My knowledge of Camberwell is rather limited. But a quick Google search informs me it’s home to London’s largest teaching hospital, a host of elegant and well-preserved Georgian houses, and one of the oldest pubs in south London. A good start by all accounts.
And amid the ‘Saaf London’ hustle and bustle, not far from Oval station, lies a cultural gem – the Blue Elephant Theatre. The only theatre in Camberwell, BET was established in 1999 by writer and director Antonio Ribeiro, and was originally known as a showcase for foreign political theatre.
It is an intimate, 50-seat space where audiences can enjoy a varied programme, often showcasing emerging artists, and meet for drinks and a post-show natter in the bar upstairs. Hailed as the epitome of London fringe, the no-frills venue promises quality shows at affordable prices.
I spoke to Jasmine Cullingford, Artistic Director of the theatre, to find out what makes her – and the theatre – tick. An aficionado of the arts, adventurer, keen swimmer and wife to a music journalist, Cullingford has worked at BET for six years, clinching the job of artistic director in 2006.
BET has grown in reputation since Cullingford took over and she has developed an innovative approach to programming that has struck a chord with audiences and artists alike. Aiming for accessible work with broad appeal, budding artists, directors, and producers are encouraged to bring ideas to BET’s programming table, while established professionals are equally welcomed.
What exactly is an artistic director?
‘Someone who sets the artistic vision of the theatre and decides what work to put on.’
What does an average work day involve?
‘There is no such thing as an “average” day for me. I can be signing off our brochure design in the morning, meeting Southwark Council to discuss funding in the afternoon, then going to an evening performance and commissioning work from the artist afterwards.’
What makes Blue Elephant different from other theatres?
‘Our programming is highly eclectic. This season we have a Japanese drumming piece, the world premiere of The Cave, a play by Mervyn Peake (who wrote Gormenghast); a movement-ensemble adaptation of the Jacobean tragedy The White Devil; and we end the year with a double bill of contemporary dance followed by a new play. By mixing up the programming, we try to introduce audiences to works they wouldn’t normally attend.’
Where does the name come from?
‘Everyone always asks me that and I wish I knew (answers on a postcard…?!). It was already named when I got here.’
What were you up to prior to this?
‘I worked at Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Orange Tree in Richmond: two brilliant theatres but entirely different from each other, and indeed from the Blue Elephant.’
When did your interest/career in theatre start?
‘School teachers took us on trips to theatres in Manchester, where I grew up, as well as the Sheffield Crucible and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. My love of the performing arts really grew from there.’
What’s the future for the Blue Elephant?
‘To continue as a vibrant arts centre and to nurture emerging artists whom we hope will have equally bright futures as those we have supported in the past – such as the Levantes Dance Theatre, who won the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award last year, and Evening Standard Award-winner Mamoru Iriguchi.’
Theatre-going – particularly in the West End – can be an expensive hobby. Do you think there are ways to make it more accessible?
‘Yes, it is expensive, but, to be honest, what I prefer is less commercial work which crosses art-forms – theatre involving live music, puppetry, acrobatics. And this tends to be showcased on the fringe, or off-West End, where tickets are more affordable (£10 – £15).’
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
‘I can’t imagine doing anything else.While still at university I took a summer internship at the Royal Court Theatre and worked part-time at the Bloomsbury Theatre. I would have been very disappointed if all my efforts had not taken me into an arts career.’
Where do you live in London and why?
‘Vauxhall, a short bike-ride away from Camberwell where the Blue Elephant Theatre is. I love being so central and well-connected, with the tube, trains and buses right on my doorstep. And having Tate Britain as my local gallery is a big bonus!’
What would you recommend everyone in London do at least once?
‘Experience The Open House weekend. It’s fascinating to see buildings that are usually closed to the public such as the Treasury or Lloyds of London. It’s a brilliant way to explore the city’s architecture – and all for free.’
What’s your favourite London theatre/play?
‘I like outdoor theatre but one always takes a risk with the weather. The Greenwich and Docklands Festival, Steam Industry at the Scoop, and Watch This Space outside the National Theatre all have excellent free performances so you can just decide to go on the day, which is ideal.’
What is your best London memory?
‘My wedding day. I was an impoverished student at the time, so we had a very tight budget. We walked from our flat in Elephant and Castle to the church in Kennington – with lots of cars beeping at us to wish us well en route! Guests took the tube to the dinner in Islington, and we were gifted a wedding night in a Kensington hotel. And we did allow ourselves the luxury of hailing a black cab to take us there.’
The Blue Elephant autumn programme includes:
September 28 – October 16: Theatre Temoin performs the Japanese drum ‘n’ drama Jukai.
October 19 – November 6: The Cave by Mervyn Peake.
Blue Elephant Theatre
59a Bethwin Road
Tel: 020 7701 0100