Newcastle’s Alphabetti Theatre founder and artistic director Ali Pritchard tells Tracey Sinclair about his search for a venue, moving towards longer runs and reflecting the city in the theatre’s work
Not many theatres owe their existence to heavy metal music and pig innards but Newcastle’s Alphabetti Theatre has a stranger origin story than most. Founder and artistic director Ali Pritchard had been looking for somewhere to stage his own work – a show he’d taken successfully to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – but was frustrated by the lack of venues in his adopted hometown.
“I approached the local theatres who all asked to be invited to my next show,” he says. “But if lots of venues say this, where are you meant to put on this ‘next show’?” Salvation came in the form of a room above a city centre pub – the Dog and Parrot – but there was one condition. “The owner said I could have it for a week if I cleaned it first. They’d had a metal band in and the place was covered in pig’s entrails,” Pritchard laughs.
Pritchard, 29, grew up in Guildford and studied study drama and scriptwriting in Newcastle. “This was before the arrival of [artistic director] Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage and [creative producer] Graeme Thompson at Live Theatre, so the city had little in the way of studio space,” he says. “We had loads of artists and audience members who said, this is different, I want to come to this.”
A successful run of the sketch show Teeth in Eggcups convinced the then-owner to invest £500 and Alphabetti (originally Alphabetti Spaghetti) was born. It was a steep – and expensive – learning curve. “I didn’t understand funding or anything. I hadn’t been taught it, didn’t know who to ask. I was just muddling through, and got myself into a lot of debt, but we were making really interesting work,” says Pritchard.
Eighteen months later, a change of pub ownership rendered the company homeless. By then, with both Campbell and Thompson in situ, Newcastle’s theatre scene had changed, and Alphabetti took a hiatus from running a venue and concentrated on producing and staging work, doing shows in the studio spaces at Live and Northern Stage. But its home was missed: “We had audiences saying: ‘We don’t feel comfortable and can’t afford to go into other theatres’, and artists saying: ‘Our work fits in your place, are you going to do a new one?’”
A temporary home became available in an office block that had been taken over by artists’ studios. The business model was changed to incorporate a bar – a valuable source of revenue. On a shoestring budget – “me, one friend and lots of volunteers” – ingenuous solutions were needed, such as becoming a showroom for a local antiques business. (“You could buy your chair if you liked it.”) Pritchard says: “There was no hot water, no heating and the theatre rumbled when a Metro went past, but we really cut our teeth in that space”.
1. Alphabetti has a theatre dog. Pritchard adopted Sir Rexalot from a shelter in 2015. “He loves people and his favourite time is when the theatre is at its fullest and he can trot about for strokes. He is very much part of the team, with a bed in the office and the bar. He comes to rehearsals, meetings, lectures and even is present for interviews.”
2. Alphabetti is now in its third venue since 2012. Having started out above a pub, it was then housed in an office block basement, before moving to its current home, in St James Boulevard, not far from Newcastle’s Central Station.
3. Alphabetti was “a mistake”. Explains Pritchard: “I never meant to start a theatre – I just wanted a space for my work and for emerging artist to be seen.”
4. The majority of the programme at Alphabetti is part of a pay-what-you-feel ticketing scheme. “We believe great art should be for everyone not just those who can afford it. It means both artists and audiences can take a risk.”
5. There is about to be an Alphabetti baby. Pritchard and his partner, who met at the theatre’s second venue, are expecting their first child.
With the building marked for demolition, a new venue had to be found. “Letting agents hated what we were doing – it was a huge risk. We went from having to pay no real rent because the building was reclaimed, to having to pay a high commercial rent, and licensing on top.”
Pritchard says he was lucky to get connected with more experienced artistic directors – particularly New Diorama’s David Byrne and David Lockwood, who was then at Bike Shed, whose advice and assistance was invaluable. “Alphabetti wouldn’t exist without them,” he says.
The company moved into its current space in 2017 and became a charity. “We took over two floors of an old rubber stamp factory. It was partly flooded and more than a bit rough – the landlord had been quoted £350,000 to do basic renovations. We received 5% of that budget from an Arts Council England grant and working with Tilt Workshop, we ran a community engagement project to help build it. We worked with Newcastle College construction students and had more than 200 volunteers rip down walls and build the space.”
Now settled in, Alphabetti is keen to move towards longer runs after a successful start in February with Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers. It also hopes to offer opportunities for less-established artists. Short, commissioned reaction pieces to the main plays and writing programmes aimed at various experience levels allow creatives to get a feel for the company: “They can understand how we work and we can understand how they work.”
Pritchard is keen to make Alphabetti reflective of the area it’s based in, which is one of the most multicultural parts of the city. The theatre has strong ties with a number of community groups. While he recognises there is work to be done in terms of better racial diversity, programming is strong on gender parity, and Alphabetti was recently commended as a ‘safe space’ for LGBT+ artists to create work in.
Alphabetti has worked with playwrights including Janet Plater – who is now regularly working at Hull Truck – and Louise Taylor, cabaret artists Bonnie and the Bonnettes and even Inua Ellams, the writer of Barber Shop Chronicles, who performed his show An Evening with an Immigrant in 2017.
Looking forward, Pritchard is experimenting with increasing the capacity from 75 to 100 and wants the theatre’s ‘pay what you feel’ model to become the standard for all shows. He’s also looking to increase the attendance rate from a target of 60% (“We’re averaging 67% this year, which is exciting.”) Ultimately, though, his aim is simple: “We want to be one of the best studio theatres in the country.”
Artistic director, executive director and founder: Ali Pritchard
Number of performances: On average 300 performances a year
Audience figures: “We are currently averaging 67% average audience capacity for this year so look like we’ll be hitting 15,000 audience members annually”
Number of employees: Nine, three of whom are full-time
Turnover: £145,000 in 2018
Funding levels: “We survive on project-to-project funding. We receive a small amount of core funding from a community foundation in form of Newcastle Cultural Investment Fund.”
For more information go to: alphabettitheatre.co.uk