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Q&A: Jay Miller, Artistic Director of The Yard on Radical Performance and Community

The Yard is a multi-award winning theatre and music venue built from salvaged material in a converted warehouse in Hackney Wick. Committed to telling 'contemporary stories in contemporary ways', we speak to Jay Miller, Artistic Director, about their upcoming season of radical performance and theatre's relationship with an unequal world.

Eli Goldstone: You founded The Yard in 2011, what was your vision for it then and how has that changed over the years?

Jay Miller: I wanted to make a theatre that offered audiences a contemporary theatre that wasn’t on offer elsewhere. This contemporary theatre would draw on Britain’s rich tradition of writing and be fused with more radical performance practice. I too often go to the theatre and think that the work on stage might as well be on a TV. It feels flat. The work we try to make at The Yard explodes into the live space.

The best theatre should care for, assault, make laugh, and touch its audience. If it does all these things then we might provoke positive change in the world. And of course in order to make this exceptional work, this change, then artists need support and help – they can’t do it on their own. Before I started The Yard I couldn’t afford to make theatre in London. The Yard tries to offer artists the right amount of support networks, development opportunities to make their best possible work.

This was the original vision for The Yard and to be honest it hasn’t shifted a great deal – it has instead only focussed, become more possible, what with people (thankfully!) being generally into the work we make.

Eli: What significant performances or spaces inspired you when you were thinking about developing The Yard?

Jay: I really admired a number of spaces around the world. Some I had visited, most I had just read or heard about. I love The Young Vic’s bar and its relationship to The Cut. It feels like the street has spilled into the bar. I love the Bouffe du Nord’s decayed grandeur. I love Teatro Oficina in Sau Paolo because it feels like a street has spilled onto the stage. And I love the Olivier theatre’s shape but I wanted a theatre that could play intimate as well as epic.

Most of the performances that inspired the creation of The Yard was work I had seen when I lived in Paris. In Europe, Paris is beautifully located at the intersection of southern and northern (Roman and Germanic) traditions, which means that it creates and hosts a lot of art from around the continent. It really feels like the epicentre of Europe. And as such I was exposed to a lot of different styles and traditions. There wasn’t a specific performance that inspired The Yard, instead I think it was this theatrical cauldron that determined my taste.

Eli: NOW 18 is The Yard's annual festival of radical performance. What does 'radical' performance mean to you?

Jay: Radical means to me something that advocates for something new. It means it has the potential to change something. It means that the thing described as radical is likely to be unique.

And so the performances that make up NOW 18 do all these things. They are made by artists very much at the top of their game, making work that will rupture and impact tradition. The work is exciting, live and beautifully representative of the present moment we are living in.

Eli: It feels intrinsic to the ethos of The Yard that certain voices are amplified. Do you think theatre as a whole is getting better at that?

Jay: Yes it is really, really important that we offer platforms to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be given an opportunity to share their voice. Not only for charitable reasons, but because we fundamentally believe they will have something unique to say, and probably a unique way of saying it.

Is theatre getting better at it? Ermmm, not really. I think theatre goes through peaks and troughs of trying. At the moment the Arts Council is leading a campaign to ensure that theatres are more diverse. And generally speaking at the moment our stages look somewhat representative of our streets – but there is still a helluva long way to go.

At The Yard we are always evaluating who we are representing, by whom and how. But fundamentally we are living in one of the most unequal societies this land has ever hosted. It isn’t theatre’s responsibility to shift structural societal problems. Yes theatre can help and contribute to solutions, but when Oxbridge colleges aren’t accepting any students of colour, when seventeen of the most socially mobile boroughs are in London, when disadvantaged children in Knowsley, Liverpool have no chance of going to a secondary school rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, theatre can only do so much. As theatre professionals we need to be part of the change, (provoke the change) but we can only do it in tandem and synchronicity with the rest of the country. It is up to us all to make the change.

Eli: The Yard is community minded. Can you tell us a little about how you work with people, and young people in particular, in and around Hackney?

Jay: I believe that a theatre should always be in dialogue with its locale. It should be a conversation. The conversation starts in Hub67, a community centre we manage in Hackney Wick. We offer local residents opportunities to engage with new skills and the arts – there are free activities such as film clubs, yoga, after-school club. And then there is our local program which offers young people the opportunity to start making contemporary theatre. We pair different age-groups with different artists and they engage in a long term collaboration to make a new piece of work for our stage. The results are always beautiful and surprising, for they let us into the world of the young people, reminding us that it at once totally different from our own and remarkably similar to our everyday lives. It is inspiring to be part of the process. We want to create a new generation of people who will be intimate with contemporary performance trends and confident enough to express themselves powerfully.

Eli: Is it important to you to encourage a non-traditional theatre audience into the space? How do you go about that?

Jay: We create and host a successful program of music nights that bring hundreds of people to our bar every weekend. Theatre isn’t as tapped into youth culture as it could be. The music nights, together with our local program, are working towards a shared aim, to try to create a new generation of theatre-goers. Something else that we do is offer all unsold tickets for £5 to people under the age of 25.

The music program is now attracting some of the most exciting promoters and DJs the city has to offer. We think this is because of the inclusivity of the space we offer and the fact that our aims aren’t commercially driven.

Eli: Tell us about RashDash's interpretation of Chekhov's Three Sisters - that feels like a particularly incongruous work for both the company and the space.

Jay: Is it? RashDash’s last show (Two Man Show) sought to expose the entrenched patriarchy. Three Sisters is a play written by man purportedly about three women, and yet the men in the play have the most lines. RashDash are going to readdress the balance with their inimitable, punk aesthetic. Expect something hilarious, musical, moving and joyous.

Eli: What are some other highlights of your SS18 season?

Jay: Ned Bennet directs Josh Azouz’s Buggy Baby, which is a horror-comedy about trying to forget a traumatic past. Ned’s previous work has been a huge success – he directed Pamona and An Octoroon both of which transferred to the National Theatre. I made Josh’s last show with him, called The Mikvah Project, which sold out our theatre for five weeks. Buggy Baby offers a wickedly exciting collaboration.

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