Yasmeen Arden, Artistic Director of Small Truth Theatre, talks to Miro’s Editor-in-Chief, Josh Brown, about the social housing crisis, loneliness and the world premiere of Nest by Katy Warner.

The creative industries can provide a valuable sanctuary for people dealing with intense or painful emotions. Through art, theatre, music and film people have found ways to express themselves creatively and many have also found a home within those communities. However, with arts funding cuts and routes into these industries being closed off, should we be looking to safeguard these communities for the future?

“That’s exactly it,” replies an unwavering Yasmeen Arden. “At the moment, there’s a real threat to drama, or any sort of creative subject being taught in schools, because they’re not actually being taken seriously. The attitude seems to be; ‘If it’s not going to be a profit-making business, then why are we bothering with it?’ I just think that’s a terrible way to run any society.”

Arden is the Artistic Director of Small Truth Theatre, an award-winning company which prides itself on their working-class roots and collaborative approach to theatre making. The company isn’t afraid to break with traditional theatre values and, in fact, Arden actively seeks to create work in non-traditional spaces for non-typical theatre audiences.

“The way I was trained was very much about the space becoming part of the world,” she explains. “I think sometimes in a traditional theatre space you’re having to work against the play because you’re in a regulated performance space. Whereas if you are in a pub or a bar or a café, that space becomes part of the world; it becomes part of the character of the whole production. It adds something quite special purely because the space is not necessarily designed for entertainment.”

A beautifully ‘messy’ love story of two people forgotten by society

Small Truth Theatre are heading to the Vault Festival later this week with the world premiere of Katy Warner’s new play, Nest. Set against an isolated council estate, the play portrays a beautifully ‘messy’ love story of two people forgotten by society, with nowhere left to turn but to each other.

Nest is a play about two young people who don’t fit in with the rules of society,” says Arden. “They’re growing up in an estate and, as we’ve seen over the last few years in real life, social housing is not a desirable concept for money-making, profit orientated systems. So, these people are left behind. They’re forced to survive in a place where the world around them is not really wanted”.

Yasmeen Arden

I think both Warner and Arden have found something which needs to be addressed in this notion of isolation and loneliness and are right to bring it to the stage. I asked Arden how she initially came across Warner’s play. “I am a reader for Theatre503 and so I read hundreds of plays, but this is one of the very few that literally came alive immediately,” she replied. “The words were just living and breathing. I couldn’t wait to hear them rather than read them – I needed to hear the rhythms and musicality in it”.

Inspired by a true story from the North of England, Nest tackles some very heavy issues and themes, but Arden assured me that it’s also incredibly playful and poetic with some real moments of humour. Despite the story originating from the North, I was interested to see if she believed the play is relevant to audiences right across the UK. “Absolutely. Yes, of course,” she replied without hesitation. “I think it could be about any city in this country at the moment and about what’s happening to working-class people – of which I am one. I grew up in social housing, I still live in social housing and for the first time I feel threatened because it’s no longer a secure way to live.”

Social housing is supposed to be affordable housing allocated on the basis of need. Let at low rents, councils or not-for-profit organisations such as housing associations provide accommodation that is affordable to people on low incomes with limits to rent increases – limits which are set by law.  However, the number of homes available for social rent in England have dropped 11 per cent in just 12 months, meaning that the amount of cheaper housing is at a record low. Despite this, Arden remains adamant that the play is not driven by social housing, or even mental health; “It’s about these two people who feel like maybe they might save each other from all of this. That’s what it’s really about and that’s what’s so beautiful about it.”

As part of the production, Small Truth Theatre have teamed up with SPID Theatre and Youth Action Alliance, two youth charities in North Kensington, to offer young shadowing positions and free workshops. SPID (Social Political Innovative Direct) work with young people on West London council estates to create participatory drama shows and regenerate community spaces. Youth Action Alliance (YAA) is a charity delivering youth and community programmes for children and young people across the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

“We are offering a placement for a couple of young people to shadow our rehearsal process for a day or two so that they can see what professional theatre making might be like,” Arden explains. “We’ve invited them to an open dress rehearsal and a Q&A with the whole company – all of us: the stage manager, producer, actors, designers so that they can ask questions on all levels. It’s important because they might have varying levels of experience with theatre and they might be coming with lots of different kinds of questions. So just giving them that access feels really important.”

They can reclaim a voice for themselves rather than being pushed out

There’s something fundamental about theatre and it should be made accessible to everyone. In addition to her outreach programmes, Arden’s use of found spaces as performance venues does exactly this; it opens up her world to everyone. It’s this concept which seems to drive her and shape the work she creates.

“People might not ever want to go into a theatre at all but bringing the performance to communities might just inspire something of possibility,” Arden says. “With Nest, it might be that they just watch the play and find themselves moved by it. Or it might just be that they ask questions about how they can reclaim a voice for themselves rather than being pushed out.”

Nest premiers at the Vault Festival on 28th February and runs through to 4th March. Vault Festival co-director, Mat Burt, was recently interviewed by Exeunt Magazine’s Alice Saville where she brilliantly justifies why we need the Waterloo-based arts festival. She explains how she believes the event is designed with oversight and care for the people who participate in it. It seems more than fitting then that Arden should only want to widen this community and welcome a whole new generation through the doors. “There’s something very exciting about the Vaults.” Arden states. “It’s a little bit of the nature of our play in the sense that it doesn’t really belong to the normal mainstream theatre space. It’s made its own rules.”

The environment nurtured at the Vaults can’t help but feed the ground-breaking work being produced inside. Similarly, theatre makers, like Small Truth Theatre, who embrace young students and provide opportunities for them to discover theatre are feeding the future of our industry.

“If I’m honest, I’m partly terrified about the future and I’m partly overwhelmed with excitement and hope,” says Arden. “That’s really what Nest is all about, it could end terribly or it could end beautifully. However, I’m obviously not going to tell you which way the play swings.”

 

Nest runs from Wednesday 28th February – Sunday 4th March at the Vault Festival.  For more information and to book tickets, click here.