From staging a world premiere to performing in someone’s front room, the Birmingham REP stands apart
According to William Shakespeare ‘all the world’s a stage’, but it’s doubtful that the great Bard had in mind performing his work in a front room in Erdington! However, the company from Birmingham REP have no such problems. “We’ve performed 30-minute plays in people’s homes more than a dozen times now,” said artistic director Roxana Silbert. “It’s all part of our ‘champion’ programme to create arts provision for an area and interact with the community. We asked people in Erdington to commission us to make short plays, which we wrote and then our actors performed in their homes.” This really is theatre by the people, for the people – but it fits right in with the REP’s USP which is to ‘inspire the city of Birmingham to a lifelong love of the theatre’. And unlike most other theatres they achieve this by creating, writing, making, producing, staging and performing everything themselves – whether it be in their three auditoriums in Centenary Square next to the new Library, or away from the footlights, like those front rooms in Erdington.
Even productions featuring our most famous stars, such the recent Rudy’s Rare Records starring Lenny Henry, are ‘home-made’ at the REP. The comedy drama made its world premiere in Birmingham with the staging and set created and built by the inhouse team. When the production transferred into London, the set went with it. “It’s what makes us different to anyone else,” said Roxana. “We have our own artists, production people, technicians, costumer makers, wig makers, carpenters and everything else we need to make everything on site. So, when you see something for the first time at the REP, you really are seeing it for the first time anywhere.”
The REP was founded in 1913 when the son of a wealth local grocer built what is now known as The Old Rep in Station Street. It developed into one of the most exciting and famous repertory theatre companies in the country, launching the careers of acting luminaries such as Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Edith Evans. In 1971, the company moved to a newly-built theatre in Broad Street, and from 2011 to 2013 the REP underwent redevelopment as part of the new Library of Birmingham complex. “Having the new Library next door has been fantastic for the REP,” said executive director Stuart Rogers. “Getting the necessary finance is always an ongoing challenge for any theatre and by being part of this exciting new complex it has given us better, greater and more modern space to use for the theatre but also for conferencing and other commercial initiatives.” The REP has a £7.5 million a year turnover of which a third of the money comes from Birmingham City Council and the Arts Council. With ongoing pressure on public funding it becomes ever more important that the theatre is creative in finding other additional revenue streams.
FOCUS ON YOUTH
The importance of the work of the REP’s development team is not just crucial for what is delivered on stage, but also the huge amount of youth and community work that the theatre undertakes and promotes each year in Birmingham and the region. These includes projects to support and develop emerging directors, writers, theatre makers and companies across the West Midlands and to find and help talented young actors who just can’t afford the cost of entering the theatrical world via the normal route of going to drama school. The REP’s popular youth theatres attract nearly 300 young participants every week. The REP also nurtures the youngest members of society with its early years officers providing a wide range of creative sessions in Birmingham and elsewhere in the region for children up to the age of six, their parents and nurseries. The theatre is also active in local schools, children’s centres and various junior workshops. The REP helps communities with specific needs – currently it is organising a festival involving those with mental health issues. It all adds up to a big and challenging brief but one which the REP is undoubtedly up to fulfilling. As Roxana Silbert put it: “The REP is a huge benefit to the region. We know that we are making work here that speaks directly to our audiences and which they appreciate. This region has a huge amount of artistic talent and it is our job to make sure that we fully support it and give young people the confidence and opportunity they need.”
THE REP BY NUMBERS
- 65 shows a year
- 750 performances
- 175,000 tickets sold
- 5 London transfers
- 7 world premieres
- 2.5 million visitors a year to the REP and Library of Birmingham complex