Where I grew up in the Middle East theatre was banned because its power to unite and provoke, to present a vision for the future, to draw people together, was too dangerous to leave unchecked
Battersea Arts Centre, just a stone’s throw from Clapham Junction, is almost as busy as its neighbouring station. Right now, it is preparing to open its Going Global season, welcoming acts from all around the world. Taking a short break from his busy schedule, Artistic Director Tarek Iskander found time to speak to Everything Theatre about what to expect in the coming year, the importance of theatre in our lives, and what he is looking forward to welcoming through the doors of this wonderful building.
Was it an easy decision to accept the role of Artistic Director at BAC, especially given how much David Jubb had done previously? And do you now feel fully settled in?
I don’t think I gave them time to finish the sentence with the offer in it! I jumped at the chance because this is one of the best jobs in all of theatre and there is nothing in the world I would rather be doing right now. The team, the building, its place in the community, its relationship with artists, its radical, mischievous approach to everything it does…. There is nowhere like it. There’s a special alchemy that everyone senses when they enter the space – you can taste it as soon you walk through the door. I would never have applied to any other AD role – I would have remained a freelance director.
But yes, coming into an organisation that is doing well and is well-loved is a very tricky kind of proposition. I’ve helped set up and turn around organisations before, and for me this is more challenging because there is still much to do: but a pioneering organisation like BAC constantly needs to evolve and reinvent itself. Knowing what to preserve, what to build on and what needs to fade is a delicate exercise and keeps me awake at nights.
I’ve found that being an AD you are inevitably in a silent but close relationship with the person who held the post before you. David Jubb was humble person but also a true visionary. I feel like I am in constant dialogue with his decisions, peering into his mind, and I am learning from him every day. He’s a great mentor to have. But me and the team that is here now aren’t in thrall to what has gone before. We treasure BAC’s considerable achievements, but things will be different, as they should be. We have to keep pushing forward.
So, what are your big plans for the coming year? Is the availability of so many spaces within the building an advantage to doing things so differently? I assume you will mention Going Global here, and if so, can you give a short summary of what your vision of Going Global is?
Everything we do at BAC is focussed on inspiring change by empowering people’s creativity. Our programme, Going Global, is an example of this. We are bringing the world’s best international artists to South London to inspire and provoke us (Daughter; Cock Cock Who’s There?; The Spirit; Autoreverse). We are showcasing young people, their activism and their visions for the future (When It Breaks It Burns; Homegrown Festival). We are tackling and engaging with how technology is changing our world (unReal City; Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran). We have stuff that is pushing artform boundaries and immersing audiences in the action (Neither Here Nor There; Swimming Pools), and we also have work that is just riotous fun (Life, Live!; Outrageous Behaviour). Our artists and our audiences reflect the world, because we are all in this together.
We will also keep pushing boundaries in terms of innovation. We are becoming the world’s first Relaxed Venue. We are reviewing how we support creative people, artists and communities, and investing in new areas like Artificial Intelligence. We will continue to lead national networks like Co-Creating Change and Moving Roots, that are giving communities real agency in creative processes. We are trying to make our incredible space somewhere more interactive, where every visitor can engage their artistic juices Through the Beatbox Academy and The Agency we will continue to invest in young people in our local area, and we are also planning to launch a new Street Dance Academy this year.
There is so much to do! And the space we have is a gift that enables these various initiatives to sit side by side, with equal status and importance. BAC’s Town Hall sets the tone for everything we do: its radical history; its ability to bring large groups of people into the same space; the excitement and confidence a beautiful space generates. But it’s also worth remembering that a lot of the most exciting things we do, our co-creation programmes, our touring work, all happen outside our building.
You think of all the people who came through BAC in its history, from the Suffragettes in the 19th century to the Going Global artists pushing performance boundaries in the 21st, and it just makes you trust that anything is possible.
Was a season such as Going Global something you already had in mind before you become AD?
I felt quite strongly that bringing more international work to London was something BAC should be doing more of. For a world city, we don’t do enough of this in our capital. The primary aim is to foster exchange of ideas and performance practice in the hope this will inspire change in our own society and audiences, as well as push our own artists to greater heights. Audiences can see international work in London, but it’s often expensive. Tickets for Going Global are generally less than £12 for any seat.
Every season programme is a group effort. This was put together by BAC’s producing team. Going Global doesn’t just reflect my own passions, it’s also theirs. But I genuinely love and admire every piece in this spring season and I can only pray every future season will be as strong.
You talk about divisions becoming entrenched throughout the country, do you believe BAC and other art organisations have the power to change this? How important do you think the BAC is to not only London theatre, but London in general?
I think we don’t just have the power to do so, it’s our core responsibility. Where I grew up in the Middle East theatre was banned because its power to unite and provoke, to present a vision for the future, to draw people together, was too dangerous to leave unchecked. But there are complex questions all cultural organisations have to grapple with. We need to represent and include the world: these should be spaces where all voices can be heard, and viewpoints challenged. So what do you do when our creative space throws up things that may be contrary to our organisational values? BAC, like other arts organisations must be responsible, but also brave – we need to find ways to constructively explore, celebrate and challenge everything that is bubbling in our communities. Sometimes this is beautiful, sometimes it’s ugly, sometimes it’s cosy, sometimes it’s disturbing. All have their place. You can’t inspire change by being cowardly.
I wanted to work at BAC because I think this organisation has always been fearless; it’s always been prepared to try things and accept not everything will work out. This is why it has such an important place nationally as well as for London. I think BAC is an idea as much as it is an arts organisation – an idea of what we can achieve collectively if we are bold, generous, kind and rebellious. But though we have an important role citywide, nationally and globally, our greatest responsibility is to those on our doorstep, our neighbours. This is their building; this is their organisation.
Having attended shows as part of the Homegrown Festival, I’ve truly been amazed by the excitement generated by having so many children in and around the productions. Is this something you feel should be done elsewhere across London theatre? Does London theatre do enough to encourage youth to come to shows and of course make them?
I love Homegrown too. I can’t wait for this to come round again. This is a festival conceived, run and organised by young people themselves. The reason it works is because it isn’t an invitation to them: it isn’t us as an organisation trying to get people to participate in things we think they might enjoy or are good for them. It isn’t participative, it isn’t immersive, and it isn’t trying to engage anyone. The young people own the space; they bring their creative talents to it and they make it theirs. The adults who come to Homegrown have been dragged there by the younger audience members, not the other way round.
Moreover, a team of young producers curate a lot of what the audience experiences around the shows. Homegrown is a young people’s platform: it is their voice. I don’t want to downplay the huge effort the BAC team invests in this festival, but it is all focussed on supporting, rather than dictating, young people’s vision and creativity. If you want some insight into what young people are thinking, dreaming and worrying about now, this is a good place to start.
BAC is not unique in this. There are a lot of great things involving young people happening up and down the country. It is an area we have all got better at, mainly because we are trusting ourselves to give up space and power to others to make these kinds of special moments possible. The energy that this brings is unique and invigorating.
Finally, is there one show you are personally excited to be putting on at BAC this year? Feel free to say all of them! I just wondered if there is something you have wanted to get playing in London for a while, or if there is a particular show that you’re excited about for personal reasons?
I can’t choose between our children! I love and am passionate about and will happily champion every one of these shows. They will be gone in a blink, so miss them at your peril.
It’s the answer to a different question, but today I’ve been thinking a lot about the Canadian piece Daughter. It tackles a really difficult issue, toxic masculinity, in such an intelligent and sensitive way. And the central performance by Adam Lazarus is something exceptional. I’m very proud we are bringing it to London and the creative team feel they can trust us with this fragile piece.