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Theatremakers: HighTide

Published 7 June 2010

For a young company led by artists at the very beginning of their careers, HighTide has become a force to be reckoned with in little more time than it would take most to gain their MAs in Arts Management. Currently running in London, its Old Vic co-production Ditch has launched the famous theatre’s previously site-specific space the Old Vic Tunnels as a classic proscenium venue.

Headed up by Artistic Directors Sam Hodges and Stephen Atkinson, HighTide is an ambitious hybrid beast. Primarily developing emerging new writers, the company create theatre as hands on artists, produces shows from behind the scenes working with outside directors and provides training and experience, not to forget the established festival – in their words “the world’s producing festival of new plays” – that runs annually.

This is how HighTide first began life with Hodges launching the festival in the vicinity of his childhood home in 2007. Taking place in the Suffolk market town of Halesworth, the festival showcased plays by new writers and brought a whole new audience into the local venue The Cut, its aim to source and develops new writers. This year celebrating its fourth year, the company read over 800 scripts submitted for consideration. What started out as a small venture has become a respected yearly event that attracts people from around the country, as well as becoming a local source of jobs, cultural experience and tourism.

With the entire creative team for each separate show at the festival working in close proximity, the process aims to be an education for all involved, whether they are the writer, an audience member or working front of house. Bringing new, challenging writing to a rural area provides local residents with fresh, exciting and somewhat ‘edgy’ productions. Young writers learn from the experience as a result of being allowed to muck in and work with members of HighTide, directors and actors in an intimate and full-on way that they may not experience at a more traditional venue. The experience reminded Ditch director Richard Twyman of his work at the Royal Shakespeare Company: “What happened, in a really beautiful way actually, was that you were able to talk about each other’s work in a very non-precious way and chip in ideas and be critical, be supportive and all those things.”

“I design everything; the installations, the props, the costumes”

Rare for a company of its size, HighTide is in fact an ensemble theatre company, with resident assistant directors, a company of actors, and in-house designers, like takis who has been involved with HighTide from the very beginning. The Greek-born designer is responsible for all visuals in a production: “I design everything; the installations, the props, the costumes. The costumes are all made from scratch, they’re all designed, they’re all bespoke, we made the patterns, we dye the fabrics, we fit them to the actors.”

Premiering productions at the festival, HighTide ultimately aims to then tour the productions nationally and, if possible, internationally. Their first play to transfer to a major run in London was Joel Horwood’s I Caught Crabs In Walberswick at the Bush theatre in 2008, followed by the hugely successful Stovepipe, co-produced by the National Theatre in 2008. It was this promenade play that really caught the attention of the media, say Atkinson: “It sort of changed everything because it was only our second year of existence. For me as the producer as well, I was 23 at the time, and to be producing a play with the National theatre at only 23 meant a lot to me and to my company. What it meant, moving forward, is that we’ve been able to get much more of a national profile, and even Ditch has had a much greater profile in the press.”

It also marked them out as part of the new wave of young theatremakers taking conventional plays and placing them in new spaces, creating new ways of accessing theatre. The venue is of enormous importance to a HighTide piece as Atkinson explains: “The thing for me in terms of having a non-building placed company, because we don’t have the overheads and the responsibility to keep that programmed, you have the freedom to find locations wherever we want that we think speak specifically to the play. With Stovepipe, because of the form of it, because it was a promenade play, and with this play [Ditch], because of the idea of it being an apocalyptic drama, we spent months looking for locations that we felt enhanced these plays and make it more of an event for the audience and the artists involved.”

“We’re trying to find some of the most exciting writers who will be the future of the business”

Ditch, which takes place in the Old Vic’s vast venue under Waterloo Station, has played on the expectations of such a space and created a clever twist, with the actual play taking place in a conventional seated theatre space. This unique and dilapidated yet majestic venue allowed HighTide to create an inspired journey from the front door through the dark, damp arches. The audience members have to cross disturbing installations and dark shadowy artworks until they find themselves at stairs leading to rather grand red velvet seats and a theatre auditorium. takis explains his inspiration behind the installations: “I recycled everything that I found in the tunnels, based on what the script says. For example in front of the bar there are all these pipes hanging, so I used that and I used all the plastic and metal pipes I found in the place to create this industrial light where the light changes… It’s trying to put both together, the space responding to the script with what we had in the space, plus adding more elements obviously. Also trying to keep a bit of surreal and naturism elements there which I think the script is, surreal and a bit experimentalist.”

HighTide’s theatremaking process is firmly collaborative. In terms of putting the right team together, Twyman explained how much care the company takes: “I think for them it’s a bit like the venue, they match the right play with the right director in the same way they match the right venue with the right play. I think that commitment to getting the right match, the right personality, is really important.”

But first and foremost HighTide is a new writing company, and Atkinson constantly reiterates that their young playwrights are always at the fore front of the company’s mind: “The most important thing about the company is that we work with new writers, with narrative based writing, and that can take place in a theatre or it can take place outside of a theatre but the idea is that we’re trying to find some of the most exciting writers who will be the future of the business.”

They are however, very clear that that each play should reflect HighTide’s style, which is vastly swayed towards challenging, political or cultural pieces: “We’re interested in plays that are really ambitious and try and address the world in which we live”, says Atkinson. “A lot of new writing is very personal and very narrow in terms of the prism about what these new writers know about and what they’re interested in writing about. I think there are enough theatres that give homes to that kind of work already. So we bridge the two in that we say it can be a new writer but we really respect work that can be broad and ambitious and challenge the audience’s expectations of a new play and what a new writer is.”

“We’re definitely a production company and everything we do is our own work”

Still in his mid-twenties, a similar age to many of the new writers they are discovering, it might be hard to imagine just how much life experience they have. But HighTide productions are proving this wrong. Ditch, which, set 40 years in the future is purely an imaginative experience, shows maturity of writing says Twyman: “The voice in it, despite Beth [Steel] being a new writer, is the voice of someone who’s lived through things. And certainly the characters have lived through an enormous amount and wear their trauma very lightly, but there is a real trauma there underneath the surface. I think that’s something which an older audience or certainly a more experienced theatregoing audience, can respond to as well because of the depth of those feelings. She’s an old head on young shoulders and that’s one of the qualities of the play that I love.” This in turn attracts a unique mix of audience: “I’ve seen school groups in there, I’ve seen the young really hip theatre crowd, as well as a traditional Old Vic audience.”

The influence of having worked with the National Theatre and the Old Vic obviously is an incredible privilege for such a young company, but while Atkinson clearly respects these houses and their artistic directors more specifically, he is confident in the quality he can offer them. A director by trade, Atkinson’s business acumen is glaringly obvious. While deeply passionate about new writing and offering an education to as many people as possible, he also strongly embraces the business side of running a company. A massive influence on his business plan is the company’s ultimate aim to become a rural company producing a season of work at its base in Halesworth. Therefore, whilst the majority of companies would work the opposite way around, London is a mere stepping stone for the company to become the regional festival theatre it desires to be: “We’re definitely a production company and everything we do is our own work… We work in co-productions with other producers like the National, the Old Vic, in order to get the wider audience for the work and the greater profile for it, but HighTide Festival in its own right is becoming a nationally recognised platform as a brilliant start at the outset of their [playwright’s] career.”

While many might argue that London is the place to be, the hub of creative energy where one should base oneself, HighTide passionately believes in creating something to support arts in the East: “The idea is that in time it will become like Chichester Festival Theatre or Stratford [The Courtyard in Stratford-upon-Avon], in that it’s a centre of excellence across the country for producing new work. What we’re trying to build is a producing theatre at The Cut which has a national profile that lasts long beyond my 10 years as artistic director and hopefully becomes one of our major institutions in years to come.” takis, who has worked in places including Romania, New York and Hong Kong agrees: “I think it’s important, a lot of the time everything happens in London and as good as that is, it’s not only London in the UK and I think it will be interesting to try to bring things out of London or develop a proper theatre in that area.”

Their commitment to London still exists, however, in the form of training. Extending its tools of experience and capability, the company has set up a project called the Genesis Laboratory to help emerging artists develop new work with the help of the HighTide company members: “The Genesis Laboratory is based across the road from the National Theatre and that’s about researching and development time for emerging artists. They get about £300 provided by the Genesis foundation, they get this space for a week to rehearse, they work closely with myself and Sam [Hodges] to develop either their craft as a director, or as a playwright or actor, or to specifically develop a project that’s going to go into production somewhere. The idea of it, quite simply, is that there’s no facilities for research and development for emerging artists. So we’ve created something that’s about people at the outset of their careers and it’s a completely open access scheme.”

As takis explains, their ability to help these new artists is often of mutual gain. Having only a matter of weeks to put together projects like Ditch’s transfer to London, volunteers are a necessary and equally prosperous solution.

“What we’re trying to do is to get The Cut into a nationally recognised producing house”

The training doesn’t stop there, however. In Suffolk the festival is used as a way of helping local residents gain new skills and extend existing ones, with their presence at the festival a vital element for Atkinson. “Much of our work during the year is about developing people’s skills, whether it be as an arts practitioner or as an administrator, because ultimately what we’re trying to do is to get The Cut into a nationally recognised producing house which becomes a real centre of excellence in the region.” Atkinson himself also runs educational workshops in an attempt to spark the interest of a younger crowd. An aim that is not always easy, as takis explains: “We’re trying to find ways where we can bring the young generation, get them more involved in that, see more theatre and workshops and more interesting work to do. That’s the aim. It’s difficult, I have worked with the European programmes and that’s what the aim also is. Working across Germany I experienced the same problems there. But at the same time the outcome is it is very satisfying to see, it is worth all the hard work and it is worth the effort.”

While HighTide may be young and has its hands full with its almost holistic approach to theatre, its ambitious plan to become a regional festival theatre is not one that Twyman believes is out of their reach: “God if anyone can do it I’d say they can to be honest. They’ve got absolute commitment and they work their socks off. In terms of their commitment to it and their ability to do it, absolutely no doubt.”



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