Almeida Kicks off a Summer of New WritingDate: 8 July 2009
When people hear that established experimental theatre companies Slung Low and The Team will be presenting work at this year’s Almeida Summer Festival and that in addition to this there will be an installation by director Lu Kemp, they might be surprised.
The Almeida after all is a well-respected Off-West End theatre known for producing high quality mainstream work, not explorative devised pieces that are the product of many creative hands. But unexpected partnerships can bear unexpected fruit and the artistic directors of the companies involved are thrilled to have been invited along.
Jenny Worton, artistic associate at the Almeida, first approached Rachel Chavkin, artistic director of New York company, The Team, after seeing their show Particularly in the Heartland at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2006. Following their 2008 Edinburgh show, Architecting, Worton asked Chavkin if she would be interested in bringing the company to the Almeida. "Without skipping a beat we said 'yes'", recounts Chavkin, who is "over the moon to be going to this theatre".
The Team will be presenting the first public work-in-progress version of their new show, The American Capitalism Project, which seeks to define the character and shape of American capitalism. Set between the new America of the early 17th century and Las Vegas in 2009, the play, in line with The Team’s other work, looks at "the sense of loss of an American ideal". Chavkin is confident that despite the ‘work-in-progress’ tag, The American Capitalism Project "will feel in many ways like a fully articulated play".
Although Chavkin doesn’t see her company as particularly experimental (compared to the "much farther out" work being done by their peers in New York), she acknowledges that the Almeida is doing something unusual in moving away from its traditional style of "single author driven" plays and programming a whole festival of "company-created material".
Alan Lane, artistic director of Bradford-based Slung Low, sees this move as a very natural one: "There’s a perception that we’re very different organizations and I think that’s probably true but I’m surprised by how surprised people have been. All of those boundaries are coming down a lot faster than they used to and there are companies out there making work that are now seen as mainstream in terms of its success but avant-garde in terms of how it’s made and I think that the distinctions that were true three or four years ago are no longer true."
Lane and Chavkin describe their companies’ work in startlingly similar terms, both focusing on story telling as their primary drive. The show that Slung Low are working on for the Festival is called Last Seen; it is a promenade performance that takes place in the streets surrounding the theatre. Lane explains that "the audience are divided up and go about in three groups, each led by a live character who simply has a story to tell them of something they’ve lost and they’d like help finding it". Despite the fact that it takes place outside, "it’s still very much a theatre show", says Lane. "The really key thing is this idea of the audience having to follow a narrative … it’s a very literal version of narrative".
The theme of loss that Slung Low and The Team engage with in their shows is complemented by Lu Kemp’s installation, Lost Property, which runs throughout the Festival. Kemp is asking the public (including Whatsonstage.com readers) "to submit a poster for something they’ve lost during their lives. That could be literal, metaphorical, however you choose to interpret it". Posters already received include notices for ‘lost favourite scarf’ and ‘lost: memory of my first kiss’. All entries will be added to a huge notice board at the Almeida and can be submitted by email, online, or in person. There will also be a range of ‘found’ object scattered around the theatre.
The concept of an installation will be quite alien to the Almeida’s regular audiences, but the idea, explains Kemp, is simply "to get a whole collection of tiny stories out of it. It’s about tapping into people’s stories really." Kemp’s other concern, one that ties in with Slung Low’s work for the Festival, is "how to involve people properly in the creation of work and how you get people to participate on more than a tributary level".
In addition to more experimental projects such as this one, Kemp works as a theatre director in a more traditional sense, but she sees little difference between the two roles: echoing the way that Lane and Chavkin see their supposedly experimental work, Kemp says, "it’s all ways of creating stories really".
As well as Lost Property, The American Capitalism Project and Last Seen, new theatre company GULP will be presenting its inaugural production, Or Nearest Offer, Tiata Fahodzi will be returning to the Almeida after their success at last year’s Summer Festival, with a rehearsed reading of their new play, The Golden Hour, and there will be music from Heather Christian and Tiata Fahodzi. All this work is brand new and represents an exciting new phase in the Almeida’s life. If these directors can get just one tenth of their passion about this way of working across to audiences at the Almeida, it’s hard to imagine how the Festival could be anything less than a triumph.