It’s curious that for a city that prides itself on its live performance arts, London for so long had no proper spaces for creating that art. Plenty of found spaces, of course, church halls, town halls, old gyms, but nothing designed for and dedicated to the creation of new shows.
The 1998 opening of the Jerwood Space near London’s South Bank changed all that, and its enlightened policy of charging commercial shows commercial rates to subsidise others means many have enjoyed and benefited from it. But the fact it remained the only dedicated rehearsal space in town suggests that demand still outstrips supply.
Hence the arrival of Glasshill Studios early this year, a new rehearsal facility located just a few moments away from Jerwood – a location Matt Towell, the driving force behind the project, admits is not really a coincidence.
“When we started thinking about this seriously, we did look at buildings all over London, but we really wanted to be in Southwark, which seems to have become an artistic hub with its proximity to the West End and the South Bank. The popularity of Jerwood also confirmed it was an area most directors, producers and people involved with shows were happy with,” he says.
Towell’s name is perhaps more familiar from his real day job as a freelance production manager, his CV encompassing everything from Beautiful at the Aldwych to The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse to Monty Python at the O2, and the Batman Live world arena tour. All of the above meant he was very familiar with what makes a good rehearsal room, and with the knowledge that good ones were often not available. But it’s a big step from that to decide to create your own.
“I can’t quite remember when I decided it might be something I could do,” Towell admits. “During the last few crazy weeks, as we finally got this place open, I think perhaps I wished I hadn’t decided that. But I think it was around 2009 that I asked Nicky Lee, my assistant, to start looking gently for potential spaces, not as a priority, just if she had any time to fill. Ultimately, she was talking to someone she knew, who suggested someone he knew, who suggested here.”
That ‘here’ gives the new space its name – the studios sit between King’s Bench Street and Glasshill Street, set just back from the South Bank, almost equidistant from London Bridge and Waterloo Stations. What you find there now is an immaculate brick-fronted building containing four elegant rehearsal spaces, three office spaces and a communal green room-come-reception area.
That is a considerable transformation from what Towell first found on the site, which was “a run-down building around a central courtyard, housing workshops that had been let out to artists and others at tiny rents, while the owners worked out what to do with the place. We knew immediately that it was a good size for us in a great location.” The practical problem, of course, was money – West End production managers, sadly, don’t earn enough to buy property in premium London locations.
“But we got talking to the developers and, through them, to finance companies, and we began to form a plan,” Towell recalls. “Our business plan was for this to be a commercial operation, for it to at least cover its costs. Their plan was to create commercial office space above us and apartments above that. I think having us there serving the artistic community perhaps helped get the overall scheme through the planning process.”
Of course, planning to reality is always a long, hard road, particularly when dealing with old buildings. “We knew rehearsal rooms needed height – my original idea was to dig down to gain us some headroom, but as we started work, we discovered that the foundations of the building slope inwards, apparently quite a common technique at the time of building, which prevented us from doing that,” Towell explains. “So we had to change that approach – instead the studios have incredibly expensive but incredibly shalow LED light fittings to keep as much headroom as possible clear. The layout is very much as we first planned with the architects, though – who like the building so much they’ve moved into the offices above us.”
The new facilities are not just elegantly finished, but have the kind of practical details you’d expect from a founder who spends his life getting shows on: “The fights I had to make sure the doors were wide enough to get flight cases and Steeldeck through, or that there were enough mains sockets and big power outlets in the spaces, were incredible,” Towell recalls. “Even then there were things we overlooked, but as we’ve realised we’ve been quick to add them.”
The work on the building is now a happy collaboration between the building trades who did their traditional work, including the enormous amount of insulation that acoustically separates the studios from the offices above, and the theatre suppliers whose services Towell has called upon since, including Stage Services, Unusual Rigging “and Simon Kenny at Souvenir who not only built desks for the offices, but provided artwork to liven up the green room – something he’d originally created for an Alexander McQueen show – which looks great here.” The website continues this practical, theatrical approach, with each space detailed by its dimensions and facilities, but also by which West End theatres it provides a suitable match for.
Glasshill’s proximity to Jerwood makes it easy to think of it as a competitor, which to some extent it must be – but Towell insists there’s more than enough demand to go around. Glasshill also has some features Jerwood can’t offer: “Studio 4 has its own private entrance, which turns out to be invaluable when you need to sneak in big Hollywood stars without anyone noticing. We also have our own private parking spaces, which we knew some producers would insist on.”
Glasshill opened at the beginning of the year with the rehearsals for Beautiful, a show Towell was also production-managing. “That was a crazy time, being in the theatre during the day then coming back here at night; the people on that show were incredibly supportive, for which I’m very grateful. Fortunately, after that we had an empty week or so to finish off everything else.”
Since then, Glasshill has housed Bend It Like Beckham, Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots, the Royal Shakespeare Company and many others, some from beyond the world of theatre – for instance, “nearby businesses who just walk in because they need a space for a meeting or a conference”.
Inevitably, there are those Grand Designs-style questions: is he happy with the result, and would he do it again? “It was an incredible learning curve in so many ways, dealing with planners, with finance people, with developers – all very different from the way we work in theatre. But I am very happy with the result, with the spaces we’ve created, but also with the way we’ve respected the building – I love the incredible work the brickies did outside, where you can’t really tell new brickwork from old, I love the windows, I love that people compliment us on having nice toilets.”
He is clear, though, that while he’ll be a hands-on managing director, he’s also not giving up production management any time soon; Lori Ford is in place as day-to-day general manager. But just when you think his property development days are done, he lets slip that he is wondering about a slightly different kind of rehearsal space, a bit bigger, for when you want to hang some scenery and lighting to rehearse with before you take the show into the venue proper. It seems the bug has bitten after all.