THE stage filled with women in Princess Diana masks, smashing VHS cassettes with hammers. A dancer wove her way through a bar, muttering about kittens. A figure wrapped in a filthy comforter emerged from a tent, crawling among clubbers dressed in fetish gear.
Welcome to The Yard: London's only theatre-slash-nightclub.
The Yard opened in 2011 in a warehouse in Hackney Wick - a district of East London that was once rundown but has recently gentrified. The theatre venue, with a 110-seat, purpose-built auditorium inside a former warehouse, was meant to be temporary; eight years later, it still has a rough-and-ready feel, all recycled wood and corrugated roofing. Beyond staging some of London's most avant-garde theatre productions, there is a large bar that hosts club nights for as many as 250 people.
For five weeks each January and February, The Yard draws these two strands together in a festival called "NOW": double bills in the theatre, plus "Lates" each Thursday, where the bar is open afterwards for drinks, DJs and live art performances.
The Yard's artistic director, Jay Miller, 34, said the festival was "really the more radical end of our programme", made up of "innovating and risky" work.
So far, this year's festival, which runs through Feb 16, has featured Diana is Dead by FK Alexander - the aforementioned royal revenge fantasy - as well as an evening of contemporary dance: Jamila Johnson-Small, performing as Last Yearz Interesting Negro, and Rowdy SS, a musician and performance artist, writhed across the stage in front of close-up video images of dreadlocks and nipples.
Highlights yet to come include a show by performance artist Ira Brand about dominance and submission, and a playful monologue about time travel from the celebrated experimental theatre company Forced Entertainment.
Everything The Yard does is underpinned by three values, Mr Miller said. The first is that "the stories we tell have to feel like they aren't being told by mainstream culture", he said. "The second is we create a space where audiences and artists feel able to take risks together. The third is we really celebrate the idea of the live moment, and what that means in a society mediated by technology." This can result in work that feels modish, with recent shows about social media and selfie culture. But The Yard has also produced acclaimed productions driven by bold directorial choices - a relatively rare thing for new writing in British theatres, where the director is more often expected to invisibly "serve" the script.
The theatre's hip, edgy work attracts an unusually young crowd: 70 per cent of the audience is under the age of 35, according to Mr Miller. And it is breaking down the boundaries between watching a play, hanging out with a beer and raving till 6am. "Audiences are cross-pollinating," Mr Miller said. "We're creating a new theatre audience, who see that it can be as invigorating as dancing in a club."
Communicating the unusual dual nature of The Yard has proved tricky, he added.
Marlen Pflueger, a dance student who stuck around for a recent "Lates" offering, said she had been to The Yard before for dance parties. "I didn't know it was a theatre," she said, adding, "I think it's such a good idea to have this combination of a club and performance space."
Although it receives about £150,000 (S$265,000) a year in government funding, Mr Miller said that The Yard made more money from running its own parties and renting out the bar space for events than it did from the theatre, where ticket prices never go above £20. Putting on plays and club nights can be "exhausting" he said, but doing so allows The Yard to stage the kind of work that other London theatres don't.
Mr Miller was drawn to Hackney Wick because it was cheap, he said. The Yard initially moved in for free. Warehouses were often broken into, and their owners were spending a lot on security, Mr Miller said, adding, "Us being here meant there was less chance of that happening."
Britain's theatres are heavily reliant on government funding, but such money was cut drastically when the British government turned to austerity policies in 2010. Cash-strapped theatres took fewer risks in programming new work, Mr Miller said. "It seemed like it was an easier choice to start a theatre than get a show on at an existing theatre." He founded The Yard in 2011 with just £9,000 and no idea how long he could keep it going. But additional money from the government and private donors allowed him to turn it into something permanent at a time when Hackney Wick was changing drastically.
The area's revival began with construction for the 2012 Olympics, which were largely held in East London. Today, there are plenty of trendy bars, restaurants and clubs, as well as luxury apartment developments. Mr Miller said the changes made him uneasy. "Artists go to places that are free, and then they're not free for other people," he said.
Ben Bishop, The Yard's music and events coordinator, was hired in 2017, having run off-grid warehouse parties for years. He said that he had always liked to collaborate with performance artist friends, and that working at an arts venue like The Yard seemed like a good way to blend both worlds.
Mr Bishop said he saw The Yard as playing an important role in supporting London's subcultures, through nights such as Pride of Arabia, which defines itself as being for "queers from the Arab world", or Murder on Zidane's Floor, an event run by Goal Diggers, an East London soccer club for women and people who identify as non-binary.
The recent narrative around London's night life has been a largely pessimistic one, with many venues closing for good, and others facing soaring costs or the denial of licences because of concerns about noise. Mr Bishop said that if the city's late-night culture is to thrive, rather than just survive, artists and late-night venues needed to collaborate. "We should be seeing more types of art and expression in clubs," he said.
Such cross-pollination is rare in London. But The Yard is encouraging it, whether that's getting techno clubbers to buy tickets for a play, or encouraging theatre-goers to stick around for a late-night event.
It may be an unusual vision for the future of theatre - but it's happening right now at The Yard. NYTIMES