Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Liza Vallance: The Merchant Of Venice and Studio 3 Arts

By | Published on Thursday 30 June 2016


An exciting new adaptation of ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ is all set to take Barking by storm this month, a promenade performance featuring both professional and community actors, courtesy of socially engaged arts group Studio 3 Arts.
I was fascinated by the sound of this production, as well as the work that Studio 3 Arts does – and has been doing since 1987. To find out more about the show and the company I put some questions to artistic director Liza Vallance.

CM: Tell us what we can expect from this production of ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ – it’s a promenade performance, isn’t it? Where will you be taking the audiences?
LZ: I’m not going to tell you too much because I want you to come! It’s a really friendly, accessible and innovative interpretation, ideal if this is your first Shakespeare play for a while, and equally as appealing for those Shakespeare buffs who see lots of plays. It was commissioned by Creative Barking and Dagenham as a ‘Landmark Commission’ – designed to highlight the borough’s physical landmarks and enable local people to take part in outstanding creative activity. In terms of locations, the production starts at Broadway Theatre bar and heads out towards the Barking Learning Centre – the audience will move around Barking town centre, with some scenes taking place inside some of Barking’s landmark buildings – the final scene is in truly incredibly surroundings. There are some surprises in the production that I’m not going to give away here but it’s fair to say it will be pretty spectacular.

CM: What made you choose to adapt this particular Shakespeare play?
LZ: ‘MOV’ is a personal favourite of mine though this is not the reason I chose it. It’s actually the themes of the play that are so relevant and pertinent to Barking and modern society at large. Barking and Dagenham is a borough that fought hard against racism and intolerance, driving out BNP councillors in 2010. And it’s a borough of real sanctuary for many people from all over the world and has been for many years. It’s a truly multicultural area. It also faces economic disadvantage. There was a recent survey which shows personal debt in B&D is one of the highest in the country – this idea of debt, finances and the notion of an aspirational working class plays out here. It’s also got a love story at its heart and everyone loves a good love story. Also, Portia as a strong female character is very relevant. Barking has a long association of strong females going back hundreds of years – Barking Abbey was run by female abbesses, the female Ford workers fought for equal pay in Dagenham, and Mary Wollstonecraft, early pioneer of feminism in the eighteenth century lived in Barking. And I like to think I’m a strong woman too!

CM: I believe this version is set in contemporary times – what was the reason for that?
LZ: It was not consciously contemporary, it just sort of unfolded that way when we met Angela Michaels, our director, and heard her interpretation of our brief. This adaptation set out to tell a story for modern Barking for people to connect with. We also wanted to highlight the phenomenon of social media, celebrity and fame. We’re interested in ideas of hashtags, selfies and online dating and where that leads us in society. These days relationships are made in different ways. We expect instant, immediate responses when we contact people either via email, twitter, Facebook etc. This notion is played out in production – exposing the inner workings of relationships. We don’t give a solution to this phenomenon but we have our own take on it – wait until you see how Portia’s caskets are retold in our version…

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Ashley Joseph, who did the adaptation?
LZ: I can tell you loads, he’s a great friend and brilliant collaborator. We’ve known each other for ten years and been talking about making this production happen for seven years. He’s writer/actor in residence at Studio 3 Arts. With MOV I have to say he’s blown me away. He’s shown real respect for the integrity of the original Shakespearean text and also totally captured the essence of Barking and Dagenham. There are elements of the script that I can’t tell if they are Shakespeare or Ashley. He calls it ‘Ashspeare’. We are having lots of ‘pinch yourself’ moments at how amazing this is. I’m so happy to be able to share this with Ashley.

CM: The cast is a mix of professional actors and community performers – how did you go about finding the right people for the show?
LZ: Well, I think THEY found US. Our policy is everyone can participate in arts. Every single local person who wanted to be involved has been given the opportunity. It’s important to me that there’s no hierarchy between the professional actors and supporting cast. We’re all playing our own part to make this production happen Every one of the professional actors that we met, we knew they were right for this production straight away. We took the bold step of having local people sit on the auditions and if the professionals weren’t uncomfortable with that, then they wouldn’t have been right for the show.

CM: Can you tell us about Studio 3 Arts?
LZ: We’re a socially engaged arts practice based in Barking, and we work all over North East London and beyond. We are all about democratising arts and artistic processes. We challenge who art is for, made by, owned by, who talks about it and who takes part in it. We make work that brings artists into genuine, equal collaboration with local people.

CM: How did the group begin, and what are its aims?
LZ: It began three decades ago, formed by a group of local students who wanted to make things happen artistically in their area. Fast-forward thirty years and we’ve stayed true to that legacy, and now we’re East London’s leading community arts organisation, and Barking and Dagenham’s only Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. Thirty years on, we are still making things happen and allow local people to be the drivers of creativity in this borough.

CM: What’s next for you, and the company?
LZ: For me, I’ll be speaking at the AMA conference in Edinburgh in July followed by a holiday with my husband and kids. I think I’ve earned it. For the company ‘MOV’ is just one project (though it doesn’t feel like it at the moment). Next thing is the culmination of Open Estate, our HLF-funded social history project based in Gascoigne Estate, Barking. We’ve opened a museum of Gascoigne Life which will be listed in September as part of Open House London. We’re also planning a big programme of activity for our 30th year, including commissioning a new piece of theatre. It’s been so rewarding doing ‘MOV’, we would like to do a new piece on this scale every year. So more of the same – big and ambitious.

Studio 3 Arts’ production of ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ is performed in Barking town centre from 5-10 Jul. See this page here for more info and this page here for tickets.