Hackney Wick's The Yard

The Yard The Yard - © Andy Matthews
Posted: Mon Sep 12 2011

Will Hackney Wick take London's newest fringe theatre to its heart?

In the shadow of the Olympic Stadium, an underused industrial estate in Hackney Wick has blossomed into a makeshift cultural hub. London's newest fringe theatre is a stone's throw from Films on Fridges - the outdoor cinema screen which paid ironic tribute to Hackney's fridge mountain, now replaced by Zaha Hadid's Olympic Aquatic Centre.

The Yard's ampitheatre-style auditorium has a similar recycled aesthetic. Its pink plyboard rake, cleverly built into the stone lock-up that houses it, is made from materials discarded by the Olympic developers. It also shares its space, conceptually and literally, with the artists who got priced out of the Shoreditch renaissance: Queen's Yard, off White Post Lane is home to Elevator, one of the galleries that have spored in this transitional part of east London.

Cheap rent - or no rent at all - is a major attraction of the area. The Yard's 27-year-old artistic director Jay Miller studied literature at Cambridge and physical theatre at the L'Ecole Internationale de Théatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris before graduating into a slump with rocketing youth unemployment and a cautious, cuts-braced arts world.

'I was sitting at home getting bored, knowing that there were lots of people my age without jobs who must be feeling the same,' he recalls. Not all of them would have been dynamic enough to set up their own theatre in a matter of months.

But, with a little help from his friends (such as Practice Architecture, who also designed Frank's Café, on the top of a multi-story car park in Peckham), Miller charmed his way into a rent-free lease from Pearl & Coutts, a property company who accquired Queen's Yard lots in anticipation of an industrial hiring boom which has yet to take off.

'They've been incredibly patient and supportive,' says Miller, whose venue is one of the less official cultural projects springing up in the cracks of Olympic change. The Yard got its modest Arts Council project funding ten days before building was due to begin. 'I sent a lot of emails,' says Miller, dryly. 'And I had to teach myself a whole host of things about planning permission regulations; 260 pages of the most boring stuff I've ever read in my life.'

Help came from Design for London; inspiration and emerging artists from the NT Studio and the Young Vic.

Any Fringe theatre has to put down roots in the local community to survive ('nurture good work' and 'don't go bust' are the other commandments). Here, locals have mixed feelings about Games-related arts developments: The Yard's signs get ripped down by the ravers who gather for large-scale parties in the neighbourhood, and one wag has graffitied 'Olympic Gentrification Area' on a wall outside.

'People have a difficult relationship with the Olympics,' says Miller. 'They want the area to be improved but they feel the Games took away a lot of money. The Olympic Park Legacy Company are providing opportunities though - they haven't given us money, but they've given us their time and help.'

As well as the local artists, the Yard's neighbours include 'the Romany gypsies who were moved, without being given a choice, from the Olympic Park,' and 'white collar workers who've been here for years, as well as city workers in new developments on Fish Island.'

Miller hopes that his pop-up venue can win enough hearts and minds to become permanent. The buzzy bar and restaurant support the programme of work by theatre-makers whose most consistent attributes are youth; bright, slightly bonkers ideas; and a willingness to be part of a shoestring collective enterprise.

'Everyone who works here works on profit-share,' says Miller. 'I wanted to give the younger generation the opportunity to make the work they want to make, without the fetters of a closed remit, three-week set runs, or loads of money to raise for rent before you've even thought of an idea.'

He was also motivated by money - or lack thereof. 'I just couldn't afford to pay £15 for a ticket at a fringe venue for someone I'd never heard of. I wanted to make a theatre that people could afford to come to, and artists could afford to work in.'

Tickets here are £4, £5 or £6 and The Yard offers free performance runs and rehearsal space, achieved via bartering theatre workshops for 9-5 access to community centre space.

After a slightly bitty summer of bedding in to the 130-seat venue, The Yard is gearing up to a more substantial autumn. Young Vic directors' programme graduate Tarek Iskander offers 'Shiver', a remix of 'The Tempest'. Soumyak Kanti de Biswas presents 'Fret', a performance piece about the anxiety of going clubbing. Miller presents 'The Greek Project', a riff on 'The Bacchae'. And 'Manga Sister' is a full-on Japanese Electronica opera. DJs and non-amped music add to the Friday and Saturday night atmosphere.

Miller would love to extend The Yard's life beyond the end of October - though he'll need to sort out the heat loss if they're going to weather midwinter. To thrive, they need to grow their audiences, get a good critical feedback loop and, of course, raise more money.

'Not that much money, though,' says Miller. 'Overheads are low, and the willpower is here. We built this place with £11,000. Just imagine what we could do with £100,000.'