Running a creative event
Maya Levy is an actor, singer-songwriter and pianist. She is also artistic director of the Open Arts Café evenings, where artists present original work to a supportive audience.
The Open Arts Café has been running for three years. It’s an eclectic event where artists from almost any medium can come to show or try out their work. Maya has been working as Artistic Director and organiser since the beginning.
“The idea is that there is constructive feedback given to the artists themselves from the audience. But it’s also to make a fun night for audience members.
“We have art from all mediums. So we have music and theatre, film, dance, poetry, puppetry, even prose readings
“Each of these nights is held together by some kind of broad theme. The artists present work that somehow relates to the theme in some way. It doesn’t have to be very strongly related, but it makes the evening gel together very nicely. That is Open Arts Café in a nutshell.”
Starting up a creative event
Though sponsored by, and held at, the West London Synagogue, the evening is not a religious event. “The director of programming at West London Synagogue is Tina Elliot. For a long time, she’d had an idea of a regular evening for where the building was open late and that young adults felt happy to come to.”
Maya and her original co-director, Tyne Raphaeli, had both worked with the synagogue in various capacities before. From Tina’s broad remit, they came up with the idea that would become the Open Arts Café.
“Tyne and I spent two months discussing what it was that we wanted in an arts evening, and what we thought was missing in the Art Scene in London. We decided that there are plenty of scratch nights for theatre, and plenty of free music gigs, but you don’t often find all of these things combined. We were interested in making a collective of artists.”
Building a collective of artists
“The idea is there is constructive feedback given to the artists themselves from the audience. But it’s also to make a fun night."
The first night was an interesting learning curve. Although it went well, Maya and Tyne both felt they’d just hosted a fun night for their friends to enjoy. “We were really determined to make it bigger than that, which has been quite successful!”
Over time, what began as a small and informal gathering in a basement room has expanded. A night at the Café usually sprawls through three or more rooms at the synagogue. There’s often an art exhibition in the basement room where it all began. That room also doubles as a bar and a cosy cinema.
Upstairs, the striking entrance hall with its swept double staircases acts as the main stage. Acts that need extra space for movement or dance use a big meeting hall in the next room. Audiences move from one space to the next, taking in the sights. And there are plenty of regular patrons who come every time. People obviously get a lot out of the mix of styles and performers.
“The enjoyment of the evening is in finding new artists and seeing what they have to present, and it’s fantastic. I’ve just met so many interesting people, and it’s been amazing!”
Producing an artists’ evening
Initially, Maya was happy to help find and arrange the running order for the evenings. But her involvement goes beyond organising the night.
Maya has to liaise with all the performers, fetch or find sound equipment, lay out all the rooms and make sure everything is going to work. For a two or three hour-long evening, there’s a full day of preparation beforehand.
“On the day itself, the workload is very heavy. It can be really hard. But once the show starts, I’m having such a fantastic time that I don’t mind anymore!”
Maya also acts as compere, introducing the acts or covering the occasional pause if, for example, there’s a lot of instruments to move between acts. It wasn’t her favourite part when she started, but it soon became familiar and then enjoyable.
“Since I started doing that, I’ve hosted some other evenings – just as a host, someone to talk in between other people performing. And I love it! It’s a really different skill than when I’m doing my own songs.”
Her final contribution is on the stage herself. Maya either sings with her band – The Kitchen Quartet – or performs solo, accompanying herself on piano.
“I don’t want to perform loads, but I’ll usually sing a song, or do something with someone else, and that gives it, just this extra… or definitely added adrenaline to the night itself!”
Maintaining the success of an arts event
"We were interested in making a collective of artists.”
When Tyne moved on to study directing in America in 2010, Maya started running the Café herself.
“It’s been very pleasurable to do, but it’s also really scary because it means the responsibility is very much on my shoulders. When things go wrong, and they do, you realise oh, actually, it’s just my fault!
“A lot of the work is done before the evenings, actually finding and sourcing the many and varied acts. The Café is thriving on word of mouth.
“I’ll send out emails to people that I know and ask if they have anything or ask if they’ve got any recommendations to make. That’s been really lovely because when you get artists that people have actually seen perform.
“You know you’re going to get something good, even if it’s being shown for the first time. It’s from artists who are really serious about the kind of work that they’re making.”
Maya has so many favourites from the many acts she’s seen, it’s hard to pick one out.
“Someone recommended this brother sister duo called Diego Brown and the Good Fairy. They were just fantastic, they were so good at bringing the audience in and really asking them to participate.
“A visual artist called Alexandra Morrison submitted work about a year ago. She then approached me to say that she’d really like to be involved in some way, and started making our posters. It’s been a really lovely to have someone who’s not just exhibiting their own work but is actually helping out.”
Advice for organising an arts event
Maya has some advice for anyone thinking of starting up an arts night, cabaret or regular gig of their own.
Find the venue
“It seems like a really obvious thing is that ‘oh, we’ll find like a pub theatre or something like that.'
“I think what you really want is a place that can use this kind of evening for their own benefit. That kind of partnership is really valuable and helps build communities around those places.”
Decide what kind of evening you want to create
“Creating something where the audience knows what to expect but will also find it surprising and engaging every time they come.
“It’s really setting the atmosphere for the artists to be able to show work in a way that is warm and inviting for them. You want people to be able to experiment. And for the audience, you just want them to have a good time!”
You can find out more at the Open Arts Café page on Facebook