For today’s Fringe Focus interview, we’re south of the river with Sasha Regan, founder and director of the Union Theatre.
The Union is located in a railway arch off Union Street and can be found a short walk from Southwark station.
You can also find it via Waterloo and a short walk along The Cut. It is neighbour to a number of other theatres including the Old and Young Vics, The Vaults, and the Cervantes.
It boasts an excellent cafe-bar and a versatile 75-seater auditorium located behind the curtain. Seats are unreserved: the earlier you arrive, the better the view.
Can you tell us a bit about how the Union Theatre started, and your best memory of its early days?
SR: Working in telesales, not long after graduating was my motivation: sitting in a chipboard cubicle calling strangers actually kickstarted the motivation to create the theatre company that I had always wanted to have.
We hired fringe venues and put on plays (that our parents filled with friends) that made us feel slightly more in control of our destinies – and we loved it!
After a little while and some inspiring trips to other venues like the old Southwark Playhouse I found the railway arch in Southwark in 1998. It was freezing cold, damp, mouse ridden and in an area of London that no one wanted to visit but I loved it!
I still have lifelong friends from the years in the old Union.
Southwark was steeped in theatrical history and entertainment.Sasha Regan, 2021
The theatre is in an area famous for venues big and small. Has this been an advantage to you in gaining audiences?
SR: In the initial start up years I was awarded a Prince’s Trust loan and was assigned a mentor who helped me find my feet. An early conversion was about location and obviously it is a vital part of a venue’s success or failure.
We opened before the Tate Modern, Southwark Tube, Globe Theatre, in a time when I actually got calls from customers asking if Southwark was safe to come to, which of course it was.
We knew that Southwark was steeped in theatrical history and entertainment and that being surrounded by other venues would only help to attract more visitors to the area.
How has the continued pandemic crisis been for the Union?
SR: This last year has been hell. We have tried so hard to keep afloat by constantly adapting and changing with the different restrictions but ultimately it has been very very tough.
Southwark is like a ghost town now. We just need to wait for normality to creep back in and hope that we can build up the theatre again.
You have a lovely space which seems to be adaptable to a wide range of shows. Do you have a favourite production?
SR: There have been so many productions that i have loved : The new musicals, the adaptations of old classics . Don’t make me choose!
When we get back to normal streaming should continue to reach audiences that can’t come to London.Sasha Regan, February 2021
Congratulations on your digital shows. I enjoyed Untapped, Little Wars and Falling Stars very much. Are there future plans to utilise this medium as well as live?
SR: In order to move forward I think that it’s imperative that we continue to stream work.
We have all been learning this new skill really quickly and finding the happy medium between “live” and “on screen” theatre. The quality and execution can only improve as theatre directors mix the mediums.
When we eventually get back to normal then the streaming should continue as a way of reaching out to an audience that can’t or don’t want to come to London. We aren’t film directors but we can make theatre that looks good on screen.
Whether, or even if, we get to reopen still remains to be seen.Sasha Regan, February 2021
A lot of negativity and frustration has risen in the sector since last March. What do you see as theatre’s new normal when venues do reopen?
SR: We can only return when it is safe to do so , so we all have to be patient and remember that we are all in the same boat.
Whether, or even if, we get to reopen still remains to be seen. With all of the mental health issues on the increase at the moment – looking to the future too much just increases anxiety so am walking the dog three times a day and spending lots of precious time with my children.
Of course, I have a vague idea of how it will reopen, a vague idea of what will be programmed and an even more vague idea of when it will be. What I do know is that when and if we open the doors again it will be full of love and laughter, friends and family and obviously a couple of cameras ready to screen it all 🙂
If you were to use one phrase to describe the Union’s USP and philosophy, what would it be?
SR: The Union was always a family run theatre, I produce, direct, clean, mop, serve and administrate.
Customers have seen my children grow up in the building and everyone feels welcome. Come along on your own and you will probably leave having chatted to someone else.
The Union is about grass roots theatre where actors, crew and audiences become lifelong friends. I think that’s why we are special. I also think that lockdown has made me especially emotional about the place and I can’t wait to be back there.
My thanks to Sasha for her time. To visit the Union website go here.