By George Rayson
After the storm brewed in the theatrical community due to recent comments made by Amol Rajan, Nikki Bedi and Giles Coren, the presenters of BBC Radio 4’s flagship cultural show Front Row, you could be forgiven for thinking that public disaffection with the theatre has scaled to new heights. And yet it’s hard not to get an earnest sense of optimism talking to the artistic and associate directors of York Theatre Royal’s annual TakeOver Festival, Julia Levai and Katie Smith respectively. Since its inception in 2009, TakeOver has been run and organised by 12-26 year olds, in an attempt to engage both young people and the wider community with theatre and with each other through theatre. The impetus of ‘engagement’ is very much alive in the festival’s 2017 imagining, but what is abundantly clear from talking to both directors is that simply bandying about the word ‘engagement’ isn’t enough; it’s what you actually do that counts. And duly, I’m deluged with the sheer number of projects they have underway. Levai and Smith clearly derive enormous pleasure from each and every one of the many events they describe to me. From queer contemporary dance to vintage fairs, the variety is staggering. And if, amongst it all, there is space for Breakthrough, a set of performances of scripts written by primary school children, then perhaps the future is not quite as dark for the theatre as might be feared.
The strong local aspect of TakeOver rides in tandem with the political urgency of community engagement and makes Levai’s choice to centre the festival around the idea of ‘Walls’ especially powerful. Walls are literally definitive of the city of York, marking out the boundaries of the old city and drawing a sizeable tourist contingent to trace their perimeter. Yet Levai stresses the political relevance of the theme too, having “pitched the idea just after Trump was elected, and half a year after Brexit.” Of course there is a third dimension, and that is of the relationship between walls and theatrical art. Aside from the obvious Fourth Wall association, Levai relishes in the aesthetic potential for walls both as a highly visual image and the ambiguity which the alteration of perspective attaches to them: “there are two sides to a wall: a barrier and safety.”
That neat encapsulation regains political vigour in light of Levai’s own specific directorial project for the festival. The piece, Amphibious, is a cast-collaborative endeavour which seeks to explore, through the stories of 6 interns, the walls put up against young people in an increasingly competitive job market. It seems as well to take into account walls personally constructed, walls where “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Either way, the piece is sure to be testimony to Levai’s bold and thoughtful directorship.
Given the prerogative of community engagement, the theme of walls has a layer of irony underneath it. All of Katie Smith’s energy is directed at levelling the walls which enclose theatre from any who might otherwise be reached by it. Her (I suspect not entirely self-fashioned) motto is to “get people in who wouldn’t normally come to the theatre.” Whether it’s setting up an array of preview performances on the city walls themselves or sending out emails to countless schools, specifically targeting those “which haven’t been engaged with before”, Smith has obviously done everything to make sure the festival accesses the maximum number of people it can. And hearing her talk with such passion and knowledge about theatre and what it can do, about the “binding ties” it makes which “are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced”, you are left utterly convinced about theatre’s restorative social power.
Reflecting on our conversation, it feels as if there is something more at stake than what occurs within the walled confines of York. With regional theatres across the country being squeezed and forced to make tougher and tougher choices, it is becoming increasingly vital to show, as Smith tells me, that theatre “is not stuffy, annoying or old-fashioned, but modern” and what’s more beneficial for people socially as well as psychologically. But putting its wider significance to one side, TakeOver is predominantly a local event, designed to engage local people. And, under the stewardship of its artistic and associates directors, I have no doubt that it will deliver on its promise to inspire, bring together and re-enchant.
The Festival will be taking place from October 23rd to October 28th 2017 at York Theatre Royal.
There are still plenty of ways to get involved as the festival is still looking for volunteers to flyer, usher and do front-of-house. If interested, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
There are also plenty of exciting workshops, including lantern making and theatre criticism. Details: http://takeoverfestivalyork.co.uk/festival/workshops/
For the vintage fair: https://www.facebook.com/events/1479215365506831/
For more information on the shows, visit the website here: http://takeoverfestivalyork.co.uk/festival/shows/