London is now richer by another theatre. A Southwark car park made good, The Bunker aims to introduce their audiences to an entirely new kind of theatre experience. Last week, the ambitious new theatre opened its doors and kicked things off with Isley Lynn’s Skin a Cat, with productions of Philip Ridley’s Tonight with Donny Stixx and new British pop-rock musical Muted coming up later this year. We talked to Artistic Director Joshua McTaggart and Executive Producer Joel Fisher to find out more about their new space.
You’re two young, upcoming creatives and you’re about to open your own theatre. How does that feel? Exciting, or is it a little bit scary as well?
Joshua: To be honest, it feels a little unreal! To run a venue has been a dream of mine since I set up my own puppet theatre in my bedroom aged seven. For that reason, no matter how stressful or terrifying the project becomes, I always take that step back and remind myself how exciting and special this opportunity is. Fear and terror are huge parts of making anything creative, and it’s the same with opening this building. Whenever I’ve doubted my ability to get the job done, I’ve reminded myself of why I am doing this: to give artists a new home in London where they can be risky, where they can be ambitious, and where they can make work that really matters.
Can you tell us a bit about your respective roles, and about how you work together? Most people will know what an Artistic Director does, but what is the role of the Executive Producer?
Joel: Way back at the beginning, we had long conversations about what our roles were and what titles they fit into. Although we’ve settled on Executive Producer and Artistic Director respectively, when setting up a venue like The Bunker there really isn’t a precedent of what our job description is. Although people assume EP’s are purely involved with budgets and spreadsheets, I have also worked to set up the bar, negotiated the lease with the landlord, and spent many an hour painting. Ultimately, the Executive Producer is the person that makes sure everything actually happens!
Joshua: It’s funny that you say people know what an Artistic Director does, because before embarking on The Bunker I naïvely thought that being an AD was all about programming, playwrights and engaging with artists. The reality is that I spend more time talking about toilets than I do plays, and I think I make more phone calls to Southwark Council than I do to anyone else. David Lan said something quite profound to me when I first started on The Bunker. He reminded me that in the arts we have to approach logistical and administrative problems with as much creative flair as we approach textual analysis or issues in a rehearsal room. After that conversation, I attempted to approach every challenge, even the most mundane administrative task, with all my creativity energy. So far, it seems to be working.
What’s the mission behind The Bunker? Say, five years from now, what do you hope to have achieved?
Joshua: As we lead towards opening, The Bunker hopes to be a playground for ambitious artists to meet with adventurous audiences to create unforgettable experiences. What that means for both of us is empowering our collaborators to create something different for audiences. We want the venue to be a place where the theatrical rulebook is rewritten and certain expectations are subverted. That means that the playing space opens an hour before the show and our bar is situated around the stage. Audiences are invited in and then encouraged to stay. Once the show finishes, the space and the bar stay open, so post-show drinks and conversation happen in the theatre itself. We are also curating a series of events that coincide with each performance, so there might be poetry, dance, music, or a host of other surprises that appear once the main show has finished.
Joel: And in my role, I’m always thinking ahead! I think we have an exciting offer to audiences, and within five years I want The Bunker to be a destination in itself. I hope audiences will see us as a venue that is different from most other off-West End venues, because of the nature of the space and the way the venue functions in terms of the event theatre Joshua described. If we achieve anything, I hope it is that audiences realise there is no one way to make and see theatre.
Do you have a wish list of shows you’d like to produce, people you’d like to work with or projects you want to get off the ground?
Joshua: I have often said that I don’t know the name of the artists I want to work with yet because I have yet to meet them, and I don’t know the pieces I want to direct because they have yet to be written. I like to think of The Bunker as a place to discover new talent and provide a home for artists that want support and space to grow. That said, there are some writers I am a huge fan of and whose work I’d love to see in The Bunker: Ella Hickson, Martin McDonnagh and Gary Owen are always on my top list.
Joel: I think Josh is right when he talks about not knowing who the artists are that we are going to work with yet, because that leaves room for surprise collaborations and new voices on our stage. We want to spend the first season getting to know our audience, and use their feedback to help find our future productions. At the end of the day, we want to create work that audiences love and want to see.
The Nicks will be opening their new theatre just down the road from you next year. Obviously, as a theatre lover, it pains me to ask, but don’t you think London’s getting rather oversaturated? Is it possible that there are just too many theatres in London?
Joel: This part of Southwark is full of cultural offerings, from the Menier Chocolate Factory, to The Globe, to the Tate Modern, to venues like the Union and the Unicorn. With the opening of the Low Line directly behind us in October, I actually think that the London Bridge area is going to become the future of culture in London. The Bunker sits at the centre of that, and I like to think we are doing something a little bit different. Hopefully by filling a niche, The Bunker isn’t just ‘another theatre’, but somewhere people want to go to on a regular basis.
Joshua: There’s always the fear of oversaturation in the industry, and we have to ask ourselves why that is. I think, in essence, it comes down to the work not appealing or the tickets being too expensive. Or both! If we can get affordability and accessibility right, then there is no reason to fear an oversaturated marketplace. Our aim is to create theatre with purpose, and every show we programme has to have a reason to be produced here and now. Like Joel says, we have to look at what we are offering to our audiences: Why spend an evening at The Bunker rather than in the bar across the road or at home watching Netflix? I hope that our approach to event theatre, creating an experience for the audience from the moment they walk in that lasts hours after the show has finished, will stand us out from the crowd.
Are there theatres, producers or artistic directors you look up to, or see as an example?
Joshua: The Young Vic is a place that we both have great respect for, not least because that is where we met and how we were introduced to each other. You could even say that The Bunker wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for The Young Vic! I think their combination of ambitious programming combined with international artists, as well as a bar that provides a space for socialising and discussion is the perfect combination for a theatre in the city.
Finally, if there’s one thing you could recommend from your opening season, what is it going to be? And why should we come and see it?
Joel: Just one?! That’s like choosing between my (unborn) children! Joshua and I have been so involved with the development of our first season that I couldn’t choose one as the favourite.
Josh: How about everyone should come and see our first show, Skin a Cat by Isley Lynn, to experience The Bunker and to discover Isley’s beautiful, hilarious, and touching sexual odyssey about a young woman. From there people will hopefully realise that everything in our first season is worth checking out and audiences will have such a fun evening with Isley’s play that they will book for Tonight with Donny Stixx, Muted and Abigail/Come On Over. It’s also worth pointing out that we don’t just have our Main House shows, we also have Monday night events which include new work in development, music nights, dance, and even a couple of movie nights. Really, there’s something for everyone, so there’s no excuse not to check out The Bunker in our first season!