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Unicorn Theatre, Justin Audibert: ‘Dealing with the legacy of this moment will last for a long time, and for a lot of people.’

Artistic director Justin Audibert is in a cheerful mood, despite being slightly frazzled safeguarding The Unicorn Theatre’s future.

“Before we announced the digital streams of Anasi The Spider Re-spun we had 637 YouTube subscribers and we now have about 2,000 subscribers. Now, that is a small but significant milestone,” he says.

The Unicorn has partnered with the Guardian to present a free digital series for 3-8 year olds, inspired by its acclaimed 2019 production Anansi the Spider

Nearly 10,000 people have watched the first episode that streamed last weekend.

Anasi the Spider, The Unicorn 2019 Photo credit: Craig Sugden

Anasi the Spider, The Unicorn 2019 Photo credit: Craig Sugden

We are talking on the phone and I ask him what his hopes are for this new venture. “Look, what we would really be hoping for is that we can serve Unicorn audiences that have been coming to us and are currently not able to and use this unique moment, so that when we reopen more people visit us and want find out more about us.”

Audibert, who directed the original production, based on a spider from West African and Caribbean folklore says that the Unicorn’s first totally digital theatre experience was designed to be a “treat” for young audiences confined by the lockdown. “I hope that this has captured all the fun of the theatrical production.”

Theatre for young audiences creates a special bond between performers and audiences – a bond that a great deal of other theatre might learn something from.

Audibert fell in love with theatre at the age of 5 after seeing the Sooty and Sweep show at the Kenneth More theatre in Ilford. “I am 99% convinced that I am a theatre director because I saw Sooty and Sweep; I got to go up on that stage and everything-  it meant so much to me,” he says earnestly. “The idea that there is a generation of young people who will miss out on their first experience of theatre because of Covid-19 is devastating,” he says.

The Unicorn serves an audience aged zero to 21-years-old. “Usually, most of our audience is from London, with about half school audiences, half family audiences. This is the kind of engagement that most theatres in the UK would dream of,” he says.

Justin Audibert, photo credit: Craig Sugden

Justin Audibert, photo credit: Craig Sugden

“One of the things that I love most about the Unicorn is the democracy of the space and the building. Truly. I value the unique demographic of our audiences. We made Anasi Re-spun on smartphones, using the actors’ homes as filming locations and with extensive Zoom rehearsals. It wasn’t what I’m used to, but it worked out fine.”

Audibert recently signed an open letter to the Culture Secretary alongside 59 other ethnically diverse artistic directors calling on the government to ensure that progress made on diversity in recent years is not hampered by the coronavirus crisis. How did it come about? “When decision makers are discussing the future of the industry, they absolutely must include BAME leaders in those discussions,” he explains.

“When the cultural task force was announced, it did not look like the sector that I love and belong to – it was not truly representative. Our industry is a real success story – and that success comes from diversity, in all of its forms – the more different stories told on our stages – the more they will appeal to different people; we are trying to make this better – I know that the letter has had an impact.”

He stops and draws breath.

“So, at least there is now something out there now in the public domain: the conversation is happening, it is evolving, and it is wonderful that most people want to be allies.”

The Unicorn, London

The Unicorn, London

The Unicorn Theatre building near London Bridge is closed to the public indefinitely but its mission to engage, inspire and entertain young people remains more urgent than ever. Children’s theatre so often fires the imagination, equips young people with the transferable skills and creativity necessary to face the world, and perhaps change it too.

I ask him where we go from here. “We may be easing lockdown and re-opening society, but we have got to think of it as an enormous piece of work for all of us,” he explains.

Audibert remains clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. “There is a significant piece of social healing that is required. One hopes that the government understands and appreciates that it won’t be over swiftly and that dealing with the legacy of this moment in our history will last for a long time, and for a lot of people.”

And, finally, before he heads back to work, what are his hopes beyond this digital production of Anasi The Spider Re-Spun? “When we dreamed this project up we were keen for audiences to gather together in a shared time,for a shared experience. Of course, I know that this is not the same as being in a theatre. But it exists in a different space and we all must adapt. I guess on a personal level I feel like we are going to live in a world where there is a lot of pandemic fear,” he says, as pragmatic as he has been all chat.

“It would be wonderful if at the end of All This, we have a sound and inclusive digital offer that can be shared alongside our regular programme of live performance.”

Episodes of Anansi the Spider Re-spun, entitled Brother Anansi and Brother Snake, stream on Saturdays at 11am and are available to watch until Sat 4 July – via YouTube.com/UnicornTheatre and The Guardian website

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Justin Audibert & Rachel Bagshaw on Aesop’s Fables at Unicorn Theatre: ‘Working in theatre for young audiences is a total privilege and helps to make you a better artist’.

Justin Audibert

Justin Audibert

Unicorn Theatre are known for collaborating with the boldest experimental theatre-makers with work for young audiences, and this new spin on Aesop’s Fables is no exception. Each session will include a handful of stories, retold for the 21st century.

There are two shows for children aged 4-7 that include plays by E V Crowe and Annie Siddons) and aged 8-12 (that includes plays by Chris Thorpe and Somalia Seaton); both are directed by Justin Audibert and Rachel Bagshaw.

I caught up with them during rehearsals and had a chat about what audiences can expect, why Aesop is timeless and other things.

Hello! You’ve been busy working with some top-notch writers on reimagined Aesop’s Fables – in what ways have these commissions surprised you?
What has been really delightful about working on these short plays has been the sheer variety and playfulness of theatrical form and content that we have had to tackle. Every single one of the 8 plays has thrown up a different set of challenges for us, our creative team and the actors. These range from staging a ten minute musical in Frankie and the Crow, to replicating a naturalistic rehearsal room and then anarchically busting free of the Fourth Wall in The Wolf and the Shepherd, to the theatrical practicalities of exploding a ‘frog’ in To Be An Ox, or eating several giant slices of cake in Ant and Hop. Every single piece has thrown us a curve ball or two and solving these has been a joy.

With so many digital distractions why do you think storytelling is still one of our favourite things?
The urge to sit communally and listen to someone spinning an entertaining yarn emerged at the same time as the first humans made fire. It is inherent in our cultural DNA. The particular quality of concentration and the suspension of disbelief theatre requires, is unique because it is such an active and participatory experience. We relish seeing our fellow humans perform as something bigger and more exciting than real life.

What are the main differences between directing shows for the different age groups?
What has emerged as we have sat through previews is that there is a sense of unvarnished wonder amongst the 4-7 year olds and they readily enter into the adventures whereas the 8-12 year olds have much more of a questioning nature and are really keen to challenge the actors and the ideas in the plays.

Can you give me an example of something that felt like it was out of your control during Aesop’s Fables rehearsals?
Our set, without wanting to give too many spoilers, is very ambitious and the actors really use every part of it. In rehearsals it was difficult to imagine how some plays would be staged because of the practical limitations of not having the set in the rehearsal room. We were making guesses on how we would do things. Once we were in tech we had to adjust lots of what we had originally conceived. Thankfully Lily Arnold the designer, our stage management and crew and the cast have all been really adaptable and flexible and willing to alter things through tech and preview.

With changes to the curriculum and the arts and humanities in our state schools – how important are access to theatre and culture for young people?
If the aim of school is to produce happy, informed and engaged citizens then giving them the experience of theatre and culture more generally is one of the best ways a government can spend money. Theatre is a medium to explore what it means to be a human, theatre encourages us to question conventional wisdom – Aesop’s Fables being a prime example, and the theatre is a place where we can truly grapple with complex and sometimes conflicting emotions. All of this is vital to a rich and rewarding life.

Why do you think Aesop’s Fables are still so popular?
Aesop’s Fables have maintained their popularity for thousands of years because they have a certain wry, scepticism in them that leave them open to multiple interpretations. Through the ages people have taken different views on what Aesop was getting at and this is precisely what has kept them alive rather than becoming petrified in time and also why we wanted to re-imagine some of them for a contemporary audience.

Many artists find true creativity to be hard work and reward-free; have you ever felt that in your career(s)?
It’s true to say that artists do not often get the financial reward that they deserve for what they do, but then the same is just as true for nurses, teachers, carers and many other professions but the act of being creative is incredibly rewarding in itself and that feeling of really using art to express something about how you feel about the world never loses its thrill.

What is the most important lesson Aesop has taught you?
That no moral is absolute in nature, that if you just butt heads over something rather than seek a compromise you will probably just both fall off a log into the abyss, and that you should ALWAYS eat your cake!

Why are some areas of theatre valued over others, particularly theatre for young audiences?
Adults, like crows, are often attracted to what is shiny not what actually has inherent value. Famous people are shiny. Lots of them also have plenty of value but that has nothing to do with their fame and everything to do with their talent and humanity, it’s just that all too often that isn’t recognised. Fortunately young people are often excellent at spotting the real from the fake and so working in theatre for young audiences is a total privilege and helps to make you a better artist.

Aesop’s Fables runs (Ages 4-7) 16 Jul- 4 Aug & (Ages 8-12) runs  21 Jun – 3 Aug at Unicorn Theatre, London

Justin Audibert announces his first season as Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre

JUSTIN AUDIBERT

Justin Audibert, the Unicorn Theatre’s new Artistic Director, announces his first season at the London venue. An audacious opening season themed around thinking about our future – the world as it is or the world as we might imagine it to be – will address concerns which affect our lives and ultimately our civilisation, with theatrical intelligence, wit and flair.

On announcing his season Justin Audibert said ‘In my first year at the helm of the Unicorn, I want us to engage in an open and honest dialogue with our audience. Onstage, the offer comprises 12 productions for everyone from 6 months and upwards. The overarching theme of the season interrogates how the world is and challenges the audience to imagine how it might be different.

To do this we have assembled an inspiring roster of artists, encompassing Unicorn favourites whilst introducing exciting new voices such as Jesse Jones, Rachel Bagshaw, Naomi Wirthner and Lulu Raczka. We are also delighted to be co-producing with some of the most innovative companies working nationally with Slung Low, New Perspectives and How It Ended, as well as welcoming the newly recognised Theatre of Sanctuary, Phosphoros Theatre, into the building as our first Associate Company.  Lastly, we are very excited to announce that our co-production with Untitled Projects, The End of Eddy, is transferring internationally, and signifies our continued ambitions for the future of our touring work.

In recent months, young people have left their schools to protest, to have their voices heard, to let us know how we’ve failed them.  This year, we will be speaking directly to our young audiences – about the Climate Emergency, about their access to the arts and about how we can serve them better. It’s absolutely vital for the Unicorn to defend children’s right to a creative and fulfilling life. So in response to the brutal cuts being imposed on schools, we are maintaining our £10 tickets for the non-fee paying sector for the eighth consecutive year, subsidising more school trips than ever before, and launching a major new community programme – REACH – that will work creatively with some of the hardest to reach children in our society’

The season celebrates brilliance, originality and spirit as the Unicorn continues to work with artists who push the boundaries of theatrical form – and at its heart is a commitment to inspiring a generation of theatregoers. Twelve productions will comprise an eclectic and potent mix of extraordinary and irreverent visions alongside a programme of events and workshops.

Opening the season with a one-off family event is a co-production with maverick theatre-makers Slung Low, 15 Minutes Live, a bold experiment with seven writers making six new radio plays about the future; for Black History Month and drawn fromAfrican-Caribbean folklore, Justin creates and directs a show about the ultimate mischief-maker, Anansi the Spider; and returning to the Unicorn, writer Jemma Kennedy adapts the world premiere of Maggot Moon, Sally Gardner’s dystopian drama, in a major staging by Jesse Jones of this award-winning novel.

For Christmas, once again the Unicorn opens all three spaces for the festive season. In the Weston Theatre, Anthony Weigh’s dazzling new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost is brought to thrilling theatrical life for all the family with live magic and special effects. Alongside side this in the Clore Theatre is The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse – a co-production with New Perspectives based on the cult picture-book by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. In the Foyle Studio, we see the return of Scrunch bySarah Argent and Kevin Lewis – a show for the very youngest audiences.

Highlights also include work from Rachel Bagshaw, who joins the company as an Associate Director, directing Germany’s Roland Schimmelpfennig’s surreal and poetic The Bee in Me; and following his acclaimed work at the venue, Tim Crouch returns with the London premiere of his one-man show I, Cinna (the poet). Rising star Lulu Raczka reframes arguably the greatest satire of all time,Gulliver’s Travels, in an exhilarating exploration by director and filmmaker, Sam Yates.

The Unicorn is also delighted to announce that Phosphoros Theatre are to become the Unicorn’s first ever Associate Company. Phosphoros Theatre was founded in 2015 and every one of its actors came to the UK as Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children and Refugees.  In residence at the Unicorn, the partnership is the start of a major new Unicorn programme with some of London’s hardest to reach and most vulnerable communities. The Phosphoros Young Company at the Unicorn will offer unaccompanied girls and boys, aged 14-18, the chance to use drama to help navigate their place in a new community, and to learn from older peers from the refugee community who were once in their shoes.

The Unicorn Theatre will also be taking even more work out of the building with projects in Great Ormond Street Hospital and beyond, as part of the Unicorn’s strategy to reach audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience our shows at the venue.  Further afield, The End of Eddy (shortlisted for two Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland awards) transfers to BAM in New York in November 2019 and will announce further international dates soon.

Under Audibert’s artistic leadership, the Unicorn will continue to position itself as one of the country’s most enquiring venues for young audiences, creating constantly surprising and provocative theatre, but also asking questions about the world we live in. As part of this discussion with its audiences, and in particular its response to the Climate Emergency, the Unicorn will be speaking directly to young people – the strongest and most urgent voices today – about the global climate crisis. Throughout the year, the theatre will engage in critical conversations online, in person and through forum and debate.