Features Festivals Published 28 March 2018

Alchymy Festival

Hannah Greenstreet chats to Ellie Keel, producer of Alchymy, a unique Oxford-based festival that's all about developing new theatre.
Hannah Greenstreet
Alchymy Festival at North Wall, Oxford

A rehearsed reading of ‘Weapons’ by Tom Brennan at Alchymy Festival at North Wall, Oxford. Photo: Alex Krook

What do early-career theatre-makers need? That was the question producer Ellie Keel asked herself when she was programming Alchymy Festival with Ria Parry and John Hoggarth, the co-directors of Oxford arts venue North Wall. “They need places to develop their work and show it to an audience, but they also need practical help with getting work on in the future: producing, fundraising, marketing. There’s also a need for discussions to challenge our thinking and practice”, she tells me. The festival combines shows, readings, workshops, panel discussions and in conversation events, with industry contributors including Ellen McDougall, Imogen Stubbs, Kayode Ewumi, Luke Barnes, and David Mumeni. It will all take place over the weekend of the 6th April at the North Wall Arts Centre, in Oxford’s Summertown.

The unique and weird thing about the North Wall is its site. Although it’s a fully-fledged, independent arts venue, it’s owned by St Edward’s School, a private boarding school. This means it has the space for six companies to rehearse in residence prior to the festival and live onsite. When I spoke to Ellie, the first company, Forward Arena, who are working on their new show about the climate crisis Rehearsing for Planet B, had just moved in. When asked about the potential cognitive dissonance the site brings, Ellie replied, “Theatre is not an environment where money feels plentiful. And when you go into the North Wall and those grounds and it’s a weird juxtaposition of wealth and doing things on a shoestring, which is very much what we do with Alchymy.” The North Wall’s infrastructure means that, despite limited cash, it can offer a vast amount of in-kind support to the artists at Alchymy Festival and at its parallel training programme Catalyst, including free accommodation, meals, rehearsal space and the expertise and connections of the North Wall’s Artistic Directors. There are twenty five events across three days, including twelve shows, happening across the theatre and two studio spaces.

Full disclosure – I am one of the early-career theatre-makers the North Wall has developed and is developing. I did the Catalyst residency in 2016 as a playwright and my new play, Andromeda, will have a rehearsed reading at Alchymy Festival. I have slept in one of the too-short beds, and puzzled over how to turn the heating on, and have been fed ridiculously large meals in the school canteen (and drunk coffee and partied in the staff room, which was a thrill). And I have been part of a temporary community of creative people, working together to make something new, exchanging ideas, trying things out, being vulnerable with each other.

There’s something very special about the atmosphere on a residency – like the Edinburgh Fringe but even more intense – and, having attended the inaugural Alchymy last year as an audience member, that atmosphere carries over to the festival too, even if you are just experiencing it vicariously. Ellie mentions being inspired by Devoted & Disgruntled’s use of Open Space Technology – “the ethos that the most important conversations happen when people are not focused on a task that’s been given to them. They happen after that task has finished or while people are having a coffee break. And that is so much what happens at Catalyst and at Alchymy. People are in the foyer or they’re having a glass of wine in somebody’s room at the end of the day when they start having the conversations that matter”. Tom Bailey, who is directing Rehearsing for Planet B, mentions being really inspired at Catalyst 2016 by a session led by Ellen McDougall (who was not yet artistic director of the Gate then) on theatre and the environment – it wasn’t a formal part of the programme, she just decided to run it. The programme of Alchymy, though packed, allows for such moments of serendipity, for example in a Long Table discussion on Sunday morning for participants to reflect and comment on the ideas raised so far.

Also unique are the relationships the North Wall builds with and between its artists. The majority of the early career theatre-makers contributing to Alchymy have come through Catalyst or the North Wall’s free artistic development programme, ArtsLab, for early career artists aged 18-25. In part, Alchymy is designed as a follow-up to these programmes, to offer an ongoing nurturing relationship. For example, Marika McKennell’s play E8, which is being given a rehearsed reading at Alchymy before a full production at the North Wall, was developed through Catalyst last year. Emily Collins, also a graduate of Catalyst 2017, is directing Cheer Up Slug by Tamsin Rees as director-in-residence. Ellie says, “You’ve watched their work expand and develop and you’ve given them a reason to create more, as well as the framework and the materials with which to do it and that feels really special.” In my experience of playwriting development schemes, that ongoing relationship is very rare. Unless you’re one of the superstars of the course and your script miraculously gets picked up for production (as all writers on such courses secretly hope), there is generally little opportunity to engage with the theatre after the course is over.

It’s around this point that I ask Ellie whether she considers herself an emerging producer and she cringes. As she puts it, “I hate emerging as a word because when you work as hard as we all do, it just feels condescending. Emerging from what, to where? It also implies a hierarchy of what’s real and what’s not when actually all of what we do is real. As soon as your work’s in front of a paying audience it’s bloody real. And I think that’s partly what Alchymy is for. To say to people, you can take yourself seriously.”

What about the equation of emerging with under 25 schemes, like ArtsLab? What about people who start writing later in life? Ellie tells me that the funding for ArtsLab stipulated it had to be for under 25s, which is why it has an age limit and Alchymy does not. She definitely doesn’t think that only under 25s can make good work. She tells me that Sonya Hale, who was commissioned to write a short monologue for Alchymy after winning the Heretic Voices monologue competition, is one of the most exciting writers she has met. “She has a freshness and a vitality and a curiosity about her.”

There is a potential for a curated theatre festival like Alchymy that depends so much upon working relationships (like much of the theatre industry) to seem cliquey or even exclusionary. When asked about this, Ellie replies, “I would hope that the way we’ve programmed it that there’s enough provocation and different personalities and strands of work that it would be shaken up”. One of the panels is called “This is our problem” and will discuss “the inaccessibilities and inequalities plural” in theatre. The aim is to think through, “the steps we can take right now in our everyday practice to combat these problems, rather than thinking that it should be solved on some higher level or by somebody else”. Ellie recalls inviting Kirstin Shirling, who describes herself as a cultural activist, to speak. “She said ‘There’s three people you should be asking above me. I’m a white woman. Look at your programme.’ Fortunately we were able to invite those people as well. It made me think that you need the people who are prepared to stand up and say I’m not coming. Otherwise the same old people dominate and the people with the loudest voices are heard the most and not just the loudest – the people’s whose educational background means they’re more conventionally articulate.”

On the subject of stirring things up, Ellie has appointed a critic-in-residence, Fergus Morgan, to cover the festival. Although originally conceived as providing more of a documentary function, Ellie has urged Fergus to “have your real critical hat on and treat this as you would any other thing, because otherwise it’s not a very honest exercise and it’s probably not very useful for the artists.’ She thinks that learning to be robust and taking criticism is a skill early career theatre-makers need to learn. She also hopes that, rather than being ‘navel gazing’, having a critic in residence will help to ‘place this properly in the whole ecology of theatre. OK, it’s just in some little building in North Oxford, but what’s the point if we’re getting all these people doing work in all these different fields of theatre to come if the work itself looks firmly and stubbornly inwards”.

Why should people who are not involved in the festival come to Alchymy? “To see some great pieces of theatre, first and foremost. To take in very different work in a very short space of time and for not very much money. To experience different things, new ideas. Any and every theatremaker, I hope, will be able to learn something and contribute and have their voice heard.”

Alchymy Festival is at the North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford from 6th-8th April. Festival passes and tickets for individual performances are on sale via the North Wall website. You can see the full programme here: https://www.thenorthwall.com/alchymy-festival/

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Hannah Greenstreet

Hannah is a writer, academic and theatre critic. She is London Reviews co-Editor for Exeunt, with a focus on fringe and Off-West End theatre. She is researching an AHRC-funded PhD on contemporary feminist theatre and realism at the University of Oxford. She is also a playwright and has worked with Soho Writers' Lab, the North Wall Arts Centre, and Menagerie Theatre Company.

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