BWW Interview: Sarah Crabtree and Emma Southworth Discuss The Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre and Open Up Project

BWW Interview: Sarah Crabtree and Emma Southworth Discuss The Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre and Open Up Project
The Royal Ballet's Joseph Sissens
and Olivia Cowley in the Royal Opera
House's redesigned Linbury Foyer

Today the Royal Opera House announces the inaugural programme for its new Linbury Theatre (previously the Linbury Studio Theatre), which opens in December 2018 after extensive redevelopment as part of the Royal Opera House's Open Up project.

Designed by Stanton Williams, the revamped Linbury incorporates 406 seats and is a fully flexible performance space for opera and dance. Find the opening season details here.

Sarah Crabtree, Senior Producer at the Royal Opera House, and Emma Southworth, Creative Producer for the Royal Ballet, discuss the Linbury Theatre and making these art forms accessible to all.

What is Open Up?

Emma: It's all about opening up the building to everyone - saying that the Royal Opera House is here for everyone. That will be physically demonstrated by modifications to the building. The new windows will enable people to see right into the foyer from the street and there'll be a big screen visible from the piazza. It'll be really obvious that we're saying "Come in and enjoy our art forms".

Do you believe that people think it's "closed"?

Emma: Yes. I think that we're here for everyone, but it didn't look like it. We didn't have a programme of events during the day or a coffee shop that people could come into.

Sarah: We've literally peeled off the front of the building. It felt to some people a little bit like a fortress - it felt intimidating even in the way you approach the theatre, let alone the challenges of bringing people into the stages.

It's a mentality in terms of the programming too. We have a Front of House programme designed to bring the art forms to passers-by, who can drop in to hear some singing or catch a look at some dance.

It's also about wanting to engage with a broader, more diverse audience - wanting to make it a home for all the communities in this city.

Emma: The most exciting bit is the thought of people standing on the street and looking straight into the Linbury and it being fully integrated as part of the building.

BWW Interview: Sarah Crabtree and Emma Southworth Discuss The Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre and Open Up Project
The new Royal Opera House café

How do you balance this commercial, "opening up" stuff alongside the institutional history and cultural significance of the ROH's work?

Emma: It's a complex thing in the arts, stacking up budgets, but for us, always, the arts sit at the centre of what we do.

The brilliant thing about the Open Up Project is that you might come in for a coffee, but you'll have the screens to look at and you might see something from the free Front of House programme. The key thing is that the arts are what everything comes out of.

Sarah: The new space sits in the middle of the development. The new Linbury Theatre, taking the roof off the old foyer space and connecting it to the 1858 Stage, is about peeling back layers to give a sense of looking through into the older spaces. A lot of that has been done with the architecture, the dark wood, avoiding a sense of "Here's where you have a coffee and... here's where you find a stage". It stops the feeling of "This isn't for me".

Emma: Architecturally, the House has a glamour about it in a 21st-century way, but walking through a corridor takes you to the 1858 Stage.

Sarah: The programme (from 10am and running all day) will give the art forms a presence in this space that will make it very different from a museum cafe, for example. It will be many people's first experience of the art form.

Emma: Often, that first step over the threshold can be the most forbidding.

What's in the season's programme that will make them come to the stages?

Sarah: The Linbury has 25% of tickets at £25 and even the top price is only £45, so there's a real accessibility there - a fraction of the price of going to the football! So once you've got people in the building, the stages are accessible - it's a realistic option.

Emma: With the Royal Ballet, the way we've programmed the space is to have a connection with everything the Royal Ballet does, but, within that, we've a diversity of choice. We've got something for the big ballet fans - Alessandra Ferri is coming - through to work for children.

You will find something within that programme that caters to your taste. Or, because it's all world-class quality, you can just try something and you'll get a good show.

BWW Interview: Sarah Crabtree and Emma Southworth Discuss The Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre and Open Up Project
Children in the Royal Opera House's
redesigned Linbury Foyer

Do you think people know the prices are so accessible?

Emma: We have the opportunity with this moment of the big opening to get that message across again (our cheapest standing place is £5).

Sarah: It's also about stating that this is an opera house for London and, if you break down the physical barriers and tell people that they're welcome and won't feel out of place, people will gain a sense of ownership and feel comfortable. That's half the battle.

I don't know why Hamilton is placed in a box that's labelled "musical theatre" and millions see it, while The Barber of Seville is put in a different box labelled "opera". What stops a Hamilton fan going to the opera?

Sarah: A lot of it is about perception. What we're trying to do with the Linbury programme is provide a more comfortable space, less intimidating in terms of size, with works with a focus on emerging talent and voices. That work will feel more directly connected to the city we live in now.

The Barber of Seville is an old story set in a world very distant from London 2018, but Hamilton is not a story that directly relates to our lives today. In a way, we're all fighting the same battle - the challenges of diversity and the underdog.

What's important about shows like Hamilton is the quality of the theatre-making and the imagination they use to tell the story. That means there's not a big gap between it and shows like Gavin Higgins' new opera The Monstrous Child, based on Francesca Simon's novel of the same name, which grew out of fringe theatre. Its magic is born out of necessity in the way that they tell the story and use the costumes - there's almost no set. It's the anthesis of the "Disney Effect" in the West End.

If we can find stories and storytellers (opera-makers and theatre-makers) who relate to the issues of our time, that's probably part of the answer. It's about normalising opera in our society - we wouldn't be talking like this in Frankfurt, for example. Opera is more embedded in cultures in Europe, but there's a massive boom in fringe opera companies here and in companies commissioning new operas, and that's an exciting change even in my 12 years in the industry.

It's taking time, but we are moving in the right direction. Once people realise that they don't have to dress up and actually see that the different elements of opera make for a total theatrical experience, they want to come back.

The best thing is when you put an opera singer in front of a small child, who doesn't have any preconceived ideas, and for them it's this incredible power.

Emma: You see it in schools matinees - how captivated the kids are, an experience you hope they'll remember.

Sarah: Developing work for younger people is important - they are our future - and that's a big part of both the opera and ballet strategies.

BWW Interview: Sarah Crabtree and Emma Southworth Discuss The Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre and Open Up Project
The Royal Opera House's
redesigned Linbury Theatre

Is ballet a harder sell because it doesn't have opera's songs and librettos?

Emma: Dance tells stories in lots of different ways. For example, we have Cas Public coming over from Montreal, one of whose dancers has a profound hearing problem, and they've created a show around that and how he listens to music and how he's integrated into the company. Alessandra Ferri's solo and duet show has stories within those small pieces.

Dance tells stories through the body, as opposed to through words. The physicality is crucial. All of the seats in the Linbury are close to the stage, so we provide a totally different experience to the big stage. You hear it differently and you see it differently - you see the sweat!

All the companies we have are of a quality where they push the physicality, how they make their bodies move; though a lot relates back to ballet technique, it's been taken in a different direction.

All sorts of things have upped dance's profile in the last few years - Strictly, for example. In the last ten years, there's been a massive rise in street dance to the point where hip-hop is being taught now and gaining a technique of its own.

Those things amount to an interest in dance - it's a broad church now.

If you've never been to the opera before, what would be the one show (okay, two shows) in the programme that would turn the key in the lock?

Sarah: Two things at the beginning of our season. The Monstrous Child, an adaptation of something written for young adults, with its heightened theatricality and puppets and its brilliant story. It feels made, it feels accessible, and you feel very close to that storytelling. I think people will come and be surprised by that.

The second one would be the Isango Ensemble with their unique style of music-making. The South African company are bringing two productions to us over Easter. They tell their stories using marimbas and found items, and it's unlike anything you've seen anywhere else.

Same question about the dance programme

Emma: The first Royal Ballet moment will be great. We have five new works that we're doing with the London Sinfonietta - so, new music. The ballet commissioned for Aletta Collins is the big moment in that programme.

It's that brilliant thing of being able to see Royal Ballet dancers up close. Aletta has made a lot of her piece and it's a new voice to ballet actually - she's very well known for musicals, but this is the first time she's worked with us.

It's so hard to pick just one other! We have the Young Creatives Festival at the end of the season, with loads of companies from abroad, a chance to shout about all the young talent that's out there. Most of it comprises junior companies from big ballet organisations, with dancers aged about 18.

They bridge from schools to professional companies - super-talented but still learning. The junior companies tend to do mixed bills, going from big classical Balanchine moments to work by young choreographers. That's cheating, isn't it?!

Find out more about the new Linbury Theatre and upcoming season here

Photo credit: Luke Hayes, James Bellorini, Hufton + Crow, ROH 2018

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From This Author Gary Naylor

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