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Everyone Theatre: An Interview with Tom Copley

Everyone Theatre is a series of interviews with leading theatre practitioners in London. It’s their chance to make the case for getting into theatre, on either side of the curtain.

Tom Copley

Tom Copley is a member of the GLA

This week’s everyone theatre interview is a little bit different. With all due respect, Tom Copley, a London-wide London Assembly Member for the Labour Group in City Hall, is not really a ‘leading theatre practitioner’! However, Tom is running a GLA investigation into the challenges faced by small theatres in London and has a strong personal interest in theatre. Tom has actually guest blogged for us in the past about his investigation, but he very kindly took some time out from his politician’s schedule to chat with us about why he loves theatre, and why small theatres in London are so important to him. Naturally, his hugely important investigation is also discussed.

Listen to the podcast using the player below, subscript to the series on iTunes, or read through the transcript below. Please feel free to leave comments at the bottom of the page!

Everything Theatre: Welcome to the fifth episode of the Everyone Theatre podcast series. We are delighted to be here in City Hall with Tom Copley, who is a London-wide Assembly Member for the Labour Group here. More importantly, he is running an investigation into small theatres in London to find out what can be done to protect them and safeguard their future. Thank you for agreeing to speak to us today! Let’s kick off – where does your personal interest in theatre come from? 

Tom Copley: I think it all started when I was very young: I used to enjoy dressing up and performing, putting on shows for my parents and sisters… Well, I still do enjoy dressing up and performing, but it’s slightly different these days! That’s what sparked it – it was an awful lot of fun. I kept on doing it over years, getting involved with local groups when I was at school and at university. I don’t do any performance anymore – although people say that politics is all acting, which I disagree with actually, but that’s another story! – but I still absolutely love going to the theatre. It’s a wonderful thing to do, a wonderful thing to see.

ET: What’s your local theatre, if you don’t mind us asking? And do you have any recommendations of any small theatres you’ve been to which are consistently very good?

TC: Well I live in Kentish Town, so the nearest theatre to me is the Lion and Unicorn, which I visited just last week as part of my investigation to speak to the directors and staff. Aside from that, I am in a nice little patch in Camden where there are quite a few: the Lion and Unicorn, the Gatehouse just up the road in Highgate, the Etcetera Theatre in Camden Town.

In terms of other recommendations, I’d say the King’s Head, which is a wonderful theatre (and it’s just down the road from where I live). They put on some brilliant stuff, and it’s actually the oldest pub-theatre in London. I was there just the other night, not for a play but just for a drink, but then they brought the show into the pub. It was a Verdi opera I think, and they brought the final scene out and did it standing on the bar!

I also went to see a very good play last week at the Finborough, again traditionally a pub-theatre, although the “pub” part is sadly currently closed. If they turn that old wine bar into a Tesco, it would be very, very sad indeed. I am going off on a tangent now, but this is a problem we have in London where pubs and theatres (and therefore pub-theatres) are in danger of being redeveloped because the owners think they could make a lot more money if they sold the space off to supermarkets or turned it into flats. That’s something we need to be very vigilant about. Anyway, hopefully the Finborough will get a new wine bar soon!

“Theatres are in danger of being redeveloped because the owners think they could make a lot more money if they sold the space off to supermarkets or turned it into flats”

ET: We know that other theatres are having similar issues, such as Union Theatre

TC: Yes, I was down there a few weeks ago speaking to them. The villains there are Network Rail, who are trying to make a quick buck out of turning the archways into posh offices. And this is a classic example of a local theatre which is totally embedded in the local community. In a way they are the victims of their own success. The theatre, and the other small businesses around the area, have taken a rough area and made it into a really rather nice place – and now that that is the case, Network Rail have realised they could redevelop and make a lot of money. I fully support the campaign to save the Union Theatre and the other local shops around there. It would be a real shame to uproot them. Actually, the local tenants’ association is really supporting the campaign to save them, because they are community spaces, and because they bring money into the local economy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this interview was recorded we are delighted to confirm that the campaign to Save the Union Theatre and surrounding businesses has been successful!

ET: At this stage in the interview we like to ask people to give their ‘pitch’ for theatre. Given the initiative you’re involved in, we thought we’d re-word the question. So, why do you think that small theatres are important, and specifically important to their local community?

TC: Well, I think they’re important on several levels. Firstly, getting local communities into local theatres is actually easier than getting people to travel into the West End to see a show. And so many small theatres do incredible community work. For instance, I was up at the Bull Theatre in High Barnet last week – and the things they do there are amazing. They organise a whole street party every year. Then there is the Questors Theatre in Ealing who run a youth theatre, getting so many young people from the area involved who might not otherwise have done so.

On a second level, there is the economic benefit to the local area as well. Audiences coming in to a small theatre to watch a play might visit the local pubs, shops and restaurants, which can be hugely important to the local area.

“Audiences coming in to a small theatre to watch a play might visit the local pubs, shops and restaurants, which can be hugely important to the local area”

ET: We find there is often a misconception surrounding theatre, that it is an expensive hobby to have. Another benefit of Fringe (or Off West End) theatre is that local theatres often offer very decently priced tickets.

TC: Absolutely! In the West End, depending on the seat, you might pay up to £60 or more for a ticket. In your local theatre, you’re more likely to pay £10 to £20 depending on the venue and the show. It’s far cheaper, and there is no less quality. Fringe theatre, just like West End theatre, has some good shows and some bad shows, but you’re as likely to see something of excellent quality in a small theatre. The best play I ever saw was at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – where every available space is turned into a theatrical venue – in a conference room! It just goes to show it doesn’t matter what the venue is, it’s all about the quality of the production. And so I know there is some absolutely amazing stuff on London’s Fringe.

“In your local theatre, you’re more likely to pay £10 to £20 depending on the venue and the show”

ET: Will your investigation be looking into the use of non-standard spaces as theatrical venues?

TC: This is something I’m actually very interested in: bringing in disused buildings and shops to use as theatrical spaces. The GLA’s Economy Committee, which I am on, actually did an investigation into empty shops on high streets, and this was one of the methods we identified to bring them back into use – to turn them into pop-up venues, galleries etc. You could use them as performance spaces or as rehearsal spaces.

I’m personally also very interested in the immersive theatrical experiences, such as Secret Cinema. I have a friend who is involved in a group called The Stamp Collective, who are in the Theatre Delicatessen in the old BBC building, where they will be until it is re-developed. They and several other groups have been allowed to take that over and put on immersive shows. What I’m planning on doing is getting them into City Hall to do a piece in the chamber. I’d like to get people from local authorities in, because a lot of the time it is people in control of the councils who are reluctant to have their disused buildings used by these groups. I’d like to show them that it can be a real benefit to them and the local community to get these groups in for creative purposes.

Finally, I guess that the other thing about small local theatres is that you get so much cutting edge stuff there. So many writers and directors make their names from productions which have been on in small venues. And you don’t necessarily get that cutting edge aspect in the West End, where it tends to be a little bit safer.

“The other thing about small local theatres is that you get so much cutting edge stuff there. So many writers and directors make their names from productions which have been on in small venues”

ET: Yes, in a way these small venues are the engines of the West End! Now obviously theatres come in all shapes and sizes, but your investigation is focusing specifically on London’s small theatres. What led you to begin this investigation? 

TC: Well, basically we have an opportunity within the Committees which we are on to do something called a ‘rapporteurship’, or a single-member investigation into a particular issue that we are interested in. At the start of the Assembly’s year, various interest groups make a pitch for someone to do a rapporteurship. This year we had someone from The Theatres Trust come in. Being a theatre addict myself, I was of course particularly interested. We spent a little while assessing what the issues were, and whether we could actually make any meaningful recommendations. We came to the conclusion that there are indeed some important challenges, despite the fact that the sector is thriving in London at the moment. Although we have experienced a little renaissance of small theatres recently, there are some hurdles which could prevent this sector from expanding further or even cause it to contract. This is why we decided to take this particular investigation forward.

ET: And what are you hoping to be able to get out of the report you are going to publish as a result? What kind of recommendations are you hoping to be able to make?

TC: Well, of course we are still coming up with ideas, and we don’t want to reveal everything too early, but there are a number of areas where we think we can make some useful recommendations. Now, bear in mind we want to recommend things that will actually happen, and are realistic; things that the Mayor or the GLA can actually put into action. One example is that one of the big challenges faced by small theatres is marketing. The West End swamps the arena for that: going up the escalator in the Tube you may see 18 posters for West End musicals, but nothing from the small theatre around the corner. The Mayor obviously has a lot of power over advertising in London through TfL, so we are looking at ways in which he might be able to help smaller venues that way.

There are also issues around the way the Arts Council distributes some of its project funding, so we might look to make a recommendation to them about way they could improve distribution of funds. We will also hopefully be able to make recommendations to help theatres with issues around their buildings. A lot of them are in fairly old buildings which can be expensive to maintain, especially if they don’t have the capital upfront to make major improvements. So we are looking at ways we could help with that.

I don’t want to give too much away before publishing the report, as it is still a work in progress. But whatever happens, I have made it very clear that I don’t want this to be a report which gathers dust on a shelf: we want something practical and useful to come out of it.

“Whatever happens, I have made it very clear that I don’t want this to be a report which gathers dust on a shelf: we want something practical and useful to come out of it”

ET: You mentioned before the interview that although the official poll is closed, people can still get share their views on your investigation?

TC: Yes, as far as I know we are still taking submissions. It people would like to submit their views or find out more, they should go to the London Assembly website at london.gov.uk/smalltheatres, all the information will be available there. You can also follow me on twitter at @tomcopley if you’d like to keep up with the investigation.

ET: Well thanks very much for your time. We wish you all the best with your project and the following steps!

About Everything Theatre

Everything Theatre
Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.