Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Changing Paradigm of London Independent Theatre

London has long been a theatre town, but in an industry that by its very nature should involve change it has become entrenched in established theatre practice. Perhaps it could even be described as a little neglectful of the Fringe underbelly that can so often inject vitality into the mainstream. Increasingly it seems whatever independent theatre makers produce; the rhythms of the main stages roll on regardless, for whilst many theatres boast of new writing and developing the next generation, the reality of the current economic climate is that risk is not ideal.

Into this context comes an innovative and recently established group who are bringing a different approaching to staging independent theatre. Self described as the only Fringe Repertory Company in London, Paradigm Theatre Company is redefining both artistic practice and the way the audience interacts with their shows.

Originally from Chicago Playwright/Artistic Director Sarah Pitard has implemented what she describes as a ‘Chicago Rep’ model that involves a company of committed artistic associates that generate four full new productions a year. In her spin on the template, two original new works, one original adaptation and a classic are produced. These plays are then grouped together into a themed seasons so there is a thread of consistency for the audience across the year. The current theme ‘the many faces of love’ may seem broad but Pitard enthusiastically ties it to each production: “invisible love… giving because of love” it’s what it’s all about.

Although once a mainstay of the industry, Repertory theatre is no longer fashionable, however Pitard details the many benefits to those involved with such a company. Each Artistic Associate can be involved in up to three of the four productions. Whilst others are brought in on individual shows, members are consistently involved throughout the season. In the upcoming production there is a cast of nine actors, three of which are Artistic Associates within the company for the year. There clearly needs to be a balance between an in-house production and engaging with the wider industry but Pitard is confident they have achieved this so far. She emphasises that whilst members may be working on other projects concurrently Paradigm is essentially an “artistic home” for all those involved. It seems as much about building a supportive community as it is about developing careers.

With consistent and long term programming, Paradigm Theatre Company is challenging and changing the way London interacts with independent/Fringe theatre. This isn’t a pop up group that will bubble and burst in the short term, as Pitard says they are “very, very different” from anything that is currently on the scene. They will provide a reliable platform for independent and emerging artists as well as consistently good theatre for a returning audience. It is a bold approach to take and they are looking to build on the success of breaking even so far.

Currently in production is Pitard’s play Freedom, Books, Flowers and the Moon an adaptation of the Oscar Wilde short stories The Nightingale and the Rose and The Happy Prince. Working with the strengths of the short form, each story neatly fits into one act. They are linked through the context of the persecution of gypsies during World War II, with the characters all human but perhaps not treated as such. Here they are “transported to a whole new place” where as a writer she felt considerable creative freedom. In fact she used “very little of the actual text, most of it is just me… but certainly the tone is the same as the stories” and they are textured with symbolism and delicate imagery that reflects the original concept.

Asked why she chose these stories in particular Pitard talks at length about The Happy Prince: “my dad would get to the end of it and then cry… I didn’t quite understand it when I was six but somehow I knew it was amazing.” She then describes discovering English Literature at drama school and keeping a “notebook full of words” to educate herself, it was this that led her to writing and also to revisit Oscar Wilde. Reading The Happy Prince again she understood her dad’s tears – “the ending killed me” and she knew she wanted to adapt these “deep and meaningful and beautiful” works.

Being Artistic Director as well as the playwright on this production you can see Pitard relishes the extra “bit of artistic control” she maintains over the show, however she insists that she is able to relax “trust my team” and doesn’t attend rehearsals. It’s refreshing to engage with a writer who is involved beyond the page: “I want to produce and I want to write” she says and Paradigm gives her the opportunity to do that.  

Her determination reflects a wider trend of theatre makers taking initiative and taking creative control of their careers. Paradigm’s Resident director Cat Robey has directed four independent productions in the last two months and Pitard herself works full time as well as writing and producing. Pitard laughs, it’s “intense but it can be done, you just don’t sleep a lot!”

There is something gritty about independent theatre and Paradigm definitely doesn’t have the slick glossiness that so defines our established theatres. However, you definitely get the sense that as they develop they’ll shine in their own spotlight and might – just might –be more artistically fulfilled for it.

 
The show runs the 6th-25th @ The Waterloo East Theatre
Tuesday-Sat @ 7:30pm; Sun @ 4pm
You can book tickets at www.waterlooeast.co.uk and find out more information about Paradigm here.

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