Hackney Empire plans to combine its commitment to community and championing of young people with a programme that revives a variety programme for a modern-day audience and celebrates all genres. Since Artistic Director Yamin Choudury and Executive Director Jo Hemmant were appointed in 2018, the theatre has seen an average of 83% new bookers for many productions – a huge achievement for a 1000+ seater theatre in London.
The recently rebranded Creative Futures Programme, which has run for over 20 years is now a free year-round, extended programme of creative arts provision and training for young people aged 8-19 years old – the programme engaged over 4,000 young people in 800+ hours of activity, with 50 new bespoke projects created by and for young people and designed specifically to remove barriers to participation.
Choudury says: “Why is there a conflict between community and commercial programming in arts and culture? If community isn’t at the centre of your process, then who buys the commercial tickets? As a sector we are in danger of engaging the same gene pool that for decades has always been privileged enough to have access. We have to consider ‘profit’ differently. Just because we’re not profiting from our community by charging them to come to workshops or participate in creative learning, in the long term we will have generations of people who now have generations of families, who have a home at Hackney Empire.”
Hackney Empire continues this work in 2019/20 with two huge community-focused events:
A MILLION MINDS TOUR: TedX speaker and spoken word artist Jamala Osman has come together with Mike Thompson of Gen.HealthyMinds to create the Million Minds Tour, which this year will aim to once again break the World Record for the World’s Largest Mental Health Lesson. Hackney Empire is a primary sponsor and previously held the World Record in 2017, in partnership with Hussain Manawer, Dame Til Wykes and Kings College London. Hackney Empire will be hosting the press launch for this event on 25 September.
ALTER EGO: A Hackney Empire programme that brings young people together with some of the Country’s leading music artists to perform alongside each other on stage. Created in 2012 and supported by Discover Young Hackney, Alter Ego has seen more than 9000 young people involved both as participants and audience. Tickets are £4.
Choudury said: “The reason we charge for tickets isn’t because it makes a difference to our budgets, it’s because we want to create a model for young people to know what it’s like to use your own money, to go to a box office, to buy a ticket, to manage it, to go with your friends and make a plan, and to begin their engagement with arts and culture.”
In 2020 it is planned that the winners of this showcase will head to the world renowned SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas; a festival that features performances by major international artists.
This work has been pioneered and led by Yamin Choudury, whose own, often challenging, life as a young man born and raised in North London, reflects the lived experiences of many of the young people and communities the company works with. He first came to Hackney Empire as a 17 year-old and was welcomed into the building and its community, an ethos that underpins the organisation’s mission and values and is now more accessible then ever.
He says: “We want to create a sense of entitlement for those that feel unentitled. If you’re in the space, it’s yours.”
Hemmant and Choudury credit this open-door policy to their incredible team of staff, many of whom are local, and initially were participants or audience members and then wanted to be part of the organisation. The theatre is a landmark organisation for communities.
Alongside Creative Futures and the organisation’s community work, the aim of the diverse programme is to present and make affordable the very best of what arts and culture have to offer to their audience. One of the only 1000+ seater theatres in London who programmes throughout the year, in 2018-19 there have been over 62 productions and over 100,000 people attending, of which 43% come from the Borough of Hackney.
This has led to major co-productions and collaborations with theatres and organisations including Birmingham Repertory Theatre, RSC, Scottish Opera, Royal Court, English Touring Opera and LIFT Festival. The theatre wants to expand upon and increase collaborations in the future.
Choudury said: “As opposed to just being a landing place, we want to actively assist in the production or commissioning of these projects and be a partner in the process around them. I think that is a real benefit to everybody.”
In 2019/20 HE’s programme’s theatre highlights include Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, adapted by Bryony Lavery. On the comedy front there’s Live at the Empire with comedians Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery, Rosie Jones, Rose Matafeo as well as shows from Mark Steel, Lenny Henry, Chris Ramsey and Rob Delaney. Dave Chapelle performed at Hackney Empire for 2 of his only 3 UK appearances earlier this year.
Opera includes The Seraglio, The Silver Lake – A Winter’s Tale (Der Silbersee), The Gondoliers and Utopia, Limited, two new co-productions with Scottish Opera.
In family entertainment, Olivier Award-winning actor Clive Rowe makes his 13th pantomime appearance in Dick Whittington and His Cat at Christmas, featuring Tarinn Callender as Dick Whittington and comedian Kat B.
Music sees indie legends Carl Barat and Pete Doherty and Spiritualized performing, and in the autumn, The Big Big Train, Respect – the Aretha Franklin Songbook and weekly performances from Hackney Empire Community Choir.
Choudury and Hemmant reflected on the programme: “We are so proud of Hackney Empire and what it has meant to people, we want our community to be as proud of us as we are of being in Hackney. That’s why we’re doing it, we want people in and around the borough, to be proud that Hackney Empire is on their doorstep; everybody needs safe and exciting spaces – Hackney Empire is ours”.