Riverscape

Woolwich: How Woolwich Works is looking to the future as 2024 gets underway

Recently appointed director Nick Williams talks vast spaces and dog shows at the expansive venue

Woolwich Works director Nick Williams

Subscribe to our free Wharf Whispers newsletter here

“I really want us to do a dog show – the Royal Arsenal is a very dog-friendly place and we are as a venue,” said Nick Williams, director at Woolwich Works.

“My own dog comes in regularly and she has very strong views on these things.”

It’s a new year and, having taken the helm at the venue only four months ago, there’s a sense of anticipation and possibility from the man at the top.

“It would be so easy to reel off lots of things I want to do, but actually part of the fun of this is finding out,” he said.

“I’m quite keen for us not to be just another arts centre.

vFor one thing, we’re too big for that – our main space is 1,500sq m and it can take 1,800 people.

“It’s enormous and that’s only one of seven spaces.

“That’s why I’m talking about Woolwich Works as an events space.

“If you take the word ‘arts’ out of it, the door is open to all sorts of things.

“There’s been an array of different sorts of stuff in its short life so far and I’m pushing us to experiment with more of that.”

He’s serious about the dog show, of course, with an ambition to build on last summer’s Woolwich Woofs event – but to do it at scale with exhibitors, stalls, events and categories that go far beyond the narrow pedigree world of The Kennel Club.

He says he wants it to be the antidote to Cruft’s, with space to celebrate waggy tails and grey muzzles.  

But that’s very much the wet nose of the Great Dane, with plenty of plans and opportunity coming over the next 12 months.

DIARY DATES
Family Folk Show
Jan 28, 11am, £12.10
Folk duo Megson present a concert of ditties for those aged 0-8.



Ruby Rushton

Feb 9, 6.30pm, £15.50

The jazz quartet offer an anniversary performance of their album Two For Joy.



Rotations

Mar 7, 7.30pm, £13

An evening of classical accordion music and dance plus a Q+A.

“This year, I would like to be hosting profile events, where people will say the venue looks really great and that they’re going to come to us,” said Nick, whose career has taken in roles at Arts Council England as well as running venues in Notting Hill and Perth.

“It’s really easy to get to Woolwich on the Elizabeth Line – we’re six minutes from Canary Wharf, 15 minutes from Tottenham Court Road and an hour from Reading.

“I really want us to host stuff that couldn’t happen anywhere else because we have so much space and so much flexibility within it.

“We don’t have a single fixed seat anywhere – everything can all come out be moved around and put back in a different configuration.

“We started to experiment with a bit of that in the autumn and there’s a lot more of that to come in 2024, in various different guises.

“We have a fabulous courtyard at the centre of the venue and it’s our most underused space, even though it’s enormous.

“Last summer, we put a beach bar out there, which was nice, although the weather wasn’t that great and we’ve had a bandstand this Christmas with various different groups and performers, which has been great fun, and drew a lot of people with a bar and some mulled wine.

“This coming summer, we’re going to put something out there with a bit of shade – a bit more of a garden feel.

“We’ll have a stage for those months so we can programme a range of performances.

“People will just be able to drop in – it might be a DJ night or a community group.

“We’ll mix and match to connect with lots of different types of audiences.

“The idea is that people will just come by and hang out.

“Hopefully there’ll be lovely weather and we’ll have a wonderful time.”

The Fireworks Factory at Woolwich Works

While there are some big dates on the calendar but currently under wraps, Nick was keen to stress that staff at the venue were very much open to ideas – especially creative ones.

“There’s so much I can’t actually tell you at the moment,” he said.

“We have a very big wellness and fitness event coming up in early spring.

“We’re also going to have an all-day Eurovision festival at the beginning of May, before the main event, and that will be great fun, with some big-name performers.

“The beauty of this place is that we can do what we like with it.

“I had a festival director come down who really wanted to do a show with us because it suited the vibe to put in the round.

“He wanted it for about 450, but here he found he could get 650, which was brilliant. It’s that versatility that’s fantastic.

“One of my key aims is getting as many people as possible in to see what we can do here.

“My attitude is that, if you’ve got a project that might be worth doing with us, then approach us – we’ll have a wander round, a coffee and a chat and see where it leads.

“I’m really keen on exploring crossover events which mix food, performance, creativity and wellness.

“We can do that here – it doesn’t have to be one thing or another.

“But you can’t run a place like this in isolation – you have to be open, interested in other people’s ideas. 

“We’ve got too much space to fill just to rely on our own thoughts.

“We need people to come forward with their ideas.

“Word is getting out and that is entirely what we’re after.

“More and more people are coming forward with all sorts of things, and it’s all really exciting.

“In many ways we’re still a startup – still evolving and working out what works at Woolwich Works.”

Visitors and local residents can expect this spirit of openness to continue in 2024 – Nick’s overriding message being one of welcome.

He said: “I think we want people to realise there’s something for everyone here, and it really is for them.

“We encourage people to wander into the building and say: ‘Hi’.

“One of the first things I did when I came was to change the cafe opening hours.

“It used not to open on Mondays and Tuesdays, and it would open at lunchtime from Wednesday onwards.

Woolwich Works boasts seven spaces that can be used together

“Every time I was in there in the morning, someone would try to get in – I thought there was clearly an untapped market here – so from October we started opening at 8am on Monday mornings.

“We noticed quite a few people came and worked from the cafe, so we launched the Workers Club, and people take advantage of that because it’s a good deal.”

For £6, people can work from the cafe from 8am-6pm on weekdays with unlimited tea, coffee or juice. Times vary at weekends 

There are also options to upgrade to lunch for £12 per day or to lunch and an after work drink for £15 per day.

“There isn’t anywhere like it near here,” said Nick.

“These are people often running small independent businesses or sole traders who want to support us and we’re making it easy for them to do that. 

“We’re also very keen for our resident creative companies to perform here. 

“Chineke! and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra have both been in our Christmas programme and one of the things we’re talking about with all the organisations is how we can collaborate more effectively. 

“It’s a great conversation to have because everyone’s up for it.

“The Acosta Dance Foundation is a relatively recent arrival and Carlos is full of ideas. 

“He really loves the main space and wants to do stuff in it, which is an exciting prospect.

“Having a global superstar say that they want to do something in our space is thrilling, so we hope that will come this year.

“I’d like people to think Woolwich Works is a place where really great things happen – somewhere they have a great time when they come and that always has something interesting happening.

“I have a sort of mantra – I want everyone coming away from an event to say that they had a really amazing time here, that they felt comfortable in the venue, that they were really welcome and that it was an easy, fun experience for them. 

“I’d like people to think fondly of us, so that they want to see what’s on next time.”

Woolwich Works offers a regular newsletter with full details of forthcoming shows and ways to help support the venue.

Find out more about Woolwich Works here

The events venue has no fixed seating and can be used in a wide range of configurations

Read more: How Canary Wharf’s Creative Virtual is taming the voice of AI

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to our free Wharf Whispers newsletter here

- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
Subscribe To Wharf Life

Woolwich: How Thames-Side Print Studio offers creative services on the river

Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair stalwart is a hub for artists at all levels in south-east London

Visitors examine work at Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair

Subscribe to our free Wharf Whispers newsletter here

The buzz and pomp of Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair in full swing is something to behold.

Display boards packed with vibrant work, gallerists, creatives and art enthusiasts all mix together under one roof.

There’s even a little smearing of ink and the smooth gearing of presses thrown in for good measure as new prints are made on-site. 

While the physical event at Woolwich Works‘ expansive Fireworks Factory venue closed on October 29, 2023, the online version of the fair remains live until November 5, 2023, before it goes into hibernation to get ready for next year’s iteration. 

Readers do not, however, need to wait 12 months before exploring print locally. In addition to showcasing work by big names such as David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Eileen Cooper and Gavin Turk, one of the event’s joys is the depth of its offering, which includes nearby businesses. 

Take Thames-Side Print Studio, for example.

Director, Carolyn Nicoll, and artist and technician,  J Yuen Ling Chiu, literally walked a collection of framed works along the path beside the river to hang on the organisation’s stand at the event.

But the studio is no simple gallery or dealer.

It’s located at the heart of a facility on the river close to the southern end of the Thames Barrier that provides space for hundreds of artists and makers.

Thames-Side Studios is the largest provider of its kind in the UK with a sculpture workshop, darkroom, galleries, cafes and an education space on-site.

For its part, the print studio is very much a working resource both for those artists or visiting creatives to make use of.

It offers a wealth of equipment including etching, litho and relief presses as well as digital printing, screen print beds, spaces for etching, aquatints and drying or finishing prints.

Technician and artist J Yuen Ling Chiu, of Thames-Side Print Studio

“We’re the local print studios to the fair and we’ve been open for nearly 13 years now,” said Ling.

“You can walk to us from Woolwich Works.

“We run short courses and offer various membership options – in some ways, the studio runs like a gym.

“People can dip in and out as they want to, or they can become regular users of the facilities.

“We also offer training for businesses, schools – so many different things.

“We’ve been exhibiting at the fair since it started and we were very happy to be at its eighth event this year.

“It’s a great way to showcase what our members have been doing.

“We have a huge and varied membership, with people who have just come out of school and are looking to be part of their first exhibition, to established artists with 40, 50 or 60 years of printmaking behind them.

“With people trying print for the first time, we can nudge them in the right direction. 

“We get to see what they’re doing every day behind the scenes and how their work is progressing.

“This means that the selection we’re able to show is different to other galleries.

“We have a very strong working relationship with all the artists and know exactly how every single work we have has been made, who has made it and where.”

Thames-Side Print Studio director Carolyn Nicoll

Having moved down from Glasgow, Carolyn established the print studio after her artist husband found space at the creative hub.

“I had experience of working in studios and galleries in Scotland before I moved to London,” she said.

“There were things happening in west and east London at the time, but nothing south-east.

“My husband was at Thames Side Studios and they wanted to set up a print facility, so it evolved from there.

“The fair at Woolwich is fantastic. It’s somewhere we can showcase the different processes and work of artists – what we have is really quite diverse.”

That also includes work by Ling – who in addition to working as a technician at the print studio – is also a short course tutor there and an artist in her own right.

One of her works on display is a print titled Dockyard Diary April, part of a series of progressive etchings inspired by plants found at the former Woolwich Dockyard, which she passes regularly on her walk to Thames-Side Print Studio from her home at Royal Arsenal Riverside.

“The dockyard was founded by Henry VIII in the 1500s but it lies abandoned today,” said Ling.

“There are two big dockyards, but they’ve been left to become overgrown.

“I walk past it every day, so I’ve started foraging the plant life from those abandoned places and turning it into a series of etchings.

“It’s an amazing place because this wild, derelict site now has wild poppies and there are baby birds there too.

Detail from Ling’s Dockyard Diary April

“Something which was a vision of empire – of British maritime strength – has been reclaimed by nature.

“I started it in January and then, each month, I forage a bit more plant-life and add it to the steel plate etching.

“Then I produce prints from it, but in very small numbers because the plate changes each month and I can never go backwards.

“I’m now onto the 10th iteration and the image is getting busier and busier.

“The whole work has been made using low toxicity materials and methods.

“For example, I do not use any white spirits, any turpentine or any harmful spirits – things that can damage your lungs.

“I use a coconut ester, which is much better for the environment. It’s etched in a solution of saline sulphate, so it doesn’t produce any vapours. 

“A sediment is created, which I neutralise and filter so no solid waste goes down the sink.

“I’m thinking about how nature has reclaimed the site, but also making work about that in as nature-friendly a way as possible. 

“This historic site is a little gem, a hidden pocket within walking distance of the fair and the studio and that makes it really special for me.” 

Perhaps, like Ling’s work, that’s part of the appeal of the fair itself.

Something that each year leaves a deeper, more complex impression on south-east London.

Find out more about Thames-Side Print Studio here

Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair continues online until November 5, 2023

Read more: Sign up for the Santa Stair Climb at One Canada Square

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to our free Wharf Whispers newsletter here

- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
Subscribe To Wharf Life

Woolwich: How Punchdrunk creates immersive shows to delight audiences

As The Burnt City enters its final months, we catch up with founder and artistic director Felix Barrett

The Burnt City has been seen by more than 200,000 people in Woolwich

Subscribe to our Wharf Whispers newsletter here

Scroll down for Part One, if you prefer.

>> PART TWO <<

If you’ve started reading here, welcome. There is no right or wrong way to experience this article.

Just your eyes, these images and words and, perhaps, a sense of bewilderment when you reach the end at a place of your choosing.

Feel free to leave at any time. Or not.

Time, it turns out, is short. Punchdrunk has announced that it will welcome its final audience for The Burnt City on September 24, 2023.

Tickets for the final performance (at the time of writing) were selling fast and cost £145 per person.

Other shows in the remaining three months had availability from £45. VIP and premium option are also available.

There are a limited number of tickets for Royal Borough Of Greenwich residents priced at £25. These are released on the last Friday of each month, for performances in the month ahead.

Now all of that tiresome admin is out of the way, why don’t we have Felix (see Part One) tell us what impact he hopes the show will have on those who see it?

He said: “I would like people to feel that childlike awe and wonder that you get as kid when you go and explore your grandfather’s attic.

“You’re told you’re not allowed, but you know that serious wonders lie up there and you brave it anyway.

“You’re by yourself, you open the door, it’s very dark and full of clutter. There’s something in the far corner and you venture over there.

“It’s thrilling, terrifying, exhilarating and it’s full of magic. That’s our aim.

“As adults, much of the magic has been removed from life because of our responsibilities. We’re trying to give that back to our audiences.”

Read Part Three for a bit of history and a smattering of inspiration

Punchdrunk founder and artistic director Felix Barrett

START READING HERE

>> PART ONE <<

This isn’t exactly a typical article structure.

But then its subject matter isn’t a typical show.

Since it opened in March 2022, more than 200,000 people have seen theatre company Punchdrunk’s latest offering – its first at Woolwich Works, the organisation’s permanent global home.

The Burnt City is a sprawling creation.

Masked audience members are free to explore around 100,000sq ft of warehouse space, transformed for the production into an enormous, intricately detailed set in which the show’s multitude of performers appear and disappear.

Founder and artistic director of Punchdrunk, Felix Barrett said: “The show is based on the fable of the fall of Troy and the collapse of that mythical metropolis.

“It’s a future noir sci-fi thriller, told across 120 rooms, which audience members are free to explore in their own time.

“It’s part haunted museum, part real world living movie and part adult adventure playground.”

Audience members wear masks immediately marking them out from the performers who go about their business without acknowledging the watchers.

Audiences are free to explore the show in whatever order they choose

“Most of our performers are contemporary dancers and there’s a big soundtrack, so it’s like you’re inside a movie,” said Felix.

“It’s a gestural, physical language, rather than the intellectual side of your brain having to process it, so it transcends language.

“It takes at least 200 people to run a performance.

“There’s a big cast, a big group of front-of-house stewards, the stage management team, all the backstage departments – design, costume, lighting and sound.

“It takes a village, that’s for sure, but that’s what’s necessary to create single moments for the audience members.

“Different people in the same building will have different experiences.

“I want people to treat the show like a gallery or a museum but one where everything has come alive at night.

“It can have a clear story if you follow a single character but there are myriad narratives to uncover.

“We don’t want to prescribe a certain way to do it, and there’s no right or wrong way to watch the show.

“The reason why you enter through the bar is important, because that’s your safe space, so, if it all gets too much, you can go back, have a nice drink and watch the band.”

Read Part Two to find out why booking sooner rather than later would be wise

The Burnt City features an enormous cast of contemporary dancers

>> PART THREE <<

“At The Globe theatre in Elizabethan times, if you didn’t like the show, you could throw a cabbage at the performers and leave – I thought that was empowering,” said Felix. 

“I created Punchdrunk in 2000 because although I’m a theatre buff and I love it, I was a bit disillusioned with the stuff I was seeing.

“So I asked how we might give the audience control and tried to set out to create something where they were the epicentre of the work.

“Ideally I wanted to create something which could bring the hairs up on the back of the neck.

“What I’m interested in is trying to flip audience expectations and to give audiences a night out which they wouldn’t easily get elsewhere.

“I always want to break the rules of conventional theatre – to try to make sure that there are secrets to unlock.”

For Felix, that process is rooted in the bricks and mortar of the places Punchdrunk performs.

“The company’s shows have called disused warehouses, private houses, an old school and tunnels underneath Waterloo Station home.

“It has made work in locations as far flung as Shanghai and New York.

“A theatre is a blank canvas, but a building is already quite detailed, so we look at all the architectural detail and how we can harness that power, accentuate it and make it stronger for the audience,” said Felix.

“First of all I walk the building, let myself be guided by it and then chalk out the safest place and the most threatening part.

“You’re left with a beautiful, existential tour of a space, and then we start to put a story across it, with the source material.

“Then you start to dream about the environments and the worlds.

“We definitely do world building before we do narrative arc – we’re closer to a video game than a play.

“The word ‘immersive’ came from that genre of entertainment originally.”

Read Part Five for a look into the future

The Burnt City is based on the fable of the fall of Troy

>> PART FIVE <<

“We’ve been nomadic for 23 years, and although we’ve got buildings we can settle into in New York and Shanghai, we’ve never had that in London, where we’re from,” said Felix. 

“To have a home base is extraordinary, so I’m excited about us starting to break new ground, asking questions about the future of the theatre – how we surprise our audience so that we can create something nobody has seen before – that’s our main objective.

“We’re going to start playing with and experimenting with new projects. In a computer game, you can often take your character and go anywhere you want in a world.

“I think the future is taking that empowerment and applying it to real live shows.

“It took us six or seven years to get into our home in Woolwich and open our first show.

“Now it’s almost hard to imagine us not being in Woolwich – we absolutely love it. 

“We’re hungry to make more work. This really is a new dawn for Punchdrunk” 

No. There was no Part Four

  • Find out more about Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City via this link
Punchdrunk’s permanent home is at Woolwich Works in Woolwich

Read More: How Leo Weisz Therapy offers rapid, in-depth help

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to our Wharf Whispers newsletter here

- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
Subscribe To Wharf Life

Woolwich: How Pouya Ehsaei is set to bring his Parasang project to Woolwich Works

The British Iranian musician will be performing on the same bill as Addictive TV at Arsenal Of Sounds

Pouya Ehsaei, centre, is set to perform at Woolwich Works – image Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

Musician, sound designer, producer, curator and promoter Pouya Ehsaei wants his audience to join him on a journey and it’s called Parasang.

Talk to him about the project and it quickly becomes apparent that the British Iranian creative is more or less constantly in a state of flux himself – sands shift, ideas evolve and develop.

Parasang is a Farsi word for an ancient unit of measurement – specifically the distance it is possible to travel from one location to another in a single day.

“If you were to go from London to Reading, for example, that would be two parasangs,” said Pouya. “If you go today, then you’d get there tomorrow night.”

Parasang isn’t, however, about traversing great distances.

“It’s a live collaboration between Pouya and a series of other musicians, fusing his electronic music with their free improvisation.

Created initially as a club night, it ran for 30 performances between 2018 and 2020.

“The idea was to invite musicians from around the world with different backgrounds who would not normally play with electronic music to join me on stage in a club so we could improvise and play together,” said Pouya.

 The project then went virtual during the pandemic and has now changed again.

“That was using streaming platforms and we were jamming online,” said Pouya. 

“There was me in my room and musicians from all over the world – from Detroit, Berlin, South Korea and Brazil – we played together remotely, which was very complicated to set up, but we managed it.

Pouya’s system allows him to jam on stage with musicians – image Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place

“Now we changed Parasang to be a bit more like a trio or duo that plays electronic dance music mixed with world music in a concert set-up.

“I developed a hardware system so I could improvise with the musicians on stage.

“I have a modular synthesizer, a sampler, a drum machine and a few effects pedals – I signal process all of the sound from the musicians I’m working with as well.

“Everything goes through my system. I mostly make the structure with simple beats, atmospheric sounds and modular generated patterns and then the musicians will freely improvise over the top of that. 

“Each of our concerts is one of a kind – the music is made there on stage and it will never be the same again.”

Parasang is set to be one half of the double-bill event Arsenal Of Sounds, which is set to take over Woolwich Works’ Beanfeast venue at Royal Arsenal Riverside on October 7, 2022.

Also on the bill will be Addictive TV’s Orchestra Of Samples, which sees soundscapes created from a vast library of recordings from musicians all around the world.

For this iteration of Parasang, Pouya will be joined on stage by Kadialy Kouyate, a kora player and griot (storyteller and musician) from Senegal.

“Every time I’ve played with him – three times so far with Parasang – it’s magic,” said Pouya. “His sound, his voice and his kora go very well with the stuff that I do.

“I’m really looking forward to the performance at Woolwich.

“The main idea is the sense of journey in our music. We start with something very pure and we take that purity to many places and we like our audience to come with us.

“Our music is hypnotic, immersive and atmospheric.”

Addictive TV's Orchestra Of Samples is also on the bill
Addictive TV’s Orchestra Of Samples is also on the bill

Pouya has been on a journey himself, both physical and musical, to get to where he is.

“Originally I’m from Iran and I started as a musician when I was a teenager – I took flamenco guitar lessons before moving on to classical guitar,” he said.

“In my early 20s I was teaching classical guitar in a school in Iran and then I found out about the electric guitar and I got into metal, nu-metal and rock music.

“It was a big thing back then.

“This was all underground though, in people’s houses or very small venues because that kind of music was banned.

“It was very hard to have a band and to do concerts – really to keep everyone motivated – so I gravitated to electronic music because you could just do that on your own.

“I could sit in my bedroom and send it out into the world, just to have a voice. There was no need to find rehearsal space for a band. 

“It’s hard to be committed as a group if you can’t play concerts or really get any kind of feedback on what you’re doing.

“So then I stopped playing guitar and applied to study music technology at York and then I did a PhD before moving to London 10 years ago.

“I’ve been playing music here for a decade now.”

In many ways, Pouya created Parasang in an effort to recapture the feeling he’d had playing music as part of a group, rather than creating it on his own.

“When I came to the UK, I was working on electronic music and that aspect of being in a band with others was missing,” he said.

“That’s why I thought I’d get rid of the laptop and arrange my instruments so I could just play with others intuitively and do that live if I wanted.

“I really like it, the state of flow you get into – the connection I feel with the musicians is completely different than if you just play alone.

Pouya will be joined by kora player Kadialy Kouyate for Parasang in Woolwich
Pouya will be joined by kora player and singer Kadialy Kouyate for Parasang in Woolwich – image Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place

“Especially when you’re improvising, you have to be present in the moment – all your senses are at work – and with my setup there are so many cables, knobs and buttons, they demand a state of complete focus. That’s something I really enjoy.

“When you come to a city like London it’s so vast and so big that you’re a little bit confused in the beginning. 

“Finding people you want to work with and feeling part of a community can take a long time.

“But I have that now and I really feel that this is just the beginning for me. I’m now in the process of turning Parasang into more of a band situation.

“We don’t want to be a club night any more.

“The plan is to have an album a year with, say, with two musicians I want to work with, and then to go on tour with that before changing the line-up.”

It’s also through collaboration that Pouya came to be aware of the work of Addictive TV, the group he’s now sharing a bill with for the second time.

“I have a band called Ariwo, which is me playing with three musicians from Cuba – mixing Cuban and electronic music,” said Pouya, who has performed at venues such as King’s Place, the Barbican, the Royal Albert Hall, the Southbank Centre and the Royal Academy of Arts.

“We were playing at the Womad festival and I saw Addictive TV’s Orchestra Of Samples there – I was totally blown away by what they’d done.

“They saw one of the Parasang club nights in London and we got in touch. I think it was in May that we did a similar thing to what we’re doing in Woolwich – getting together for a concert. That turned out really well – we’re a good combination.”

Arsenal Of Sounds – Orchestra Of Samples And Parasang takes place at 8pm on October 7, 2022. Standard tickets cost £10.50.

Read more: How Third Space helps Wharfers make the most of their time

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com

Subscribe To Wharf Life

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

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

“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

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

Subscribe To Wharf Life