A renowned black drama group, the Talawa Theatre Company, has been given offices and use of a 200-seat studio theatre at the refurbished Fairfield Halls in Croydon when it reopens in September.
The building will enable black artists “to make outstanding work which will truly diversify and shape the cultural life of the whole country”, Talawa’s artistic director, Michael Buffong, said today.
Talawa was established in 1986 as the first professional black theatre company in Britain. One of its missions was to provide black actors with roles they were not getting in the West End.
The Fairfield Halls venue managers, Bournemouth-based BHLive, have previously announced the award-winning and inclusive Savvy Theatre Company as providing the Fairfield’s community arts programme.
The Fairfield Halls closed in June 2016 for what was supposed to be a two-year, £30million refurbishment of the prestigious venue, which comprised a concert hall, the Ashcroft Theatre and the Arnhem Gallery.
The Fairfield’s venue management and its publicists have not stated where the Talawa’s studio theatre might be located within the arts complex. The Arnhem Gallery – which used to provide some space for studio theatre and music concerts – has been demolished as part of the refurb works, with BHLive going against public opinion and renaming the two-storey space replacing it “The Croydon Wreck”, whose major attraction is supposed to be an ice rink in the winter.
The upper floor of the Wreck seems the likely option for the studio theatre.
Central Croydon has been without a functioning smaller auditorium performance space since the Warehouse Theatre by East Croydon Station was forced to close in 2012 through the withdrawal of its council grant. Offers from developers Schroders to build a small-scale theatre as part of their Ruskin Square complex, with a £4million grant attached, have been spurned by successive council administrations as they have opted to install a studio theatre in the Fairfield Halls.
The arrival in Croydon of the Talawa will give the company its first permanent home in nearly 25 years, and provide the Fairfield with a cultural offering likely to differentiate it from the somewhat staid and predictable productions for which it was widely criticised under its previous management.
According to the Fairfield Halls announcement, the performance space at the Fairfield Halls, “… opening to the public on September 16, will operate as a central hub for black artists, develop a community outreach programme, and allow the company to create, develop and premiere new work”.
Talawa will be moving from uber-trendy Shoreditch to be based in south London for the first time. According to the Fairfield, “Besides providing a space for Talawa’s artist development programme, the residency will create opportunities to train young black artists in technical and creative theatre disciplines, suited to Croydon’s status as the London borough with the largest youth population.”
Collaborations with organisations such as the BRIT School, based at Selhurst, are likely to develop.
And they said, “In addition to premiering and developing new work, Talawa Theatre Company will use the studio as a space to research and develop new ideas, and create a programme of activities, debates and events aimed at Croydon’s diverse community.”
Programming plans for the studio will be announced in the autumn.
Talawa is regarded as the most successful black theatre company in Britain. Their recent productions include collaborations with the Royal Exchange, Guys and Dolls, King Lear and All My Sons, and new works including Girls by Theresa Ikoko and Half Breed by Natasha Marshall.
Buffong continues to campaign for greater diversity not only among theatre performers, but also theatre-goers.
“The West End looks in a particular way … and occasionally you get one or two black plays at the same time and everyone thinks we’ve made it,” he said this week.
“It’s changed, but we need more. It needs to be sustainable. It needs to be the norm. You open your newspaper and there are six or seven black plays or musicals on in the West End and it is the norm.
“There needs to be more black work in town, we’ve had Nine Night and Misty, but what’s coming next? We just need more.
“There has been change in the industry but there is such a long way to go. Sometimes there is a perception of great leaps forward, but as you stand back you find that we haven’t moved that far.”
The Fairfield Halls perhaps won’t be straying too far from its more conventional roots – there will this year, for the first time since 2015, be a Fairfield Panto, with local comedian Tim Vine announced as the headline artist in Cinderella, to be produced by the Imagine Theatre company.
Vine’s co-star will be CBeebies presenter Cat Sandion, a graduate of the BRIT School.
The annual Panto, with packed family audiences, have been the venue’s biggest money-spinners of the year. And the 2019 Fairfield Pantomime offers a clue to the financial imperatives driving BHLive’s management: instead of being performed in the 800-seat Ashcroft Theatre, this production is to be staged in the 1,800-seater concert hall, a decision which theatre insiders have said, “will throw up some intriguing problems for the producers as the hall doesn’t have the traditional proscenium arch”.
But a possible thousand extra ticket sales for each performance ought to provide some compensation for the management, even if it means that the Fairfield’s Christmas music programme lloks as if it will be squeezed out of the concert hall.
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