Interview: Basic Space, with Artistic Director Mark Rolland

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Later this month, Peckham will play host to a new theatrical festival: Basic Space. With only a few weeks until it opens, Artistic Director Mark Rolland took the time to sit down with me and talk through this exciting project.


 

Rona Kelly: It’s good of you to join us, Mark. Tell us a bit about Basic Space and the team behind it.

Mark Rolland: Basic Space is a brand new site-sensitive theatre festival, starting two weeks from now (which is very soon), in two Victorian safehouses in Peckham. We’ve got six companies, so six shows, and it’s going to be over the course of six days.

I’ve worked at festivals for several years, including lots of high profile festivals: EdFringe, Manchester International Festival, Buxton Fringe, National Student Drama Festival. And I’m using all the experience of putting those festivals together, but this is my first time as a festival director. My team is largely put together from people that I know from those previous ventures, which means we’re a really happy, close-knit team. And hopefully that will continue in the future!

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RK: For those unfamiliar with the term, what does site-sensitive mean?

MR: The term site-sensitive is kind of one that we coined. It started when we were asking the companies to apply and basically we were tyring to find a term for what we meant, that was shows which are not necessarily specific to the space, but are sensitive to their surroundings. So we wanted shows which would think about what was appropriate for the safe house setting. So for example if you want a super high-tech space ship, that’s not going to be appropriate! But something addressing finality or death is probably going to be quite appropriate, because it’s a crumbling venue inside. A show like There’s A Zombie Outside works well on another level, because it has no set at all, it’s just the actors and the audience. And that’s the other side of being sensitive to the space: shows that respond to the space. Although it’s not exactly ‘site responsive’, which is another term people use. That’s when they people go into a space, work there for two weeks and the entire piece comes from the space. Because we wanted different angles on it from the six different companies, we decided not to do that. Otherwise we’d end up with six quite similar shows, which wouldn’t be very interesting from a programming point of view!

RK: You’re located out in Peckham. Did you pick this location for a reason?

MR: It was attractive in terms of doing something a little bit away from the main spotlight. And really this venue was literally the first one that I got a viewing of, which was one of the only ones which would meet our criteria: relatively affordable and something quite atmoshperic and abandoned. But at the same time not entirely unsafe and that we wouldn’t have to rebuild ourselves before we let an audience in.

RK: There’s a very fine line between chic derelict and derelict derelict!

MR: Yes! It probably is closer to chique derelect. And also because it happens to be a 10 minute train from my house!

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RK: Talk to us about the ethos behind Basic Space, because it’s a very communal project.

MR: Part of the reason I started this festival was because I knew a lot of artists wanted to make this kind of work and it was work I really enjoyed. But I was looking at the kind of opportunites that they would have to produce this and all of them seemed to be really, really expensive for a new company. Any show taken to the Edinburgh Festival often reports losses of thousands of pounds. But site-specific definitely has extra costs: you’re hiring the venue out yourself, so your potential losses are up to tens of thousands of pounds. That’s something that a big, already established company could manage, but a small company has no possibility of it, unless they’ve got some rich benefactor behind them. But we don’t want all theatre to be done by rich benefactors’ children! I think even rich benefactors would agree with that.

So it was about creating something which would give these companies an opportunity. I’ve been very hard-nosed about there being no costs of entering an application, there’d be no down payment on rents, and that’s something that we’ve largely managed to stick to this year.

RK: Take us through the stages of actually mounting this kind of project.

MR: Around May/June last year, literally after NSDF which I worked for, I had the idea. I then started to throw that idea at people I knew and see if they thought it was a good idea, various people who I know from all sorts of levels. And a couple of the companies that have actually ended up in the festival were there from quite early on. Ransack Theatre were NSDF so I knew them a bit, they were one of the people who’d inspired me to do it in the first place.

So I’ve had back and forth with the companies, which was making sure that they would be happy with this kind of arrangement, because it’s serving them, the platform is serving them. Then in July, we viewed the venue and pencilled in what we would be doing, which all happened quite quickly really. And then in August/September we opened applications, and it was open for nearly two months in the end. All the applications came in the last week though, of course!

And then October was short listing and getting it down to the final programme. We were also trying to get mentoring and networking in place for us and trying to build the team as well. There are three other people that work with me on this, I should really point that out! With additional support from many others as well. And then November was when a lot of things locked into place like, ‘Right, crowd funding in December, we’re going to open tickets in January’. So pretty much from the start of December it’s been absolutely non stop.

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RK: You talk about this being a festival. If this goes well, can you see yourself doing this again this time next year? Maybe at a different venue?

MR: Yes, it is something that I would like to do again. I have a list as long as my arm of ways that I would do it next time! Just because you learn so much doing it the first time. And certainly if we do decide to do that, people will start to hear from us quite soon. I wish I had this idea in February [last year]! Although, again, there’s benefits of having that drive to get everything going faster than to play the long game, especially when you’re first starting out. If I said, ‘Hey, I’m doing this thing. It’s in a year’, it takes months and months before people even start listening. People that have known me throughout the whole process have only in the last couple of weeks (when tickets have been on sale) said’Oh, it’s actually happening?’ ‘Yes! I’m not backing out on this!’

Part of me wants to actually stay here. This venue is so perfect for what we want to do, to come back again and next time maybe expand into a few local venues which fit. And especially, again, since it’s so close to my house! Potentially, we could move it away in the future, it just depends on how we want it to expand. And I’m sure we’ll be having those meetings in three weeks time.

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RK: What can people expect from the range of shows on?

MR: We’ve certainly programmed some variety! The more core shows you might expect include Ransack Theatre’s Enveloped in Velvet, which is a collection of four contemporary monologues about beer, grit and teeth! And it does contain some strong language from the outset! They’re coming down from Manchester and they’re a super talented new company. They did a production of The Dumb Waiter last year, which got 5* and won an award at the Manchester Fringe and this is their next show, so it’s very exciting.

There’s Entita Theatre doing a Shakespeare adaptation called Curtain’d Sleep. It’s four of Shakespeare’s most famous female characters including Ophelia who all have their death scenes off stage. And this is going to be a physical representation of those scenes: previously unseen scenes.

We’ve also got some opera in there called Seven Velvet Suits, which is about Erik Satie, a pianist in France who had quite a surreal life. And this is the story of his brother going to find his apartments, where apparently he had a collection of seven velvet suits so he never had to think about what he wore. He just wore a velvet suit every day!

Then we have an interactive piece: Broken Stereo are bringing a murder case, The Contemptible Case of Charles Peace. You will actually take part in solving the murder of Charles Peace, who was Peckham based himself in the Victorian era. Broken Stereo aim to make interactive theatre like video games, where you will actually change the course of the action as you play along.

There’s also Ten Little Memories which is a very special show. It’s by a very interesting company, Do It Theatre, which is directed towards people who have autism or other forms of mental health and this show can be enjoyed by anyone. There are no actors, there’s just a script in the form of a comic zine, which you get handed on arrival and it leads you through the play. So the idea is it’s much more instructive and descriptive than a normal theatre environment, so people find it more comfortable. There’s not this construct where people are pretending and you’re in the dark and they’re in the light and you’re not supposed to say anything. They’re a really interesting company and I’m really happy to have them involved in the festival and I’m hoping that we bring in an audience which wouldn’t usually be there.

And finally, There’s A Zombie Outside which we talked a little about earlier, by As & When.

RK: Is there? A zombie outside?

MR: Seriously there is. Well there’s not, but you have to humour them.

RK: So you’re not outside, scratching on the door? Or are you…

MR: Don’t know, you’ll have to come down and see if there’s a zombie outside!

RK: And finally, why should people come to Basic Space?

MR: Well I think we’re doing something that no-one else is: the chance to see these companies doing what they want, rather than being incredibly constrained by budgets or being in a studio theatre when they don’t really want to be in a studio theatre. Literally, no-one’s put theatre on in this venue before. So as well as a brand new festival venue, it’s a brand new theatre venue, which’ll be really interesting. You don’t often get to see a show in a house and you don’t usually get that intimate experience. And that’s the thing: with most immersive experiences, every ticket will be a front row ticket. And it’s £10 and you can’t get £10 front row tickets from many places. And then you can get the whole festival experience for £50 to see all the shows, which is still less than most West End tickets. And part of my idea is that I’m hoping people come to see multiple shows, because I’m hoping people experience the parallel worlds of the space. You’re in the same house, but it’s being interpreted differently each time, which is one of the things I wanted to create with the structure of this festival.

Basic Space will be taking place from 17th to 21st February 2016, in Maverick Project buildings, Safehouse 1 & 2 Copeland Park, Peckham. To book tickets to the shows, visit Basic Space’s website.

Basic Space will also be running workshops by Lab Collective, exploring immersive performance. For more information, visit Hiive.

And to keep up with all the latest, follow Basic Space on Twitter.

 

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