#TBB10 With Karena Johnson, Artistic Director & CEO of Hoxton Hall

Hoxton Hall has been run by a woman for the last 44 years. Its current Artistic Director is south London born, Karena Johnson.

Hoxton Hall’s upcoming season: Female Parts is entirely curated, produced and performed by women from the UK and around the world. The season opens on January 23 with the world premiere of all-female musical, Oranges and Elephants and features comedy from Desiree Burch, cabaret, music and closes with a collection of short plays by Franca Rame and OneNess Sankara at the end of March.

#TBB10 spoke to Johnson about why she created an all-female season as well as the projects themselves and the creative women involved… 


1# Please introduce yourself 

Hi I am Karena Johnson Artistic Director and CEO of Hoxton Hall

2# Tell us a bit about your background …

I grew up in Clapham, South London. I was always interested in the arts and took dance pretty seriously until an injury then I refocused on theatre joining Oval House Youth Theatre. I was lucky enough to grow up in an era where there was a lot black theatre happening in London and my Mum was a fan so I got to see lots of theatre growing up. The earliest play I remember seeing that inspired me was, Belly Woman Bangarang by Sistren from Jamaica as part of the LIFT festival. It was poor theatre all done using mime where actors played a range of characters male, female, young and old. They were black women like me. That was certainly inspiring.

3# Was a career in theatre always your goal, if not, how did you discover your strengths, passions to get to where you are today?

My aim was to make a living in theatre rather than any side jobs. I have followed my heart and interests rather than having a clear career trajectory in mind. I directed stories I was interested in. I decided that if I wanted to impact access to the arts which I was and still am passionate about, I needed to have roles where I could choose and have autonomy so that took me towards leading venues alongside making art. I have also had some luck and grabbed opportunities when they come along, I try to say yes as much as possible.

4# What has been the most useful, formal education or life and work experience?

The most important educational experience was doing an MA in Theatre Directing at the Royal Holloway University of London. It is where I really claimed the title and had opportunities to experiment with style. Professionally getting a Jerwood Young Directors Award was important because for the first time I had the chance to really explore practice without the pressure of production. Running Contact Theatre also gave me the confidence that I was on the right path and that leading a theatre was a good fit.

5# You’re artistic director of Hoxton Hall… what does ‘artistic director’ actually mean?

I provide the vision, the plan of what the organisation will achieve. I choose all the shows and performances that get seen on the stage and occasionally get to make some of the work on the stage too. Nowadays the role also involves lots of fundraising, partnership building and all the stuff of businesses but with art and community engagement and participation at the core.

6# Hoxton Hall has a rich British, East End history, based in Hackney, how does the building serve its community as well as its arts interested patronage?

Hoxton Hall has a long history of community engagement and participation. That is a core activity today. The Hall delivered free workshops to children and young people from 7- 19, six days a week. Workshops in dance, drama, music and visual art. We are expanding our participation and working with adults too. Hoxton Hall is a safe space to play and explore cultural activities and make new mates.

7# The assumption is, a black woman with dreadlocks isn’t supposed to be artistic director of anything, especially if we consider diversity in the arts, for being a black woman in this position how has diversity or the lack thereof affected your career path, if at all?

I don’t buy into the idea that I should not be here otherwise that will defeat me before beginning. I am extremely unusual in the arts. Some people may very well feel that I don’t fit their idea of an artistic director but the wonderful thing about the profession is that there will always be others who do. It’s a profession about creating; reinventing and that is what I have held on to when I have had knocks where I felt race played a factor. At this point, my track record gives me the confidence to know that small minded people are wrong and don’t choose to give that my energy.

8# Do you feel things have changed, are changing will change, improved, stagnated…?

There are certainly some glimmers of hope that things are changing with some exciting appointments and work getting on the stage. However, the stats show that a critical mass is still far away. So yes changing but too slowly as usual for the people it most affects.

9#  Tell us about this latest all-female season, ‘Female Parts‘ why an all-female season and what type of work were you looking for to pull it all together?

Female Parts is an awesome season of performance made by women. It is as diverse in style and content as the female artists who are making the work. We open with a world première musical and end with 3 beautiful short plays by Franca Rame and Dario Fo and a new commission by the fantastic OneNess Sankara. In between these theatre productions is full of music and poetry curated by Jumoke Fashola, Cabaret from Patrizia Paolini, comedy from Funny Women and Desiree Burch, talk events and club events. I wanted it to be varied, political but lots of fun. I am really excited.

10# What or who are the three most important things or people need to execute a successful season run and which of the shows for this season are you most looking forward to / proud to have programmed?

I am most proud of the Female Parts Shorts as there is a new commission in the mix that really challenges the stereotypes of The Immigrant and talks about a common but unexplored issue of separated families in a poetic way. I am proud of staging the first all-female musical Oranges And Elephants that explores a hidden history of Victorian women in gangs that is still so resonant today. I am also really proud and excited about Woman-ish, a debate for young women 16-26 on International Women’s Day; an opportunity to talk about the important challenges and empower the next generation.

Female Parts at Hoxton Hall opened January 23rd and runs until March 2018. Find out more and book tickets here.


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