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Woolwich: How Woolwich Works is relishing the prospect of an uninterrupted season

Vast multi-arts complex at Royal Arsenal Riverside has venues for performance, rehearsals + recording

The exterior of Woolwich Works main building
The exterior of Woolwich Works main building – image Timothy Soar

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“Activity” is the word buzzing around the lips of James Heaton as we sit in Beanfeast – one of the magnificent exposed brick spaces that form part of the vast Woolwich Works complex.

For the CEO of the Woolwich Creative District Trust – set up to independently operate the site on a not-for-profit basis – it’s a welcome change, given the challenging stop-start conditions of two years of pandemic restrictions. 

Now though, even largely empty on a sunny Wednesday morning in April, there’s a life about the place – the vibration of possibility in its walls. 

That’s something James and his team intend to nurture and feed as the months roll by until its performance spaces, rehearsal studios, recording facilities, cafe, bar and offices are all humming with the industry and pulse of cultural creation. 

what is Woolwich Works?

James confessed at the start of our interview that, despite having been in post for nearly three years, he’s yet to find a rapid way of answering this question – testament, perhaps to the sheer scale of the project he’s steering.

“Woolwich Works is physically five buildings on the Royal Arsenal Riverside development in south-east London,” he said.

“They’re all former military buildings and are Grade II or Grade II* listed. The site overall is about 20 years into its redevelopment by Berkeley Homes.

“With Woolwich Works, Greenwich Council wanted to achieve a number of things.

“Fundamentally the beginning of this project was looking at these historic buildings and their situation and taking the view that it was important to preserve these spaces in public use for the benefit of everyone in the borough and beyond.

“A decision was made to develop the focus of these buildings as being around an arts and culture offer. Ultimately that’s how we’ve got to where we are.

Woolwich Creative District Trust CEO James Heaton
Woolwich Creative District Trust CEO James Heaton – image Jon Massey

“Three of the buildings, all joined together – The Cartridge Factory, The Laboratory and The Carriage Works – are home to phenomenal immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, which has just launched its first show at the site and is also resident at Woolwich Works.

“The spaces have been joined together and audiences walk into a whole world and navigate themselves around it. 

“Then, on the other side of No. 1 Street, there’s our main building, which has four wings around a central courtyard. That houses a number of venues, rehearsal studios, a recording studio and offices. We also have space in The Academy building next door.”

In addition to Punchdrunk, Woolwich Works is also home to the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO), the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair, Protein Dance and Chineke!, an orchestra of predominantly black and ethnically diverse classical musicians.

Alongside the cafe, performances typically take place in either the 1,504sq m of the Fireworks Factory – a flexible auditorium that can be set up in any number of configurations – or Beanfeast, a smaller, narrower venue on the first floor with views over the Thames.

what’s the intention? 

“Woolwich Works is a multi-arts venue with lots of different spaces so we can present a varied performance programme,” said James.

“We have the resident companies and they will contribute to that as well as running various creative and community initiatives that offer opportunities to people living locally.

“These might be in schools or, for example, in our recording studio which will be the last thing to open here.

“We have world-class facilities and resident companies, but we’re also community focused, so if you’re someone who lives nearby and who wants to dip their toe into music, film or design, then we’ll facilitate that with formal training alongside mentoring, coaching and the chance to work with professionals. 

The Fireworks Factory at Woolwich Works in full swing
The Fireworks Factory at Woolwich Works in full swing – image Chris Morgan

“Underpinning everything we do is that we’re a catalyst for collaboration. The aim is to create an ecosystem and we’re already seeing people working together. Our role at the trust is partly to cultivate that. 

“The aim is that the professional, the community and the emerging all come together – whether through work experience, jobs, volunteering or performance opportunities –  to help build pathways and open up the arts to everybody. We want to bring those opportunities to people who may be under-represented or who think they can’t access them.”

what’s coming?

“The near future is rooted in the fact that we’re looking at a horizon where things are relatively stable,” said James.

“We’ve never had that before and, next month, the building starts to get really busy. Almost everything gets going in May and stays running.

“We have what was our festive cabaret – The Grotteaux – opening as a springtime show instead and that looks bonkers, fantastic and eclectic. 

“Our comedy, music and family programmes will continue throughout, and we’re really looking forward to the whole site being animated at the same time.

The main venue can be used in multiple ways
The main venue can be used in multiple ways – image Timothy Soar

“Then, in July, we’re launching what I’m hoping will become an annual festival here called Woolwich Words And Sounds.

“For that we’ll be programming the whole building with all sorts of different live music, comedy, literature and spoken word performances.

“We’ll have singer Alice Russell and also an amazing jazz saxophonist called Bob Mintzer who’ll be playing some of his big band repertoire with NYJO covering the last 40 years.

“Part of the thing that’s exciting about Woolwich Works is that its layout really lends itself to a festival model – there’s a big area of outdoor space and we want to have some food, drink, deckchairs and free music out there for people to listen to.”

open for business?

“The trust is a true not-for-profit, which means it has to sustain itself and look after the buildings through earned income,” said James.

“That means we do commercial hire for events – dinners, conferences, private celebrations and meetings – all the things you’d expect a big venue to cater for. 

“We’ve had a few weddings and, of course, we’d like a few more. But we’re also here for the creative community with lots of rehearsal space available.

“The sector as a whole needs these spaces and the aim is to be available to artistic companies that aren’t based here.

“The idea is that doing this will also contribute to the ecosystem because when we have companies in residence for four or five weeks, inevitably they will meet other, like-minded people in the cafe or around the building. 

“Creative people become more creative when they’re in touch with other artists.

“In the end, our success will be seen in the people who have progressed through Woolwich Works and who have gone on to do great things.

“It will be the stories of those people who found their opportunities here and were supported to find their life within the arts.”

Punchdrunk's The Burnt City is playing at Woolwich Works now
Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City is playing at Woolwich Works now

SHOW TIME

The Burnt City, Punchdrunk at Woolwich Works

Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk has opened its show at Woolwich Works, with tickets now booking into December.

The Burnt City transports audiences to the Trojan War with two distinct, detailed worlds to explore packed with mysterious characters to meet.

Troy is reimagined as a dense sci-fi city with an aesthetic inspired by Fritz Lang’s Mertropolis, while Greece is a wasteland filled with jaded soldiers and eerie memories of ancient gods.

Presented as a promenade performance, ticketholders are free to wander these environments at will, interacting with the characters over 100,000sq ft of space

The production is the company’s first show in London since 2014 and its most ambitious to date, reuniting the team behind Sleep No More including original cast members from that show.

Performances last up to three hours, with six arrival times at 10-minute intervals. 

Shows on Tuesdays-Fridays start at 6.30pm, Saturdays 1.30pm and 6.30pm and Sundays 4.30pm.

Tickets typically cost £66 with limited “rush tickets” available for £25 for every performance through Time Out.

Read more: Discover Saori weaving at London Craft Week on the Isle Of Dogs

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Royal Docks: How The PA Show trains and serves executive support professionals

We catch up with organiser Mash Media to understand the Excel event’s highlights

The PA Show takes place at Excel from March 8-9, 2022
The PA Show takes place at Excel from March 8-9, 2022

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Executive support is what Liz Agostini is here to talk about.

The portfolio director at Mash Media, which is set to host The PA Show at Excel in Royal Docks on March 8 and 9, is quick to point out that the event is a larger umbrella than its name might suggest.

“It’s for personal assistants, executive assistants, virtual assistants and office managers – it has really broad appeal,” she said.

If anything, that’s a bit of an understatement. Spread over the two days, thousands of visitors will be able to attend dozens of seminar sessions, listen to dozens of speakers and interact with more than 100 exhibitors.

In addition to a theatre for keynote speeches the show will feature a Key Skills Theatre, a Personal Development Theatre and a Tech Theatre with a packed programme of trainers and industry experts.

It will also host the Office Management Conference with discussions on topics such as project managing office moves, supporting a positive culture in the workplace and engaging staff in sustainability.

“Whether you’re working as a PA, EA, VA or office manager, or considering a career in an executive support role, this show is definitely the place to be,” said Liz.

“There are several ways to attend, with a free visitor pass granting access to the Keynote Theatre and the exhibition floor.

“As a business, we’re real advocates for live events – with exhibitions, it’s about touching, feeling and experiencing products and meeting people.

“We’ve all attended webinars and virtual events, but there’s nothing like being in the room with others – humans are social beings, that’s how we’re hard-wired.

“Events like The PA Show also allow for those serendipitous conversations with people you bump into – a chance to build and expand your network.

“Those who don’t want to take part in the paid programme are absolutely welcome to come along.”

Mash Media's Liz Agostini
Mash Media’s Liz Agostini – image Matt Grayson

Delegate passes – £149 for one day or £169 for both (get 10% off with code PA2216) – not only include entry to the office management conference and all of the theatres, they also unlock Planet PA post-show video content, access to premium suppliers and the option to use The PA Show networking app.

Liz said: “One of the key things about the event is that the educational aspect is absolutely stand-out.

“The whole programme is CPD accredited and the other thing that makes it outstanding is that, within the paid-for programmes, all the people delivering the training are seriously qualified in the area of executive support.

“To go on a day of training with any of these people would normally cost hundreds of pounds on its own.

“At the show what you get is a substantial taster of what they offer. That means you can attend lots of different sessions, see what they are doing and know what you’re in for if you were to book a course with them.

“We cover all sorts of different areas, so it’s a buffet of education – people can choose what they want to attend at the theatres over the two days.”

The PA Show features a number of expert speakers and trainers
The PA Show features a number of expert speakers and trainers

The roster of speakers and trainers includes Lauren Bradley of The Officials, Shelley Fischel of Tomorrow’s VA, Joanna Gaudoin of Inside Out Image, Paula Harding of The Meee Partnership, Kay Lundy of The Expert Admin Coach, Rosemary Parr of the Global PA Association And Training Academy, Paul Pennant of Today’s PA and Lindsay Taylor of Your Excellency.

Liz said: “We’re working with people who are at the absolute top of their game in terms of the PA world – the cornerstones of the training market.

“Outsiders often greatly underestimate the importance of executive support roles.

“But when you sit down with people working in this field and really take time to understand what their jobs entail, it’s absolutely mind-blowing.

“The roles are so varied and strategic – these people are partners for the executives they support. 

“They often have to participate in all aspects of an organisation whether that’s finance, marketing, employment, corporate governance, human resources and sustainability issues. Their remit is absolutely massive.

“I spoke to one PA who answers 90% of her boss’ email as him. Her understanding of the business has to be as good as his.

“That’s why a lot of EAs and PAs move into critical roles within organisations – because of their knowledge of the business they work for.

“I know PAs who have gone into underwriting, stockbroking and mergers and acquisitions. 

“At the top level you need to know how the business works and that’s about a million miles away from the stereotype of getting an executive’s clothes dry-cleaned for them.”

The event is now in its 11th year
The event is now in its 11th year

New for its 11th year is the collaboration with the Office Management Group, bringing the conference into the show’s stable.

“That’s an entirely new stream of content that we’re putting out,” said Liz.

“It covers areas such as facilities and office management and, what’s particularly relevant about that right now, is that so many businesses are focused on bringing their staff back into the office, doing that safely and establishing how they create the right office environment in 2022 and beyond.

“Regardless of how many staff they have in the office in person, businesses are conducting both internal and external meetings virtually, so what kind of facilities do you need to have in place? If people are working remotely, how do you keep everyone connected?

“That might cover questions around scheduling if people are working more flexibly – for example, how do you make sure project teams are running efficiently if participants are only in on certain days?

“Because the whole subject of technology in business is so important we’ve introduced the Tech Theatre to The PA Show this year too and that’s focusing on a whole raft of tools that are now available, not just the Microsoft and Google toolkits.”

PAs, EAs, VAs and office managers are welcome to attend for free
PAs, EAs, VAs and office managers are welcome to attend for free

Liz said for businesses wanting to reach the spending power of executive support professionals, exhibiting at the show was a “no-brainer”.

She said: “Nothing beats the personal touch and the budgets people in these roles have access to are significant.

“Our campaign for the show this year focused on PAs and EAs as the power behind the throne – exhibitors need to come along to make sure they are aware of your products, otherwise you’re just leaving them to search the internet, where it’s much harder to stand out.”

Read more: Skyports set to bring electric aviation to the Isle Of Dogs

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Canary Wharf: The Greenhouse Theatre brings zero-waste venue to Jubilee Park

Company set to perform three free shows in the round on rotation from July 23-August 15

Artistic director of The Greenhouse Theatre, Oli Savage – image Matt Grayson

As Oli Savage lies on a stack of timber in Canary Wharf’s Jubilee Park, the trees all around and the sky above are reflected in his glasses. His attitude isn’t one of repose but of mirthful collaboration, creating the illusion of a wooden wall where one is yet to be built.

This is because The Greenhouse Theatre, of which Oli is co-founder and artistic director, is only just starting construction ahead of its run on the estate from July 23 to August 15. The venue will host three plays in rotation during this period and tickets are free, although going fast online so eager attendees will need to move quickly. After picking himself up off the planks, Oli sat down to tell us more…

tell us what The Greenhouse Theatre actually is…

It’s the UK’s first zero-waste performance space. That extends to everything we do from the construction, which uses found or recycled materials, to our shows and our marketing.

What that means to us is that everything we use had a life before it came to us, and it will go on to have a life after, if we don’t continue to use it – that’s it in a nutshell.

how did it begin?

I’ve been involved in theatre since my mother took me to Stagecoach at the age of five. At university I picked up some directing credits and eventually went one step further down that path to become an artistic director. The only way to get even more ownership was to create my own venue.

A few years ago I was touring a piece of queer theatre with a very good friend, playwright and close collaborator of mine, Henry Roberts. One night, we’d had too many drinks and he pitched me the idea for a show, which went on to become Swallows – one of the pieces for when the venue first opened.

It was about intimacy and aggression and the damage that we do to each other and to the environment, and how we view violence towards other people and to the natural world as different, when really they’re kind of the same thing.

My mind immediately started whirring, and I said: ‘If we’re going to do this, then we’ve got to do it properly in a sustainable way that’s eco-friendly’.

The only way to really know if the venue fits in with that is to build it yourself and so that’s what we did – our first outing was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. 

When you start running a zero-waste venue, the antidote to inaction is knowledge. We’ve had to learn so much about sustainability as the project has developed.

Image of Oli Savage on a step ladder
Oli and the team are building the venue in Jubilee Park – image Matt Grayson

what will Wharfers be able to see once the venue’s finished?

We have a really fun selection – The Greenhouse Theatre offers a number of different things – the shows, which are designed to inspire, and a programme of workshops and events to help people convert that inspiration into action.

We’ll also have family events such as storytelling and scavenger hunts.

We’ll have three shows in rotation – I’m directing As You Like It, an all-singing, all-dancing musical production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. It’s about getting out after months of lockdown, having fun and having a laugh.

Henry Roberts is working on 12, which is a much more intimate piece, an exploration of how language and relationships shape our interaction with the climate and the natural world. It’s a bit more intense, a bit more hard-hitting, but very uplifting – a very beautiful piece of theatre 

The other piece is called Hjem, and is about a young girl whose grandmother has dementia.

The girl discovers the older woman had a relationship with a Norwegian sailor and, as the play progresses, she uncovers a beautiful story formed through sea shanties about how we build connections and relationships through the natural world.

All of our shows discuss the environment and the natural world in some way, but none of them are about the climate crisis explicitly. It’s about beautiful storytelling.

WHAT'S ON AT GREENHOUSE THEATRE?

AS YOU LIKE IT
7.30pm - Fridays, Mondays
2.30pm - Sundays
Shakespeare’s classic, directed by Oli, this cross-dressing love story comes complete with an original score of indie-folk music. A chance to escape to the forest in a celebration of life and love  

12
7.30pm - Saturdays, Wednesdays
2.30pm - Fridays
Written by Henry Roberts, this play explores memory, language and intimacy as it follows a relationship struggling to survive in a world that’s falling apart. Just what is worth saving? 

HJEM
7.30pm - Thursdays, Sundays
2.30pm - Saturdays
Harry Sever’s magical modern folk story of whirlwind romance across the decades connecting Northumberland with Norway as a story is discovered and a bond is forged between two unlikely friends 

what’s the atmosphere like?

In the past, our programmes have won awards but the main thing we’re trying to create is a really open and engaged space. 

When you visit the venue, the creators, once they’ve done the show, will be milling around for a chat.

The space is in the round, so it’s all about creating a social, informal, fun atmosphere, not like you’d expect when you go to the West End. The shows will be high quality, but it’s all about having a fun time.

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