In March 2020, theatre was about to enter the most difficult period of modern times. Life in culture would never be the same again as theatres faced the devastating consequences of lockdown.
It was also the month Laura Kriefman arrived at the Barbican Theatre as CEO, just days before the first lockdown.
But Laura and the theatre forged on, producing remarkable work and creativity in some of culture’s darkest hours.
“We’re really proud of the work we’ve done,” she said. “The last year has given us an opportunity to commission and support artists and give them platforms to be seen and heard.
“We did an impact report at the end of the year and were blown away, not only by the quality of the experiences but by the number of people that we’d been able to support.
“We were able to turn a set of pop-up events that were supposed to happen into three utterly amazing music videos.”
When live performances and activities were no longer possible and the Barbican had to close its doors, the team moved fast to make sure community and collaboration remained the driving force behind their work.
ReBels – The Barbican Theatre’s Talent Development Programme – worked with Prime skate park, Plymouth Parkour, a mix of semi-pros and pros in the city and local composers and musicians to develop the films.
Looking ahead, that spirit of co-creation forms the backbone of the theatre’s future plans as they build their programme for the year ahead.
“The organisation has years of experience doing site-specific shows” she explains, “so we also developed pop-ups which work for different levels of social distancing. Some are intimate acoustic nights for 50 people, and in about a year’s time there will be huge, nightclub-type events for about 600 people.”
Before moving to Plymouth, Laura was creating and touring her large-scale interactive installations and dance shows all over the world through her company, Hellion Trace.
“I’ve never gone in a straight line,” she says. “I was supposed to go to university to study maths. I had taken a gap year and gone on tour with three circuses. Then I got offered a place at a theatre school in the UK on a full scholarship. I thought I’d study maths afterwards but never made it back to that”
She started work as a theatre director and choreographer for musicals, before running a venue in London. Along the way she’s had a variety of roles, from costumier to museum consultant.
Through all her experiences, she recognised some common themes.
“I know that I really like making stuff and creating opportunities for other people to make stuff. I really like extraordinary collaborative environments and things which tackle questions that I haven’t seen answered in the same way before.”
“That’s what has driven me and my journey” Laura says, “but I think we all start off with the route that we see visible to us, then find ourselves in a very different place.”
“I moved to Devon about a year and a half before I applied for this role. The majority of the work I was making was being delivered abroad and I was interested in the differences in the cities down here, the work coming out of the region, the unique challenges and opportunities that the peninsula holds.”
“I was really enjoying being down South and was looking at how I could be doing more work near where I lived.”
But she saw the UK’s approach to interactive work and work in general as quite siloed.
“I’ve been making work and working with other extraordinary companies for 10 years that don’t fit into those silos. The stories they’re able to tell, which voices are being heard and who feels represented is completely different.
“Many people have thriving careers allowing them to grow and change and evolve. They are cross-referencing and learning to be multi-skilled and multi-disciplined, because that’s what careers are made of these days”
That kind of multifaceted learning was something Laura found lacking within traditional youth theatre and youth training systems.
Through ReBels, one of her hopes was to create a template to support future generations in accessing dynamic and wide-ranging performing arts training.
“We used to do five classes a week with relatively large classes. Running 18 classes with smaller numbers a week has actually allowed us to employ more practitioners across different art forms. We wouldn’t necessarily have rapidly made the shift had there not been a necessity with social distancing. And that gave us an opportunity. It’s all co-creation based and about what the young people want to make.
“We also got funding from the National Youth Music Trust to run ReBel’s Music which directly responds to creativity coming through ReBels and the wider city communities.
The music videos and upcoming summer show, Petrolheadz, both centre on communities that aren’t often celebrated within a theatrical setting.
“Petrol Headz is our big show at the end of this summer based around the modified car scene and all the street culture that surrounds that,” she says.
“I feel we are making a shift into valuing voices that aren’t normally heard and valuing communities that are normally ignored, and also really turning on its head where things can happen and why things can happen. And that feels really important.
Pictures by Dom Moore/John Allen/Barbican Theatre