Fringe Focus: The Space (Isle of Dogs)

Welcome to another instalment of my Fringe Focus series, where I talk to those in leadership roles in theatres around London. Last month I caught up with Adam Hemming, artistic director at The Space. This venue “makes theatre that’s inclusive, supportive, courageous and creative”.

This interview took place shortly before The Space reopened for shows, and I recommend you visit their website to find details of their current live programme and associated online streams.

Adam Hemming, at The Space
Adam Hemming, at The Space

How has lockdown been for you and The Space?

It’s been incredible, really. Fairly quickly we decided we wanted to keep engaging with people and try and keep people’s spirits up. We run a Scriptspace programme, which is a development program for playwrights. In January of this year, we received over 200 scripts and we were coming to the end of reading all of those and giving them written feedback. We had scheduled a few to do as stage readings at The Space and thought we’d try one of those online by Zoom and see how it worked. We had 80 people watching, which is twice highest number we’d ever had for a Scriptspace reading before.

So, we decided we’d do it a couple more of those. At the same time, we were trialling some online workshops with our participatory theatre group. Then we applied for the Arts Council emergency grants and we received the maximum amount, which was great. So, we put together a program called “Locked down, Looking up” and it had four strands to it. 10 more Scriptspace readings, 10 more play readings. We developed six workshop courses with some freelance tutors, and each of those courses was five sessions long. So in total week we delivered 30 workshops.

We had created The Space Theatre Club and there was so much stuff online to watch, and then meet online to discuss them afterwards. And that was fantastic. The first play we watched was Treasure Island in NT Live. I emailed the agents of Patsy Ferran and Lizzie Clachan: they both responded and said they’d be happy to join us, which encouraged me to reach out to more people. We had Adrian Scarborough and Louise Jameson, Carl Gross, some brilliant names. We watched a whole range of things: we wanted to promote diversity, and the group was a fantastic mix of emerging professionals from the industry plus our regular audience members and workshop participants.

We put together a program called “Locked down, Looking up”

Adam Hemming, The Space, on responding to lockdown

It was a great way of bringing together our audiences and artists. It was always fascinating hearing different people’s views on what they’d watched. The final strand of the work that we did was our performances strand. We had to reschedule about 15 different shows, so we wanted to give some of them the opportunity to see if they could create an online version of their shows. We picked three of them and they all ended up creating recorded versions of the work, which we screened and then had a post screening discussion via Zoom.

The last thing we did back in February, was a festival of duologue where you got 13 playwrights to create two handers at The Space. We thought, why not repeat that with an online version. So, we created a 2.0 Fest, commissioned eight of our favourite playwrights to create plays for actors in separate locations. The work that came back was really great: the playwrights had dramaturgical support from our literary manager, Mike Carter, so we refined them and got some great people cast. Patsy Ferran ended up in one of the pieces: mind-blowing really! We’ve worked with some brilliant actors over the years and it was nice to be able to involve some of them in this festival as well.

The workshops really expanded our reach across the UK and internationally; we reached people in South Africa, Singapore, Canada, Argentina.

When the physical space closed, was that a worry or an opportunity to try something else?

We have been very well-managed and sensibly run for a long period of time, so our reserves were at a point where we were pretty comfortable. We knew we were going to need to lean on those during this period, and we have had to fairly heavily. The other staff are on furlough, so it has just been me. We applied for the Arts Council emergency funding to support the freelancers and artists: to engage audiences and keep everyone’s spirits up. Most of the grant we got went to paying freelancers.

I was perhaps naively approaching it and thinking, “well, we will be back in towards the end of the summer, back up and running”. Obviously, that’s not quite the case so we are facing similar challenges to lots of other venues. We have quite a few grant applications in, so fingers crossed, and we have launched our crowdfunding campaign to tie in with the Theatres Trust, Save Our Theatres campaign. Hopefully, that will help see us through a bit longer. [The Space met its crowdfunding target on 6 October].

We originally planned to to reopen early November, with 45 people socially distanced in the venue – we can be a bit flexible with layout, to see what is feasible. We asked our companies that had rescheduled to be flexible, and then one came back and said, “we’d like to perform before the end of November”. So we looked at the timeline and what we needed to do to get ready and open.

The Space returns on 29 September with a show called Ploutos, by Aristophanes. This is Thiasos Theatre Company’s interpretation. Four shows are on and we plan to live stream them as well. Mrs C’s Collective are doing That Was All, Sixteen Sixty are bringing us In Bad Taste, and cabaret group I Need To Cher are doing How To Survive The Cherpocalypse. This takes us through October.

We also have something planned for Halloween: we want to get back to supporting people locally. We have done a lot online and we wanted to try and reopen and support local audiences plus, you know, our cafe bar has reopened, and we want to try and help them then recover as well. Some of our, some of our regular audience members and participants, they don’t like the online stuff, you know.

Would you say that expanding your reach under lockdown is good news for people coming along to The Space in person?

I hope so: I think we’ve re-engaged with some of our local audience members. A lot of the people who engaged with the work online weren’t local to The Space and it will be very difficult for them to travel in; that’s why we’re keen to keep the good quality live streaming of the shows that are happening. I think the live element’s really important to us. Certainly, when we did 2.0 Fest, the fact that they were live events rather than recordings was exciting. I think from an audience point of view, being able to book a ticket and put it in the diary and anticipate it coming up, it just feels like it’s theatre.

What do you think about the explosion of shows in the digital space?

I think it’s been great to see the shows that I hadn’t had a chance to watch before. I don’t go out to the theatre as much as I’d like to through running The Space. And lots of the other ones that we watched; we watched The Encounter. I thought that was just fantastic. There were a lot of great shows to catch up on. That seems to have tailed off a bit. And I think understandably and sensibly, a lot of the online work that was free to access now is being ticketed, which I think needs to happen.

I think it was necessary to make work available. I think that people were concerned, people were not working. So I think it was really important and I certainly don’t regret our program being free, but I think in order for it to, to continue now, I think it is the right time for work to be ticketed and valued in that way.

One of the companies we work with did a scratch night of new work and that was ticketed. You could either buy a £12.50 ticket or you could pick a free ticket because they still want it to be open and accessible. I think we had 75 people book in, and 20 of them paid, which was a really good indication that people were prepared to pay for online work. I think there’ll be some interesting models out there and we do need to make sure that, that there is income for artists creating.

It’s exciting to see what different people are trying. The proof will be in the pudding. I think there’s a lot of people that are passionate about theatre and want it to survive and continue and can pay to support that happening. I think in a way buying a 65-pound ticket [like at the Old Vic] is saying, I’m supporting this venue that I’m passionate about. It’s been such a positive response.

People have been incredibly generous with us and we haven’t launched a big campaign. We’ve just sort of said, look, if you’re enjoying the work that we’re doing and you want to support us then great, please do. And we’ve had some really touching donations and it means so much more in this time because it just shows that people value the work that you’re doing.

We need to make sure there is income for artists creating.

Adam Hemming

Do you think the government values the arts?

I don’t know – I can’t say that I’m impressed with the way that the whole thing has been dealt with and handled. But, you know, the funding that has been made available has been necessary. If it can keep artists, organizations, and venues of floats, then it will have done a great thing. But I think a lot of the decisions they’ve made and the timings in which they’ve done them have been questionable.

I think we’re lucky in that we are small and flexible and can adapt to things quite quickly, but for, for, you know, for a lot of venues of the bigger organizations, it’s much harder to put on a show in that sort of timeframe.

Let’s talk a bit about The Space’s associate companies.

Our newest one, Mrs C’s Collective, have been highly active during the lockdown. They have a fantastic initiative called The Reading Room, where they invite people to read three plays by specific playwrights. Then that playwright joins them for two hours zoom session where there’s this sort of Q & A, and then people discuss the plays.  

We also work with the UnDisposables, who were in the middle of their run of Julius Caesar when lockdown hit. I think it was quite tough for them not to be able to finish that show. But they are now looking at doing an exciting project at an early planning stage. We are working with them on developing that for next year.

These companies are both really energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate young companies that we feel it’s important to support. They are brilliant creatives in their own rights. We’re excited to see what they come up with.

What’s the history of The Space as a venue?

We have just entered our 25th year. So next September will have some big celebrations. There was a local resident called Robert Richardson who worked at the Wigmore Hall, and then at the Roundhouse. His wife was tragically killed in a road accident on the Isle of Dogs, and he wanted to do something in her name to take his mind off things. He’d often pass this building, which had been left derelict. It was an old Presbyterian church over 150 years old. The congregation left in the late 70s, as the population on the Isle of Dogs was quite small at that time., and it was in a bad state.

He persuaded the council to let him have ten years getting the necessary support and funding. He formed the St Paul’s Arts Trust, a registered charity which still manages the venue, and we opened in 1996, originally as a multi arts centre. For the last 12 years we have been much more focused on theatre. I’ve been there for nearly 16 years. We’re lucky the building was rescued and restored, and it has had a lot of attention over the last five or ten years.

Do you collaborate with other theatres in the area?

Our closest theatre in Limehouse is the Half Moon, the children’s theatre, and we’ve worked closely with them for several years. For the last five years we’ve been managing an outdoor performance space in Canary Wharf, that roof garden space, and we’ve avoided programming family shows at The Space. The roof garden performance space gave us that opportunity to do family shows. We worked with the Half Moon to programme that element of the work.

We know Greenwich Theatre well, they’re over the river from us. We’ve worked with them in the past. We’re a member of the Society of Independent Theatres. They’ve been highly active and supportive over the lockdown, which has been great. So, so yeah, there’s a lot of, especially now there’s a strong feeling of camaraderie between,, between venues is good.

People can certainly expect a warm welcome.

Adam Hemming, The Space, on making audiences feel comfortable.

What should an audience member expect from The Space?

It’s not a black box theatre. It’s a very unique venue, essentially a converted church hall, with a square space and a stage at one end. We’ve had work done in traverse and thrust and in the round, all different configurations. We have a lovely little cafe bar up above the back of the venue. They do very good burgers! The Isle of Dogs doesn’t really feel like it’s part of London. It’s highly residential and feels like a quieter part of London than most areas. There’s a lot of sort of new buildings.

The Space kind of stands out as one of the older buildings on the Isle of Dogs, and I’d highly recommend getting the boat here. It’s a much nicer way to travel than getting on the underground. We pride ourselves on being a sort of very welcoming and inclusive venue, so people could certainly expect a warm welcome when they arrive at the building. We’re not right on a tube line. So, there is a time commitment for people to come and visit The Space, and we try and make sure that it’s worth their while when they do arrive.

But if anyone is coming for the first time, then I highly recommend making sure you’ve got the directions page of the website and have that as a favourite on your phone, especially if you’re coming in via Canary Wharf. And there is a bus stop right outside!