Paul Robinson: ‘Our focus is the artist’
Around a year and a half ago, Theatre503 nearly closed. An intimate, ramshackle black box space on the first floor of the Latchmere pub in Battersea, it had marked its 30th anniversary the year before. The chain behind the pub went into administration and the business was handed over to new owners. They had no obligation to keep the theatre running.
What a loss that would have been. It was here that Dennis Kelly and Duncan Macmillan had their debuts staged; here that The Mountaintop premiered before winning its surprise Olivier award; here that the Apathists, including Mike Bartlett and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, held their monthly showcases. Theatre503 is an integral part of Britain’s new writing culture.
“We suddenly felt very insecure,” says genial artistic director Paul Robinson, 39. “The pub closed for three months. We kept going – audiences coming up the fire escape, fairy lights to keep it nice. The people who closed it had no idea we were even there. That was a real shock.” It took a lot of local lobbying to convince the new owners to keep the theatre open.
It’s a mark, perhaps, of a changing Battersea. The Northern Line extension in Nine Elms is a mile or so up the road, with the impending power station development at its heart. “It could be another Westfield,” Robinson warns; soulless and corporate. He’s been among those pushing for cultural provision, albeit to little avail. “Developers just don’t get it,” he says. “Meanwhile, south-west London is culturally poor: there’s the BAC, Kingston, Tara Arts, but not much more.”
Theatre503 has undergone a regeneration process of its own. Robinson took over in 2007, with his friend Tim Roseman, who left in 2012, emigrating to Australia. They made a good combo. Roseman had come up through the fringe, freelancing. Robinson, a former child actor turned director, had been a staffer in-house at the Bristol Old Vic, Royal Exchange and National Theatre. “Tim and I genuinely can’t remember who challenged who to apply,” he laughs. “It was an unpaid job and there were 60 applications.”
The theatre they inherited was in a rudimentary, run-down state. The box office was a sheet of paper, discarded nightly. There was £600 in the bank and its literary department was a script cupboard. Audiences averaged 15 a night. “The producing model was really unclear. Some people would get bunged some money, some wouldn’t. It was all a bit hotchpotch.”
The pub closed for three months. We kept going – audiences were coming up the fire escape
But Robinson and Roseman honed its unique selling point – a nursery for new writers. “After our first year, we realised that this theatre plays to its strengths if it really focuses on its artists, rather than the wider sector.” In recent years, it has staged debuts and early work by Alice Birch (Many Moons), Tom Morton-Smith (Salt Meets Wound) and Bruntwood winners Anna Jordan (Freak) and Chris Urch (Land of Our Fathers). Beth Steel wrote Wonderland, which won her an Evening Standard award, on attachment here. “While that talent’s left the building, it can be traced back. There’s an umbilical cord that extends to the Hampstead, the RSC, the National.”
Developing writers has become the priority. “We used to make our programme up of plays other theatres had passed on. Now, we programme more unsolicited work and we have models to develop our own plays.” Each year, the theatre hosts five playwrights in residence, pushes 18 more to rapid response writing and runs an award in partnership with the literary agency Curtis Brown. It’s working. Transfers are more frequent. A national tour is on the horizon.
Theatre503 is a crucial stepping stone, a talent trampoline, but it receives no regular public subsidy, missing out “by a whisker” in 2011 after hundreds of hours of work, and not reapplying last time round. Instead, Robinson’s team relies on Grants for the arts, trusts and individual donations – something it was, by necessity, ahead of the curve. As such, it’s often held up as a poster kid for new models of arts funding. “We’ve always refused to be that,” Robinson says. Projects balance on a knife-edge. Infrastructure is slow to change. Subsidy comes from artists and staff themselves. “Do we benefit from a lot of people’s love and passion? Absolutely.”
That love and passion – or, depending on how you look at it, desperation – has led London’s fringe to proliferate since Robinson and Roseman took over. Purpose-built theatres, such as New Diorama and the Park, have sprung up alongside endless pop-ups and found spaces.
The media landscape has changed too, with a constricted Time Out a massive loss. “Thank God for the blogs,” he says. The recession has helped maintain audiences, as people opt for cheap, local options, but London is changing, privatising and hardening. It needs spaces like Theatre503. The danger is that it will spit them out as it grows.