Long established as a creative space, west London’s Playground Theatre is now opening to paying audiences. Its artistic directors tell Sam Masters why letting punters in will not compromise its ethos of innovation
Almost a decade ago, Peter Tate was walking along Latimer Road. Past west London’s busiest flyover, beyond the Tabernacle Church and among a slew of warehouses was a bus depot. As Tate recalls, the loading bay doors were open and inside were two single-deckers.
“I came in, there was nobody here,” he says, looking around the same space today as a team of builders put the finishing touches to new dressing rooms. “There were two buses and we communed. The minute I walked in, the feeling was there.”
Tate bought the site in Ladbroke Grove, and the Playground Theatre was born. Since 2001, it has been a research and rehearsal space for emerging and established artists to develop work that has been performed at venues including the Young Vic, Hampstead Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse.
In the early days, the Playground was a little rough around the edges, Tate admits, but soon it welcomed Marcello Magni and Simon McBurney , co-founders of Complicite. Others followed, including Rufus Norris , now the National Theatre’s director, with musician Damon Albarn when the latter was developing his opera, Doctor Dee. The converted depot also hosted Hideki Noda, head of National Theatre of Japan, who worked in the converted garage for two weeks on Red Demon, which ran at the Young Vic in 2003.
Today, the Playground is preparing to open a theatre for the first time , seating up to 150 after a conversion costing £270,000.
Tate says the thought that it could become a theatre in its own right has been in the back of his mind ever since he first visited the space. By the start of this year, Tate’s co-artistic directors, Caitriona McLaughlin – now associate director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin – and playwright Darren Murphy had left to pursue other opportunities. In February, Tate’s friend, the actor Johnnie Lyne-Pirkis, had heard Anthony Biggs was leaving his role as artistic director of the Jermyn Street Theatre  and the two got in touch.
Biggs, now co-artistic director, says he was immediately won over by the former bus depot, comparing it to the early days of Peter Brook ’s Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris. But after five years heading the Jermyn Street venue, where he had been acclaimed for championing new work and new talent, and signing up to Equity’s fringe agreement, Biggs had not been immediately looking for another project.
Born: 1970, Aldershot
Training: National Youth Theatre; NW5 Theatre School; MFA theatre directing (Birkbeck, University of London)
Landmark productions: Little Eyolf, Jermyn Street Theatre, London (2011), Soldiers’ Wives, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh (2012), I Loved Lucy, Arts Theatre, London (2017)
Awards: The Stage Award for fringe theatre of the year for Jermyn Street Theatre (2012)
Training: Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art; Stella Adler, US
Landmark productions: Yonadab, National Theatre (1985), Rasputin, Actors Studio, New York (1990), Flight, Lyric Hammersmith (1993), American Justice, Arts Theatre, London (2013)
“I’d heard about this space, although I’d never been to it,” he says. “It was known as a magical space where you could try things out without pressure, which was unheard of really, apart from somewhere like the NT Studio.”
Biggs, who lives less than a mile away from the theatre, says he was driven by a desire to work in a venue that was connected to the community around it. “There are an awful lot of different communities around here but at the moment there is no theatre serving where we are right now,” he says. While venues such as the Gate in Notting Hill, the Bush in Shepherd’s Bush and the Lyric Hammersmith are in the wider vicinity, “there’s really nothing in this area”.
Appealing to the diverse communities in Ladbroke Grove will prove critical to the theatre’s success, Tate and Biggs agree. The area is commonly thought of as affluent, but rows of multi– million-pound homes soon give way to vast, high-density housing such as the Lancaster West Estate where, on June 14 this year, Grenfell Tower was destroyed by a fire, killing dozens.
Two months after the Grenfell tragedy, Tate was approached by the composer Jake Walker and an organisation called Grief Encounter. For two weeks, the Playground hosted workshops with the families and children of Grenfell and surrounding areas. Among those who came to the workshops was the cast of Matilda, the musical running at the Cambridge Theatre in the West End. “It was a way for the people to come into this safe space and maybe start to rebuild a life for the kids,” Tate says.
One of the new productions at the Playground, directed by Biggs and slated for next year, will be Gregory Evans’ play Untenable. It charts the fall of Westminster council leader Shirley Porter, whose career was ended by a homes-for-votes corruption scandal.
“I read it, and the resonances with Grenfell are shocking,” says Tate. “These people were almost viewed as sub-human.” Biggs says he prefers the idea of tackling a subject as raw as Grenfell in a slightly oblique way.
“Quite rightly, plenty of people will be doing verbatim pieces of work – probably much better than we could,” he adds.
Tate says nothing should be discounted from the Playground stage: “I want as many disciplines in this room as possible.” Some productions, such as the upcoming Picasso and The Little Prince in December, will run for a month. Others will have a much shorter run.
The building will continue to be used as a rehearsal and development space. Complicite is returning to rehearse in the spring. And in February, the Playground hopes to stage a musical performed entirely by young people from the surrounding area.
Given its history as a space where productions are developed, it is perhaps no surprise that the Playground enjoys the backing of some well-known patrons. Among them are the actors Celia Imrie and Cherie Lunghi, as well as the dancer Lynn Seymour.
Tate met Imrie while performing in New York at Brits Off Broadway. “She loves the space here,” he said. They hope she will perform at the Playground in the future. Seymour – about whom Rudolph Nureyev once remarked: “Lynn possesses genius; when she goes on stage, heaven descends on your lap” – has known Tate for about 20 years.
Q&A: Anthony Biggs and Peter Tate
What was your first non-theatre job? AB: Concierge to the rich and famous. I once took Meg Ryan shopping.
PT: Window cleaner.
What was your first professional theatre job? AB: Playing a schoolboy in Another Country, directed by Sarah Frankcom, at the Man in the Moon Theatre in Chelsea. We were a very naughty cast. PT: The Hostage, by Brendan Behan, in New York.
What’s your next job? AB: Influenced by the fire at Grenfell, I’m developing a new piece about the power of communication, with international artists including actor Jack Klaff. PT: Playing Pablo Picasso at the Playground.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? AB: To be myself. There really is no point trying to be like anyone else. And it’s all meaningless anyway. PT: To thine own self be true.
Who or what was your biggest influence? AB: My children. They keep me in the real world. They have a nose for bullshit. PT: There are many from different forms. Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, the dancer, Nijinsky, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the choreographer Anna Sokolow and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris.
What’s your best advice for auditions? AB: The job is yours to have. Don’t talk yourself out of it. PT: Take the space and never apologise for who you are or want to be. Never seek approval as your main goal.
If you hadn’t worked in theatre, what would you have done? AB: Been a picture hanger. My uncle has an art installation company that I used to work for in between acting jobs. I once hung the portraits on the stairs of 10 Downing Street. PT: Probably continued solely as a businessman and been deadly boring.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? AB: Probably. PT: None.
Biggs and Tate hope the Playground will be known as a generator of new, creative theatre. They say the idea of it being a fringe venue is misleading. Biggs says that West End theatres have become receiving houses, driven by what the market will take. “You wouldn’t put a huge musical into the Duke of York’s, and at the same time you wouldn’t put a ‘thinking play’ into the Drury Lane,” he says.
There are some honourable exceptions, Biggs adds, but given that the West End does not produce new work, he says the notion of fringe would be misapplied to the Playground. “We are actually the people who make theatre, so the idea that we are peripheral to it is wrong,” he says. “We feed what eventually ends up in the West End.”
Tate and Biggs acknowledge that Arts Council England’s drive to create partnerships between theatres could be beneficial. “Not just because we feel it’s the word that the Arts Council is bandying around at the moment, but actually for us to work well, we need to collaborate,” says Biggs. “So we need work coming in from West Yorkshire Playhouse or Glasgow Citizens, or wherever – we need those companies coming here.”
Looking around the theatre, Tate points to “eight-hour chairs” ready to be moved into position for the first production, Picasso. The new Playground theatre will be entirely flexible for companies, with 2,500 sq ft of available space. The first production, Terry d’Alfonso’s Picasso, is directed by Michael Hunt, designed by Clara Zieglerova and features Tate in the title role.
Biggs says he would like audiences at the Playground to see what might be the germ of an idea. “What you see here might be the early stages,” he says. “It could be a musical, for instance, that ends up in the West End or on Broadway that might start its life here. It’s just finding its feet and that is quite exciting.”
Picasso runs at the Playground Theatre, London , from November 1 to 25, with press night on November 7