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Laura Kriefman

Laura is the CEO of Barbican Theatre, a dynamic charity that puts emerging artists, young people and the development of talent at the heart of everything it does

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

Play Video Play Video

Laura believes the city is on the right track to embrace real change.

“Plymouth is on the cusp. There are still things that we need to think about as a city – how we build opportunities and careers, and refuel creatively and socially for people to want to stay in the city. 

And as it reopens, the city is embracing it’s independent scene. 

“Conversations are happening that recognise the future is the independents, the independent stores are revitalizing spaces and ownership of our cities from a civic point of view, rather than homogenising spaces. 

“If Plymouth’s working towards that, that’s really exciting. If a city focuses on it’s unique, creative voice, what happens as a consequence? Do you get a new style of music? Like drum and bass coming out of Bristol or grime coming out of London. Do you get new styles of storytelling? What happens if you fuel and create space and validity for creativity?

“I’m interested in the Barbican’s role in giving those new voices a platform. And how we bring people into the region and create a pipeline for work from Plymouth to go elsewhere. I’m really excited about how we develop new ways of working – what that means to the Barbican going forward.

“For the Barbican, what’s our role as risk-takers and leaders with our practitioners and the young people we work with? As a team, we have a responsibility to show and prove and reflect back why this changemaking is really important.

“I think the most exciting work is made from a point of not knowing. But you’ve got to build the foundations so that you can be in that space together. How you use constructive criticism, how you collaborate, how you allow people to feel heard. That’s what we’re focusing on – how we lay those foundations rather than worrying about having big names.

Right now, Laura thinks it’s important for people to take care of themselves, and be open to change. 

“If you’ve given yourself an opportunity to stay well and have a roof over your head and are fed and watered, that was all your priorities needed to be in the last year. 

“Everything you have done before and all the skills you’ve got are still in your back pocket. Even if you’ve completely stopped for a year, you haven’t done anything wrong. The world has stopped. Your opportunity over the next year – because the next year is going to get easier but it’s not necessarily going to feel predictable – is to allow yourself to find where you want to go next. Maybe it’s something completely different. 

“You always have a right to change direction. You always have a right to figure out your creative expression.”

What is it about living and working in Plymouth that attracts/keeps you here?

There’s such a brilliant and thriving creative scene in Plymouth and the surrounding areas. There’s a huge amount of change-making going on and a lot of collaborative and very open energy.

It feels like we’re in a really unusual and interesting position – where we are geographically, what’s around us resource-wise, what we’ve been historically and what we could be. And it’s fascinating to be part of an organization and city that’s asking those kinds of questions.

What’s the one thing you would recommend to an outsider visiting Plymouth?

I’d create a day of serendipity that takes in lots of the uniqueness of Plymouth, maybe starting with a swim and a walk along the Hoe. Then donuts at Jacka bakery and a wander through the covered markets before taking in the St Luke’s exhibition at The Box with that amazing stained glass fused glass window!

Laura believes the city is on the right track to embrace real change.

“Plymouth is on the cusp. There are still things that we need to think about as a city – how we build opportunities and careers, and refuel creatively and socially for people to want to stay in the city. 

And as it reopens, the city is embracing it’s independent scene. 

“Conversations are happening that recognise the future is the independents, the independent stores are revitalizing spaces and ownership of our cities from a civic point of view, rather than homogenising spaces. 

“If Plymouth’s working towards that, that’s really exciting. If a city focuses on it’s unique, creative voice, what happens as a consequence? Do you get a new style of music? Like drum and bass coming out of Bristol or grime coming out of London. Do you get new styles of storytelling? What happens if you fuel and create space and validity for creativity?

“I’m interested in the Barbican’s role in giving those new voices a platform. And how we bring people into the region and create a pipeline for work from Plymouth to go elsewhere. I’m really excited about how we develop new ways of working – what that means to the Barbican going forward.

“For the Barbican, what’s our role as risk-takers and leaders with our practitioners and the young people we work with? As a team, we have a responsibility to show and prove and reflect back why this changemaking is really important.

“I think the most exciting work is made from a point of not knowing. But you’ve got to build the foundations so that you can be in that space together. How you use constructive criticism, how you collaborate, how you allow people to feel heard. That’s what we’re focusing on – how we lay those foundations rather than worrying about having big names.

Right now, Laura thinks it’s important for people to take care of themselves, and be open to change. 

“If you’ve given yourself an opportunity to stay well and have a roof over your head and are fed and watered, that was all your priorities needed to be in the last year. 

“Everything you have done before and all the skills you’ve got are still in your back pocket. Even if you’ve completely stopped for a year, you haven’t done anything wrong. The world has stopped. Your opportunity over the next year – because the next year is going to get easier but it’s not necessarily going to feel predictable – is to allow yourself to find where you want to go next. Maybe it’s something completely different. 

“You always have a right to change direction. You always have a right to figure out your creative expression.”

What is it about living and working in Plymouth that attracts/keeps you here?

There’s such a brilliant and thriving creative scene in Plymouth and the surrounding areas. There’s a huge amount of change-making going on and a lot of collaborative and very open energy.

It feels like we’re in a really unusual and interesting position – where we are geographically, what’s around us resource-wise, what we’ve been historically and what we could be. And it’s fascinating to be part of an organization and city that’s asking those kinds of questions.

What’s the one thing you would recommend to an outsider visiting Plymouth?

I’d create a day of serendipity that takes in lots of the uniqueness of Plymouth, maybe starting with a swim and a walk along the Hoe. Then donuts at Jacka bakery and a wander through the covered markets before taking in the St Luke’s exhibition at The Box with that amazing stained glass fused glass window!

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