Tom Copley wants to find new homes for small-scale cutting edge theatre in London.
As a child growing up outside of London with a passion for theatre, I was always determined that one day I would live here. I remember well the occasional trips up to the West End with my parents to see shows. For me, London was synonymous with theatre.
When I was elected to the London Assembly last May I resolved that I would do what I could in my new role to support London’s theatres. That's why I have launched an investigation into the challenges facing small theatres in London on behalf of the London Assembly's Economy Committee.
London has more theatres and more theatrical performances than New York, Paris or Tokyo. Our city boasts 170 theatres producing more than 17,000 performances every year. Theatre is a major driver of London’s economy, and London's theatres satisfy not just the cultural needs of Londoners but attract tourists from around the world.
When most people think of theatre in London they immediately think of the West End. But London’s theatre scene goes far beyond the bright lights of Leicester Square and Covent Garden. Off West End (and Off Off West End, or ‘fringe theatre’, depending on who you’re speaking to) is thriving, fostering new talent that moves into the West End, and the UK’s film industry.
It has long been my opinion that some of the best theatre you will see is ‘fringe theatre. The raw power of theatre is at its most evident in small venues, and it is on the fringe that one finds the plays that are most likely to challenge, shock, outrage and offend.
London’s small theatres may be thriving, but they face some very real challenges particularly at a time when arts budgets are under pressure. These challenges range from an inability to afford to repair old buildings, uncertainty around leases, a lack of cheap rehearsal space, issues around marketing and beyond.
I’m also very keen to find ways to help theatre companies that use unusual or ‘found’ spaces like disused buildings to put on shows, and encourage the growth of immersive theatrical experiences in such spaces. Groups like Secret Cinema and You Me Bum Bum Train have raised the profile of this incredibly dynamic and interactive style of performance in recent years. The old BBC studios on Marylebone High Street have been taken over by a number of groups such as Stamp Collective who are using it to put on interactive shows before the building is redeveloped. Yet there are huge barriers which these groups must overcome before they’re allowed into these empty buildings. I want to find out what can be done to remove these barriers so that more disused buildings can be used as a home for cutting edge theatre.
With funding tight, the need to find creative and ‘cost-neutral’ (i.e. free!) solutions to these problems becomes even more important. That’s why I think this investigation is so important. It’s clear that there are ways of solving or ameliorating some of the challenges that small theatres face which don’t cost huge sums of money. It’s also clear that there are some very practical things that the mayor and the Greater London Authority (GLA) can do to help.
So I want to hear from small theatres and theatres companies about the challenges they face, and the ways in which the GLA and the mayor can help address these challenges. I also want to hear from theatre-goers about their experiences and perceptions of London’s small theatres. To contribute to the investigation, and to find out more, visit www.london.gov.uk/smalltheatres.
Tom Copley AM is Labour London Assembly Member (Londonwide)