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Not just a day at the office

Helen Nugent speaks to Walter Meierjohann and Kevin Jamieson about their plans to bring four new theatre productions to an office block that’s very close to home…

In a world where the terms “site specific” and “immersive” are increasingly applied to theatre, the idea of seeing a play performed inside an office block raises less eyebrows than it did a decade ago. But the growing appetite for shows in unusual spaces doesn’t make it any easier for the companies behind the productions, something HOME knows only too well.

Number One First Street is a vast contemporary office space overlooking HOME’s £25m city centre site, which is scheduled to open next spring. But while the multi-art form venue rises from the ground, First Street will play host to four visiting productions. “The second floor is going to be our studio space for experimental work, with a capacity of between 100 and 130 people,” says Walter Meierjohann, the Artistic Director for Theatre at HOME.

For Meierjohann, rounding off HOME’s inaugural theatre programme in an office feels like a natural progression after tackling theatre in a pub and at the swimming baths. “After staging Angel Meadow and Romeo & Juliet, we are physically coming closer to home,” he says. Compared to those first two venues, Number One First Street at least has all mod cons, but it comes with its own challenges, such as transforming four grey walls into a stage.

Meierjohann, however, is confident that the upcoming touring productions will work their magic, with help from HOME. “First, there is the Best of BE FESTIVAL. People will come and see four shows and have dinner in between. It’s something different. For us, taking that spirit of sharing and getting to know our audiences, that exchange, that community aspect – it’s huge.” In case you were wondering, the dinner part way through the four performances will be with fellow audience members – and the cast. Yes, that’s right, the actual cast. This is surely immersive theatre at its most immediate.

BE FESTIVAL stands for Birmingham European Festival, and it’s a fortnight-long feast of European culture. Best of BE FESTIVAL captures the highlights of this year’s event in one night and promises to showcase four exciting and distinctive productions. Up first is Beating McEnroe by Jamie Wood, a performance that uses the Wimbledon final as the backdrop to a tale of sibling rivalry. From the Waltz to the Mambo meanwhile, fuses an old text with the contemporary dance of Hungarian artist Milán Újvári and Loops & Breaks, by the Austrian improviser Julia Schwarzbach, is all about audience participation: part of the action comes via the assembled crowd following a series of changing instructions. Waiting, by Mokhallad Rasem, rounds the night off with a performance that quietly combines dance, film and performance.

“The following week we have The Events from the Actors Touring Company, written by award-winning playwright David Greig,” says Meierjohann. “This has been a huge success. I know the director Ramin Gray, and he wanted to bring the production to Manchester. His producer came to see the space at First Street and said it would be absolutely great. After that, we have Insomnia, a movement and dance piece that features two performers and one musician. And after that, the re:play Festival returns, again at First Street. So the space will be used for all four blocks of our programme.”

Kevin Jamieson is Senior Producer for Theatre at HOME. A recent addition to the team, he joins from Harrogate Theatre where he was its executive producer for ten years. There, he worked with over twenty associate companies to develop sixty new productions. He says that putting on a show in an office block presents challenges for lighting, sound and design – but HOME is up to the task. “Audiences are much more trusting of site-specific work now,” he says. “People are actively looking for that different experience.”

But Number One First Street isn’t just about live theatre. In the run-up to the opening of the new complex next year, HOME will continue to use the space it has now to run research and development sessions for the 2015 programme. “If I rehearse in Germany, I would have seven weeks in rehearsal,” explains Walter Meierjohann. “In the UK, it’s normally four to five weeks max. But one of the great things about British theatre is having the time for research and development, which is almost like a week of rehearsing. All of the productions that we produce next year will have a week here in research and development.”

“This research and development phase will give companies the chance to play, to fail and to succeed, but with no pressure,” adds Jamieson. If previous work in Number One First Street is anything to go by (remember the Library Theatre Company’s performance Manchester Lines here back in 2012?), then going to the office will become an unusually exciting prospect.

Best of BE FESTIVAL (17 & 18 Oct), The Events (22-25 Oct), Insomnia (6 & 7 Nov) and re:play Festival (12-24 Jan 2015) all take place at Number One First Street. You can book tickets online or from Cornerhouse Box Office, in person or on 0161 200 500.