Profile: The Yard, Hackney – ‘We want to change the world. Otherwise, why bother?’

Originally seen in The Stage (1 July 2016)

Five years ago, the Yard Theatre opened its doors in Hackney Wick. Housed in an empty warehouse and built out of recycled and reclaimed materials, it had – still has – the air of a pop-up venue. It has since put down roots, becoming arguably one of the most important theatres in London. When Time Out polled its readers on their favourite theatres, the Yard placed second – behind only the National.

That’s a measure of its fans’ devotion – and rightly so. It offers audiences something they can’t find elsewhere in the capital – something of the old Shunt Vaults’ energy: risk and radicalism on stage, rough edges and Red Stripe beer off it. It was founded the year after that space shut.

Artistic director Jay Miller. Photo: Johan Paul Hion
Artistic director Jay Miller. Photo: Johan Paul Hion

“There was a type of work that needed a stage and wasn’t getting it,” artistic director Jay Miller remembers – risky, dangerous work. “There was no money, and spaces where you might have found it were increasing ticket prices and hire costs in anticipation of funding cuts. There was this sense of retreat exactly when we needed to advance.”

The Yard has certainly advanced. Two of its shows – Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caringand Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum Dreams – reached the National, and it has just partnered with the Royal Court and Young Vic, among others, on Charlene James’ award-winning play Cuttin’ It. Future co-producers include HighTide, Theatr Clwyd and Clean Break.

Last year, box office was up 46% – all without regular Arts Council funding. Unlike other fringe venues, it doesn’t offer straight venue hires, preferring to reach individual deals with artists based on commissions, first calls and box office splits. Miller is adamant: “We’re one of the most ambitious theatres around.”

Against austerity, much has been made of this generation of artists’ get-up-and-go. Without funding to rely on, they’ve had to make things happen for themselves – something that requires compromise and a certain entrepreneurial spirit. The Yard – and Miller in particular – is a beacon to that. “We’re pretty good at identifying how we can make money,” he says. Its music programme, combined with a well-stocked craft beer bar, have kept the theatre afloat. “The challenge is to keep our ticket prices low,” says Miller.

Yard shows tend to be slippery, cutting-edge and complex, refusing ready summation. Recent pieces have slammed pole-dancing into particle physics (Badass Grammar) and played on the disconnect between sign language and spoken word (People of the Eye). Audiences aren’t spoon-fed. They get open ends and question marks. “We’ve hoped to create a conversation that – wildly ambitious, I know – changes the world,” says Miller. “Otherwise, why bother?”

Janet Etuk and Sean O’Callaghan in the Yard production Beyond Caring, which transferred to the National in 2015. Photo: photos: Marc Douet
Janet Etuk and Sean O’Callaghan in the Yard production Beyond Caring, which transferred to the National in 2015. Photo: photos: Marc Douet

Liveness is key – and not in a pat way, either. Shows tend to be activated by the act of performance. They make their meaning in the moment, rather than simply communicating something predetermined. Think of Chris Goode’s Ponyboy Curtis ensemble feeling its way through a semi-improvised hour of dressing and undressing, or Ira Brand carefully recalibrating her physicality to play a young man in Break Yourself. It is, says Miller, “work that feels authored, that feels like it’s got a voice, but sits in a very live space. It’s work that’s on the edge of a contemporary conversation; work that, when put in a public space, carries a sense of danger or risk”.

Read about The Yard’s autumn season

His programme is eclectic – deliberately so. From the start, the Yard has operated an open-shop programming policy, curating festivals on the back of public call-outs and proposals. For Miller, “it’s super important that an arts organisation be responsive to the ideas sent its way, to never create a house style or an aesthetic”.

The venue itself helps on that front. “Our temporariness has been important, I think. The sense of restlessness that offers us is huge.”

It’s certainly an unusual space: unvarnished and open with a makeshift timber-seating rake. “There’s hardly anywhere in the UK that compares with it as a stage to step on to,” says Goode, who has worked there regularly. “The buzz of that amphitheatrical seating bank is extraordinary.”

The aim is something “responsive”, says executive director Lucy Oliver-Harrison. “We can tailor it to what we need, adding as we go.” They recently installed dressing rooms, but won’t seek to add polish. “It’s a space that inspires artists without intimidating audiences. We have to deal with things like flooding, but if we didn’t, it wouldn’t be the Yard.”


5 things you need to know about the Yard Theatre

1. In 2016, the Yard is celebrating its fifth birthday, after opening initially as a temporary space in 2011.

2. The Yard has had two transfers to the National Theatre: Alexander Zeldin’s devised piece Beyond Caring, currently on a national tour, and Chewing Gum Dreams, for which Michaela Coel recently won two BAFTAs.

3. The Yard’s autumn season will include Removal Men, a new play directed by artistic director Jay Miller – a show about love set in an immigration removal centre.

4. After theatre performances, the Yard turns into a club, with music ranging from techno to psychedelic to disco and carnival.

5. The venue supports its charitable activity through a mixed business model, focusing on earned income streams that represent more than 65% of its turn

The venue is more than its space, though. It’s an attitude – particularly towards artists. Goode, again, values that hugely: “The whole team is deeply invested in building fruitful and vivacious relationships with the artists who work there, as well as with audiences.” Other venues, he adds, “pay lip service to the same ideals but fall disastrously short”. It’s why, for Goode, “there’s hardly anywhere I’d rather be at work right now”.

Next to roaming, ‘without walls’ organisations such as National Theatre Wales, there’s a question mark over arts venues – whether they limit access and engagement. Miller’s not unsympathetic, but disagrees. “I really think they’re necessary,” he asserts, “and the reason is very simple: people make homes. They make nests. It’s vital that when people arrive at an arts venue, they feel safe.”

That, he adds, is the key to making dangerous work. “We want them to feel welcome and safe, but we want to put them in our theatre and shake them up a bit.”

Partly, it’s about getting people in, opening doors to the local community. Being based in an area undergoing rapid regeneration, on account of the 2012 Olympics, the Yard has always held that dear. It has been involved in community projects and panels, and partnered with local community centres.

Jonah Russell in the Mikvah Project, staged in 2015. Photo: Mark Douet
Jonah Russell in the Mikvah Project, staged in 2015. Photo: Mark Douet

As of last month, the Yard has taken over the running of one of those community spaces, Hub 67 next door. Opened in 2015, with Oliver-Harrison part of the steering group overseeing operations, the space is deliberately flexible, without an agenda, as called for by local residents. It has hosted everything from a clothes swap to an after-school club.

However, as theatre’s role in the community – and vice versa – is shifting, Miller and Oliver-Harrison believe the art form can play a central role in the centre’s future. Though it will remain a free space – and, as such, a potential stepping stone to the Yard itself – it will also have a role as a workshop for community-led performance and participatory projects; the sort that are becoming increasingly integral to British theatre.

Miller points to Minefield, the Lola Arias piece made with British and Argentinian veterans that fought one another in the Falklands, recently seen as part of the London International Festival of Theatre, and to Goode’s shows for Transform festival in Leeds, projects that hand the reins of theatre over to non-artists. “It’s so important that the work we’re making is fed by the stories immediately around us,” says Oliver-Harrison.

Though such work is on the increase, there is no dedicated space for it. It tends to sit somewhat to the side of existing programmes – a once-a-year thing, something alternative. Miller is determined to shift that perspective. “It’s not going to be an apologetic add-on,” he says. “It’s not going to be this thing we give to a trainee director. I want it to be core to our programme.”

He adds: “There’s a real appetite for non-performers performing. People want realness.” The Yard is, without doubt, the real deal.