Behind the scenes at the Watermill, Berkshire’s producing powerhouse
Even the ducks outside the Watermill Theatre respect the venue’s intimate nature. “They’re Muscovy ducks,” explains director of marketing Jan Ferrer, as we pull up outside the West Berkshire venue to a webbed-feet welcoming party. “They don’t quack, which means they can’t be heard by audiences when a play is on.”
It’s one of the many quirks I discover over two days at the theatre, where actors’ accommodation is named after Craig Revel Horwood and white crosses taped to stairs backstage indicate creaky floorboards that performers must avoid or risk being heard by audiences. Well, if the ducks can do their bit…
The Watermill building dates back to 1830 and was formerly used as a corn mill, a fulling mill and a paper mill. It was converted into a theatre in the 1960s and had its first professional theatre season in 1967. In 1981 the mill was bought by Jill Fraser, together with her husband James Sargant. Fraser ran it until 2006, after which Hedda Beeby became artistic director.
The venue is now overseen by 30-year-old Paul Hart, who joined last year and who manages a core team of 49 based at the venue, and 460 performances a year. Over a catch-up in the restaurant (which is used by a third of audiences at the venue and is a “vital revenue source”), he explains that he isn’t yet feeling a pressure to please the loyal audiences that the venue attracts.
“There is something about working here that makes you almost forget you are doing it for an audience,” he says. “It makes you feel you are making the work for each other, and then the audience turns up – and you take it to another level. There never feels like a pressure here and that is why I prefer it to freelancing in London.”
He adds: “The danger is that you make work for a particular audience or critics and that is definitely a trap you can fall into as a director. There is something about the nature of the place – there is a loyalty from the audience here and they want to get behind something. If they go with something they really want it to work.”
It’s not hard to see why audiences are so loyal when I tour the building with Ferrer, who has clocked up 11 years’ service with the theatre. She leads me over an internal bridge from the foyer to the auditorium with the old mill wheel to the left, visible through glass like a museum piece. The theatre is a charming 200-seat space, with remnants of the mill visible all around. Despite its appearance, Ferrer is keen to stress its capabilities.
“People look at it and say it’s a chocolate box and it’s quaint, but we use state-of-the-art technology,” she says.
Later in my trip I witness how right she is, when Jodie Prenger takes to the stage in Tell Me on a Sunday, which is beautifully lit and designed. Intimate, yes, but somehow giving the impression of being much bigger than it is. As Ferrer points out, there have been many musicals here (including Revel Horwood’s Sunset Boulevard) and they have been “musical spectaculars but on a tiny scale”.
Hart uses the space to inform what he programmes. “I am fascinated that it’s not a theatre, it’s a found space, in the same way the Donmar is,” he tells me later. “It’s more evocative because it’s not a theatre and I feel very strongly you have to use that in some sort of way. I have programmed Watership Down for this year because my immediate image of the theatre was that it looked like a burrow. You feel like you’re underground.”
He adds: “With Christmas shows I am keen you feel you enter a different world, as it’s a beautiful space, it’s earthy and wooden. But it’s also incredibly flexible and you can just use it as a proscenium arch auditorium, in a way, or as a thrust stage, or in the round. You have a lot of options in terms of how you present stuff to an audience. The challenge of the job is to keep on surprising audiences with how we do that.”
Continuing my tour, we have moved backstage – except there is no backstage area as such. There are no wings, just a staircase connecting dressing rooms at the top of the theatre to the stage. The aforementioned white crosses taped to the stairs are a reminder of how close actors and audiences are. Performers can use this staircase to access the stage, or make use of public entrances to the auditorium.
At the top of the staircase we enter the dressing-room area – five former corn bins that have long-since been converted. Here is a glitter drop that used to be a corn chute. It’s not in best position, however, based as it is inside a toilet.
“If we do a glitter drop then one of the assistant stage managers lies on their stomach down by the toilet and chuck things through,” Ferrer explains. “Ever glamorous.”
The truth is that the venue has top-notch facilities. While the stage management team used to work out of a Portakabin, it now has offices in a new admin block, completed in 2008. This is also home to the wardrobe department, which used to be based in a windowless area at the top of the theatre. It makes many of the theatre’s costumes, but some are hired in. Sets used to be constructed on site, though these are now done in Coventry and brought in to the venue.
After my tour I join Hart in rehearsals for his production of Romeo and Juliet, featuring a young cast. Rehearsals once took place in the restaurant area, with performers packing up just in time for the arrival of diners for the evening rush. The rehearsal room opened in 1995 and is small but functional. Ideas are bounced around the room, with everyone chipping in. Hart may be director, but he’s not imposing anything on anyone.
“I love it to be a bit chaotic and full of ideas and an exciting place to be,” he explains. “I thought there would come a point when someone would say, ‘You’re not a director as you’re not telling people what to do,’ but so far no one has. A lot of actors like to feel their ideas are valid and will be taken on board.”
It is important that performers feel comfortable. They all live on site for the duration of the rehearsals and run of a show, in various outbuildings. When things are particularly busy, local landlords will take actors in. The venue can house 21 actors and creatives on site. After their day’s work they come together in the bar. Here I meet Prenger after she has come off stage. She has just shown me her own on-site apartment, named after Revel Horwood, and claims every performer should experience life at the theatre.
“When we did Calamity Jane here, I had never rehearsed anywhere like it before,” she says. “Usually you’ll rehearse in somewhere like Three Mills in London. But here everyone is on site. It doesn’t take long to get to work and it’s a really nice experience. I would recommend it to any performer or creative. It’s really different but in a good way.” She laughs, adding: “After two weeks rehearsals I got excited when I saw a Pret.”
Five things you need to know about the Watermill
1. All-male Shakespeare company Propeller began life at the Watermill.
2. Actors live, rehearse and perform on site. The venue can host 21 performers and creatives on location.
3. The venue has a thriving youth theatre, with 450 people on the waiting list.
4. David Jason, Bill Nighy and Sean Bean began their career at the Watermill.
5. The venue’s production of Sweeney Todd ran on Broadway in 2005/6 and won two Tony awards.
Prenger’s Tell Me on a Sunday began life at the Watermill before embarking on a UK tour. For Hart, who lives in a house on site with two kittens and a puppy, taking the work out to audiences beyond the Watermill is vital.
“We are in a position to produce top-notch quality work that can go to other venues and reach bigger audiences. We should be using our subsidy for that,” he says.
The venue receives money from Arts Council England and West Berkshire Council, which represents 20% of its income.Most of its revenue comes from its own activities and it needs audience capacity of 85% to remain profitable. Recently the venue learned that the local council is threatening to cut the theatre’s subsidy by 44%.
Hart understands the financial problems facing the council, but says: “We all felt very relieved when the spending review happened. We were all expecting a major cut at that point and had been planning for some cuts somewhere. But it’s always disappointing. We have been doing really well and it’s not performance-related. With cuts from central government, they have such difficult decisions to make and it will have an impact. You budget to what you have got and try to make it work and if you can’t do something, you can’t do it.”
He adds: “I am really keen, if we do get cut, that it impacts our work as little as possible and we continue to reach as many people as we can.”
Hart is also keen to make the theatre a place for emerging directors to cut their teeth. “I am really keen for it to continue to be a place where people come and do something they would not normally do,” he says, adding that he also wants to develop new writing. He wants every Christmas production at the venue to be an original commission and to develop new musicals.
“I want to encourage the next generation of creatives, particularly writers,” he says. “It’s an amazing place to come and think. I want to give space to people who are coming through the ranks. I feel a duty to look for people who do something different and who may not get those opportunities in the mainstream.”
This, he concludes, can only be good for the health of the sector as a whole, otherwise there is a risk of repertoire dying out.
“I feel a responsibility to find the plays that will be being revived in 10 or 15 years’ time,” Hart says. “That is a great ambition to have.”
Profile: Watermill Theatre
Chief executive/artistic director: Paul Hart (right)
No of performances: 460 a year
Audience figures: 78,433 (excluding major UK tours)
No of employees: 49, and 145 contractual
Gross income: £3.5 million
Funding: 80% from box office; £1.3 million (2015-2018) from Arts Council England; £31,400 from West Berkshire Council (with proposed reduction of £14,000 this year)
Key contacts: Clare Lindsay (general manager), Matthew Ray (casting and production assistant)
Romeo and Juliet runs at the Watermill Theatre until April 2
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