Touring company Eastern Angles has a new artistic director, Jake Smith, whose first production goes to the heart of everything he believes about theatre in the community

For Jake Smith, newly appointed artistic director of Eastern Angles, theatre is all about community. It doesn’t exist if people don’t come and see the work, or engage with the company itself.

No wonder, as he finds his feet in his new job, he is already celebrating the fact that the Eastern Angles Centre, home to the Sir John Mills Theatre, has had a positive impact on the local area. In the two years it has been open, it has become an important hub in the Norwich Road/Bramford Road area of Ipswich.

'We host the South Street Kidz events, homework club twice a week, summer holiday events, we have a reggae choir which are based here, we welcome amateur theatre groups who use us for rehearsals and performances,' says Jake. 'It’s become a centre for the whole community.'

Great British Life: Jake Smith new artistic director of Eastern Angles Jake Smith new artistic director of Eastern Angles (Image: Charlotte Bond)

This multiplicity of uses is something he is keen on promoting still further. One of the reasons that Eastern Angles is still thriving, and one of the reasons Jake wanted to take over from founder Ivan Cutting, is that it is a company dedicated to telling stories about, and reflecting the lives and cultural history of, the people it entertains.

'Eastern Angles was born to reflect the world of East Anglia and its varied communities,' he says. 'Forty years on, those communities have grown and diversified still further. The way we live and earn our living has changed, people’s backgrounds have changed and this gives us more opportunities to tell a wider variety of stories, different stories, contemporary stories, while still exploring the history and mythology of this ancient region.'

Jake would also like to hire, whenever possible, local actors to appear in future productions, and help develop local writers and promote local talent. 'It’s all part and parcel of being a local theatre company – being part of the community it serves.'

For his inaugural production, Jake is bringing together that sense of arts and culture for all by staging Stones In his Pockets, the story of a rural community becoming extras in a Hollywood film. Originally set in Ireland, the story works equally well set among the tree-lined country lanes of Suffolk.

Great British Life: Eastern Angles in rehearsal for Stones in His Pockets. Eastern Angles in rehearsal for Stones in His Pockets. (Image: Mike Kwasniak)

Although born and raised in the north-east, Jake says he feels a kinship with East Anglia because it is a place which has a secure sense of its own identity, much like the his own part of the world. This understanding has been boosted by an extended handover period with outgoing artistic director Ivan Cutting. 'Most artistic directors come to a new job absolutely cold. They have to learn as they go, as no two companies or their audiences are the same.

'I was really lucky to have three months with Ivan still around. It was especially valuable because Ivan wasn’t just my predecessor, he was the founder of the company, so it was great to tap into his experience.' One of his first tasks was to encourage long-term regulars like stage manager Penny Griffin and production manager Steve Cooney to share their knowledge and skillsets with others.

'I am very aware that these guys are the backbone of Eastern Angles. They do things automatically and shows happen. They have been here 30-40 years, they have a vast reservoir of knowledge and I would love for them to pass that knowledge onto the next generation of stage and production managers.'

Great British Life: Eastern Angles in rehearsal for Stones in His Pockets. Eastern Angles in rehearsal for Stones in His Pockets. (Image: Mike Kwasniak)

His other ambition is to allow Eastern Angles to become a practical resource for other artists and companies. 'What Ivan did all those years ago was revolutionary. It was a way to make work that was relevant to local audiences and could be toured cheaply and easily to even the most isolated community. It’s a way of working that, over the past 40-odd years, has become even more relevant as funding becomes harder to source.

'There are younger performers setting up their own companies who are saying, let’s follow the Eastern Angles model. Let’s do something creative, let’s engage with audiences on a small scale, let’s do something exciting that’ll get them talking. I would love for Eastern Angles to be able to help make that happen through a sharing of knowledge. We should all be working to allow theatre and the arts to make a real difference to people’s lives.'

Looking ahead, Jake wants to continue the Eastern Angles' policy of commissioning new work from regional writers in conjunction with local communities. He also wants Eastern Angles to continue to provide opportunities for young talent to shine. In the past Eastern Angles provided jobs for fledgling director Hettie Macdonald, who now works at the National Theatre, at the Royal Opera House and on film and television, and also to actor and impersonator Alastair McGowen.

'I always say that opportunity leads to legacy and when you give new young talent a chance to shine you never know where it is going to lead. Great talents don’t start at the top, they start in the regions. This is why investment in regional theatre is so important, because the whole ecology of the arts in this country is linked together. Starve the roots and the whole plant dies.'

Great British Life: Jake Smith new artistic director of Eastern Angles Jake Smith new artistic director of Eastern Angles (Image: Charlotte Bond)

Jake always knew he wanted to work in theatre but didn’t know whether it would be on stage or backstage. 'I grew up on Teesside, in a town called Billingham, with very little cultural provision. It meant that people had to do it themselves and so the town had a thriving amateur scene.

'There was a group that rehearsed in a hall which adjoined the working men’s club. I saw them rehearsing and pushed the door open to see what was happening and I ended up joining them. It was a great introduction to a world I knew nothing about.

'They took us to London to see a West End show and that was it.' At school he did drama and a BTech in performance arts, and was selected for a scholarship and a bursary to Gordonstoun School. 'It meant the world to me, and my family worked very hard to contribute the £3,000 they were required to contribute, but they were determined that I should go.

Great British Life: Eastern Angles in rehearsal for Stones in His Pockets. Eastern Angles in rehearsal for Stones in His Pockets. (Image: Mike Kwasniak)

'I always thought that I would end up as an actor, but during A-levels I got to direct a part of Measure For Measure, and I had always been fascinated watching my drama teacher directing shows.' He got a place at drama school as an actor, but 'wasn’t really feeling it', so he went to Hull University and helped run a theatre space for three years while studying drama and theatre practice. 'It was real practical training which was perfect for me. It gave me the foundation for everything that has followed.'

Jake went onto work with Hull Truck Theatre Company and learnt his craft alongside such greats as Max Stafford Clark, Howard Davies and Jonathan Kent. Eastern Angles’ spring tour allows him to bring his love of creativity and the community together in a single production. Stones in his Pockets tells the story of how the arts can bring out the best in a community.

Stones in his Pockets by Marie Jones is touring throughout Suffolk, south Norfolk and Essex until May 18. For a full list of venues and to book tickets