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Everyone Theatre: An Interview with Jasmine Cullingford

Everyone Theatre is a series of interviews with leading theatre practitioners in London. It’s their chance to make the case for getting into theatre, on either side of the curtain.

Jasmine Cullingford is the Artistic Director of the Blue Elephant Theatre

Jasmine Cullingford is the Artistic Director of the Blue Elephant Theatre

Jasmine Cullingford is the current Artistic Director of the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell. She worked at the Orange Tree Theatre and the Theatre Royal Stratford East before she rose through the ranks of the Blue Elephant Theatre to eventually become the Artistic Director in 2009. The Blue Elephant is one of London’s best kept secrets – it is the only theatre in Camberwell, and it boasts an eclectic programme of theatre, dance, art and other cultural events.

Jasmine was kind enough to take some time out of her jam-packed schedule to sit down with us and talk to us why theatre matters to her.

Listen to the podcast using the player below, subscript to the series on iTunes, or read through the transcript below. Please feel free to leave comments at the bottom of the page!

Everything Theatre: So here we are in the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell with Jasmine Cullingford, the Artistic Director. Thank you very much for joining us! This is the third episode of everyone theatre, our podcast series aimed at getting people involved in theatre both on and off the stage. The first question we’d like to ask revolves around you Jasmine: could you tell us a little about yourself, and how you came to be artistic director of the Blue Elephant?

Jasmine Cullingford: I’ve always loved theatre, ever since school, but as an audience member rather than as an actor. I actually hated drama back in school – too shy to ever take part! At school we had something called ‘Stage Pass’, which was a programme to help young people get cheap theatre tickets, and I became their student rep. I also had a very good English teacher, who used to take us to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford several times a year, and I loved going to see shows there. So my love for theatre grew from my teacher’s enthusiasm.

When I went to university in London, at UCL, I became the student rep for the RSC and then got an internship at the Royal Court in their marketing department. That internship led on to some paid work, and eventually I stayed on to become their student rep too. When I did get involved with drama at UCL it was on the marketing side: my friends would be actors and would say “oh, we need some help producing”, and I would help and get involved from that angle.

After graduating I got a job at the Orange Tree as a Marketing and Press Assistant, and then I went to the Theatre Royal Stratford East as a Press Officer. After that I came to the Blue Elephant, firstly as an Administrator. I then slowly moved up – I’ve been here for ages now – to become General Manager, then Theatre and Programme Manager, before become Artistic Director in 2009 when we started producing in-house shows.

“My love for theatre grew from my teacher’s enthusiasm”

ET: That’s quite a journey!

JC: It was quite a journeyIt’s quite funny actually: I started off at the Orange Tree in Richmond in West London, and then went to the Theatre Royal in Stratford in East London, and now I’m in Camberwell in the South. Next I’ll need to go to a venue in Barnet or something, in the North of London!

ET: So, having travelled across London’s theatrical landscape, you must have seen some pretty amazing shows. Is there any one in particular that stands out for you?

JC: Well, there are so many! But yes, there are some shows that have stuck in my mind. One of them is The Bicycle Bridge by Reject’s Revenge. I’d seen mostly traditional theatre before that, which is also good of course, but this was the first piece of physical theatre that I’d really seen. It was a completely new way of telling a story for me, using movement and music and physicality. It really stuck in my mind; this was back in 2001 and I still remember the songs!

The story was quite sad – it was about love during warfare – but it was made so much more moving because it was played through comedy. I realised you could tell a sad story and be funny at the same time. It was bittersweet I suppose, and had a great deal of Pathos at the end. I think it became even more moving when you were laughing through it. It worked really well.

ET: Sounds fantastic! Now, at this stage in the interview we like to ask people to give their “elevator pitch”. If you were trying to convince someone to get involved in theatre, either as an audience member, an actor or even a producer like yourself, what would you say? You have the time it takes for them to get to the second floor in the lift: this is your chance to convince them!

JC: Well, I just don’t think you can beat theatre as entertainment. I would go to the theatre every day if I could, but unfortunately real life means you can’t do that! It’s the live aspect of theatre which I think makes it special, the fact that every show is completely different, and every experience is completely different. As anyone who has seen a show twice knows, one night can be totally different to the next. And each audience member gets a different view of the show: it depends on what side of the stage you sit, which actors you choose to focus on. I always think that’s quite fascinating.

It’s also that frisson that comes with live performance. From a producer’s point of view, sometimes things can go wrong on stage, but the actors manage to hold it together. Sometimes, particularly in devised work, it works so well that you decide to adopt it. But then the next night when you try to do it on purpose it never works as well. I don’t think you have that spontaneity in other art forms.

“It’s the live aspect of theatre which makes it special, the fact that every show is completely different, and every experience is completely different” 

ET: Absolutely, and the desire to share that kind of experience is a part of the motivation for this podcast series. Now, James and I spent a very cold afternoon talking to people around Covent Garden and the Southbank, quizzing them about their theatre habits. We identified three key reasons why people don’t go to the theatre. First, price: there is a perception that theatre is a hobby which is out of their price bracket. Second, people may know that there is amazing theatre all around them in London, but don’t know where to start. And finally, some people may have had a bad experience and have decided it’s simply not for them.

They are all very silly obstacles, and that’s why we’re speaking to people like you: to try and find ways to get around them. So, let’s tackle that first point. What would you say to people who are on a budget?

JC: I do think that theatre being expensive is a misconception actually. Sure, top price tickets in the most expensive show on the West End won’t be cheap, but even then, they’re about £60. Going to the opera can cost far more than that. And even going to a football match, that’s, what? £40? £50? So yes, some tickets are expensive, but not much more than going to an equivalent sporting event.

And then, there are a lot of much cheaper tickets around. I mean, you can go to the National Theatre for £12 with their Travelex scheme. So you can’t really say theatre is always expensive! On the fringe, generally tickets cost £20 max. Certainly here our top price tickets are £15. Lots of theatres have schemes like the Arcola’s Pay What You Can Tuesdays and the Southwark Playhouse’s Airline Ticketing – where the earlier you book the cheaper your ticket is. And then there is the ticket booth in Leicester Square which has half price tickets to West End shows, so instead of £50 you’re paying £25, which is far more reasonable.

So I think that really a theatre ticket needn’t cost more than a cinema ticket in London. If you go to see a film at the Odeon in Leicester Square it could cost £20 anyway. And you have to remember that with theatre you’re paying to see live performers. A show can have 15 or 16 people on stage, so that’s only £1 per person when you think about it. So actually I think we need to be prepared to pay for something which is good quality. And I think it’s our duty as theatre makers to make the shows we put on worth the price.

“A theatre ticket needn’t cost more than a cinema ticket in London”

ET: Yes, as you say there are plenty of ways to get good value tickets. But then, there is the second obstacle – the sheer choice of shows to see in London. Where would you suggest people start in their theatrical journey of London?

JC: Well, I think word of mouth is a great way to start. For me, theatre is a very social thing to do. Unlike cinema, you have an interval where you can swap views about the show, and you can discuss it afterwards. So if you don’t know anything about theatre but you have friends who do, ask them what they’ve seen, where they go. You can also use social media like Facebook and Twitter. Most theatres have social media pages where you can find out more about what’s on. Then there are websites like yours, and there are lots of people doing personal blogs. So there is a lot of information out there which is free to access, where you will come across things that sound interesting to you and that you’d like to go along to. But yes, start with the social side of theatre. Hopefully there will be somebody you know who is interested in theatre, who can recommend something.

ET: Then there is the group of people who claim theatre isn’t for them, which is fair enough. Now you mentioned earlier you had a brilliant teacher who took you to see some great productions when you were at school. Some people may not have had such pleasant experiences – perhaps they didn’t enjoy the shows they were dragged to at all! The question then becomes, as a theatrical community, how do we avoid that happening in future?

JC: You’re right; there are a lot of people who say they don’t want to come to fringe theatre because they’ve had a bad experience. As a theatre community, I think the main thing is for us to make sure that people grow up with theatre. So participation and community outreach work are key. We work with young people from seven upwards in our youth theatre and schools work, and we put on shows for our children’s theatre programme called ‘Trumpety Trump’ for kids aged two and up. I believe that if people grow up with theatre they’ll never think it’s alien to them, whereas if you suddenly bring them in later they may think it’s not cool. I mean, my baby is just three months old and she came with me to see Oedipus!

You also have to tailor your theatre. There is a lot of good children’s theatre out there, and we need to build on that. So if you’re a local young person, you will hopefully have come into contact with the Blue Elephant in primary school, then secondary school, and then after you’ve been so often you’ll have an affinity with the theatre.

Another example is our youth theatre. This is a participatory thing, where the children want to be actors. We give them free tickets to come to see our shows (funded by Children in Need), and that’s theatre they wouldn’t normally choose to see. When we do group outings for them, they choose shows like Wicked! or Shrek, but then we’ll take them to see, say Oedipus, which is running now. And I love their reactions afterwards, when they say “Oh, that was great!”. Taking them to these shows which they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise see and then seeing how they react – it’s very rewarding.

ET: Actually, this is closely linked to our next question, which is about initiatives you might be involved in to help get people involved in theatre. Now you’ve touched on your youth theatre programme, but maybe you could give us a bit more detail on what you do, and how thzat fits with your venue?

JC: Well, we firmly believe that participation and programming go hand in hand. As I was saying, these young people are the audiences of the future! So we have two youth theatres, and we also do adult community work. We also work in schools as the drama providers, plus forum theatre projects which we take into schools and youth clubs. We try to mimic our programme, which is very much about crossing genres, in the education work that we do: so we’ll have music and theatre workshops, dance and theatre workshops etc. And then we take the young people to see the corresponding show we put on in the theatre. These workshops take place in the space itself, so the young people are often working around the sets, and they see that theatre is something real, not just a Saturday project. This kind of community work has always been important to the Blue Elephant, especially given where we are. For those who don’t know, we are in the middle of a housing estate, so we have the community on our doorstep, so we obviously had to include them in what we do!

“We firmly believe that participation and programming go hand in hand. Young people are the audiences of the future”

ET: Well that brings us to end of the interview! The final question is ‘What’s next for the Blue Elephant’?

JC: Well, we’ve just opened our season with Oedipus. The season goes on till June, with a whole host of different shows up. Check out our website www.blueelephanttheatre.co.uk/. As with all our seasons, it’s very eclectic. We just had Oedipus, which of course is a classic, but then we have object manipulation, story-telling, we have dance, physical theatre, new writing through devised theatre coming up, a whole host of different work!

ET: Well thanks very much for the fascinating interview!

About Everything Theatre

Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.