Caro Meets Festivals Interview

Rae McKen: The Verve Festival

By | Published on Thursday 21 April 2016


You may remember that a wee while ago we instructed you – via a Three To See pick – to go and see ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’ at the Arts Theatre, because we were anticipating a great production. But of course, it’s on as part of something a bit bigger – The Verve Festival.
This brand new event is motivated by concerns shared by the TW team, so I was naturally keen to find out more about it. I spoke to organiser Rae McKen, of diversity focused producing company Custom/Practice.

CM: Tell us about The Verve Festival – what does it celebrate?
RM: The Verve Festival celebrates feminism and diversity.

CM: Who is behind it all? What made you want to create this, and how did it come together?
RM: I run Custom/Practice with Lorenzo Martelli, and we decided that it would be great to do something that promoted feminism and diversity as we have a strong belief in both but often it is one or the other that gets attention. There has also traditionally been a lot of exclusion of ethnic minorities from the feminist movement and I believe it is really important to bring these issues together and strive for equality for all.

CM: Do you anticipate this being a yearly event?
RM: We would love it to become a yearly event. I think it is a festival that is currently missing from the UK’s creative calendar and would do much to unite all groups – We would love to include disabled artists next year as well. However, we need funding: if anyone is interested in feminism, diversity and/or disability and would like to get in touch re funding we would love to talk to you.

CM: The centrepiece of the festival is your gender-switched production of ‘Taming Of The Shrew’. Can you tell us a bit about it? Why this play in particular?
RM: I had decided I really wanted to do a gender swap version of a Shakespeare play, partly because I had met and seen so many brilliant female actors through our workshops and in various productions that I never got to work with in Custom/Practice because the classics are predominantly male heavy. I then thought if one is going to gender swap, then a play about gender would be good, which led me to ‘Shrew’ or ‘Much Ado’. I felt that if I were ever to direct ‘Shrew’, this is the only way I could envisage it being palatable, for me anyway, and felt it made the greatest statement about the ridiculousness of one gender controlling another.

CM: What other events are on as part of the festival? Is there anything you are especially looking forward to?
RM: We also have comedy and cabaret nights, talks on diverse and feminist theatre led by Dr Naomi Paxton, a model theatre on the first female pilots and scratch theatre nights. I am really looking forward to seeing how the whole festival goes and audiences’ reactions to something which may at first glance appear like any other festival; the fact that women and ethnically diverse artists are at the centre of everything it is immediately vastly different from most things that are currently on offer.

CM: Obviously, events and productions like yours can help, but in what wider ways do you think we can address the lack of diversity in the arts? Do you see any improvement at all?
RM: I have been attending mainstream theatre for nearly 25 years now and if I’m honest I haven;t seen much improvement. When I was in my teens I was convinced that there would be a monumental shift in my lifetime towards a greater inclusion of diverse artists within the theatrical landscape. Sadly this has not happened, and it is now one of my greatest disappointments that I feel this will not now happen in my lifetime.

There are many things we can do to address the lack of diversity, but the main problem is that there has to be a genuine will from the people who currently hold all the power to want to change and I confess, I don’t really think there is. Why would there be? It would mean people giving up their power, and few people do that willingly. If anyone wants to know how to increase diversity I am very happy to sit down with them and discuss various options!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Custom/Practice? What do you specialise in? What are your aims?
RM: We specialise in widening access for artists and audiences from diverse racial, regional, socio-economic and disability backgrounds to works from the European theatrical tradition. We would love to continue to create our productions, which audiences are generally very complimentary about, especially when it comes to the clarity of our storytelling and vibrancy of style, and keep engaging new audiences, whilst at the same time showing the traditional theatre audiences something a little bit different. We love creating shows in London but have done two national tours and hope to do more in the future. We also run classical acting workshops for professional actors and we would love to expand this to include workshops for drama school hopefuls and even young people.

CM: What else do you have planned, for the near or distant future…?
RM: We are looking to possibly tour ‘Shrew’ in the future, and are looking at a potential tour of ‘Comedy of Errors’ and ‘Dr Faustus’ in 2017. Plus, hopefully, Verve 2 next year!

The Verve Festival runs until 1 May at The Arts Theatre. Scroll down the venue website here for event listings.

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