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Steve Marmion: How Soho Theatre plans to raise the bar

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A year into his appointment as artistic director of Soho Theatre, Steve Marmion tells Alistair Smith how the venue is continuing to expand despite suffering a cut in funding and why the building’s watering hole has an important role to play as a meeting place for artists of different disciplines

Steve Marmion didn’t have the most auspicious of starts to his tenure as artistic director of Soho Theatre.

His first day on the job, in June 2010, saw him having to deal with the fallout from the death of Sebastian Horsley, the self-styled Soho dandy who was the subject of a play at the venue at the time. His second day saw him in a meeting with the arts council, being warned that its coffers were empty and Soho needed to prepare itself for cuts.

A year on, I’m now sat with him in the theatre’s revamped bar as he takes a break from rehearsals. Realism by Anthony Neilson – the first show Marmion has directed since joining the venue – recently opened to impressive reviews, and he’s now working with the same cast on his second, a new play called Mongrel Island, by Ed Harris.

It’s fair to say that things are starting to look up.

Once it emerged last year that Lisa Goldman was preparing to step down after four years in charge at Soho, it didn’t take Marmion long to decide to go for the post.

“I was ready to get back to a building,” he explains. “My professional career started as a youth theatre director at the Sherman in Cardiff, and my experience of theatre growing up was the same as a lot of people – my relationship wasn’t with a company or a theatre-maker, it was with a venue. After the RSC, there aren’t really any famous theatre companies. Most everyday, real people probably haven’t even heard of the National. For that dialogue with the audience to be more than a one-off, it needs to be connected to a venue.

“Having freelanced for six years, I was ready to have a longer dialogue. I’d have gone anywhere, in a funny way, but Soho is the theatre I’ve always had the biggest affinity with in London – partly because of the location and because when I used to come down to London it was always for the cup final and we’d come to Chinatown for something to eat. This is always where I’d had all my meetings, it’s always been the venue that felt most like me and my taste in things.”

Prior to going for the job, Marmion was already an associate, although he insists it would be wrong to regard his appointment as an inside job.

“I was part of a group of senior readers, but I wasn’t woven into the fabric of the building – it was a once a month meeting. To be honest, I was freelancing a lot, so I don’t think I made a lot of those meetings,” he admits.

Since then, he’s had meetings galore. First, an extensive interview process in which he had to lay out his vision for the central London venue and then, of course, the aforementioned meetings with Arts Council England.

In the end, Soho received a 17.6% cut from ACE, but secured regular funding for the next three years – a result that was, according to Marmion, “not the greatest in the world, but very, very far from the worst”.

It has, though, meant genuine cuts on the frontline. “We’ve had some tough decisions to make here about whether we amputate our arm or our leg. It felt like a show a year, it felt like a hole in the provision we have for first-time and emerging writers, and it felt like we’re going to have to think about a new way of resourcing education work.”

Perhaps most worryingly, it means that Soho can no longer guarantee to give feedback on every new play which is submitted to the venue.

“We were the only theatre in London that did that, so the provision no longer exists,” Marmion adds.

The cuts, though, haven’t tempered his ambitious plans for the building. He has already completed a redevelopment project which has seen the downstairs of the venue – formerly an Indian restaurant – turned into a new 150-seat cabaret space. This will feature performances from the Tiger Lillies, sketch groups such as Late Night Gimp Fight and works in progress from comedians. Audiences sit at cabaret-style tables and get drinks from a bar in the performance space. The venue cost £500,000 to create and Marmion is still fundraising for the final £100,000 (you can donate via the theatres’s website www.sohotheatre.com).

Meanwhile, Soho’s 100-seat studio, which used to function as a straight rental space to generate income, has become the Soho Theatre Upstairs. While the venue will still host work from outside companies, it is now a “proper curated venue” with many of the shows working on a box office split, rather than a straight rental deal. Soho will also offer more support for the productions taking place there. Productions in the opening season range from Edinburgh transfers to the School of Night, Ken Campbell’s old company.

The addition of these new spaces to the venue’s main 150-seat theatre means that “essentially, we’ve turned a 150-seat theatre into pretty much a 900-seater on the weekends, because we have two shows in every space and three downstairs – so seven shows a night on the weekend,” says Marmion. “Last night, which was a Tuesday night, we had five sell-out shows across the spaces. That’s a Tuesday night during a recession.”

As well as increasing the volume of the venue’s output, Marmion has been keen to work on the programming mix. The venue has always hosted both comedy and theatre, but Marmion felt that too often the strands felt divorced from one another.

“It’s about the different strands of work here weaving together more. It’s about valuing the comedy work we do. As far as I’m concerned, a third of Shakespeare’s plays are described as comedies, all of Alan Ayckbourn’s bar four or five are described as that and, if you look at the masks that sum up theatre, [comedy and tragedy] are the same size.

“So, I think comedy is a much-sniffed at section of the industry, in the same way panto is. But I think it’s really important and, for me, comedy is the gateway drug – it’s the cigarettes that get you on to the hardcore of new writing or opera.

“For Soho, it was about valuing that strand, but also getting the theatre work up and punching at the same level as the comedy and pulling away any criteria about theme or politics and saying, ‘Well, actually we’ll make the best scripts that are available’. That might sound naive, because I know no one means to make a bad play, but we do it quite a lot in theatre. The criteria now is, ‘Is it the best play we have available to us to do?’ That’s simply the criteria.”

But back to the bar where Marmion and I are talking before he has to dash back to rehearsals in the downstairs cabaret space.

The bar is central to Marmion’s vision for Soho Theatre. Since joining, it has been taken in-house and Marmion wants it to become a focal point for both Soho’s audiences and its artists. Later in this year’s programme, part of OperaUpClose’s new production of Don Giovanni will even be staged in here.

“Soho is at its strongest in the bar – at the convergence point of comedy, cabaret, theatre, dance and opera. Where those fields overlap is where we’re at a really exciting place to push the form. And not in a way for artists to sit there stroking their chins, saying, ‘This is amazing, look what they have done with the form’. It’s more about doing that in a way that delights audiences.

“These streets are famous for drink- and drug-fuelled arts. Some of the greatest forms [of art] were created in these streets – when the commedia troupes got drunk with the variety artists, panto was invented. It’s about creating an environment where artists can collaborate in a very informal setting and work out their plans for world domination at 12.30 on a Tuesday night.”

In short, Marmion wants Soho to feel like Edinburgh during the festival.

* Mongrel Island runs at Soho Theatre until August 6. www.sohotheatre.com

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