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Brief Encounter with... Francis Alexander of Chelsea Theatre

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Sacred – Chelsea Theatre’s annual season of contemporary performance, theatre and live art – has become a byword for innovation and excitement on the London fringe. Now in its third year, it returns on Wednesday for another month of  experimentation from across the UK and Europe. Artistic director Francis Alexander has co-programmed this year’s event with Thomas Frank of Vienna’s leading new performance space, brut. Alexander, who oversaw Chelsea’s transformation from community centre to fully-fledged performance space, gives us the gospel on Sacred 2009.

What led you to establish Sacred in the first place?
I was given a sabbatical by Chelsea’s wonderful board and worked for the British Council as a cultural attaché out in Vancouver. Previously, I’d always been about theatre with a small t. I liked structure and new writing. I thought once you had structure as a playwright, you were there. In Vancouver I discovered people who were interested in all kinds of non-narrative performance, the kind of visual and emotional work that we don’t usually see within the traditional structure of British theatre. I’d always known there were artists doing this, but I suddenly felt a huge kinship. So I decided to start Sacred.

How did this year’s collaboration with Brut come about?
Brut is probably the leading presenter of innovative and radical contemporary performance in Europe today. I first met Thomas Frank the year before last and we started talking about the kinds of things that are important to us, such as the desire to move away from tradition types of drama. He then came to London and saw what we were doing and together we have programmed a season of work that we both think is funny, inspiring, important – and magic.

Do you intend it to be a cultural exchange?
Most of the UK artists will go out to Vienna to perform next spring. But there is another thing we are looking at: the extent to which where you come from influences and inspires what you do. Take Oleg Soulimenko’s piece, Made in Russia. How might it differ if it were made in Hackney? We want to look at these geopolitical differences behind the work. To ask: what is it to be Russian? What is it to be Austrian? What is it to be a Londoner?

Do we still have a lot to learn from our European colleagues?
I think something important is changing in Britain at the moment. The cliché about London audiences is that they only want to see West End shows, or else something radical at a new writing theatre. You can be at the Avignon Festival and hear audience members go: 'Wow – that was really weird. Didn’t understand a word of it. Let’s go again.' Until relatively recently in London, it would be: ‘That was really weird. Let’s not go back.' But the work of Spill, Barbican Bite and Fierce is really helping develop audience tastes and a more European sensibility. People are now seeking out new kinds of performance through those festivals and those venues.

How does this year’s programme differ from previous years?
Well, after all I've said, this year we actually have classical ballet and opera in the space, but both in a completely new way. Made in Russia is about the clash of Russian performance with the need to sell the work to western audiences; whether Russian artists have to prostitute themselves and their art to the money of the west. Is nationalism parochial and small-minded? Or is loyalty to the forms of performance in one’s own country true to the artistic impulse?

Then we have Frank Lehár’s Merry Widow, which sounds incredibly traditional until you hear it has been cast and adapted for a troupe of Polish cleaning ladies who are exploring what it is to be an outsider in a western European city today.

The return of David Hoyle, aka The Divine David, is quite a coup.
David Hoyle is a genius. I’m a regular at his performances at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and he’s intellectually, musically and performatively totally challenging. I try to see as much as I can around London. To programme with any level with success, you have to. David is supremely successful in the work he does so it’s a real thrill to have him in the building.

And what about cabaret? The duo Frisky and Mannish were a primetime hit at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Yes. But they are fake Austrians! All the real Austrians are thrilled that we’ve got them on the bill. However interesting and deep you’re delving, it’s nice to have a bit of light-hearted fun.

Sacred runs at Chelsea Theatre from 21 October to 22 November. For more info, click here.


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