Image: Joe Twigg / Barrel Organ

A Warwick homecoming: the Emerge Festival preview

The opening scene of Love Actually reminds us that everyone loves a homecoming. The homecoming of Emerge Festival, taking place at the Warwick Arts Centre at the end of this month, is set to be of Love Actually-level proportions, as four Warwick-born theatre companies return to the site of their genesis for what will be a celebration of their recent work and ongoing success.

Warwick is acclaimed for the standard of its theatre scene and these four companies – Emergency Chorus, Clown Funeral, Barrel Organ and Feat.Theatre – are testament to the fact that Warwick students’ talent need not remain confined to the university sphere. The theatre business may be infamously difficult to break into, but these companies are doggedly and admirably doing just that.

Warwick students’ talent need not remain confined to the university sphere

So, let’s meet the characters. I spoke to Emily Davis, the producer of Emergency Chorus; Samuel George, the director of Clown Funeral; Rosie Gray, an actor in Barrel Organ; and Stella von Koskull and Josie Davies, co-founders of Feat.Theatre. Each has an impressive story that deserves telling.

Emergency Chorus was founded in October 2016 by creative masterminds Ben Kulvichit and Clara Potter-Sweet, to “address big questions in intimate ways”. Their first show, Celebration, travelled to the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF) where it won – amongst other things – the Sunday Times Playwriting Award. The company has also performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Lyric Hammersmith, Theatr Clwyd in Wales and the New Diorama theatre in London, the latter during their exams in final year. Earlier this month, The Guardian named Emergency Chorus as one of the country’s best young theatre companies, an accolade which Davis describes as “the absolute bomb”.

The Guardian named Emergency Chorus as one of the country’s best young theatre companies

Clown Funeral singles itself out from many other graduate companies by creating “self-contained shows” which keep the fourth wall. Their USP is “dark comedy – not quite sci-fi, but near future worlds.” The group met in first year (2013-14) while devising an adaptation of Rebecca through Codpiece society. The award of the Lord Rootes Memorial Fund when they graduated was a “substantial financial investment” which has meant that, since then, “we have broken even. That cushion has allowed us to take risk. We were really lucky.”

Their main project has been The Murderer, based on a poem of the same name. The show imagines a society in which murderers are rehabilitated by being housed with volunteer carers. The production has visited an array of festivals and sold out at the New Diorama theatre, where Clown Funeral was an Emerging Graduate company in 2016-17. The company is now a SPARK artist at the Pegasus Theatre in Oxford.

“We listen to everything culturally around us, and engage and respond to that”

Founded in 2012-13, Barrel Organ is the oldest of the four companies. Gray was in her first year when it formed, but her colleagues spanned three years. “The older years were so welcoming,” she says. “They wanted to show us what they had learnt. My tastes now, so much of what I look out for, are down to those guys taking me under their wing.”

In the Humanities Studio the group would “play with form and content and how they influence each other… we were messing around.” Out of that came Nothing, “about alienation and being young”, which travelled both to NSDF and to the Fringe. The company’s goal is “to make experimental theatre more popular. We want to see traditionalists, purists, fringe and school-age audiences all coming together in audiences.” Their work is “politically conscious. We listen to everything culturally around us, and engage and respond to that. And we like to expose the theatricality of theatre.” They are now associate artists at Camden People’s Theatre.

“We always try to find ways in which we can change the world, one small step at a time”

Finally, the smallest but not least of the companies, is Feat.Theatre. Their shows are “intimate and ambitious – we always try to find ways in which we can change the world, one small step at a time. Our performances tend to foster a warm, friendly relationship with our audience, because you guys all play a crucial role in our shows as well as our process. We’re not fussed by sticking to theatrical conventions; our shows are part storytelling, part tea party, and part political rally.”

Davies and von Koskull both did a year abroad in Berlin, during which time “there was a huge media frenzy about immigration, the Syrian refugee crisis and border control.” It inspired them in their final year to create, Say it Loud!, which travelled to NSDF and won the Stage UK Directors Award. “The show interrogated the UK’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis and included over 50 writing submissions from artists around the country, reflecting on and critically engaging with the topic. At the end of each performance, we invited everyone to write a letter of hope to children in Syria and, if they could, donate money to our local refugee and migrant centre.”

All four urge current students to make the most of their situation now while there is “no pressure to make a living out of theatre”

Put like this, a dazzling sequence of successes, it’s easy to think that the journeys of these four companies were easy. But, naturally, they have had their challenges. Davis warns of the “inherent insecurity” which comes with the craft.

Members of the three older companies – Clown Funeral, Barrel Organ and Feat.Theatre – are also balancing their theatre work with jobs and other artistic pursuits.

George puts it best: “The difficulty is how to juggle time. We want to work and survive, but still find dedicated time to rehearse, workshop and continue to develop. We don’t want to come to a standstill.”

This struggle is especially potent for Barrel Organ which has 11 members spread across the world, meaning “it’s basically impossible for us all to be in a room together.” One of their main challenges, because “in some ways we work more as a collective”, is the art of compromise and negotiation. “Everyone wants a voice. We want it to be non-hierarchical but ultimately we need to get a show done.” A balancing of political views and practical needs is also required.

Davis warns of the “inherent insecurity” which comes with the craft

All four urge current students to make the most of their situation now while there is “no pressure to make a living out of theatre”. The other benefits of student life are that everyone is in the same place at the same time, and that free rehearsal space is easily accessible through the University, two luxuries that these creatives for the most part no longer enjoy.

Davis and von Koskull are particularly enthusiastic about the opportunities of student theatre. “The brilliant thing about student drama is that if you have an idea, you can make it happen. Whether you put on a performance at Warwick Arts Centre, in a bar in Leamington or the woods on campus, there are a million ways to make theatre. There are also loads of people that will be up for collaborating with you, performing, or helping you get funding. You really have the chance to experiment without taking any financial gambles.

“We learnt as much from other students as we did from our course and being somewhere that’s full of insightful people who will challenge and inspire you. Warwick is the perfect place to figure out the type of art you want to make.”

“The brilliant thing about student drama is that if you have an idea, you can make it happen”

George acknowledges that there aren’t “big supportive structures” at Warwick to help you put on shows, but doesn’t think that is a bad thing: “You’ve got to do everything yourself, all facets – budgeting, costume design, set design, producing and so on. That was a huge factor in our development. We learnt how to be a self-producing company, and the kind of effort you have to put in to achieve that.”

With so much determination and relative expertise on show, I feel it is my duty to ask what advice these theatre-makers can give to current Warwick students thinking of following in their footsteps.

Gray, the oldest of the bunch, trips over herself to answer. “Keep making what you want to make. Work with people whom you love and who energise you: having a community when you leave an institution is crucial. Keep an ear to the ground, especially with regard to funding. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help and advice. And do not give up if you love it.”

“Keep making what you want to make… and do not give up if you love it”

Davies and von Koskull also emphasise the importance of community. “Start creating relationships with artists that inspire you, communities you love, buildings you want to work in, organisations you aspire to be part of… Persevere, be patient, and through these long-lasting dialogues, you’ll get to where you want to be.”

For Davis, the important thing is to “find your own niche – don’t try to emulate what others are doing. You are young and working on small budgets, so be creative within that framework. And ask yourself what you are contributing that hasn’t been seen before.”

George has only one message, a blunt one which reinforces his comments earlier about his own development: “Keep trying to learn.” Once you think you’ve made it, the standard of your work will slip.

“Persevere, be patient, and through these long-lasting dialogues, you’ll get to where you want to be”

All four express their hope that current students will find Emerge Festival encouraging, even inspiring. The promise of what is on offer is certainly intriguing. Barrel Organ are giving a rehearsed reading of an adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Emergency Chorus will use “mushrooms, soft amber light and walking” to represent our lives “in a world that is slowly dying.” Similarly mysterious is Clown Funeral’s promise of “something visually really stunning; unusual writing which is a little bit funny and a little bit thought-provoking.” Perhaps most invitingly, Feat.Theatre tell me to expect “a hot cup of tea and inspiration to change the world.”

Their mutual excitement to return to Warwick, and to see each others’ work, is also affecting. Emergency Chorus only graduated this summer, but they are “very attached to Warwick” and Davis notes that it’s “really important to keep that link with where we began, especially because there is such exciting stuff coming up.”

Their mutual excitement to return to Warwick, and to see each others’ work, is affecting

It’s a nostalgic return for George especially, because he worked at the first ever Emerge Festival in 2014 as a workshop facilitator. “It’s nice to feel you’re still part of a community. We feel a connection with other Warwick companies. Hopefully they feel that too.”

For Gray, coming back is “a reminder of where we started. Our hearts are here – we have so many memories and nostalgia. We have the utmost respect for the other companies, we are looking forward to hearing what we all think of each others’ work. It is a wider community – we are supporting each other, championing, rather than competing.”

Davies and von Koskull echo the same sentiments. “It’s so brilliant and exciting to see what other Warwick graduates are making and see what paths they have carved from the same starting point. The theatre community, like any other, is all about support and inspiration. We can always learn from each other”.

The theatre community, like any other, is all about support and inspiration. We can always learn from each other.

The recurrence of ‘community’ in my conversations with all four companies is striking. It occurs in the sense of the wider theatrical world, but mainly with regard to Warwick, about which they speak practically but also emotionally. They learnt things here, made friends sometimes as early as first year, developed talents and ideas, which have irrevocably shaped their post-graduate lives.

And the lessons they have learnt – the necessity always to strive to learn more, the difficulties of financial insecurity, the unstinting importance of a loving and supportive community – apply to everyone, not just to those hoping to find success in theatre. Emerge Festival is a celebration not just of the theatrical talent to emerge from Warwick, but of all Warwick’s talented and thoughtful graduates. This is a homecoming we should all get behind.

Emerge Festival is at the Warwick Arts Centre, 30-31 October. Tickets are available here.

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