Under new management since 2021, and situated underneath the Curtains Up pub, Barons Court Theatre is a tiny fringe powerhouse seating 52.
Sharon Willems is artistic director, Leo Bacica is executive director. Both were keen to chat about their hidden gem in West London, so read on for their thoughts!
Read about other small spaces in London in our ongoing Fringe Focus series.
Barons Court Theatre had a strong and lengthy reputation for theatre and magic before you took over two years ago. What would you say it stands for now?
We’re aware of the legacy of Barons Court Theatre and we’ve tried to build on it.
We’d love to have Richard back, and we’ve had conversations with him, but personal circumstances have prevented us from resuming the show. Back in early 2022 we trialled a series of magic shows with top magicians from the circuit.
Once the variety venues and the cruise ships circuit have reopened in earnest, though, it’s very hard to create a financial formula to attract top magicians in a fringe venue. We’re still keeping our eyes open.
As for what Barons Court Theatre stands now, I would say we’re about 2/3 of the way to our ideal programming patterns.
That includes staging international plays, being a platform for emerging young talent and new writing, and working to bring more underrepresented artists on stage.
The Barons Court Theatre has been around since the 1990’s, and we love hearing from audiences and artists who came to see shows growing up in the area. We still programme plays,
improv, live music, and occasionally magic.
Our focus now is supporting emerging and early career artists, many of whom have come to the
industry in non-traditional ways and who have limited networks in the UK.
We are passionate about creating opportunities for folks who find the theatre industry an inaccessible landscape and looking for ways to open the door a bit wider,
Examples include offering the space to Ukrainian refugees for performance and workshops, holding Queering the Canon, a week-long of conversations and new writing led by non-binary and trans makers, or our monthly scratch night, the Sunday Fix,
We are actively seeking out ways to give agency to theatre makers and help them tell their own stories. We are a platform space and proud to incubate artists and ideas.
The Barons Court Theatre today stands for opportunity and community. We are your local
theatre; friendly, welcoming and community-minded, with a global perspective.
Anyone with a cracking story they are passionate to tell or anyone wishing to be entertained by some up and
coming artists can find a creative home at the Barons Court Theatre.
Our theatre today stands for opportunity and communitySharon Willems
The pub theatre scene in London is very busy and vibrant. How does your venue fit in with its near neighbours and those in the capital as a whole?
Cooperation is more productive than competition is a long-standing mantra of ours. We keep in touch with our neighbours and try to help each other whenever possible.
As for the wider London landscape, we believe we usually come up in conversations when producers are looking for venues under 100 seats. We also believe we are one of the top options for this category, as we strive to offer great value for money.
We are proud to be a pub theatre and one of West London’s theatre institutions. We’re friendly with a number of our neighbours, including the Drayton Arms, who were a great help while we got on our feet in our first year leading the space.
We’re still learning about our local community and how we can be of the most service. In recent months, we’ve become members of the H&F Climate Alliance, members include neighbours Lyric Hammersmith & Bush Theatres and other local businesses.
We regularly attend a monthly
Ukrainian Open House meeting in Hammersmith in support of Ukrainian refugees (any Ukrainian passport holder can see any BC show for free) and have been chatting with Barons Court Project about their work supporting our local homeless community.
Most recently, we’ve been working with Back on Track, a local NHS talk therapy service, to offer mental health check-ins for theatre artists in our space.
In terms of the wider theatrical landscape, we are a great place to get started – debuting your first play or taking your first steps as a company.
We work with a number of international artists, both abroad and living in London, and love work in translation and UK premieres.
Recently you staged the third Reboot Festival showcasing emerging writers. Is this going to be an annual fixture in the fringe calendar?
We certainly hope so! The Reboot Festival has been the very first thing we produced as the new management team of Barons Court Theatre.
It was a breath of fresh air in the post-pandemic landscape dominated by financial duress and risk adversity. We then made it into a yearly event because we could see the benefits for participating artists.
This year’s edition has certainly shown that the festival is still needed and that it’s gaining traction.
The threat for Reboot Festival is a SWOT analysis is that it’s completely unfunded, so we’re supporting all the administrative costs while all box office takings go to artists, so that everyone gets paid!
We are hoping for some funding for the festival, which would allow us to expand its scope. So, if anyone reading this is keen on making an impact in the industry by shaping the next generation of theatre-makers, please get in touch!
Reboot is a breath of fresh air. If you are keen to shape the next generation of theatre makers, get in touch!Leo Bacica
Our first Reboot Festival was in October 2021 just as we were taking over the BC. The theatre was still shut from the pandemic, and needed its mojo back.
The first Reboot Festival was about
getting folks back into rehearsals and rediscovering their love for theatre. What we’ve discovered since is that there are still artists who are struggling to find their way back to the stage and that a short play festival like Reboot provides a manageable opportunity back into making work again.
There’s a collective trauma that we’ve all shared and are each recovering in
our own time. That, combined with the huge financial costs of mounting work and of simply surviving in London, means that opportunities that are manageable around other work but still creatively challenging are rare and vital.
We received over 400 script submissions for this year’s Reboot, with a large number of international writers taking part. This tells me there’s still a need for opportunities like Reboot, and we’re looking at how the Festival fits into our annual calendar.
We’ll keep it going as long as
we can, though we are toying around with the idea of moving it to earlier in the year.
Barons Court is also home to drama college LAMDA. Do you have any work planned with them in the future, or other similar colleges in London and the South East?
We love LAMDA students! Both in their rough and rowdy ways on Friday nights in the pub and when they come specially for the show.
Institutionally, we’ve had some preliminary conversations that we’re hoping to develop in long-term working partnerships.
And I’m glad you mentioned ‘other similar colleges’. ArtsEd and London College of Music are also quite close to us geographically, and we’ve done projects with both of them.
We have already worked with a number of new alums as writers and performers and hope to continue to grow our relationship with LAMDA.
I hope that over time, we might formalise that relationship in whatever way might work best for their curriculum.
We have an ongoing relationship with a young artists company whose artistic director is affiliated with ArtsEd, and have produced a number of playwrights who graduated from Central in the last few years, but nothing formal.
We work with a number of artists who have trained abroad as well as cultural organisations such as the Romanian Cultural Institute regularly.
Your theatre has an interesting atmosphere and is set below a lively pub, the Curtains Up. How would you describe it and why should audiences come along?
Ah, you’re gonna mention the pillars, aren’t you? The long and short of it is that we love our magical basement in the heart of West London!
While it can be restrictive when it comes to musicals or cabaret, our space opens up to anyone who embraces its atmosphere.
Our audiences come because they know what they’ll find: flights of imagination, and art that entertains and challenges them.
And they keep coming back because they’ll also find a very welcoming community. In a sense, we feel they’re actually coming home.
One of the joys of running the space is seeing it transformed over and over by creative minds.
This year alone we’ve been transported to the fells of Cumbria, blasted off into space with Laika,
been locked in a Peruvian prison, and spotted mermaids off the coast of Cornwall.
Our space is intimate and full of character. Unlike a lot of pub theatres, we’re downstairs in the cellar, and once you cross our threshold, you can’t help but feel the magical energy of the space.
What influences your artistic programming and what would you like to see more of?
We have a clear aspiration to align our programming with our values. Kibo Productions, our company, has two mottos: ‘Friendly, collaborative, inclusive‘ and what was initially a quote from a review: ‘Truthful company tackling big ideas‘.
We see Barons Court Theatre as deeply rooted in its local community, while at the same time, both of us are immigrants, and strong believers in the power of art to erase borders.
That’s why the motto we chose is ‘Your local theatre with a global perspective‘. We believe each of our shows embodies that motto, in one sense or another.
We would like to bring even more international work to Barons Court, but we always need to get creative when we do that: producing international theatre at fringe level is not easy; convincing audiences to take a punt on a foreign play they’ve never heard of might also take some doing.
But every time a project is successful, we feel the world is just that tiny bit better. And there’s a lot of work to do in that direction!
We’re looking for stories that entertain and create memorable experiences for our audiences .. to challenge us, heal us, and strengthen us.Sharon Willems
Theatre is a conversation, and I’m looking for stories that entertain and create memorable experiences for our audiences by using all the magic and wonder of theatre to challenge us, heal us, and strengthen us.
Our aim is to bring conversations into the public forum. We’re excited by artists who are testing ideas and ways of telling stories for audiences now.
Our programming is a balance of opportunity (who is missing from rooms and stages and how can we change that through our space?) and community (both local and artistic).
We always ask our potential shows why they’re making the work and who they want to reach with their play. We ask them why it matters. We ask them what their goals are right now as artists. Then we do our
best to help them get there.
We, pub theatres and fringe spaces, are the grassroots of the industry. Each of us feeds the ecology in our own way. I’d love to see more funding, more business support, more collaboration from the top of our industry down into spaces like ours.
We are the only entry point for a lot of theatre makers who, for a number of reasons, have no other way into a career in theatre.
Not to mention that the work being made in cellars like ours across London is often first-class, full of ambition and authenticity, and worthy of more support.
I’d love for more conversations about how we can be more collaborative as an industry.