Interview: A New Studio Space for the Royal Borough Theatre

Interview: A New Studio Space for the Royal Borough Theatre

As a new resident of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, it’s important that this theatregoer has some high quality local productions on the doorstep. As magnetic the pull of central London is, seeing the local neighbourhood full of people talking about local productions brings a sense of community all too often considered lost in today’s society. As well as playing home to the O2 arena, Greenwich Theatre has provided culture and entertainment for over 150 years and is currently a pillar of Greenwich’s family friendly community.

Artistic & Executive Director James Haddrell has been influential in re-imagining this once crumbling, now revitalised, Victorian building over the last 9 years and championing children’s theatre, accessible theatre and an exceptionally strong Associate and Supported Artists Programme for fledgling writers and theatre companies.

Now he has opened a new addition to the building – a subterranean studio space in development, a blank canvas, which can only serve to add to the breadth of talent lucky enough to work in its supporting environment. It opened in September 2016 with a production by one of the 4 finalists in the RED Women’s Theatre Awards:

Greenwich Theatre has just opened a new studio space with Culture Clash Theatre Company and Under My Thumb – looking back is this how you would have wanted the space to launch?

James: “Yes absolutely. The purpose of the studio is twofold – firstly is the role it plays in our Artists Support Programme, which has about 15 emerging theatre companies at any one time that we give tailored support to. The studio enables us to grant more companies rehearsal space, development time and provide them an opportunity to test new work without the cost being prohibitive. The experience for Culture Clash proves how well that works – it absolutely fit.

The other reason for the space is Greenwich Theatre’s economic strategy. We’ve never wanted to reduce the number of weeks in our programme offered to emerging companies – many come in and sell 50-60 seats a night, which for them is a great success that in a 400 seated theatre doesn’t feel like it to anyone. Now we can honour the weeks of programming for those companies but financially can program bigger works on the main stage for more weeks of the year as well.

We currently run at 8% subsidy, one of the lowest for subsidised theatres in London. This means that whilst Under My Thumb is running in the studio, something like The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, in partnership with Chipping Norton Theatre, can command the main stage.”

 

In 2015, the BBC highlighted that, despite fears around funding cuts, subsidised theatres staged 9% more plays than in the year 2009. Of the 62 theatres surveyed, all received more than £250,000 annual subsidy – about £150,000 more than Greenwich Theatre. Yet it is still developing space to help increase these statistics and giving opportunities to those like Serin Ibrahim and Cassandra Hercules, the founders of Culture Clash Theatre:

culture-clash

So how important has this space been as a fairly new company like yourselves?

Culture Clash: “This space for us has been all about exposure – well known off-West End theatres like Greenwich Theatre have always supported emerging companies and now they have accessible studio spaces so everyone is able to see our work. It opens a door for new writers and small companies like ours – we couldn’t have afforded to do this without both Arts Council and Greenwich Theatre. The spaces are invaluable, allowing new companies the stepping stone.

It draws in people that come to a named theatre they already know, but that has this new space. There is more of a festival outlet in London than there used to be that has opened eyes for people used to sitting at larger theatres to more and more of this sort of work as a festival type show. Their response has conveyed how much they’ve been enjoyed being in it with us, being uncomfortable with our company of actors.”

James: “There is something to be said for the use of profile. For young companies who need to showcase work and be seen, when casting directors and producers and tour bookers get an invite to a theatre they’ve heard of and seen a show at, the endorsement is key.”

 

The show that opened this space, Under My Thumb, the creation of RED Women’s Theatre Award finalist Cassiah Joski-Jethi, played for 11 days to sold-out audiences on all but a couple of performances: under-my-thumb

Did you expect it [Under My Thumb] to go this well?

Culture Clash: “You never know how it’s going to be received and even though we knew the play was something really special, we weren’t sure if people were going to understand it. We’ve been so overwhelmed with how much people have really connected with the play and how it’s made them think – male or female, adult or schoolchild.

Ultimately for us it was a massive risk because we’re a brand new theatre company. We are keen on doing new writing that touches on social and political issues and makes people feel uncomfortable. We were inviting school groups but also women’s groups who have experienced this kind of stuff and live in safe houses.”

It’s an honour to open the new space in a theatre. As a new theatre company we felt really lucky and honoured and touched to be asked to do that. It was such a great opportunity to marry a new company with a new piece of writing in a new space and I think that’s what made it really exciting.”

 

A new company; a new piece of writing; a new space. A piece that this writer was lucky enough to review – as a piece in development there is some great potential to further develop a powerful production with a clear message, unafraid to be controversial and opinionated.

red-womens-theatre-awards

Tell me more about how you all met and picked up the play in the first place.

James: “Earlier this year Greenwich Theatre hosted the 1st RED Women’s Theatre Awards for female playwrights who wanted to write in a political vein and approach the measure of politics as broadly as they wanted. The specification required plays up to 30 minutes – it was never going to yield a full length piece but it would identify a writer of promise. Cassia [Joski-Jethi] was selected and given a rehearsed reading with Serin [Culture Clash Artistic Director] as an actor.

I co-produced the event and was a judge in shortlisting. We shortlisted 100 scripts to 12 and a small team whittled that down to four. I looked back over my notes and on the front of Under My Thumb all I wrote was ‘intriguing’. I think that was because as a 25 minute piece it set a premise and a vision of the world, with six notional, broadly sketched characters that merited development. That’s how I wanted to look at those awards. I didn’t want to discover a beautifully polished 30 minute play – what do you do with that? There must have been clear potential for growth.”

Culture Clash: “In the reading, Charlotte and Alice [two of the final actors in the production] were performing with me. When we [Culture Clash] decided to take it on, we knew it was an intense piece; we didn’t have a long time to do it; we didn’t know if we were going to get funding. Rather than do auditions, we thought we would ask people we trust and who were up for the experience. It was a great piece of writing, new space, great director so they were up for it. The funding was the cherry on the cake.

 

James is already programming 2017 for both the main, 400-seat theatre and this newly opened studio space – 2016 is fully booked for both (as one would expect from a leading theatre of this calibre). So far, 2017 looks to be equally as successful. Greenwich Theatre already championed new writing and can now continue to offer support where it is much needed for these new companies, the future stars of tomorrow. Yet whilst there is a seemingly sporadic and fortunate chance set of encounters that put this particular winning combination together, there is one link that runs modestly in the background. A new studio space, a new theatre company, a new set of awards, all masterminded by an artistic director that always looks to praise others before himself.

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