Welcome to another instalment of an occasional feature showcasing and celebrating the most interesting fringe venues I have visited across London. If you would like your theatre represented here, please let me know, and if I haven’t already been to see you, I will make it my mission to do so.
The second of my Fringe Focus features takes me to Islington, a few miles north of the city, and to the King’s Head Theatre, a long-standing space behind a pub on Upper Street. I asked the theatre to answer some questions on this iconic space, which I visited earlier this year to see This Island’s Mine and Southern Belles.
Interview with Germma Orleans-Thompson, Marketing Assistant
The Kings Head Theatre is quite an iconic fringe venue. What would you say was its USP within the London theatre scene?
We give a platform to emerging companies and artists in addition to our new writing festival Playmill which allows them to showcase their work in a London venue. Due to our Equity fringe agreement, everyone at the King’s Head Theatre both on and off stage must be paid a legal wage which we are very proud of and keen to see more theatres sign up to.
The performance space is quite small, but with a lot of possibilities. What has been your favourite show to stage there, and what was special about it?
Southern Belles has been my favourite show at the King’s Head Theatre as I believe it celebrates what we do best; discovering hidden gems from the past and making great LGBT theatre. Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest playwrights of all time, and so much of his work remains unknown.
There are a few theatres based in Islington pubs. What makes yours different, and do you have opportunities for mutual support and collaboration?
Apart from being the first pub theatre in London since Shakespeare’s time [founded in 1970], bringing opera to a more accessible, small scale space is something that we have pioneered. We love our neighbours and would love to work more collaboratively going forward.
You programme a fair amount of LGBTQ theatre, including the current Queer Season. Do you see the King’s Head as an important venue for shows like these?
Yes, the King’s Head Theatre has championed LGBTQIA+ work since early in
our history and continue to do. We gave a safe space to shows that did not have
anywhere else to go and we have retained that through till now. It’s especially
needed now at a time where so many other LGBTQIA+ venues are closing.
What has been your biggest challenge when programming theatre for the space?
We have so many applications from wonderful shows that it’s hard to fit
as many of them in as we would like!
What can we expect from the King’s Head for the future?
More fabulous operas, more excellent LGBTQIA+ work and more of the shows
that you know and love in a brand new venue!
You don’t receive revenue from the pub in which you are based, but rather rent the space: how can audiences and theatre-lovers support your theatre going forward?
First and foremost; buy a ticket! Ticket sales make up a large part of our revenue and you can never underestimate the power of spreading the word of a brilliant show!
My thanks to Germma.
I would like to add that the King’s Head Theatre is currently looking to move to new premises behind the current space, and are seeking additional funding to ensure this happens in 2020. Although I am quite fond of the 110-seat space which currently exists, a new space is Islington Square will be quite exciting, and will boast a larger auditorium and a smaller studio theatre.
Welcome to a new, occasional, feature showcasing and celebrating the most interesting fringe venues I have visited across London. If you would like your theatre represented here, please let me know, and if I haven’t already been to see you, I will make it my mission to do so.
The first of my Fringe Focus features takes me to Latimer Road in West London and to The Playground Theatre. I asked artistic directors Anthony Biggs and Peter Tate to answer some questions on this small and flexible space, which I visited earlier this year to see My Brother’s Keeper.
Interview with Anthony Biggs (AB) and Peter Tate (PT)
The Playground started life as a bus garage on an industrial estate. What made you see its potential?
AB: The building has a really wonderful atmosphere. Simon McBurney from Complicite commented on this when he worked here. The space is so unexpected and inviting. It is a place where artists instantly feel at home. There is no other theatre in the immediate area, and there is a large local audience base.
PT: I literally had a gut feeling when I walked into the empty space. I felt that the space was already creative and had a very good energy.
The programming has been very eclectic and challenging, yet accessible. What plans do you have to reach both the discerning and adventurous theatre-goer, andthe North Kensington locals?
AB: We are positioned in a very diverse area, surrounded by expensive residential properties, large housing estates including Grenfell, commercial developments such as White City Place and Westfield, the Imperial College campus, Wormwood Scrubs prison. We have a huge potential audience on our doorstep and reaching out to them is our first priority as a local theatre.
PT: As you say our programming is eclectic. There are local issues that are a very strong thread through our community like the appalling Grenfell fire that brought our community together and wiped away whatever social divides existed. Last year we did two projects that were around this issue – Shirleymander based on Shirley Porter, the Tesco heiress, who undertook social cleansing when she was leader of Westminster Council; and Dictating to the Estate, a verbatim piece based on the transcripts between residents of Grenfell and the council. We intend to bring the latter back next year in a fuller production.
What is the USP of The Playground Theatre?
AB: We aim to be the heart of our community, where artists and audiences can celebrate bold and imaginative storytelling from around the world.
PT: Work that challenges both the artists and consequently the audience, and that has a deep resonance to the world we live in now.
You have playing cards instead of traditional theatre tickets. Does this mean a tripto The Playground is a game of chance and adventure?
AB: Every time you step through the doors of The Playground, the space will be different. We actively programme work that will transform our space and give our audiences a new experience.
PT: One can never hope to please everyone, or even should attempt to. One has to commit to the work and do it fully, leaving no stone unturned.
What is in store for audiences over the next few years? Where do you see The Playground fitting into a crowded and diverse London fringe scene?
AB: We love collaborating, so expect to see shows mixing a range of art forms, from rap music to fine art, that defy traditional description. International stars will rub shoulders with local artists and members of our community to create exciting and diverse theatre. Expect stories that reflect all areas of our community, that celebrate our culture and tackle the big issues. However crowded the Fringe is, The Playground is unique because our local community is unique. We welcome all artists who want to create work with us, and we look forward to building relationships with friends in other theatres.
PT: Personally, as an audience member, I come to a place that has great possibility to transform, to challenge, to make people think. I believe we have a few productions in the next year that will do this.
The theatre doubles as rehearsal space – have your creatives and actors found the stage and room a fertile ground for inspiration and innovation?
AB: Many leading companies and artists have created work at The Playground. It feels like an engine room for creativity. The more open we are to innovation, the more exciting the theatre we create.
PT: I have had the building for twenty years and set it up as a creative hub for artists to explore the unique voice within each and every one of us. The space has inspired artists such as Simon McBurney, Rufus Norris, the Polish director Henryk Branowski, the Japanese director Hideki Noda, plus countless other artists both known and emerging.
As an audience member, you notice the frequent train sound as an additionalaspect of The Playground sound space. Have you been able to utilise this as a positive force?
AB: It gives the space another dimension and seems to add rather than distract from performances. Unlike some theatres which have the trains running overhead, the tracks run behind The Playground so we get the sound without the vibration. It’s part of our lives and it is part of our community’s lives.
PT: I don’t think that we have consciously incorporated it, but accepted it for what it is – another ambient sound that exists in so many theatres that can’t afford total sound proofing.
What are the future plans for the cafe? It’s a really friendly place with free wi-fi and an interesting food and drink menu. What will make this a must for a foodie in the area?
AB: Our daily menu is created by The Grocer on Elgin, and the delicious cakes and brownies are made by Sally Clarke, both of whom are local businesses. We want to celebrate the rich and diverse culture of the area, and over the next few months we will be adding new dishes created by some of our wonderful local chefs. As a theatre café we often have play readings, discussions, parties etc happening in the space.
PT: It is an evolving process and we now manage it. The level of food has improved over the last few months by incorporating Sally Clarke’s cakes and quiches, and the food from The Grocer on Elgin. This has led to more customers, certainly during the day.
Finally, the theatre currently seeks financial support to keep evolving. What can audiences and creatives do to put this fab new theatre firmly on the map?
AB: The best way to support us is to come to The Playground, and encourage your friends and family too. You can engage with us on social media: we love to hear from you. If you have any spare time you can help us by volunteering as part of our front of house team, or perhaps on one of our many outreach projects with local community groups. Running a theatre is expensive and donations of any amount are always welcome. You can do this in person or via our website. We also run a membership scheme which gives you priority booking and access to special events. We are always keen to develop other ways of engaging with our community, and if you have an idea of how you can support us then please let us know.
PT: We are now garnering support for a lot of the outreach work that we do (which is led by my co-Artistic Director Anthony Biggs). By supporting us, as a theatre, the very important work that we are doing in our community will help us expand our current programmes in those areas – like the work we do with the survivors of Grenfell and the Well Read programme at St Charles Hospital’s psychiatric department.
My own observations on The Playground
I found The Playground an interesting and friendly space.
To find it from Latimer Road tube station, you have to walk past all the Grenfell memorials, and clearly this is an event which has had a major impact on the local community. Latimer Road itself is part residential, part industrial, and it is very exciting to find such a hub of creativity in an area which has traditionally lacked performance spaces.
The cafe itself is spacious, and as well as offering a range of food and drink options, also has free wifi and both indoor and outdoor seating. I could imagine this as a good local place to study, chat, or collaborate over a coffee or a glass of wine.
The theatre is an appealing room, which had seating in an L-shape configuration when I visited. Sightlines are generally very good, with well-raked rows, and seats are unreserved and fairly comfortable. Sound and lighting is excellent and the space is interesting and intimate for audiences.
As a new fringe theatre – it opened in autumn 2017, with a capacity of between 150 and 200 – it joins over 200 other theatre venues within Greater London and has been slowly building up its own niche over the last eighteen months. At the time of its opening, Anthony Biggs stated it “has the potential to be the Almeida of West London … where our audiences are challenged and entertained”.
It has a monthly community reading group, The Playground Readers, in the cafe. It hosts scratch nights and play readings, and has showcased work by Jonathan Lewis, Nina Conti, Jane Austen, Josie Spencer, and many more: plays, comedies, and musicals.
The next major production, from the 2 July, is a new version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
I hope to be able to visit again in the near future to tell you more about The Playground’s adventurous programming.