Interview: Theatre Delicatessen

Theatre Delicatessen has popped up all over London since its formation in 2007, staging eight critically acclaimed productions in disused or derelict spaces. Working with ensemble casts to create immersive performances, it was nominated for Best Production and Best Entertainment at the 2010 Off West End ‘Offie’ awards for its format-busting arts festival, Theatre Souk.

Now, the company billed last year by the Observer as the “bright new things of British Theatre” have embarked on their biggest challenge so far – taking over and producing new work in the old BBC studios on Marylebone High Street. First up will be an innovative take on Shakespeare’s war drama Henry V.

On the day of the production’s first preview, I spoke with Roland Smith, who co-founded Theatre Delicatessen with Effie Loy, Jessica Brewster and Mauricio Preciado Awad. We talked about the opening up of spaces to the public, the popularity of pop-up performance and how the death of a friend inspired Smith to stage Henry V.

Your move into the old BBC studios marks a step up for Theatre Delicatessen. How is it all going?

Most theatre companies would say that if they knew how hard something was going to be, they would never have done it in the first place. You tend to start from a point of naiveté – that everything is going to be fine. Luckily, so far, it has been!

How will being in this new space affect your work?

Previously, we have worked on a sponsorship or patronage basis. But the charitable status afforded to us by merging with CurvingRoad Ltd has given us more commercial leverage to take on bigger spaces and to be an interesting proposition for property developers. The future after this year depends on where the plans for the building’s development go. But for the first time, we can programme and run a series of events with longer-term thinking.

How would you define your approach to theatre and performance?

It is probably more potluck than by design, but we differ to companies like Punchdrunk in that our remit is to be a pop-up creative hub, not just to produce shows. That was always what we wanted to do. One of the reasons we chose the name ‘Delicatessen’ was that we didn’t want to be tied to one thing. Now, we can utilise this building to do a spread of work with different people. As a team – alongside joint directors Effie and Jess , and producer Mauricio, who founded Theatre Delicatessen’s with us. We want to see what options are out there artistically.

What were the deciding factors when it came to taking on the building?

We tend to have one or a few big projects in mind. So when we are looking for a new space, even if it is relatively long-term – a year or 18 months – our choice is determined by those projects. With Henry, the idea that I’d always had was to set it in the forward operating position of the English Army. So we were looking for a building that could stand in for a military bunker. When we were approached by the developers of the Marylebone site, it was perfect. There is a whole network of old studios in the basement that we are using for barracks.

Do you engage with the history of the spaces you work in?

We will be drawing on the background of this building, especially during the summer. In the eighteenth century there was a tavern on our current site called the Rose of Normandy, which was adjoined to Marylebone pleasure gardens. This has inspired a pop-up village green, which we have built inside the building. And the barracks of the English army in Henry are very consciously set in an overthrown broadcasting centre. There are lots of references to that in the piece and we allude to propaganda broadcasting with the installations. We like to speak to the history of the buildings we are in.

Is opening up such interesting spaces part of the appeal of pop-up theatre?

That is what is exciting about it. Many people in central London must have walked past the BBC building and wondered what it was like inside. So much of our city is made up of private homes or buildings with guarded doors, which nonetheless dominate our landscape. That is the very simple pleasure of what we are doing – allowing people to walk inside these spaces. Even showing local residents around as part of the licence application is a joy. There is always a sense of trespass when you go somewhere that, ordinarily, you wouldn’t be allowed.

Would you describe Theatre Delicatessen as innovative?

We are very careful to say that we aren’t doing anything particularly new. Our approach has always been pragmatic. We started out as people looking for opportunities to work on a scale that is not usually afforded to young theatre-makers. Our ideas for productions simply didn’t fit the usual pub theatre spaces that were open to us. So the solution was to ask: what else is available?

Also, our approach, which we gently call ‘shared space’, is what audiences – especially sophisticated ones – have come to expect. Something like Joe Hill-Gibbins’ The Changeling, which was done in one of the studios in the Young Vic, shows that the idea of challenging form is now mainstream. It’s part of theatre currency these days. The groups we’re developing, the emerging artists, are really pushing boundaries.

Does pop-up performance offer something that traditional theatre venues cannot?

Going to see Henry V in a pop-up space in London is very different to most people’s first experience of Shakespeare, being bussed out to Stratford in a school party. And increasingly artists are merging forms, with something like secret cinema as an example. Theatre is being influenced by music, by film, by performance art. Jess always talks about being influenced by festival culture in her work. Such collaboration isn’t groundbreaking but it is more widespread now and pub theatres aren’t always the best fit for it.

Why did you choose Henry V as your first production?

A couple of things collided. First, I had studied the play at school, as many people do, and went back to it. I enjoyed both it and my schoolboy scribbles in the margins on iambic pentameter. But I hadn’t, then, thought to bring it to the stage.

So what prompted that decision?

In 2006, a close friend of mine – a Captain in the Paras – was killed while serving in Iraq. His death had a profound effect on me and a shattering effect on his family. He was so clear in his mind that serving in the army was his life’s work, his vocation. And he absolutely believed that the only way peace could be achieved was by serving. I was at the other end of the spectrum, going on protests, marching through central London. He used to say to me: ‘I believe in exactly the same things as you. I’m just choosing to fight for them’ – to the degree that he once told his Mum that if he broke his legs, he would still find a way to go to Iraq.

Coming back to Henry again, I could see the parallels between my friend’s view and Henry’s belief that by conquering France, by uniting two nations, the cost of war would be worth it. It then became interesting me to see how you could open up the play, to almost take out of the equation the concept of a “just” war and ask: ‘What is the effect on the leaders, the squaddies? How do men get through that experience? Obviously, reading Shakespeare is only a pale imitation of reality. But Henry and his journey do give you an insight.

Has this approach shed new light on the dynamics between characters?

Yeah, I think it has. For example, the balance between Pistol, who is usually quite a comic character, and Henry suddenly changes. Pistol effectively goes off to fight as a mercenary and to make as much money as he can by thieving and pick-pocketing. And in a way, he ends up bearing the brunt of the impact of warfare through the death of his friends. Then you have a character like Boy, who could be seen as peripheral, but here becomes the spokesperson for the squaddies and the people of the barracks.

What is up next, once Henry closes?

As I mentioned, we will be opening up the main space and creating a pop-up village and pleasure gardens. We have had some sponsorship from local businesses for a big screen, so people will be able to watch Olympic events during the day. Throughout the summer, we will have a programme of short-run performances, new works, comedy and cabaret that are related or in response to the Games.

In the autumn, we will have a production called Shelf Life, which is being led by one of our associate companies, HalfCut. We took them on after working with them on our first Theatre Souk festival. This is their first full-length production and it will be a promenade performance through all seven storeys of the building, telling the story of a life.

Towards the end of the autumn and into Christmas, there will be another Theatre Souk, which is where we work with emerging artists and young theatre-makers, essentially to create an artistic marketplace. Every area in the building will be handed over to an artist or theatre company to create work responding to the theme of transaction and business. Audiences will be accosted as they wander through and performers will make ticket deals with them.

The theme for this year is going to be the body and physicality, so we will have artists responding to that.

Where did the idea for Theatre Souk come from?

The initial idea came from Jess. She was responding to the arts cuts and asking: ‘What is a good way to experiment with or question the value of art?’ So we will throw loads of it into a marketplace and the artists and performers will have to haggle for the audience’s attention. It is going to be very exciting.

Mauricio, Effie and Jess and I are of a generation where we are all theatre directors, all producers and all writers. I have written verbatim stuff, for example. It sounds horribly pretentious, but we are trying to use these spaces as a big mirror for what we can do and to open them up as creative hubs for other people to produce their work in.

Theatre Delicatessen’s production of Henry V will be at the old BBC studios from 22 May to 30 June. For more information and to buy tickets, see:

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