When I ask Matt Clayton, Artistic Director of Pembroke Players, about the New Cellars, a venue once described as “a corporate dungeon”, I half expect a defensive reply. However, Matt seems fond of the small studio space, rightly arguing that with a big auditorium, so often the space of choice for many other college drama societies, the atmosphere dissipates with a small audience. The more modestly sized New Cellars is therefore a more welcoming space for new writers, where “you can take risks because it’s not so much in the spotlight”.

Pembroke New Cellars: "corporate dungeon" or theatrical haven?Hannah Piercy

The Pembroke Players have an obvious commitment to original writing, a concern close to Matt’s heart as well as to the society’s overall aims. Matt sees the group as having an important role in enabling inexperienced playwrights to produce. “People who are already in theatre have an advantage if they want to write a play”, he claims, as they are much more aware of how their writing will work in performance. The Pembroke Players provide support for those who don’t know much about the process of theatre production, enabling the best writing to be put on show regardless of the writer’s previous theatrical experience.

One of the distinguishing facts about the Pembroke Players is their desire to experiment, so it is perhaps unsurprising that one of Matt’s biggest problems with the Cambridge theatre scene is the fixation with naturalism. He reluctantly admits it’s “not mindless”, but then somewhat dismissively labels it “fun, art for art’s sake”. “The thing is it’s so pervasive. There’s almost no appetite for anything else because people don’t know what they’re getting.” He believes people are baffled when they see anything that’s not “the naturalist norm”, and claims this has a detrimental effect on the mindset of reviewers who are unprepared for non-naturalistic pieces. Of course, it’s easy to see Matt’s personal interests arising from his frustration with what he sees as the limiting expectations imposed by the vast number of naturalistic plays on offer in Cambridge. Nonetheless, I am inclined to sympathise with him: looking at recent reviews, the tide seems to be turning against non-naturalistic shows.

In response to recent accusations that the ADC is a closed shop, Matt has plenty to say. His issue is not with the ADC, which “of course is great stuff” but with “all those people who think they’re discerning”. There is plenty of vibrant theatre out there, he says, citing the recent production Knots, which involved writers new to the Cambridge stage meeting regularly to develop short plays. It was a flop due to marketing failure, and, Matt believes, an apathetic audience who “gripe” about the ADC but “don’t go out and seek the stuff which is interesting and new”. His claims that his frustration with this project’s failure has “nothing to do” with his personal involvement may fall a little flat, but I can certainly sympathise with the idea that many audience members flock to the ADC by default, without taking the time to find out what else is on.

Something which sets the Pembroke Players apart from other college drama societies is its focus on combining theatre with education, seemingly an unusual feature of Cambridge drama. There are surprisingly few workshops allowing the inexperienced to learn new theatrical skills; perhaps a symptom of the exclusivity of Cambridge theatre, or, more likely, reflective of the fact that a large number of Cambridge thespians get involved in drama to avoid their own education… Matt is enthusiastic about the Pembroke Players’ focus on education, voicing his hopes that the next committee will continue to explore education and outreach projects. There’s an exciting upcoming project where the group intend to work with the Pembroke House charity in London, which provides youth clubs and community groups for a large housing estate in London.

Jamie, the Pembroke Players’ President, joins us to talk about plans for more educational projects. As well as workshops for members of the Players with famous alumni such as Tom Hiddleston (“apparently he’s really keen”), they are currently in talks with local schools. “I live on a road with three schools,” Jamie says, “and it occurred to me it would be great if we could get the local school children involved. I’m amazed it’s not really happened before.” The plan is to put on a couple of school performances for an upcoming child-friendly show; perhaps a modest aim to begin with, but who knows where it might lead? “You hear a lot about divisions between the town and the university. I don’t know how true that is but…getting the kids involved in plays, that’s great isn’t it?”

It is great, I think as I leave. Matt’s biggest preoccupation may be with breaking the fourth wall, but I think breaking the Cambridge bubble is more important. It’s time Cambridge theatre started to look outside of itself, forget “art for art’s sake” and focus on art for other people’s sake. It’s often been said the ADC should have an artistic director, but what about an Education and Outreach officer? I’ve heard a lot about the Pembroke Players’ commitment to new writing, but what sticks in my mind after I’ve left the interview is their education projects. If these succeed, the Pembroke Players could really be going places.

This week's print edition of Varsity included the erroneous phrase "His [Matthew Clayton's] claims that the project's failure are "nothing to do" with his own involvement in it may fall a little flat". This has since been corrected to "His claims that his frustration with this project’s failure has “nothing to do” with his personal involvement may fall a little flat".