Workers Take Control

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The Arcola Theatre has established a reputation for bold and imaginative productions. Open for just over a year it occupies a disused warehouse in one of London's poorest boroughs, Hackney. Peter Gee spoke to Mehmet Ergen, the theatre's director.

Q. What made you set up the Arcola theatre in a disused factory in Hackney?

A. I was teaching in this area and was fascinated by Hackney and became aware of the lack of theatre in this area. I stumbled across this factory and converted it into a theatre within weeks and started to do plays. There were no grants--just the free labour of hard working, theatre loving people. It appeals to me that theatre can be anywhere, and a factory is a good location. We are all working in it--we are all workers. Also we don't need things to be glossy--it's the show that counts.

Q. The Arcola has been praised for attracting audiences who usually don't go to the theatre. How have you achieved this?

A. You need to serve the needs of the local area, at the same time avoiding just being a local community theatre. By creating shows by major writers like Shakespeare and Chekhov, and presenting them as professionals. At the same time we commission writers like David Farr to write 'Crime and Punishment in Dalston' and also get in contact with writers who write pieces that are relevant to the local community. Also the 'pay what you can' night on Tuesdays is an absolute must. There is no financial barrier to coming to the theatre. People can pay £1.20p--whatever--no questions asked.

Q. How are theatre and politics linked?

A. It's always been very close. Politics and theatre go hand in hand. Particularly in the English theatre, the so called political theatre of the 1960s and 1970s died away. They became unpopular. But I don't find plays by Brecht and Grass dated--they are documents which need to be presented anew.

I am planning a season called 'Revolution' next year. There will be plays from the Russian Revolution, the industrial revolution and from across the world. It's important to get across social issues through theatre.