With the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room reopening after refurbishment, Rupert Thomson tells Lyn Gardner how the Southbank Centre’s eclectic events are opening doors to everyone from locals to international visitors
It’s mid-morning on a chilly day in Waterloo and already the Southbank Centre is filling up. Jude Kelly will soon be departing the venue after 12 years as artistic director, and I’m there ahead of this week’s reopening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room after a major refurbishment. But it is business as usual for the cavernous arts complex that first took shape with the Royal Festival Hall in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, a celebration designed as a tonic for a weary post-war nation.
Freelances are hunched over laptops in the foyers, a producer is meeting artists in the cafe, and two mothers are playing a low-key chase game with their toddlers in the otherwise deserted bar area. The Clore Ballroom is heaving with primary school children getting ready for the Lambeth Music Festival, which takes place later that day.
At a time when more and more sites are being sold off to developers, this is what an arts centre should feel like: a public space, paid for by public money – it will receive £73,440,000 for the period 2018-22, a reduction of 4% on the 2015-18 cycle – where people feel welcome and can freely work and play.
Rupert Thomson, senior programmer for performance and dance at Southbank Centre, thinks so too. “Making continuity between our public spaces and the ticketed experiences in the halls is part of our DNA, it’s built into our architecture and it informs all our thinking,” he says.
Thomson arrived at the Southbank Centre in 2015 from Summerhall, the rabbit-warren venue whose spaces he used to such good effect to expand the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s offer of international and experimental work.
International and multidisciplinary work – which includes the delightfully weird – is the bread and butter of the Southbank Centre. This glorious menagerie runs from theatre company Hotel Pro Forma collaborating with the Latvian Radio Choir on visual music performance Neoarctic in May, to October’s performances of Link Link Circus: Isabella Rossellini’s one-woman (and one-dog) show, a monologue investigating what distinguishes humans from other animals “based on scientific research with a comic twist”.
A former writer and editor of Edinburgh’s free magazine The Skinny, Thomson swapped arts journalism for programming after discovering the joy of creating live events, whether parties or discussions and debates, that added extra value to performances. It’s a formula that he continues at the Southbank Centre.
“Within budgets and space available, anyone can present anything. So, one way to differentiate your offer is to create a unique and bespoke event around the work,” he says. That might include Adam Curtis in post-show discussion after a performance of his collaboration with choreographer Rosie Kay on MK Ultra, looking at the rise of Illuminati conspiracy in modern culture. Or it could be accompanying Scottish Dance Theatre’s Velvet Petal with a rare live performance by Abul Mogard, whose compositions form part of the show’s score.
For a short time, Thomson ran Edinburgh’s Roxy Art House before moving across town to programme Robert McDowell’s Summerhall venue, situated in the city’s former vet school. It was a happy time, although it has left an unhappy legacy, with Thomson still seeking legal redress for what he claims are unpaid sums relating to his time there. It’s a subject Thomson is not willing to talk about at this time.
The programmer pitched up at Southbank Centre with a well-stocked larder of artists from his Summerhall stint. It included choreographer Colette Sadler, whose Learning from the Future will be in the Purcell Room in November, and Klanghaus, whose extraordinary gig–turned–installation performances have played two sold-out shows in the venue’s Plant Room.
Finding spaces where both the public and artists can play is at the heart of Thomson’s programming, and he thinks it is particularly important because of the centre’s location in the heart of the city, where space is at a premium.
Half the work we do here is free to the public
“Half the work we do here is free to the public,” he says. “One of things I’ve loved doing here is putting performance into the Clore Ballroom where you get really big, excitable audiences, many of whom are simply walking by and stop. How do you catch and keep their attention? We are at a scale where we need to programme things with national and international impact, but we are also thinking about our immediate environs and Lambeth. We have a very strong participation programme, and we are always thinking how that maps on to the other programmes.”
Increasingly, it does. This year, Forced Entertainment became an associate company, making a UK version of Tim Etchells’ That Night Follows Day. It worked with children aged eight to 14 from Lambeth to question the impositions made by adults on young people.
Not surprisingly, Thomson is particularly excited by the reopening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room, which will offer further possibilities of scale in a refurbishment that Thomson says has “applied deep thought to the audience experience” not just in the venues themselves but also in the foyer spaces.
He has certainly put a juicy programme of cross-collaborative, home-grown and international work in place ranging from performance group Needcompany’s The Blind Poet, exploring the nature of identity in multicultural Europe, through to Scottee considering weighty masculine issues in Fat Blokes.
What was your first non-theatre job? The House of Fraser Christmas shop. I had to listen to a Christmas song compilation CD on repeat for two months.
What was your first professional theatre job? Artistic director of the Roxy Art House in Edinburgh.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Seek those who really value your work.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My wife Anu. She is passionate about learning and what it means to learn, which keeps me learning.
What’s your best advice for auditions? I don’t have much experience of auditions, but in terms of pitching to a programmer, I would say always do a bit of research about the programme and show some (measured) awareness of the context into which you are proposing or hoping to fit.
If you hadn’t been a programmer, what would you have been? I would find a lot of pleasure in being an architectural model maker.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I cross my fingers in various circumstances – not because I believe it will make any difference in any superstitious sense, but I find it a useful micro-ritual to remind myself not to take things for granted.
So how does Thomson choose which theatremakers to bring in and avoid the programme becoming a ‘Supermarket Sweep’ of cultural work driven by his own personal taste?
“London is a mature year-round market for the performing arts, and the challenge is to think about what’s needed. Art institutions in London are delivering brilliantly, but there is a real gap in work made by artists who have an open approach to form, subject and context and who are making work that reflects a changing world. In a world where reality is changing around us, we need fresh outlooks and approaches to art.”
That includes Isabelle Huppert Reads Sade at the QEH in June in which the French actor will get to grips with Justine and Juliette.
“She is one of world’s great actors taking on a literary classic and that’s worth experiencing in the room in its own right. But the fact she has chosen the Marquis de Sade texts at this time is interesting. I don’t think Huppert is reading them as a manifesto. She has supported the #MeToo movement at a time when many high-profile French actresses have not, so I think it will add to the public dialogue around that and issues of consent, abuse and joyous abandon.”
My job is to think broadly and not just to appeal to the same audience over and over
Thomson continues: “We are a big venue responsible for a broad audience, so my responsibility as a programmer is to think broadly and not just appeal to same audience over and over”. He cites Australian circus company Gravity and Other Myths, which will be bringing its new show Backbone to the RFH in August, as an “accessible show in which brilliant acrobats take enormous personal risks for your entertainment”.
He smiles wryly. “It isn’t the kind of show that you could see as a comment on the recent Russian elections, but it’s a great spectacle that gives people a good time but also says something very true about what it means to work together.” That, of course, is exactly what the Southbank Centre is all about.
Born: 1982, Stockport
Training: University of Bristol (English literature); University of York (MA in modern literature and culture)
Awards: • Herald Angel for These Silences, co-curated with author Stewart Home (2011)
• Herald Angel for Summerhall (2011)
• Hospital Club h100 theatre and performance award (2013)
Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room reopen today