Jermyn Street artistic director Tom Littler: ‘It’s hard to work in small spaces – you can’t cheat’
After a career as a freelance director and producer, Jermyn Street Theatre’s new artistic director tells Nick Smurthwaite why he couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of running the central London venue.
Size isn’t everything. The 70-seat Jermyn Street Theatre has been punching above its weight for years as the only Off-West End venue that sits in the heart of the West End.
Since it opened in 1994, Jermyn Street’s diet of neglected classics, emerging talents and quirky musicals has found a loyal following – and with a top price of £30, audiences don’t need to break the bank to buy a ticket.
Tucked away in a bijou basement next door to the Italian restaurant Getti and among some of the poshest gentlemen’s outfitters in town, this tiny studio theatre may never have attained the fashionable trendiness of the Donmar Warehouse, but its eclectic programming, always constrained by space, has won the respect and affection of London’s theatregoers.
It topped the poll in The Stage’s 100 Best Fringe Theatres in 2012, and its co-founder and general manager Penny Horner, who welcomes regulars to the venue like a maitre d’, received the Fringe Report’s 2011 Award for Outstanding Achievement.
So will the arrival of a dynamic new artistic director in the boyish shape of Tom Littler, this month succeeding Anthony Biggs, mark a change of direction for Piccadilly’s hidden treasure?
Littler comes to Jermyn Street from an already prolific career as a freelance director and producer, as well as a former associate of Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn. His acclaimed revival of Miss Julie for Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake in July will come to Jermyn Street in November.
Looking and sounding as if he has stepped out of the pages of Brideshead Revisited, the likeable 32-year-old seems nonchalant about his illustrious past, throwing away lines such as “I did a production of Strindberg’s The Pelican when I was still at school” as if everyone does.
Growing up in Exeter, Littler was turned on to theatre at an early age, becoming involved in a production of Twelfth Night at his primary school.
What was the teenage Tom Littler like?
“Shy, studious and theatre-mad. I never wanted to be an actor, but I loved being in the rehearsal room; I still do. They are magical spaces where you discover and explore other worlds. I was lucky in that I had a wonderful drama teacher at my secondary school [Exeter School].”
He arrived at Oxford University to read English Literature having already established his own production company, Primavera, with several productions under his belt, including the four-act version of The Importance of Being Earnest.
“I probably gave off an air of confidence, and knowing it all, but inside I was actually terrified. No doubt I aroused interest and envy in equal measure.
“Oxford was a playground for somebody like me because there are four or five theatres where you can work, and you can spend money on sets and costumes because you don’t have to pay your actors. I did A Streetcar Named Desire and Into the Woods at the Oxford Playhouse. It was a wonderful opportunity to do things you wouldn’t normally get the rights for.”
A review of his Streetcar that appeared in the Oxford Mail in 2005 described him as “the ubiquitous Tom Littler who’s been directing plays since he was 14 and is already a serious influence on drama, an impresario in the making if ever I saw one”.
Academia has never been far from Littler’s radar. He lives in Cambridge and commutes to London. He did a master’s degree in Classics with the Open University between directing jobs and last year took time off to do an MPhil in 18th-century English literature at Cambridge. “I found that I came back to directing feeling livelier and more creative than ever,” he says.
Q&A: Tom Littler
What was your first non-theatre job? I went back to my school during my gap year, to teach drama and English and direct the school play.
What was your first paid theatre job? Assisting the director Alan Strachan in 2006.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Peter Hall. He taught me so much about rehearsal rooms, new plays and actors.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That vulnerability and ignorance and screwing up are all okay. As a young director, you are desperate to show how confident and capable you are because you want everyone to trust you.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Most people who read for a part could probably do it. For me, the chat is the most important part of a casting. I want to know what an actor thinks of the play and I want them to bring me their ideas.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? Probably a teacher – although I sometimes daydream about retraining as a psychotherapist.
Do you have any superstitions or rituals? Yes – all the usual theatre ones. I always reread the whole play the morning after the first preview. And I never stage the curtain call until after the dress rehearsal.
The handover period has been protracted, for which Littler is clearly grateful, given this is the first venue he has run. “Anthony has been so generous about passing on the baton, and it’s been an education for me observing the decency and kindness with which he treats everyone at Jermyn Street. He also made it clear that I must run it how I see fit, and not just carry on where he left off.”
In addition to the ever-present Horner, Littler’s team will include Stella Powell-Jones, recently returned from working in New York, as deputy artistic director, and Julia Mucko, a graduate of Mountview’s creative producing course, as resident producer.
One of Littler’s first innovations is to introduce 50-50 gender equality, both on and off stage. “I haven’t always been in favour of this, especially when it comes to casting classic texts, but I’ve come to the conclusion that a quota system is the only way to achieve it satisfactorily,” he says.
He has also launched a £300,000 fundraising drive to help achieve his ambitious artistic plans and to continue paying actors and creatives above the Equity Fringe minimum.
While in recent years Jermyn Street has been primarily a receiving house, Littler wants to shift the balance to mostly in-house productions, with two or three co-productions with theatres outside London, plus a couple of visiting shows. Marketing for all shows will be generated by Jermyn Street.
“One of the things about being a receiving house is that it’s harder to generate a core audience because each show tends to be separately marketed,” says Littler. “I want everything that happens here to be a Jermyn Street show one way or the other, so our audience can expect certain values, certain standards each time they come and see a show here.”
To that end, Littler has introduced a £100 season ticket for his first four shows: Howard Brenton’s new play about Strindberg, The Blinding Light; Judith Burnley’s new play Anything That Flies; Brenton’s adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie; and Peepolykus’ tongue-in-cheek version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Littler’s inaugural season is certainly good news for Strindberg enthusiasts. Could it be that the new man in charge – not to mention Howard Brenton – is a little obsessed by the Swedish playwright?
“Howard and I met when I directed his play Bloody Poetry at Jermyn Street in 2012 and discovered a mutual interest in Strindberg,” Littler says.
“We discussed the possibility of doing a biographical play about Strindberg in the form of a Strindberg drama. So what we’ve ended up with is a play that looks and smells like a naturalistic Strindberg play but has the structure of one of his later, more expressionist works, where time slips and reality slides.”
Does Littler regard Jermyn Street’s 70-seat capacity as a strength or a liability?
“Both. If we could sell 150 seats a night that would transform our finances overnight. But there is something very special about small studio spaces, an intensity, something about that number of people sharing an experience. It is also hard to make work in small spaces because you can’t cheat. The audience members are so close and alert; they see everything. You must earn their belief in the world you’ve created.”
He concludes: “I strongly believe there are enough people in London who are curious about discovering new worlds. If I say we’re going to do a season of plays from Strindberg’s Inferno period, I trust there are enough people who will say, ‘Wow, I don’t know what that is but I’d like to find out.’ I have faith in people’s curiosity.”
CV: Tom Littler
Born: 1984, London`
Education: University of Oxford
Career highlights: Saturday Night, Jermyn Street Theatre and Arts Theatre, London (2009), Madagascar, Theatre503, London (2010), A Little Night Music, Central Theatre Budapest (2011), Good Grief, Theatre Royal Bath (2012), Dances of Death, Gate Theatre, London (2013), Martine, Finborough Theatre, London (2014), The Glass Menagerie, English Theatre Frankfurt, (2015), Miss Julie, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, and Jermyn Street (2017)
Agent: Helen Mumby at Macnaughton Lord
The Blinding Light runs at Jermyn Street Theatre, London until October 16