A lot of artists who make interesting theatre in Britain have some connection to this place,” says Camden People’s Theatre’s artistic director Brian Logan as we chat in the venue’s laid-back café-bar.
It’s a frosty January morning and, though the theatre is closed to the public during the day, the venue is teeming: actors hop in and out of rehearsals, people tap away on laptops, while the cleaner busts jokes with those she dextrously hoovers around.
“We aren’t claiming any credit for some of these great careers but quite a few of them will have had some sort of positive experience at CPT that might have been helpful early on in their career. That’s the point of this place really,” says Brian, who drops no names, but CPT’s website cites playwright Chris Goode and award-winning theatre companies Shunt and Ridiculusmus amongst their acclaimed alumni.
Since its inception in 1994 – when a group of locals took on the Camden Council-owned venue in order to create an affordable space for local theatre – CPT has been a stalwart of the capital’s independent theatre scene. It has proved a necessary incubator for writers, performers, fledgling theatre companies, “those who are early career,” and those who want to make “weird, exciting new theatre,” says Brian.
This ethos most notably resonates with their Annual Sprint Festival, a two-week long showcase of adventurous new performance that has been running since 1997. “We try and get artists who are just out of college who haven’t come here before, and this can be where they bring to life their first professional work,” says Brian, who himself relaunched his career at Sprint.
“I’m not sure what started here could be referred to as that,” he says drolly, in his thick Scottish accent, “but for about ten or fifteen years I worked as a freelance journalist, and co-ran a touring theatre company which played during the first Sprint.”
Brian – who bears an endearing resemblance to an eccentric uncle or wisecracking history professor – has been working at CPT for seven years. He describes his job as the “the easy part” that he tries to “pretend is difficult in order to get any gravitas.” It is Kaya Stanley-Money, the executive director, who has been on board for a year and does what Brian dubs the “grown-up financial stuff.”Alongside Sprint there are a handful of other annual festivals, which usually have what he calls “some sort of socio-political or cultural thrust.” Calm Down, Dear, their annual feminist festival turns six this year, while they’ve had runs celebrating trans, non-binary and gender-queer identities, as well as refugeeism, the environment, gentrification and the housing crisis. It is clear from the programming alone that this is a crucial hub of progressive thought and boundary-pushing performance.
What’s more, CPT’s festivals tend to work through a democratic, open-submissions application process. “We’ll put a call out saying that we’re making a show about a certain subject, feel free to get in touch,” says Brian, “every year we’re getting more and more applications of creative work. We may not be the best-resourced venue in the capital, but we’re ensuring that we remain accessible and open.”
They also have funding schemes and commissions targeted at artists of colour: “Contemporary theatre isn’t exactly exemplary in terms of ethnic diversity,” he says, “so we are working to diversify the work that happens here and in contemporary theatre in general.”
The numerous annual festies are littered with single standing shows that don’t necessarily suit a wider context; with two different shows running most nights (7:15pm and 9pm) they have a high turnover of work and “choc-a-bloc” programme. Let’s take Tuesday 26th March for example: the 7:15 show, We Owe You A Legacy, investigates the post-colonial bonds of the maternal role in the raising of the black contemporary woman. Then at 9pm, Fanny & Stella take to the stage in drag for a musical retelling of a Victorian scandal.
There is a lot more going on behind the scenes too. CPT do an enormous amount of work with artist support, mentoring and commissioning: these parts are “just as important and substantial for us as the programme,” says Brian, “we position ourselves as a laboratory for new artists to learn how to do their thing. It is super inspiring to work with all these young people who have such amazing resourcefulness and ideas. It is very battery-recharging for an old sulk like me,” he says.
Here’s to another 25 years at full pelt.
Main image artwork by @SecretartistNW5