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.
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!
This podcast series aims to look for ways to involve more and more people in theatre, either as audiences or practitioners. This week, we were able to speak to David Jubb, who is the Artistic Director of the Battersea Arts Centre, one of the most exciting venues in the London scene. Hear him talk about why you should never believe people who try to “tell you what theatre is”, what the Battersea Arts Centre sees as the Future of theatres, and why you should talk to your local MP about the importance of local theatres.
Everything Theatre: Hello and welcome to the 8thepisode of Everyone Theatre, our podcast series aimed at getting more people involved in theatre both on and off the stage. We are here in the lovely Battersea Arts Centre with David Jubb, the Artistic Director. Thanks so much for agreeing to speak to us today, it is an absolute pleasure! The first question is about you – we’d be fascinated to hear about your career and how you came to become Artistic Director of the BAC.
David Jubb: Like a lot of people in theatre, I’ve not really had an organized career progression! When I was growing up, I was involved in theatre, in terms of being in plays at school. On the whole though I didn’t really like theatre very much. The kind of theatre we were doing felt dull and uninteresting. It made me annoyed, both as an audience member and as someone who was making it. So I decided not to do that. I worked in film, became a teacher for a while, also had a bit of a career as a milkman and a postman… a whole series of things. I only really started to fall back into theatre when I started devising work myself, but also running a tiny pub theatre in North London. There was a moment when we had 80 people packed into a tiny room above a pub watching Japanese performance artists, and I though “this is great, this is like hosting a great party”. I brought together all the things I liked in theatre, in terms of people having a great time, bringing different groups together, being a host… and I really started to think: “this is something I would like to do”. It was only when in 1999 I applied for a job here, which was called Development Producer, that the word Producer was really introduced to me. That’s when I decided that that’s what I wanted to be, and I still am a Producer. I am of course Artistic Director, but I don’t direct shows. I think that’s a good thing for someone who is supporting other artists. It means I am not trying to compete or put my own work forward in the programme. My job is entirely about supporting, developing and facilitating other people’s work.
ET: So during your career I imagine you have witnessed some pretty amazing moments on stage. Are there any that come to mind which you would like to share with us?
DJ:I think one performance which marked me was “The Red Shoes” by a company called Kneehigh Theatre, of which I am chair currently. I saw that show in around 1999 in Cornwall. It was a total theatre experience: storytelling, music, a really haunting story which felt very true to some experiences in my life. The moment when I saw that was a moment which completely blew me away. I saw theatre suddenly as something which might be for me. I think the reason i didn’t like theatre when I was growing up is that I felt itwasn’t for me. It felt like in order to enjoy a show, you needed to have read a series of books or studied. I wasn’t that person, I wasn’t academic, I wasn’t very good at school. “The Red Shoes” showed me a theatre which was about experience, about passion. It was intelligent and thoughtfully made and provided me access to the show on an emotional level.
ET: At this stage we like to ask people to give their pitch for theatre. If you were confronted with someone who was considering getting involved in their local drama society, or as a producer, or and audience member, what would you say to them? Why do you think theatre is so great?
DJ:Good question! I think if they were hesitating, I would say to them that they shouldn’t believe people when they tell you what they think theatre is. I don’t particularly like most theatre – I might not tell them that in case they get put off! – but most theatre is only one kind of theatre. It’s a really mixed artform, which I think absorbs all other artforms. It can absorb visual art, it can absorb music, it can absorb poetry or any different kind of artistic practice. It is that diversity and possibility which makes it so exciting.
“Theatre can absorb visual art, it can absorb music, it can absorb poetry or any different kind of artistic practice. It is that diversity and possibility which makes it so exciting.”
ET: Fantastic. I’m going to ask you now about how to confront some of the obstacles which people encounter in become audience members. James and I, who founded Everything Theatre, spent a cold and rainy November afternoon walking around Covent Garden and the Southbank quizzing people about their theatre habits. It emerged that there are three key stumbling blocks which people face in becoming engaged as audience members. The first is the conception that Theatre is a very expensive hobby. What would you say to people who claim it is just to expensive for them to go?
DJ:I imagine these people are thinking of theatre as “The West End”. And in that case, it is true. It is really expensive, just as it is expensive to go and see a big live band. So I would have sympathy with them! I think what I would do is direct those people toward work Off-West-End, to work on the fringe, to work in development. Those three categories you can go to see for anything from “pay what you can”. For example we have a programme where you can pay £1, £2 or £3 to see something that is in development. Then there are Off-West-End tickets which can be £10, £12 or £15. This is often as cheap or cheaper than your average cinema ticket. So it goes back to what we were talking about before, the diversity of theatre. Theatre can sometimes have a fantastically bad reputation: there is an episode of Peep Showwhere they go to the theatre, and one of them desperately wants to leave. The actors are acting over the top and one character thinks “god, they are going carry on and on, and we will go out and there will be another whole half. It starts all over again!”. I think theatre has this really bad reputation, some of which is probably well deserved. But I think that what you are doing with Everything Theatre, and what is happening a lot in London and around the country over the past 10 years, is that that diversity and difference is really opening up to counter that reputation. Theatre is catching up, it is now in the 20thcentury and almost getting to the 21stcentury!
ET: Yes, and touching on that point, another one of the obstacles that got mentioned was people might have had a bad experience like the one you just described. They have just had such a poor time that they felt that theatre was not relevant to them. Or maybe when they were at school they were dragged to a terrible show and though “ this is dreadful, I am never doing this again”. What would you say to people who have written off theatre as an artform?
DJ:I would say that in a way, they are right. They have had a bad experience, and I would say that their bad experience in the theatre was probably much worse than their worst experience at the cinema or looking at visual art. The reason for that is that theatre is a live exchange and therefore, when someone’s acting is annoying you, or when you don’t get it or you think it’s naff or poorly done, it’s live right there. You are trapped, you can’t get up because it will be visible to the actors. On the other hand people get up and down at the cinema all the time, buying sweets or going to the toilet. What I would say thought, is that in the same way that it was an awful experience, that when it is a good experience, when it is great, when it is amazing… it will be so much more amazing, so much more incredible than the experience you have seeing a great film or looking at a great piece of visual art. Much like the experience I had with Kneehigh. Theatre carries a risk. I would pitch it as a risk-taker’s artform. If you don’t want to take a risk, you probably are better off reading a book or going to the cinema. But if you are actually a bit of an adventurer at heart, and are prepared to take a punt… You might get the odd duff show which gets up your nose, but when you land a good one, it will be a profound experience.
“Theatre is a risk-taker’s artform. If you don’t want to take a risk, you probably are better off reading a book. But if you are actually a bit of an adventurer at heart, and are prepared to take a punt… You might get the odd duff show, but when you land a good one, it will be a profound experience.“
ET: And finally, finding these good shows can be tough, simply because there are so many shows on in London at any given time. What would you say to someone who doesn’t get into theatre because they don’t know where to start?
DJ: This is a really good question. I think, in terms of the way we market shows, in the way we talk to people about shows, it can be really hard for a prospective audience member to know what on earth the experience is going to be. I would begin by finding a mate who does go. Rather than leafing through lots of brochures and trying to work it out yourself, I think word of mouth is the very best way to find out about things. So if people are interested in dipping their toes in for the first time, I’d suggest they try to find someone who does it already, and quiz them and talk to them for recommendations.
ET: The next question relates to practitioners. You’ve probably come into contact with a lot of young theatre companies. What would be your one piece of advice for a creative team trying to make it in the industry?
DJ: Be honest. In terms of trying to be part this business, sector or industry, it can be very tempting try to work out what you think is expected of you, what is needed of you, and then just do that. As an artists, I think that is a rocky road. The most exciting theatre companies that I come across are honest and truthful to their interests, their passions, their stories and the way that they make work. So yes: be honest and audiences will grow for you and theatres will follow you.
ET: The next question relates back to something we discussed earlier. In terms of getting new audiences involved, a lot of venues have outreach programmes and try to be accessible to the local community. The Battersea Arts Centre is great example of that. Could you give a bit of insight into what your strategy is?
- DJ: Sure, we have what we would call a methodology around that. Our mission is to “Invent the future of theatre”, and I am very interested in the idea of theatre as something much broader than something which just happens on stage. It is a set of values, it is a way of thinking, it is a place for people to hang out, its is a lot of different things. Our methodology comes in the form of a mnemonic around the word Theatre:
- TH stands for Town Hall. We think the theatres should be more like town halls. For one thing, we are based in a former town hall. But also, town halls are places of democracy and debate. They are places of public access, where people feel they can go in. The best town halls should be places where people are actively having ideas about the future of their community and that’s what we think theatre should be too.
- E, for us stands for Education. It is about how artists and teachers should be working together in schools. It is about how theatre can be a wonderful teaching tool which can help open up young people’s imaginations and get them to think differently.
- A is for Artists and Audiences. For us, this is the idea of “Scratch”: bringing artists and audiences together to present an idea at an early stage and getting the audience for their feedback.
- TR is for Transforming Relationships. This is our belief that theatre can create methodologies and approaches for developing ideas. We are running a programme called the Agency over the next 3 years in partnership with Contact Theatre for young people who have ideas for social enterprises or community projects. The idea is to use theatrical process to help them devise those projects.
- E is for Everyone, Everywhere. We think theatre is something which shouldn’t just happen on stage. It should happen in classrooms, in places where it isn’t expected. And it should be for everyone, which at the moment, it is clearly not.
Your survey on the streets is close to my heart. When I first joined this organisation, I went out onto Lavender Hill and asked people “Do you think theatre is any good?” The mixture of responses was both heartwarming at times and depressing at others. So many people vehemently disliked it or felt like it wasn’t something for them. There has been huge progress in terms of the perception of theatre, but there is still lots to do. We use that mnemonic to explore all the ways that theatre can be accessible, and the building plays a massive part in that.
“We think the theatres should be more like town halls. They are places of democracy and debate. They are places of public access, where people feel they can go in. The best town halls should be places where people are actively having ideas about the future of their community and that’s what we think theatre should be too.”
ET: Well, we are now coming towards the end of the interview. The last question is: What’s next? What is exciting around the corner?
DJ: Well, firstly there is something happening tomorrow, which is listeners will have to look back on, is that there is a debate happening in the House of Commons, the first debate about the Arts in 5 years. It is talking about the value creative industries and how they bring value to our country. That will be available in Hansard if people are interested in looking back on it, which I would really encourage them to do. This is such an important area of the work that we do as theatres: to advocate on behalf of all arts and culture. We should be talking to their MPs, to teachers at schools, to local business in their community and see how we can expand the value of arts and culture, and get that conversation going. That way when you guys at ET do your survey again in a few years, and if I get back onto Lavender Hill with my question, hopefully we will find there are more people who are engaged and excited about theatre. Hopefully more people will recognise the connection between what happens in their local theatre and the fact that their five year old is learning to play the piano at school or their niece being able to go to dance classes.
In terms of stuff happening at the BAC, we have a festival taking place in September which is based off of the “One on One Festival” which we have run in the past. In previous incarnations we have had 40 pieces of one on one theatre across the building, with 150 audience members per night, 10,000 performances in the theatre over a period of two weeks. We are bringing that back but in a completely different way – we’ve sent out a call for members of the public to submit true stories they would like to tell in under eight minutes. We’re borrowing from the One on One format, but this time it will be “One on One on One”, so if you come to the festival you will be paired with an audience member that you don’t know, and walk around our candlelit building in search of these stories told in different rooms around the venue. It will be called London Stories, as all the stories will be about being in London, traveling to London, what it’s like to be in London. It will last for 2 weeks starting on the 16thof September.