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Interview: Planning to be Grim

Jack Roberston and Nina Atesh on Grimfest 2023

Jack Robertson and Nina Atesh have teamed up to bring Grimfest 2023 to the Old Red Lion Theatre from 17 October until 4 November. We caught up with them to chat about planning for the festival and horror on stage.

Getting straight into it, tell us about GrimFest 2023?

It’s a celebration of dark & twisted theatre – horror is a very broad-church and we want to welcome all the weird, wonderful and unique aspects of this overlooked genre to a highly respected (and haunted!) institution that is the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel.

Jack, you created and ran GrimFest 2022 on your own – so it is probably fair to say you are a fan of horror on stage? And perhaps a glutton for punishment, running that on your own sounds like quite a challenge?

I’m a huge fan of the live horror experience! Scary movies are great but there is something much more physically responsive about being in the same space as the terror as it unfolds. It can be a visceral and cathartic experience – like a rollercoaster.

Our first ever GrimFest last year came about my accident… the theatre had a horror production booked in for three weeks over Halloween but sadly the company had to cancel the run. I was asked to step in to programme a few horror related plays and I was thrilled by the response our callout got! There were so many interesting and diverse artists out there with shows that fit the bill and were crying out for a stage. Whilst it was all a little last minute and more than a bit manic, it all came together in the end. When Nina asked if I was doing it again I wasn’t sure I had it in me but with her help as co-producer we are now VERY excited to bring back GrimFest for 2023 and want to make it bigger and better than ever.

Nina, last year you took part in GrimFest with The Drought and this year you teamed up with Jack to produce the festival – we’d love to hear more about this leap.

It is quite a leap, isn’t it?! To go from producing a rather small-ish scale show to jumping onboard for a three-week theatre festival is quite something, but I’m so excited to be involved. Like Jack said, horror is a very broad-church; and for me, the themes which can be explored within this genre are so vast. My aim is and always kind of has been, re-discovering what horror actually means to people. What makes you scared, what gives you that chill? It’s an area of theatre making that I’m really interested in, so being a part of it with Jack seemed like a natural move for the production company. I reached out to him earlier this year to ask if he was bringing it back, and if he needed any help. He said yes, and here we are! I took part in the London Horror Festival in 2019 with a comedy horror show as a performer, and then in 2021 as a writer with The Drought, and it was such a shame when it was discontinued, so it’s great that Jack created GrimFest last year. I wanted to be a part of that scene and community, which actually has a very lovely a loyal following.

You have held two Scratch Nights recently; how did they go and can you give us a hint/tease about any of the shows you saw?

Jack: We have loved these scratch events! It gives us a chance to see the work at its most primordial and we hope to see these projects develop into great pieces of theatre. And the range of ideas on display really demonstrated how multifaceted the “grim” theme can be – from drag film noir to dystopian dread, camp classic horror parodies to historical ghost stories, there really was so much to sink our fangs into!

Nina: The scratch nights were immensely fun! The support and interest we had was almost overwhelming, and what was even better was that we had such an eclectic mix of writing. No two were ever the same. When Jack was introducing the acts, he had to keep saying “right a complete change of tone now(!)” but the audience were just so onboard, and I think that gives you a real sense of how open and inviting horror fans are. You just come along for the ride and roll with it! All of the acts were fantastic, and it really makes you appreciate just how important and vital fringe theatre is, that these artists get chances like this to showcase their work.

Is there anything confirmed for GrimFest 2023 that you can give us a heads up about? The show announcement will start in August right?

Jack: No productions are confirmed as of yet! We will wait until we have every application in front of us. But there are more events planned before the festival kicks off in October including a horror themed pub quiz next month and a very special bar crawl at the end of summer for those who like a bit of scary fancy dress. Keep your eyes peeled!

Nina: Like Jack said, no acts confirmed yet, but we’re aiming to have the full line up done by the end of July, with the announcement of shows throughout August.

Applications are open for GrimFest 2023, they close on June 30th and you can find out more information and apply here, how has this been going so far?

So far the responses have got us bristling with excitement – we can tell we already have some interesting stuff bubbling and brewing away that we cannot wait to serve up at this years festival. But we strongly encourage more companies to come forward with their mad ideas & grim content, whether you think it’s applicable or not, send us your proposal and you never know… we don’t bite. Unless it’s a full moon.

Nina, we have to ask will we see The Drought again? We were big fans of it last year and it sounded like there was a chance we might see more, is there anything you can share with us?

Thank you! At the moment there are no plans for a Drought revival. I’m working on a new play (for 2024), and just enjoying the Producing side of things with GrimFest currently. Making things happen for people is a very rewarding and special experience. But that’s not to say that The Drought won’t ever come back to the stage again. I’d love to take it on tour one day or adapt it for the screen; so that will always be lingering on the edge of my “works-in-progress”.

Finally, how do you see horror doing on stage at the moment? Both with the shows that may end up playing GrimFest and the wider stage scene. Anything really caught your eye?

Jack: This year we said goodbye to ‘The Woman in Black’ in the West End – a ghost story that haunted the Fortune Theatre for over thirty years and is now going on a national tour. We’ve also got ‘2:22’ hopping from stage to stage across London’s theatreland and shows no signs of going away. There is clearly a constant appetite for spookiness in theatre and we hope that we can provide a wider selection of tasty treats (or tricks) to satisfy that hunger through GrimFest. Last years festival featured ‘Vermin’ from Triptych Theatre Company which then transferred to the Arcola Theatre and we hope it goes even further! Who knows if the next big horror hit will begin its journey on our stage?

Nina: Personally, I’m dying to see The Pillowman. I’ve heard great things, and I’m a big Steve Pemberton fan, so that’s next on my list! It would be so great if the next big horror West End show starts its life at GrimFest! Again, I harp on about it a lot, but that’s the power of fringe theatre – and that’s why it’s so important to support it!

Our thanks to Nina and Jack for chatting with us, we look forward to seeing the Grimfest 2023 announcement. You can find out more by following Grimfest on Twitter and Instagram and checking out the website here.

About Dave B

Originally from Dublin but having moved around a lot, Dave moved to London, for a second time, in 2018. He works for a charity in the Health and Social Care sector. He has a particular interest in plays with an Irish or New Zealand theme/connection - one of these is easier to find in London than the other! Dave made his (somewhat unwilling) stage debut via audience participation on the day before Covid lockdowns began. He believes the two are unrelated but is keen to ensure no further audience participation... just to be on the safe side.