The Big Interview: Jez Bond
Park Theatre artistic director Jez Bond is a poster boy for theatrical endeavour and enterprise. When he sets his mind to do something, he does it. In fact, out of a whole hour of animated discussion, the one question that stumps him is, ‘What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?’. A long silence follows. “Nothing. I surrounded myself with brilliant people and asked them things,” he finally says forthrightly. “I tried to get as much advice as possible. In the end, I would make the final decisions but I would always listen to advice. I would build the theatre I want, but I would go to other theatres and learn from them, too.”
Build a theatre? This isn’t usually something you hear from an artistic director, let alone one who’s under 40. But sure enough, this is what Bond did. After six years of intensive research into the right location (“This area has the highest proportion of artists and audiences who go into the West End. Now they go into the West End and come here”) Bond acquired a disused office building in Finsbury Park with the assistance of a private donor in 2009. A year later, he had secured planning permission and an architect. Three years later, a state-of-the-art venue with two performance spaces had been built. This year, after being open for only 18 months, the Park Theatre won The Stage Awards fringe theatre of the year prize, which is pretty impressive by anyone’s standards.
I’m doing him a disservice making it all sound so straightforward. “There were a lot of naysayers. I luckily had the strength and support to carry on, but I can’t underestimate how difficult it was,” he says, looking for a moment genuinely haunted by the memory. “It was the hardest and most stressful time in my life, and it sort of nearly killed me. Would I do it again?” he grins, his sunniness resumed. “In my mad way, yes.”
It’s this resilience or, possibly, as he says, madness, that marks Bond out. He’s an entrepreneur in the Victorian style, a self-made theatrical industrialist who builds things from the ground up and knows every part of his business inside out. He was project leader on the Park Theatre, working so closely with architect David Hughes he says it was like a marriage. “Every millimetre of this place was examined and over-examined by me and Dave. We worked very closely to maximise every inch of the space.”
Everything, from the toilets to the thrust stage, was Bond’s responsibility. It must have been an enormously daunting project, but he has been building up practical experiences of theatre buildings since his teens.
“I was 14 years old and working in our school theatre, the Stahl Theatre in Oundle. The head of drama and artistic director was Robert Lowe, and his philosophy was that the kids were hands-on and ran the building. So I was running up ladders, rigging lights and sound. I was left in the building on my own with the keys and responsible for letting in touring companies such as the National Theatre,” his voice warms with the pleasure of this memory. “The National was doing Mother Courage and I’d rigged the lights for it. When the team came in, I helped operate the big analogue lighting board, sitting next to this chap during the dress rehearsal. Afterwards he said, ‘Right, we’re going to the pub now’, which I wasn’t allowed to do at all,” he remembers, still slightly incredulous. “But they said, ‘We’re the National – if we can’t get you in, no one can’. So they gave me the trilby hat from the stage manager, the cloak, which was hanging up on the costume rack, and the lighting technician’s mobile phone, which was like a brick in those days. I sat in the corner and someone plonked two pints in front of me. That chap was Jules McCready.”
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. “Julian McCready was a lighting technician at the National Theatre for many years. Every year in the holidays, I’d go back and he’d sneak me in to watch shows from the box and watch him operate. He ended up designing the lighting rigs here at the Park, and he’s designed most of the shows I’ve directed professionally as well.”
This story highlights two of the other qualities that have marked Bond out: resourcefulness and building personal as well as professional relationships. “It’s just about keeping in contact and having a genuine connection with someone,” he says matter-of-factly. But I think this belies the streak of determination that runs through Bond like iron.
He has an incredible ability to get people on side, engendering an astonishing level of support for the theatre from industry greats such as Ian McKellen. At the Park’s first birthday gala – hosted by McKellen – Bond affectionately photobombed Benedict Cumberbatch and mingled with the likes of Tom Stoppard, Patrick Stewart, Anna Maxwell Martin, Celia Imrie, Timberlake Wertenbaker and Rupert Goold. Even Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the London Evening Standard and The Independent, and Jeffrey Archer attended; Archer was auctioneer.
At my most recent visit to the Park, I saw Greg Wise – currently starring in the much-lauded Kill Me Now at the theatre – and Emma Thompson in the bar greeting Bond like an old friend. To say this man is well connected is something of an understatement.
So how does he do it? He’s approachable and warm, but surely there’s only so much schmoozing one man can do? He gives a warm chuckle. “Well, I’ve never been shy of asking for things. If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “But it’s really about getting other people excited about the project. When we started it was just me talking. It was really important that we had people who would be proactive and jump on the bandwagon, and shout out for us with a loudhailer,” he goes on. “So I came up with this idea of an ‘ambassador’, because a patron can often just be a name on a piece of paper, and we had conditions for joining: expectations that had to be met. One was to say, ‘You will throw a party on site, a hard-hat party for all your friends – and by friends I mean the great and good of theatre. You will provide the booze and we will welcome them in and have plastic glasses and hard hats’. And they said, ‘Yeah, great, awesome’.”
It’s hard to imagine McKellen saying “awesome”. At the gala he was quoted as saying: “What’s the word for Jez Bond? ‘Thrusting’, ‘cheeky’, ‘forward-looking’, ‘single-minded’? Or is it simply ‘chutzpah’? He’s got the lot – and he’s got me on board.” That line is perhaps more indicative of the effects of Bond’s persevering charm. But clearly the artistic director’s strategy has worked. Bond enables agency in other people. He’s not a one-man networking machine; he’s the creator of a network that now operates under its own steam.
“Sean Mathias had come in for a hard-hat tour, invited by his agent, and afterwards we went for breakfast. We then met a few times and he became an ambassador. When he threw his party, Matthew Kelly and Ian McKellen turned up,” Bond explains. “It starts here,” he gestures around him, “but then it filters. I need to know that Sean can talk to Ian, and Ian can talk to somebody and I can trust them to kindly do that and that they trust me to know that the product is good, or that if they get me a meeting with someone I’m not going to make a fool of myself. So it’s a traditional spider-web network.”
If this sounds like a closed shop, I genuinely don’t think it is. Bond may be creating a gang but it’s one he wants everyone to be part of; this is more about PR than elitism. When the theatre was being built, Bond was aware there was very little to build its name on other than a temporary sign and logo. He needed to get people on board to build an excitement about Park Theatre that was tangible. So he and his team started hosting hard-hat tours around the space.
“We estimated we showed almost 2,000 people around over two years,” he says. “So when we opened, those 2,000 people had not only known about us but they’d seen the building and wanted to come back and see it finished. We got a vast range of people from the industry: directors, actors, casting agents, stage managers. But it was also about getting local community excitement going, to build our audience and make them feel this was their theatre before our first show had even opened.”
Sitting in the bustling cafe bar at 11am, it seems this has worked. It has the same homely, comfy and chic feel as the Young Vic, a theatre bar that it’s often compared to. At the same time, the layout of Park 200 (both theatre spaces take their names from their respective seating capacities), with its intimate feel and stalls and circle levels, is sometimes likened to the Donmar Warehouse.
Did he take inspiration from any of London’s other Off-West End and fringe theatres when designing the Park?
“I was quite clear on the feel and the aesthetic of what I wanted. What I didn’t want was to have distance between the stage and the auditorium,” he explains. “We’ve all been to fringe theatres where they have maybe 80 seats, but if you’ve been 10 or 12 rows back you’re miles away because they’re raked all the way back. For me, it’s about the spark between the stage and the audience. But other spaces did give us feedback. Dave and I went to around 30 theatres – the Royal Shakespeare Company, National, Barbican, Tricycle, Young Vic, King’s Head, Bush, New Diorama, Gate – who all very kindly opened their doors to us. We’d get a tour with the artistic director, general manager or head technician. But often it was about letting us know what didn’t work, which was really useful.”
This included everything from the best door handles to theatre layouts, which way doors swung, what type of lights and how to make the perfect dressing room. “The RSC was very helpful – they actually gave us their dressing-room configuration layout. Apparently they had spent £60,000 on this, building six prototypes and getting different theatre companies to try them out and fill out questionnaires, and had arrived at the perfect configuration. So the height of the countertop, the width of the mirror, the colour temperature of the light bulbs to match the colour temperature on stage – these were things we could build new at no extra cost, but that knowledge was invaluable.”
It’s almost impossible to separate Bond from his building, but I try to wrestle him away from the bricks and mortar to the mechanics of his rehearsal room. As a director, what is his style?
His response is typically proactive. “I get the play up on its feet very quickly. I’ve even been known to do a first read-through as a first run-through.
So I’m for action. Yes we can talk, but we can talk on our feet.
He holds no truck with the current vogue for, as he calls them, “ideas plays”. He puts on a melodramatic drawl: “‘Four men on a bridge. Are they men? Is it a bridge? The androgynous bodies with the red sky in the background…’ Oh God,” he laughs in mock exasperation. “I don’t do that. Tell me a story.” He believes instead in plays with “a strong narrative drive and strong emotional heart”, citing Ibsen and Rattigan as his favourite playwrights.
The programming at Park Theatre has come under scrutiny, sometimes criticised for being scattergun and lacking an overarching style or voice. Bond says this is partly because in the first year he wasn’t able to give it as much attention as he would wish (being “20% artistic director and 80% janitor”) but also due to his reluctance to being pigeonholed. “I’ve never been one to be pinned down to a particular genre,” he says. “I look at plays individually at how they speak to me. If it can make you laugh, make you cry and do both in the same evening, that’s my ideal night out at the theatre.”
He’s currently working on Hurling Rubble by Avaes Mohammad, a two-part collaboration with Red Ladder Theatre Company (“another of the companies I opened the doors to at the Stahl Theatre”) and is focused on continuing to build the Park’s national and international reputation. But what about the future – could he ever face leaving the Park?
He grins: “I don’t know whether I’ll be the Sam Walters [co-founder of Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre] who builds something and stays there until he retires or whether I’ll be someone who moves in five years having built it up. I’m not done with the Park Theatre yet,” he says resiliently. “I’m a long way off in terms of building up the amount of shows we do in-house and our engagement with the community. We also want to make the Park a producers theatre and look at how we can support emerging producers,” he continues, vividly likening the theatre to a living creature.
“This animal is very large, the beast is big and it needs a lot of feeding and nurturing. That means a lot of support from other people, which I’m thrilled that we have but I need to continue to build on that. I have huge ambitions that haven’t been realised yet.”
Read more from Honour Bayes at www.thestage.co.uk/author/honour-bayes