The Yard Theatre is one of London’s newest theatres, producing and programming new writing and risk-taking work in its purpose-built venue in Hackney Wick, east London.
Founded by Artistic Director Jay Miller in 2011, The Yard has quickly established itself as one of the most dynamic and important centres for developing new talent in the UK, scooping multiple awards for its innovative approach to making challenging work and nurturing emerging theatre makers.
In its first five years, The Yard has attracted critical and artistic acclaim beyond the endeavours of many more established companies, with a string of successful productions, two of which transferred to the National Theatre.
We talked to Jay about the theatre’s journey so far, and asked for his reflections on opening and running a new venue in London. Watch highlights from the interview in the video and read a fuller version below.
HOW DID THE YARD START?
The theatre started because, together with a group of architects and artists, we wanted to create a safe space for artists to take risks, and for audiences to take risks with those artists at an affordable price. We wanted to create a space that felt – in its architecture – different from a lot of theatres in London.
So we built an amphitheatre with some scaffold and chairs from restaurants that had gone bust in the local area. We spent six weeks constructing our theatre, and in the summer of 2011, we opened with shows that we felt were inspiring and were talking to a contemporary Britain.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING BEFORE YOU STARTED THE YARD?
I was trying to make theatre in London but finding it unaffordable. Because the financial crash had happened the year prior, a lot of arts venues weren’t taking any risks. Being a young graduate at the time, it felt like they were unwilling to take risks on young people who were starting out. So, I was trying to live a life in London but not really making any theatre and getting quite frustrated by that.
WHAT SORT OF WORK DO YOU MAKE AT THE YARD?
We offer opportunities to artists in the early stages of their careers, and we seek to develop work with them that feels unapologetically contemporary. We tell stories that are perhaps hidden within the pavement cracks of society. We like to put a voice on stage that wouldn’t otherwise be heard – and we do that in a way that feels like it couldn’t exist in anywhere else but a theatre.
Everything feels raw, everything feels incredibly live; the audience is often present with the performers and it feels like, in collaboration with the artists on stage, we are creating an event. That’s what I think theatre should do; it should feel like it’s happening at you. I think that’s incredibly important at the moment, when our lives are dominated by a series of screens.
WHAT HAPPENS AT THE HUB?
When we started The Yard, we partnered with community centres in the area and delivered workshops for the residents local to those centres in exchange for rehearsal space. It was inspired by the idea that we wanted to bring our audiences closer to the work, closer to the artists, and to give them an active participation in the making of the work.
We have taken what we learnt from that programme to manage our own community centre in Hackney Wick, called The Hub, offering free classes and workshops. We’ve started a drama club for 6-11-year-olds, and next year we are starting a programme with slightly older age groups to make professional work with young people. It’s all about reducing the gap between artists and audiences.
WHAT HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF STARTING A NEW VENUE IN LONDON BEEN LIKE?
It would be harder to start a theatre in London now. When I started The Yard in 2011, there were some empty spaces. The economics of London now means that – even if you’re running a successful, youth-led activity like a music venue or an art gallery – if it doesn’t make any money, you’re always in danger of being shut down, because the rents are ridiculous.
The demand for housing is absurd, which increases the risk for organisations like The Yard, because ultimately people need a place to live, and that’s – from the government’s point of view – more important than a space where people can come together to experience some theatre.
So, I am worried for London. London has been a brilliant influencer culturally for generations, but unless things change in terms of the way in which arts and culture are valued, then I fear that it won’t be the city that it’s become for future generations.
It’s really hard to run this place. I think that, if we hadn’t started in 2011, we couldn’t do it. There’s no way that a landlord now would give us the rates that we got in 2011. That’s the problem that the arts create for themselves; they start a process of gentrification that is often their own undoing. I think the reason we are still here is because people feel the work we make is important, and our audiences are very dedicated.
WHERE DOES THE YARD FIT INTO THE CULTURAL LANDSCAPE OF THE CITY?
The Yard is an outlier; we punch above our weight a lot. We’re in east London, and our relationship to the city is one which means we can look in, and I think that’s a useful perspective.
I think we’re the provocateurs of London theatre. People who regularly go to the theatre, who expect a well-made play in a safe environment, are not necessarily going to enjoy coming here. Our work is, and should be, a shock to the system. I think too much of London’s theatre is safe, seeks to please and is ultimately repetitive.
Having said that, I think that the British are particularly good at telling stories. We have an amazing pedigree in making brilliant theatre artists. For some reason, as a culture, we’re really good at it. That means that, although I wouldn’t necessarily go to the West End to see work, I respect it, and I think that it’s definitely got a place. I love the fact that the Harry Potter stage show sells out within hours. We need the Harry Potters of this world, but equally we need places like this. It’s an ecosystem; without places like The Yard, the Harry Potters wouldn’t exist.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE YARD?
In 2017, we’re going to be making work that addresses a world that feels increasingly fragmented, a world whereby the traditional way of doing politics is totally meaningless, and a world where it seems to be increasingly difficult to form conversation between people who are either different, or who we consider to be similar. We will be doing that by making people laugh. I just don’t think we can cope with any more tragedy, and so our focus is going to be around how to positively be prescient.