Leyla Nazli, deputy artistic director and executive producer at the Arcola.
Photograph: courtesy Arcola Theatre

This year has been devastating for the entire cultural sector, but it’s nowhere more obvious than the theatre.

While Arcola Theatre is publicly subsidised to an extent, we are dependent on audiences coming to see the exciting and original work we are producing.

Like so many venues across the country, we’ve wrestled with how we can get audiences back into the theatre in a safe and practical way over these past months, in the face of the ongoing threat from Covid-19. 

Earlier in autumn, after endless discussion, we settled on what we hope is a solution which will help us to carry on producing innovative new work. That solution was born from asking the question, ‘If we can’t ask audiences to come inside to see us, why don’t we go out and see them?’ And, with the support of Arts Council England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s Cultural Recovery Fund, that’s when Arcola Outside was created. 

The designs for Arcola Outside prioritise audience safety. Image: Jon Bausor

A core part of what Arcola tries to do is to enable new talent, be they writers, actors, directors, technicians, arts professionals, or anybody entering the industry. We are an industry made up of freelancers, who have suffered disproportionately from this crisis and have seen a devastating lack of income and employment. 

The beauty of Arcola Outside is that it is being built by freelancers. It is designed by Jon Bausor, an incredible set designer who began his career with Arcola almost 20 years ago and went on to design shows such as Bat Out of Hell and the 2012 Summer Paralympics Opening Ceremony, and it is being built by a team of freelance theatre and live event technicians. 

Once built, we hope that Arcola Outside will create new opportunities for freelance artists and workers. It will be a flexible, multi-purpose space, able to host live performances, screenings, installations and more.

Arcola Outside will be a testament to the tenacity and creativity of the people who drive our theatre industry, which is so central to our communities. 

Arcola Outside was designed with Tier 2 Covid restrictions and the ‘rule of six’ in mind.
Image: Jon Bausor

Next year, we are planning to host Today I’m Wiser – a Hackney-wide festival rooted in the idea of recommuning with one another and rebuilding our community bonds, which have been so disrupted due to lockdowns and other global challenges.

Arcola Outside will act as the central hub for this celebration, which is inspired by the extraordinary human challenges of the past year, but also rooted in a sense of optimism and a collective desire for change.

The festival will platform a diverse group of artists and reunite them with the community, reviving public space and celebrating their creativity and resilience. 

So much of people’s emotional life over the past eight months has been experienced privately and, now, as we re-enter another period of lockdown, people are once again incubating ideas about the world in isolation.

Today I’m Wiser will bring those conversations back into the public domain: to be faced, to be fought and to be understood together. We’ll be inviting artists from across Hackney and London to be involved in the festival with a call-out for submissions to be announced soon.

We can’t wait to bring people back together, safely, to reflect on the year that’s passed and acknowledge the profound changes we’ve all been through. 

Leyla Nazli is deputy artistic director and executive producer at the Arcola Theatre

Find out more, including how you can help, at arcolatheatre.com

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