Fringe Focus: The Hope Theatre, Islington

Welcome back to the Fringe Focus series of interviews with artistic directors around London. Recently I caught up with Kennedy Bloomer, who has been running the Hope Theatre (above the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington) since January 2020.

To find out more about the Hope, you can visit their website. You can make a donation to support them here. To find out about their online initiative, Hope at Home, visit their blog here.

Picture of Kennedy Bloomer
Kennedy Bloomer

How has lockdown been for the Hope?

It’s been really weird. I only had two months in the job prior to Covid, I started in January. I had two months and seventeen days and then we were closed. Really, really strange.

You go from programming shows and talking to companies to fundraising, filling in applications and redoing budget spreadsheets. We’ve tried to stay positive and supportive and keep supporting our local community and social media followers. Just maintain a presence to say we’re here and we are coming back. It’s just taking a while!

It’s tricky because the Hope and Anchor pub where we are based hasn’t opened yet because of the social distancing. It’s quite a small pub and they need to work out a way to open as safely as possible. Obviously with us in the mix as well it becomes quite difficult. We’re hoping this will change soon.

We’re planning for January opening for performance, but if we can get back sooner, before Christmas, it would be amazing. We’re just playing it by ear.

It’s a small team at the Hope and we managed to get the first ACE grant, which completely saved us and allowed us to keep paying our freelancers. At first we thought it would just be until July but now it is October we have put in an application for the cultural recovery funds. We don’t get public funding: just small donations from our supporters and audience.

What is it like sharing the pub with a music venue [in the basement, the theatre is upstairs]?

It’s really invigorating. Really nice to have loads of different creative people in the venue all the time. Two different worlds: there could be a meeting upstairs in the theatre and a heavy rock band playing downstairs. The magic of those two worlds coming together is really cool. There’s a strong history of the place from a music side with U2 and Adam and the Ants, Madness, all those amazing bands playing here.

Could you tell me a bit about the Hope and how you work with other companies?

We have a bring your work and missions page on our website, we use callouts on social media like come and meet us, come and chat if you have a piece of new writing, the first draft of a play, whatever it is.

We get quite a lot of submissions. A lot of them tend to be new writing because their rights are cheaper. Or we revitalise classical pieces which have free rights, out of copyright. We work closely with companies that don’t have a lot of money. You read their proposal and think “oh, this is brilliant, we need to get these guys in for a chat”. It’s great if they’ve done shows before, but if they need extra support, we can give them that: marketing workshops or fundraise.

We like to champion new and exciting voices in a mixed season – we might put in a chamber musical or something. We just want to try and keep new work coming, especially in this climate when everyone’s saying they are struggling for money. It isn’t about putting on safe bets. We want people to keep coming into the industry, keep hearing these fresh voices and bringing these new and exciting products.

Donation logo for the Hope

What about the theatre scene in Islington? Do you talk to and support each other?

It’s been great, we are all supportive of each other and not competitive in the least. In March everyone just bonded together: we’re in the union called Society of Independent Theatres and it has been helpful to talk to thirty or forty artistic directors from smaller, independent venues and regional spaces. Everyone’s in the same situation and sharing advice and chat, we are all 100% behind each other. That’s something really beautiful to have come out of lockdown.

What do you think about digital theatre?

I think it is brilliant. If you have the money to have those high-quality recordings, it’s great to think when you miss theatre you can look on YouTube or a theatre’s website and get to see some of those shows. Some shows I couldn’t afford to go to or that I missed when I came to London.

The Hope is a fifty-seat theatre, a non-profit, so everything goes back into the shows. It is something that – naively perhaps – we didn’t anticipate that switch to digital. We have started thinking about it now: we are hoping to put on an online project we have just raised some money for.

That should also give us the kind of cameras to help companies who want to record their shows, but it all costs money, a lot of money that companies that come to the Hope do not have. We have our Equity arrangements where everything goes to the stage manager and the team. Paying everyone fairly and legally is an important issue for us in fringe theatre.

So, I would like to explore digital theatre and I’m looking forward to it but doing it in a cost-effective way. Everyone wants that NT Live version of their recording, but a small theatre cannot have fifty camera angles. You can get a basic recording quality. I have seen some work from the fringe. I just want to talk to them and ask how did you do it? Is it a dress rehearsal, how did you manage the audience?

I think there is an issue too about the set and lighting design not being shown to its full capacity. A dilution of being there, live. When you watch something on your TV or laptop in your living room, it is not the same, but it might be all we can get at the moment.

“We are all 100% behind each other. That’s something really beautiful to have come out of lockdown.”

Kennedy Bloomer, about theatres supporting each other

Has enough been done to reach down to support smaller venues during this crisis?

I think it’s really, really difficult. We are always going to struggle just because we employ less people. It’s seen as, well they are small, and we could just save the Globe. It is not really a choice. You could save thousands of jobs at a time. But then again, they are trying to keep the whole country going and I suppose there’s good points and bad points of how it’s gone. Equity’s been completely amazing and The Society of Independent Theatres, lobbying for us, knowing how worried we are in the smaller venues. There are people on our side even if the government are not so that has been lovely.

How about reopening if social distancing continues? Is that a real challenge for the Hope?

It is the kind of thing where we could probably scrape by and open without a grant if there wasn’t social distance. The reopening fees and the maintenance costs – making everything one way and getting the stickers and the signage all really adds up. Having to get a kind of card reader in when we had cash payments at the venue. It is going to be quite tricky and a big financial burden, but we are going for it.

Also, we need to balance that with the pub and not interfering with their business – trying to boost their business and ours in the theatre at the same time, it is going to be a lot of work. Hopefully by January we will be open again and I’ll be able to breathe a little bit more.

Everything happened so quickly, didn’t it, with lockdown?

It started with a bit of, have you seen this on the news, and then a month before we closed we were having emergency meetings with companies. Is it that dangerous, what do we do? Then countries going into lockdown, something almost nightmarish like in a film. I never thought this would happen.

All the plans I had put in place for my first year came tumbling down which was maddening – but I’m glad I’ve gone through it because it makes me a better and stronger AD. All the shows we had postponed, we are still planning to put on, staying in contact with everyone, so we come back bigger and better and stronger than ever.

Have your plans had to change for the medium/long term?

We have made different plans, to the extent that we’re thinking about maybe doing two shows per night to make it cheaper for everyone. Our companies only have a minimum guarantee to meet, and a deposit to pay, no other upfront costs – prioritise paying your actors and team first. It might not be the best financial model for a business, but we think it is the best we can do as humans and people that want to support companies and help them create.

If we go to the two show a night modelling we can lower those minimum guarantees even further, so we are experimenting with that now. It is all on paper at the minute as I can’t get into the theatre and figure it all out. Of course, everyone is concerned about this winter with flu and pneumonia and everything else to be careful about, so we don’t overwhelm the NHS as well as coronavirus.

We are being cautious. We do not want anyone spending money or going in rehearsals just in case it all falls down. If we get the grant it would be brilliant, and we could start putting definite plans into place. For now, it is all written on spreadsheets: how does this work, how would that work? Quite a challenge for my first year!

At the Hope, no matter who you are, how you identify, and you will see yourself in some way through our programme.

Kennedy Bloomer, about Hope audiences

What else is coming up for the Hope?

We have got a monologue competition for people aged 11-25, funded by the Arsenal Foundation’s Gunners Fund. Trying to reach new writers and their material. [This competition closed on 15 September].

There’s Hope at Home, which will employ a lot of artists, and that is exciting.  It is great where we are – you have the Little Angel Theatre which is predominately for young people and children, and the Almeida, which is obviously more upscale. You can walk down the road and see a different type of theatre, then get quickly into the West End.

The Hen and Chickens, The Hope, The Old Red Lion, The King’s Head – we are all focused on new writing and the diversity of those voices. Helping people get on stage. There is also a great LGBT scene. It is nice to be able to say I can go to any of those venues and see myself represented on stage. It feels safe, and amazing. I want to give that to everyone else – come to the Hope, no matter who you are, how you identify, and you will see yourself in some way through our programme.

It’s such a welcoming and friendly space, isn’t it?

Everyone is so friendly. Like everyone knows the bar staff and every company gets to know that every box office assistant and every bar person. It is one big mesh of family. We will have a company for three weeks and then they’ll leave again. But then they’ll come back and watch the next show, which is really nice. You do get a lot of supportive artists who then will then visit, you know, every couple of months and see different productions. I think that is a lot of the draw for the community as well as that you can just talk to someone and see their show.

What does London theatre mean to you?

Because I grew up in Dudley, London seemed a long way away. It was a treat to come and watch a West End show. But it is lots of things. Theatre is full to the brim with venues, doing all kinds of things. It could be a 50-seat theatre. A car park, a pop-up, a pub, a beautiful West End space. It just blows my mind a little bit, how much of a creative hub it is. I think it has always been a bit nostalgic for me. And now that I am here and I’m running my own venue as well: even though we have hit a bit of a snag, it is where I want to be.

I wish that that maybe little, little small little venues were a bit more in fashion. Yeah. If people try to seek out the small secret spots, the big West End theatres might fill out a few more houses for other companies. You never know. Hopefully, this crisis might have made everyone feel quite supportive to their local venues. It seems to be that way on social media with the support happening on that.

Some productions transfer to the West End. It has happened at the Hope: it’s all going forward. I love to see a production fly – to go on tour or to a bigger venue, having a life beyond three weeks in fringe. It takes a lot of money to transfer, though, so if any producers out there want to hook up, then that is brilliant. It is something that’s on our aspirational list of what we want to continue to do.

What do you think?

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