Jasmine Cullingford talks about innovation and community at The Blue Elephant

Set just 15 minutes away from Oval Tube Station lies Camberwell’s best kept secret – The Blue Elephant Theatre. Established in 1999 by writer and director Antonio Ribeiro, it was originally known as a showcase for foreign political theatre, but with the arrival of Jasmine Cullingford as the new Theatre and Programme Manager in 2006, the theatre’s remit became much wider. Now in 2009 it boasts an eclectic and vibrant programme which encompasses a myriad of performance art forms, from dance to surreal cabaret and re-imaginings of classic texts.

Cullingford came to the theatre in 2004 as the administrator with a background in Press and Marketing from two very distinct and different venues; the West’s Orange Tree Theatre with it’s polished and professional Hampstead feel and the East’s raucous Theatre Royal Stratford East whose audiences are, she says with a smile, “..almost as great as the shows”. As positive about these theatres as she is, Cullingford did not want to develop The Blue Elephant into such a definable beast; “I don’t want to pigeon hole ourselves…there are lots of theatres that do one specific thing but there so many theatres that do that and we do something entirely different”.

She is also concerned that audiences put themselves into such holes and sections, although admits that this is an easy trap to fall into. Married to a classical music journalist and with independent groups of friends who love classical music, or theatre, or dance, she is perplexed that these people do not do not interlink more often, set as they are so tightly in their own compartments. Her varied programming seems to reflect her wish to break down these invisible barriers, saying that unlike some venues, “If you wanted to come and see every show at the Blue Elephant, you would see a variety of stuff”.

With all this cross-pollination of forms and intermingling of boundaries there could be a danger that the theatre’s programme could seem diffused with a season so varied that it lacks any sense of overarching cohesion. But this is not the case with the distinct Blue Elephant and when I put this to her Cullingford agrees that when she and her team (she has a large number of volunteers who assist as well as a full time children’s programmer) are picking work they are always thinking ‘is this a Blue Elephant show?’. It certainly seems that all the work produced at this venue has a daring feel with all of the pieces and artists, whether they fully succeed or not, taking brave innovative chances; the forms may be different, but at its heart every Blue Elephant show is asking similarly bold questions.

This cohesion is a reflection of the community that Cullingford feels it is important to create and nurture at the theatre, “So many of the artists are emerging artists, they come to me in all sorts of forms, like literally they can come with just an idea over lunch or something…and I’ll say let’s do it for a week, see how it works”. Her understanding that people need to be allowed to fail and that work needs to be performed in order to truly develop is inherent in the theatre’s approach and after doing it for 3 years she is confident in saying that it’s a system that works.

A system of networks has also been encouraged both between the artists, and the venue and the artists themselves, with companies often returning and introductions at the theatre leading to new artistic relationships. There are also strong links with the local community with an education programme comprising of both work in primary and secondary schools, as well as two youth theatres and workshops with artists performing at the theatre. Each of these youth projects are concluded with performances in the theatre which comprise part of the season and to which the parents are invited to come to watch. The Blue Elephant is involved in the free under 26 ticket initiative and members of their youth theatres can attend all shows for free, all of which means that they get a large local audience. Interestingly the theatre’s innovative performance art programme hasn’t alienated this community, and having seen a number of shows there I agree that the work never comes across as pretentious; Cullingford believes that the reason for this is that ‘all the work is accessible in some way…it’s not really academic, it needs to work as a piece of performance’ and so people are never patronised but instead encouraged to see theatre as something which is about them too.

As successfully as the theatre is doing locally, it’s location off the beaten track makes it hard for it to catch any passing trade and so raising it’s profile is difficult. Probably The Blue Elephant’s biggest challenge, it is trying to counter this isolation through a slow process of word of mouth and by forming partnerships with venues who share an affinity in style and programming. Cullingford explains this network of exchange, “We’ve had readings here that have gone on to have full productions at The Oval House Theatre and a couple of times stuff which has been scratched at Camden People’s Theatre and then come here.” In this way a critical mass is created through the connections of smaller venues into a bigger community which hopefully heightens the profiles of all involved. This seems to her to be of more benefit than the much touted South London Festival option which which would probably not work because of the sheer space between each South London venue, and as Cullingford says “…being close in location doesn’t mean you’re alike in style and so you wouldn’t have the same audiences”. So what next for The Blue Elephant Theatre? It’s 10th Year Anniversary Season is currently being planned, watch this space for the confirmed programme, but it will definitely include a number of returning artists, surely a testament to Cullingford’s belief in creating long last creative partnerships. As we close the interview she says “We never have names, but they may be names in the future” and with venues like The Blue Elephant nurturing them, I am more than positive that a number of the fantastic artists that I have seen there will be.

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