Setting up a new theatre in a former bus depot with no funding was a leap of faith for its two founders. Peter Tate and Anthony Biggs tell the story.
When Peter asked me to join him as Co-Artistic Director of The Playground Theatre in May last year, I had been looking for a new challenge. I had just finished five years at the helm of Jermyn Street Theatre and was keen to work in a new space. The Playground’s previous life as a developmental space intrigued me, and Peter and I shared a vision of bold, imaginative and highly theatrical new work, developed with the local community in Latimer Road.
We soon realised that one of the major tasks with a new venue is to explain to audiences where it is
Within a few weeks of us joining forces, the fire swept through the nearby Grenfell Tower. The events of that night had a huge impact on our vision for the theatre and our role in the local community. It was immediately apparent that what was needed was a place where people could share stories and grieve, and also hope and aspire for a better future for our area.
North Kensington is a postcode of extremes with huge wealth sitting next to appalling poverty. It also includes probably the broadest ethnic mix of people in the UK. Finding a way to appeal to all our residents would be a challenge.
Kitting out the venue
When we first walked around the space there were only wall lights, so the first thing was to raise the money to kit the venue out and turn it into something fully functioning. Neither of us wanted it to be the usual black box and we saw that it could become a practical space to present theatre while retaining its history as a bus depot.
So, we set about raising the funds – crowdfunding campaigns, personal investment from selling a property and nurturing relationships with the local authority and other funding organisations. We quickly realised that if you want money you have to ask for it. That might sound obvious but it’s amazing how often companies get the right people in the room and then let them go without asking. That said, it’s also important to offer something, even if it is kindness. Everyone likes to be appreciated.
We wanted the theatre to be as flexible as possible so that every time our audience came through the iconic French chateau doors on the front of the building, the space would be transformed. We invested in lots of aluminium decking (lighter than steel) for staging and rostra, and we bought a couple of hundred single chairs.
We didn’t have the money to buy all new lighting stock, so we borrowed and rented what we needed, and have slowly bought what we can. We invested in a good lighting desk and computer, and had lighting bars and wiring installed. We also raised some funds from the Theatres Trust to widen the fire doors, which increased our capacity but also crucially gave us disabled access. This whole fit-out was incredibly tight in terms of time. We managed to finish it the day our first show opened.
Finding an audience
At the same time as raising funds and getting the theatre up and running, we faced the challenge of raising awareness and attracting an audience. Programming is everything. We are on the edge of a huge swathe of residential properties, there are offices nearby and we are a 15-minute walk from the Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherd’s Bush.
We soon realised that one of the major tasks with a new venue is to explain to audiences where it is. We spent a lot of time telling people how to walk from Latimer Station to the theatre. We even recorded a film doing the walk and we’ve even on occasions walked people over ourselves.
Doing anything for the first time can be an anxious experience, so we do all we can to make people feel welcome. We regularly post on local social media boards and leaflet along Portobello Road. Slowly the word is getting out.
Everyone has an opinion about what we should be doing and that can be tiring. But to be a community theatre you have to be part of that community and that means engaging in constant conversation, even if it isn’t what you want to hear. We are dedicated to reflecting the diversity of our community through the diversity of our programming.
We have staged four major productions since we opened our doors last November and a host of short runs and single nights. Established and new artists are now knocking on our doors wanting to stage work, and in addition to these we’ve spent much of the first year building up relationships with local partners.
We have established good relationships with a nearby secondary school, Kensington Aldridge Academy, which is on a temporary site while its main building is being repaired following the Grenfell Fire. We have supported the school with free space and workshops, and they will be doing their summer show with us soon.
Another partner is Grief Encounter, a child bereavement charity that has been active in our area following the fire. We have run two projects with them during the holidays with local families and are planning more for later this year. And a third partner, Chicken Shed, will be delivering workshops and performances for and with young people in the next few months.
It’s easy to underestimate how much work is involved. Apart from the creative side, which is the main reason for doing it, there’s a huge amount of admin. We have a small dedicated team, but as we grow we will need more people as it’s difficult not to work 16-hour days at the moment. But the choice was made and the vision will be adhered to.
We have come a long way in a short space of time. Our challenge now is to make the theatre more strategic without losing its identity as a place for experimental and exciting work. The ship is sailing, the passengers are on board and we have many exciting places to visit.
Peter Tate and Anthony Biggs are Co-artistic Directors of The Playground Theatre.