Features Published 1 March 2016

Sprint Festival: “A fresh set of priorities”

As Sprint Festival at CPT kicks off, the theatre's artistic director Brian Logan and executive director Amber Massie-Blomfield explain why their most thrilling work comes from giving artists' their first professional performances - and why it's so vital to present work by students.
Amber Massie-Blomfield
Sprint Festival at CPT. Photo: Tamsin Drury

Sprint Festival at CPT. Photo: Tamsin Drury

This week, our Sprint festival kicks off. It’s London’s biggest and best established carnival of new and unusual theatre, returning for its twentieth annual outing. As if all that weren’t diverting enough, we’ve got a whole new strand to this year’s Sprint, which we’ve called Freshers. No prizes for guessing it’s a festival-within-a-festival of student and graduate work. It’s not new that theatre-makers still in, or straight outta, college are taking part in Sprint: that festival, and this theatre, has always been a place for very early-career artists to take their first professional steps. But this year, we wanted to make a virtue of it: to encourage more applications from those artists, and to celebrate their work and our commitment to it.

Hence the presence, under that banner, of ace projects like Tina Nanakini’s 14 Scattered Islands, the story of a walk from London to Lincolnshire, which combines a submarine dystopia with an exploration of belonging, rootlessness, and the identity of a place; or (there’s plenty to choose from) We Are Ian, In Bed with My Brother’s hymn to 1990s ‘Madchester’.

Will any of these new pieces join the likes of Barrel Organ’s Nothing or Walrus Theatre’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (both of whom came to CPT via our partnership with the National Student Drama Festival) as hot-off-the-campus instant classics? Who knows? What we do know is that much of the most thrilling work we encounter at CPT comes from artists who’ve not staged their work in London professionally before. It means a lot to us that we’re a first port-of-call to theatre-makers, whether from secondary or tertiary education, or neither, who’re brand new on the scene – or who don’t yet know there is a scene. As part of that, we proactively engage with drama courses across the capital and further afield, as well as ensuring we have a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin open-door policy. If they want to develop or stage work here, we’ll have a cup of tea and a chat with anyone who makes clear their commitment to the kind of adventurous theatre we exist to champion.

That’s old news. What’s new is that we’re now operating in a landscape in which, faced by growing tuition fees and departmental cuts, fewer students (and from a narrower social range) are able to develop as theatre-makers in university and drama school contexts. As we write this, CPT is in the midst of a month-long takeover (for the second February in a row) by UCL’s drama society. That’s invigorating for us: every night the theatre is buzzing with the next generation of theatre-makers and theatre-goers, bringing with them a fresh set of priorities and impulses about what they want art to be.

But this takeover isn’t the result only of a booming UCL drama society: it’s happening in part due to the alleged failure of UCL itself to provide suitable facilities for its arts societies (particularly in light of the current closure of the Bloomsbury Theatre).  We’re delighted to host UCL students. But venues like CPT can’t replace the proper resourcing of drama departments in colleges and universities. What we’re meant to be is a next stage – a place to build on foundations laid in education establishments. From that vantage point, we’re alarmed at what we’re witnessing in the sector – that is, a narrowing of the number of entry points to a career in the arts. What will result is a narrowing of the diversity, originality and creativity of the work that makes it on to professional stages – which will make all of us the poorer.

Unhappily, we see that playing out in secondary education too. We’ve recently launched Camden Youth Theatre, in partnership with Fitzrovia Centre and New Diorama Theatre, introducing forty young people to the skills they need to make inventive new theatre.  This project responds directly to demand from local teachers for a drama offering for teenagers, in light of severe cuts to drama provision in their schools. Again, we’re delighted to help. But what we are best positioned to offer is an adjunct to, not a substitute for, what pupils receive in schools. We can give young people a smokin’ hot workshop. We can, we hope, make great shows with them – and give them an insight into the realities of what it means to be a theatre professional. But we can’t offer any of that to as wide a range of young people as schools can. Nor can we provide the holistic, long-term and pastoral support drama pupils may need, and should be receiving in schools.

So: come to Sprint and enjoy the student and graduate work we’re showcasing as part of it. And come see the other stuff too. We’ve got the award-winning Atresbandes with Locus Amoenus, the cult Kings of England maverick Simon Bowes with Ding and Sich, and Conrad Murray with his council estate-set hiphop theatre piece DenMarked. We’ve got the first ever performance of the winner of our inaugural People’s Theatre Award, Emily Lim and Gameshow’s Grown Up; and the five brand new projects emerging from our Starting Blocks artist support scheme, whose alumni include Rachel Mars, Greg Wohead, Foxy & Husk and other megastars of the indie theatre firmament.

That’s a great context, we think, in which artists under the ‘Freshers’ banner can show their first ever professional work. We intend that the new strand signals a spike in our commitment to theatre-makers before and just after they’ve graduated. (If you’re one of them, you’re reading this and you make adventurous work, get in touch.) We know that the best efforts of plucky wee CPT – and others – can’t compensate for slashed budgets, instrumentalism in education and a government that assumes the arts can look after themselves.  But – pending the revolution – we’ll give it our best shot.

Sprint Festival runs at the Camden People’s Theatre from March 2-26. For details of the full programme, and to book tickets, visit the CPT website here

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Amber Massie-Blomfield is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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