How London’s Arcola Theatre Sets the Bar High for Diversity, Inclusion and Sustainability
Hailed as “one of the great success stories of British theatre”, the Off-West-End Arcola Theatre in London, UK is using the stage to uplift its community. Since its inception nearly 20 years ago by Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen, Arcola has become internationally renowned for inclusiveness, sustainability and artistic excellence. Arcola’s mission is to break down barriers and bring people together by leveraging the diverse talents of its performers and staff, fostering the next generation of artists and audiences through creative programming, and doing it all sustainably. This month, we spoke to Co-Founder and Executive Producer, Leyla Nazli, about Arcola’s strong connection to community.
Parvati Magazine: You establish yourself as a “transgressive, transcultural and non-conformist” theatre. Why are you rooted in these qualities?
Leyla Nazli: We are transgressive because we are rebellious. We are transcultural because we do international work. We are non-conformist because we believe boundaries shouldn’t stop us delivering art.
Parvati Magazine: One of your aims is to bring forth thoughtful questions and challenge the status quo. Can you share a few shows that inspired meaningful conversations and a call for change?
Leyla Nazli: Everything we’ve done! Here are some recent highlights…
“#WeAreArrested”, which opened November 13th, is a play about the freedom of the press and the rise of the alt-right. It tells the story of an editor of a dissident newspaper being imprisoned in Turkey without charge. On the day he was released on bail, Can Dündar was the victim of an attempted assassination. Now he lives in exile.
“Until the Flood”, [in which] over 150 people were interviewed to create a piece in reaction to Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer which sparked the #blacklivesmatter movement. It was a huge success, receiving rave reviews at Fringe First in Edinburgh.
“Hunger”, which opens November 20th, is adapted from one of the most important novels from Norway. It is very topical, especially in the UK where homelessness in England has more than doubled in the last eight years, often as a result of social welfare cuts.
Parvati Magazine: You have a Pay What You Can system in place. Given the financial challenges facing most arts organizations today, this was a gutsy move. Why was it important to you?
Leyla Nazli: Arcola Theatre is situated in Hackney, one of the most deprived boroughs in Western Europe, where around 89 languages are spoken. Hackney is a cradle for multiculturalism and artists in the UK. We strive to be accessible for those that may not be able to afford a theatre ticket in London.
Parvati Magazine:What made you decide to establish your own energy company, Arcola Energy? How does it support the shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energies?
Leyla Nazli: Setting up an arts venue with nothing, we were already quite sustainable, using natural resources such as gas and electricity as little as possible. The theatre was built from borrowed set and tech from other theatres and local businesses. We also recycled windows, doors and timber from the 2012 London Olympics! When Executive Director Ben Todd joined in 2005, one of our aims was to become the first carbon-neutral theatre in the world. Ben is an engineer and his PhD is in solid oxide fuel cell technology. Science and art are working together, just as they did during the Renaissance.
Parvati Magazine: What have you learned from your work to reduce your carbon footprint? What were some of the greatest challenges, and the greatest inspirations?
Leyla Nazli: One challenge is installing new technologies, such as our solar panels on the roof and our wood-fired boiler. We also have water-saving toilets which filter and recycle the hand-washing water to flush the toilet. Pioneering technology throws up its own problems as the design has not yet been perfected, but we are proud of being a prototype venue for the greater good.
Parvati Magazine: Through your Arcola Lab, you provide 26 weeks of rehearsal space for free to BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic people) and refugees. Why was it important to engage with these communities and what has the response been like?
Leyla Nazli: Being from an ethnic minority myself, I know that surviving as an artist and theatre-maker is challenging. The response to Arcola Lab has been overwhelming. Every corner of the building is used seven days a week. We now need more space and have plans for expansion.
Parvati Magazine: Arcola is a beautiful example of a world in microcosm and attracting talent from all over the world. In a similar way, MAPS, the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary, brings the world together to care about a place that affects us all. Could you comment on MAPS, and on the power of the local to affect the global and vice versa?
Leyla Nazli: As the Greek philosopher, Archimedes said: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.” Often, it is just a handful of people who connect the rest of the world and make the change.
Leyla Nazli is the Deputy Artistic Director of Arcola Theatre in London, UK, having co-founded it with Mehmet Ergen in 2000. Arcola produces daring, high-quality theatre and its socially-engaged, international programme champions diversity and attracts over 65,000 people annually. Through its partner Arcola Energy, it aims to become the first carbon neutral theatre.