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Focus: So and So Arts Club – the self-help club for actors

Sarah Berger at So and So Arts Club’s headquarters Sarah Berger at So and So Arts Club’s headquarters
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The So and So Arts Club started by accident. The actor and director Sarah Berger was sharing a desk space in a delicatessen with a friend, working on an idea for giving fellow theatre folk a boost. The friend asked what the idea was.

“I said I was fed up with doing so-so plays by so-and-so playwrights, and she said that’s what you should call it: the So and So Club,” says Berger, and four years ago the club was founded in London.

The So and So is a professional actors’ self-help club that sources good, new plays as material for rehearsed readings. Its ethos is of supporting artists across generations, and it now has more than 1,200 members in nine countries, including Canada, the US and Australia, with patrons such as critic Michael Billington, director John Caird, agent Ken McReddie and actor Frances Barber. Its members are actors, writers and directors, among them Phyllis Logan, Terry Johnson, Bill Alexander and Joanna David.

“I’ve been an actor for 35 years, and when you’re a pit pony hanging on to the rock face for a long time, you get to a point when you’re tired of complaining about the lot – of actresses in particular,” Berger says. “I thought I’d do something about it, but you can’t do much on your own, so why not reach out? I’d say to other actors, I’ll open my contacts book, try to share opportunities and generate proactivity, will you do the same? Lots said okay.”

Using those contacts and Facebook, she began doing readings in often unconventional places – one of the first was in a stained glass studio in West Drayton, when a hat was spontaneously passed around the audience so that the readers got paid. They still do, getting £40 a reading, and the club has generated work for more than 600 actors, writers, directors and designers.

For the past 18 months, the So and So Arts Club has had its base in a four-storey house at 6 Frederick Place, off Old Jewry in the City, owned by the Mercers’ Company and let for a nominal rent. It is shared with James Roose-Evans’ Frontier Theatre Productions, and its rooms of various sizes are used for rehearsals, readings, performances and offices, which Berger can let as affordable space for other artists – “a holy grail in London” – to help fund the club. The So and So is now looking for longer-term premises in which it can also establish a fringe venue where young actors – too many of whom lack sufficient experience without the rep system, Berger believes – can learn their trade.

“Performers in particular feel so disempowered, it doesn’t really matter what you’ve done, what you’ve achieved,” she says. “You look at TV in this country and you’d think only five people live here. It’s the same faces all the time, and that has crept into the theatre. It’s a very closed shop, despite not having a functioning union anymore. The club helps people collaborate and meet each other, make it more of a level playing field.”

Berger built a website to keep communications live, and it has been a one-woman operation. Membership costs are minimal and the turnover is tiny.

So far, there have been 39 rehearsed readings and 68 performances, including several productions at fringe venues such as the Tristan Bates Theatre, the Drayton Arms, the Mill at Sonning (where she presented the British premiere of a Nora Ephron play) and the Jermyn Street Theatre. All that is earned goes back into the So and So; Berger takes no payment.

She began a series of festivals in 2014 with the HopeFull  Rep season at the the Hope pub in Islington – four quite different plays for older actors, for which she got her first and last Arts Council England grant. She did it again last year, despite being turned down by ACE, at Fred’s Place, as she calls the club’s HQ. This time, a musical was added – “stories of people over 40 because I’m getting tired of having fallen off the face of the earth since I got past that age” – for which everyone was paid the Equity fringe minimum.

There have been more festivals, such as A Kick Up the Arts, which showcased 15 plays with interactive masterclasses and workshops, and Women in the Arts, with a similar format co-produced with the Actors Centre.

The biggest So and So venture so far began on July 4, a month-long season at Fred’s Place called Women at War: 16 plays, four films, two exhibitions and special events. A taster on June 27 was Seven, a one-off play by seven playwrights about seven heroic female activists from around the world, featuring Miriam Margolyes, Rula Lenska and Josie Lawrence.

Berger is directing Cleo Sylvestre in a play about Mary Seacole, the black Crimean War nurse whose statue was unveiled at St Thomas’ Hospital on June 30 (she will take the play to the Edinburgh Fringe). Her festival co-producer, Broadway director Rachel Neuberger, has written her own searing play, Nepenthe, about the notorious Block 24 brothel at Auschwitz. There’s an exhibition of portraits by the war artist Arabella Dorman.

“This is a bold, important idea,” says So and So supporter Imogen Stubbs. “Now, more than ever, we need to raise our voices as artists to make sure that women across the world feel both heard and supported.”

The club is being set on a more formal footing by chair James Winterbotham, who is a City financial consultant. In June, he set it up as a community interest company, a corporate body that has a community purpose rather than a commercial one; it can make a profit and raise capital, but also gets more sympathy from local authorities and bodies such as the Arts Council. “However,” he explains, “they do need to demonstrate good governance, hence Sarah’s desire to have us on the board.”

He met Berger though his actor/director wife Emmeline Winterbotham (who is also the master of a City livery company), and was impressed by So and So’s business model.

“Speaking to Sarah was refreshing since she passionately believes that, first, the theatre profession should be paid, and secondly, productions should be properly marketed. This requires applying business principles to the arts,” Winterbotham says. “Our intention is that the business is put on a sounder financial footing that enables Sarah to pursue her artistic aims using professional performers, to create stability for future planning, and will enable her to be paid a proper salary. A key element of this is to have a space for performance, rehearsal and office use.”

First will be the creation of a business plan, and then finding a permanent, low-cost base in the City – the lease on Fred’s Place could be ended at any moment. “I see this coming together of arts, business and an otherwise unused asset from a benign landlord as a perfect model,” Winterbotham says.

But, as Caird says, it has to be about theatre. He has known Berger since she was a very young Olivia in his 1983 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Twelfth Night, opposite Zoe Wanamaker’s Viola.

“Theatre is a social art,” Caird says, “and you can only make judgements about how good you are by being in the company of people you are working with, sharing ideas. Being a young artist is a very lonely business, especially for an actor, and you get on by making partnerships, forming alliances, doing things together. That’s why So and So is so important and why it works.”

Profile: So and So Arts Club

Founded: June, 2014
Membership: 1,283
Headquarters: 6 Frederick Place, London, EC2R 8AB
Status: Community interest company
Aims: To create work for actors, directors, writers and designers
Chief executive: Sarah Berger (unpaid)
Chairman: James Winterbotham
Turnover: £15,000 pa
Funding: Membership (£30 pa) and box office
Staff: None
Website: thesoandsoartsclub.co.uk

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