Cressida Brown Interview

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Image © Nico Hogg via Flickr

Cressida Brown, Artistic Director of Offstage Theatre, talks us about her latest project.

In a city confronting the current housing crisis, the production Re:Home’s exploration of displacement and gentrification seems timely. We caught up with Cressida Brown, the Artistic Director of Offstage Theatre, to chat about her latest work, the challenges of staging theatre in derelict locations, and what happens when art and social politics collide.

London Calling: Your new production Re:Home revisits the 2006 work Home ten years on, returning to the Beaumont Estate in Leyton. The original production looked at a fractured community as their homes were dismantled. What has changed in the past ten years?

Cressida Brown: Well, obviously the entire landscape! I got the idea to revisit Home when I walked past the area and had no idea where the Beaumont Estate was, which was extraordinary given that I’d spent so much time there. It looks completely different, and the feel is a lot quieter, a lot less open. Ten years ago it was a notorious place but extremely lively: everyone knew everyone’s name. Whereas this time around, it’s been a lot harder to get people involved.

LC: Did you manage to speak to anyone from the original production?

CB: Yes, a few people, but a lot of them have moved off. Ten years ago all the interviews were conducted in one space with a video camera, but this time everyone’s disconnected, it’s difficult to find the original people.

LC: The show feels extremely topical given the current housing crisis, and current television productions such as Capital. You’ve previously looked at the tension between art and politics in Walking the Tightrope. Is it revisited in any way in this new production?

CB: Absolutely. One of the big differences theatrically is that the first production was site-specific: by the community, for the community, in the community setting. The play looks at what right I have as a middle-class theatre-maker to go into this community in the first place and edit their stories. Is that ironically another form of gentrification? The question of who has control of the narrative will have a big part. My personal agenda is left-wing - I’m not afraid to admit that - but it’s frustrating when people deny that these social changes are happening.

LC: If we return to the fact that your work is site-specific, what are the challenges of directing in strange locations? [As well as the housing estate used for Home, Brown has used other unusual sites such as wharfs and boats, and Amphibians was set in a derelict swimming pool.]

CB: With the original production Home we had some security issues...without giving too much away, the sequel does do interesting things with the theatre as a site. With other productions, there have been physical challenges - excavating a swimming pool, audience safety... It’s so nice to be doing something in a theatre for once!

LC: The idea of challenging the site’s space reminds me of Ian Rickson’s Hamlet with Michael Sheen, where the court and a psychiatric hospital occupied the same scaffolded space. Have you read any plays about gentrification recently as research for Re:Home, maybe Steven Hevey’s We Know Where You Live?

CB: I did hear about it, but I haven’t seen it. During my research, a woman doing a PhD on gentrification and art told me that this theme was far more common in American theatre - “white flight” - than British work. However, I try to avoid other plays touching on similar themes when I’m working on a project, so that my work is not influenced.

LC: Your work shows a clear interest in the peripatetic experience of being in the city, walking around and encountering people, things and communities. Last autumn your production Accidental Brummie did this in Birmingham. What inspired you to set it there?

CB: Well, the honest answer is that I was offered the job! We wanted to look at arts sponsorship and cuts to the arts. We used the Birmingham Rep theatre to stage a dystopian future where it was being taken over by a business centre, and so an illegal rave took place on stage to reclaim the space itself.

LC: Obviously you’ve had a massive success recently whenRe:Home was awarded the incredibly prestigious Kevin Spacey Foundation’s Artist of Choice Award 2015. What does the funding mean for future projects - do you have anything interesting in the pipeline?

CB: Thank you. I can’t reveal too much, but my future work might involve revisiting other old pieces too. That’s probably enough of a hint!

Re:Home will run from 9 February - 5 March 2016. For more information about the production and Offstage Theatre, visit their site here.