what a border ballad might look like today, while throughout the festival another epic ballad will be composed by a range of guest artists contributing a new verse each night.

“That ballad begins with a foundling babe being discovered in a Moses basket floating down the River Tweed on the night of the dissolution of the act of parliaments between England and Scotland,” Campbell tells me, “and then the poem will tell the next 95 years of that child’s life and the next 95 years of an imagined non-United Kingdom.” Incorporating a diverse mix of artists with a range of different political views, Campbell hopes to open a lively debate about Scottish independence, which he suggests is “much more than a question about whether Scotland should be an independent country or not”. As he continues, “it’s a question about how optimistic or pessimistic we feel about the potential of our political future”.

The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project is not alone in addressing such meaty questions. Elsewhere in the programme – which Campbell explains was mostly put together by creative associate Mark Calvert before his arrival – a certain shared political impetus animates a wide and varied range of work, from Hannah Nicklin’s very personal meditations on protest to Daniel Bye’s more openly provocative How to Occupy an Oil Rig. “It feels like there’s much more of a zeitgeist running through the project this year,” Campbell notes. “You can see lots of conversations about dissent, about forms and modes of protest, about how you question where you are as an individual in relation to a system. I think it will be very exciting to see how all those bits talk to each other.”

Another strand to this dialogue within the programme is Make. Do. And Mend, a one day event that aims to gather a wide range of voices in theatre to discuss problems and implement solutions. Feeling the need to create an event that acted as well as just talking, Campbell and the team at Northern Stage “wondered what would happen if we tried to create an event which actually resulted in immediate action that day”. Campbell is determined that “you can’t just repeat” and hopes that this gathering will prevent the talking in circles that we are all too good at.

This particular event is being organised in partnership with Forest Fringe, who are back in Edinburgh this year in a new venue on the same side of the city as St Stephen’s. This in itself shifts the context in which Northern Stage’s project sits, providing yet another overlapping community. Campbell is positive about this development, saying that “the geography and gravity of having more on that side of town is great”. He also comments on the growth of curated programmes this year in resistance to the commercial drives elsewhere, stating his belief that that work “doesn’t go away, it just moves, it finds another space on the fringe of the Fringe”. If nothing else, the presence of another artistically driven venue in Edinburgh this year adds another voice to the dialogue. “It’s all part of the conversation.”

Photo: Topher McGrillis.

No Place Like Home

Originally written for Exeunt.

In the immortal, celluloid-enshrined words of a ruby-slipper-tapping Dorothy, there’s no place like home. Or at least, even if our birthplace is somewhere from which we run kicking and screaming at the first opportunity, the place we come from inevitably shapes and defines us in some way, as do all the other places we subsequently call home.

So what does our local theatre say about us or about the community it is born from? Growing up in something of a cultural grey zone whose sole theatrical offerings seemed to be incessant tours of Grease and the obligatory ABBA sing-along, my loyalties as a theatregoer were aligned to London almost by default. It is a city I have yet to actually live in, but to which I feel inextricably bound by my connection with its culture. My personal experience, which I suspect is partly down to my hometown’s relative proximity to the huge variety of theatre available in the capital, is thankfully not indicative of the state of regional theatre on the whole. But even in areas with a thriving theatre scene, how much of the work is really wedded to its surroundings?

There is, of course, an immediate flipside to this argument. Just as the dearth of roles for women is not necessarily addressed by female writers, who are often wary of confining themselves to female experience for fear of being shoved in the box labelled “feminist playwright” and never allowed back out, regionality can be shunned by artists operating outside the capital. “Regional” is a tag that risks being used to imply something limited, something insular and blinkered, perhaps even something quaintly pastoral. As Daniel Bye’s column about Northern Stage at St Stephen’s suggested, it is easy for a national theatre culture still largely centred on London to pinpoint regionality as a basis for criticism.

What Bye also proposed, however, is that we should ultimately be proud of where our theatre comes from. In his words, the programme at St Stephen’s was “marinated in its distance from the cultural centre”; whether consciously “regional” or not, work made away from London is inevitably coloured by the site of its origin, as much as London-based theatre is arguably lent a certain quality by its position in the capital. So why are we reluctant to celebrate these regional differences?

As with anything, there are startling exceptions to the picture of regional theatre that I have – admittedly very roughly – begun to sketch above. Chris Goode’s 9, for instance, programmed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of the Transform Festival earlier this year, worked with local people to create a series of solo performances, crafting a piece of theatre fused to its place of origin through tangible human links. Remaining in Yorkshire, Invisible Flock’s Bring the Happy chose to investigate the concept of happiness through the very specific focus of Leeds, while their current project Sand Pilotexplores an equally specific relationship with the natural environment in Morcambe Bay. In a slightly different approach to regionality, Joel Horwood’s  Peterborough was commissioned by Eastern Angles with the brief of responding to the city of its title, a place referred to by the Arts Council as a “cultural cold spot”.

Many other examples could doubtless be cited, but what British theatres often lack is a truly regional aspect to their overall programming. Compared with the system in Germany, for example, where the dramaturgy departments of individual institutions set themes for each season based on a mix of wider social issues and subjects of particular local resonance, the UK model makes a striking contrast. Thanks to the touring structure, London is frequently either the source or the desired end point for work, generating an influx of shows geared towards the capital and casually indifferent to their location. When people complain that the theatre on offer in their local area has no relevance to them, it is easy to appreciate this perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, Lyn Gardner bravely lit the touchpaper in the ever fiery arts funding debate by suggesting that subsidy should be channelled away from major institutions and instead invested into “the bottom of the pyramid”. While this takes us into complex and thorny territory, one vital point that Gardner makes is about the participatory nature of the arts. As she stresses, for those who end up working in this industry, nearly all have found their initial point of entry through involvement of some kind, often no doubt through their local institution.

If such institutions were more attuned to their surrounding area, maybe more of those “ghost” artists that Gardner writes about would recognise the relevance of theatre to them and be able to realise their potential. A more local focus might also enable the feeding of funds into the grassroots, supporting emerging artists in the immediate region in a way that could allow major organisations and smaller companies to happily and productively co-exist.

To distil a piece of theatre down to any one element is of course reductive, ignoring the myriad influences that help to shape it. But to pursue the opposite extreme and discount location entirely is to also ignore something, something beautiful and idiosyncratic and married with a sense of community that is all too often missing from our theatres. As new artistic director Roxana Silbert’s spearheading of Birmingham REP’s centenary season recognises, theatres and artists have a vital role in serving their communities, be that through responsive programming or local engagement. And through this engagement maybe, just maybe, they can secure themselves an integral place for the future.