A recent BBC news story that grabbed my attention was about the future of London’s small theatres. A small theatre is one that has a capacity of 300 or less. The closest I’d got to a small theatre earlier this year was seeing performances in studio spaces but earlier this year I visited the Union Theatre in London to see the musical Bare. I was blown away at the theatre space and at the time had plans to blog about it but they were way laid with work commitments and so never happened (although when I see the transfer of Bare at Greenwich Theatre in October I’ll endevour to blog).
Back to the Union Theatre, based on Union Street, a few minutes walk from Southwark tube station towards the Shard, it lives under the railway arches with the performance space the most intimate space housing (I think) around 60 audience members. The highlight of the visit however is going into the dimly lit, shabby chic, fairy lit, bar area. With mismatched furniture and relaxed atmosphere (and affordable prices) it is probably the best theatre bar I’ve been in. It also houses a cafe in the entrance area, although both visits I made to see Bare were on Sundays when the cafe wasn’t open. The ticket system is an interesting one where you collect a laminated piece of paper on arrival then queue for a while to get in to get the seats you want, but it works well and is up there amongst the best theatre experiences I’ve had. However this amazing theatre is under threat as National Rail want to develop the space and surrounding areas that house some amazing independent business into office space. So that’s the story of how one small theatre is under threat. But others are going through similar things of suffering from the fear of their spaces being sold from under them or becoming victims of the financial issues the world is going through.
There is a staggering amount of smaller theatres – at least 105 – in London alone and many others across the country that will also be fearing of their futures. The study by the London Assembly found that out of the 55 theatres surveyed (that’s about half of all of the smaller capacity theatres) three quarters said that they required upgrades to their buildings but 93% didn’t have the funds to be able to carry out the sometimes vital work needed. As these theatres rely heavily on word of mouth, mailing lists and social media to get publicity out they struggle to gain new patrons to their spaces. The report requests assistance from Transport For London to make it easier to
advertise the shows at smaller spaces on the tube network and elsewhere to join those of the long running West End blockbusters that pass you on the escalators. Today, TfL have published a new edition of the London tube map highlighting where London’s smaller theatres are located.
London Mayor Boris Johnson has said that an ambassador needs to be appointed for these spaces – but what exactly would be expected from them? A lot of smaller theatres will have short runs so an ambassador wouldn’t be able to be a voice for them, and some theatres would get preference over others. Although I’m sure an ambassador of sorts would be a great thing to help get recognition that these precious spaces deserve and require. For example you may see a show in one of these smaller theatres and see the next Dame Judi Dench in their first production – now that’s something to tell the grandkids! What’s important though is to have these spaces to help give opportunities not only to the upcoming actors, but also to the upcoming writers, directors, producers and designers. To give audiences the varied experiences that you don’t get from seeing show after show in a large West End theatre. Theatre is about an experience – hopefully enjoyable – and these small theatres try their hardest (some may argue that they try harder than others) to ensure that each person in their audience goes home with an experience to talk about as that’s what they rely on.