Art off the wall

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Lucy Maycock opens up with a story about her first loves, two Polish builders and smoke.  She closes with the time the nurse at Christchurch told her she was going to die.  It’s just as well most of the shows exhibited at the North Wall are this entertaining – otherwise you would fear that their new artistic director might upstage them. In truth, what really comes across with Lucy is her enthusiasm to make the North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford’s best-kept-secret, a real centre to help young artists develop new work.  About the latter, Lucy suddenly becomes very serious: “How can we get students involved?”
For those not already in the know, the North Wall Arts Centre sits on the grounds of St. Edward’s School in Summertown, about 10 minutes cycle north of St. Giles.  The theatre space here is incredibly flexible, capable of staging productions that can be extremely intimate at times and yet surprisingly informal, even jovial at others.   Such flexibility is reflected in the diverse range of shows on offer.  A quick glance through the current brochure reveals productions focused on hip-hop, dance, classic theatre (Arthur Miller), even an opera.  All in a space which, interestingly, used to be a swimming pool!
However, the North Wall primarily focuses on attracting more edgy, “young and contemporary” theatre/comedy to Oxford and it is upon this that it has built its growing reputation.  Lucy puts particular emphasis on the importance of being “reactive” and so encourages artists that are right at the cutting edge.  For example, she invites the best of each summer’s Edinburgh Festival to the centre -The Author by Tim Crouch, Never Let Me Go, Andrew Lawrence and others.  In fact, Lucy muses, “the programming is pretty much directed at students”.
I suggest that it must be quite difficult to compete for that particular audience in Oxford, but Lucy disagrees.  “I don’t really see us as being in competition.  Really we fill a niche that no-one else can.” Here, the value of private school patronage soon becomes apparent, but it’s a privileged position that Lucy sees as being loaded with responsibility.  “In a way, we can take risks (with emerging talent) that other theatres just can’t…and so help to plug the gap left by the cuts in Arts funding”.  It also means that tickets are remarkably affordable at £8-£10, with many on offer for just £5 – “cheaper than a lot of student drama!”
As well as offering opportunities for emerging talent, Lucy talks enthusiastically about supporting young artists that are just starting out.  In particular they provide technical expertise and a forum for serious professional collaboration – it sounds remarkably like the type of mentorship that is often hard to find unless your dad is a director.   The impressive Outreach programs are a good example.  Here, a group of auditioned 17-25 year olds are given free residency at the North Wall, even down to the food.  Over several weeks they will work with leading professionals to develop an idea into a performance.  Currently such projects are scheduled for both dance and theatre and the audition details can be found on the North Wall Website.
By now, we’re flying along and Lucy’s passion for theatre pours forth.  I ask what the most important ingredient is that she looks for in a new play.  “Good writing,” she replies with remarkably little hesitation and then talks keenly about her ideas for finding and developing new writers.  With this in mind, I ask about the potential of the North Wall as a venue for student drama but Lucy pauses.  I sense she can see flashbacks from her days at Christchurch and another production of Blood Wedding.  “We’re open to proposals” she says “but it would have to be inventive, it would have to offer something different”.  Which I suppose is akin to saying, it would have to fit with what the North Wall is already doing so well.

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