“HOME will bring something radically different to Manchester’s thriving theatre scene. I plan to involve audiences with new and extraordinary theatrical experiences,” promises Walter Meierjohann, artistic director for the £25 million, purpose-built complex, due to open in Spring 2015.
With a track record at the Dresden State Theatre, Residenz Theatre in Munich and the Young Vic in London, Meierjohann pledges that “HOME will produce provocative, international and visual theatre in its two houses that will be a draw for audiences not only in the city but the North West and further afield.”
He tells Northern Soul: “There will be an international focus to our work and we will be a home for UK premieres of foreign language plays as well as inviting visiting companies from the around the world to stage productions in our theatres.
“Dance theatre, combining the raw emotion of dance with the narrative of theatre, will also have a new home in Manchester and we are working with international partners to commission and produce bold new work as well as host the best touring productions in this exciting medium.”
HOME, formed by the merger of Cornerhouse and the Library Theatre Company, will be the largest multi-artform organisation outside of London. “But the new whole will be greater than the sum of its parts, in scale, in ambition and reach,” he enthuses.
“Since my appointment, Sarah Perks (artistic director, visual art and film) Dave Moutrey (chief executive) and I have worked intensively to define and hone our vision for what HOME will be. Across productions, exhibitions, commissions and projects, it will be a place in which artists create the type of contemporary work that interrogates and illuminates our existence and experiences today. We are not just multi-artform, but cross-art, with theatre, film and visual art feeding into one another. In our new building we intend to have several occasions, perhaps in the form of festivals, each season when the three strands will join together creatively and react to the same thematic starting point. Sitting so closely to the best of world cinema and international contemporary visual art, the theatre work too will have strong visual ambitions.”
Prior to HOME actually opening (artist’s impression to the left), though, the first season will include site-specific productions, including a collaboration with the multi-award-winning ANU Productions from Dublin and Walter’s own production of Romeo And Juliet at Victoria Baths, as well as the return of re:play.
Site-specific work, I remind him, was something he’d enthused about when we first spoke a year or so ago, before he’d even arrived in the city to take up his position. So the slight hiatus before they all get a chance to play with their new building was actually quite fortuitous, in that sense at least.
“Yes, that’s right,” he laughs. “I’ve only done it once before. I was a second year directing student, it was an East German playwright and it was a production in a factory. It was such a beautiful piece of work and I will never forget that. We had a lift, so that an audience of 50 people could go to different floors and then the doors would open and they would suddenly find themselves in the middle of a scene. I felt ‘wow, that’s something you just can’t do in a theatre space’.
“For me, it’s about learning as well. Louise Lowe and ANU, whose work I was introduced to by executive producer David Fry, will be doing the first piece in our season, Angel Meadow, inspired by the Irish community in Ancoats in Victorian Manchester. Because it’s my job, I’ll be there the whole time throughout the rehearsal process and so on, overseeing what she does, but I’ll also be learning from them because she’s an expert in site-specific, and I’m not. So I’m going to be learning very quickly for Romeo And Juliet.”
Meierjohann’s own site-specific production will be a promenade version of the great Shakespeare comedy, taking place in Victoria Baths and featuring live music, with designs by Ti Green who recently designed Orlando at the Royal Exchange.
“That was not my original concept at all,” he admits. “Although it was a piece that I’d wanted to do since I got here to Manchester last June, I’d been looking for somewhere that was very industrial and gritty. Then I actually went on a tour of Victoria Baths, simply because I’d heard of it, and completely fell in love with that beautiful place. Just seeing that location completely changed my whole conceptual idea, so I’m actually responding to the place.”
And that was even before me telling him that the Bee Gees (well just Barry, to be completely honest) once recorded a music video there.
The new company will soon be moving its offices to Number One First Street, actually overlooking HOME as it’s being built. But, significantly, the building will also provide rehearsal space as well as offering huge scope for research and development sessions.
It will also be a functioning performance space for productions including The Actors Touring Company brilliant show The Events, featuring local choirs in October and, reflecting Walter’s European provenance, a Best of BE Festival weekend that same month, featuring three highlights from this year’s ‘Birmingham European’ celebration of some of the best new European theatre, dance and performance.
Later in the season the re:playFestival will return, continuing the tradition set by the Library Theatre Company of bringing the best of Manchester’s fringe theatre to a wider audience.
“I believe that if you come into a city and have big plans, that doesn’t mean you have to change everything, especially when there are some things that have been great in the past, like re:play. At the outset of HOME, we did say re:play couldn’t happen in 2015 but only because we wouldn’t have a venue for it. Then we acquired this building which will have been established as a space by the time of the festival.
“I certainly don’t know all there is to know about Manchester’s grassroots local theatre scene, so getting to know it through that fantastic festival really makes sense. I think that tension between having local people wanting to work in an exciting new space and having world-class artists coming in can be a really healthy one.”
HOME, he promises, will be “dedicated to presenting the best in contemporary theatre, for a contemporary audience”. To that end, he’s going to be working closely with resident dramaturg Petra Jane Tauscher as well as others recruited internationally, including New York-based Raphael Martin “to ensure we are kept abreast of developments”.
“You have literary managers here, of course, so it’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel but in Europe there’s much more of a tradition of the ‘dramaturg’, of a director having someone to speak to from the beginning as he or she makes conceptual or casting or textual decisions. So that’s always with a partner, a very practical role which supports the director, although it can be quite challenging as well. By having a discussion, or even a row, you find out what it is you really want to do.
“At HOME, there’s also the over-arching discussions with Sarah and others on the team about how we join the theatre side up with everything else that’s going on. I will need to focus on the productions themselves quite soon, so Petra will be in a position to do that.”
Plans for that all-important opening season include, he is prepared to reveal, “an eclectic mix of plays for which we will be commissioning both new writing and new translations and adaptations.
“There will be a focus on developing the work and careers of emerging directors. A programme of encounters, events and workshops, many led by visiting directors of national and international standing, will provide the support, insight and platform needed to allow theatre’s next generation to flourish.”
Main image: Walter Meierjohann by Graeme Cooper
*Angel Meadow runs in Ancoats from June 10-29; Romeo and Juliet runs at Victoria Baths from September 10 – October 4; *The Events runs at Number 1 First Street from October 22-25
For venue, event and booking information please visit HOMEmcr.org or call the box office on 0161 200 1500