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Soho Theatre creative director David Luff: ‘We want our main space to be a playhouse again’

David Luff

Soho Theatre’s programme is a unique mix of live performance, moulded by collaboration between producers and associate artists. As the venue eyes up an East London hub, its new creative director tells Matt Trueman why not having an artistic director enables it to stage boundary-blurring shows and act as a dynamic home for fresh talent

Artistic directors aren’t under threat, but all of a sudden they are up for debate. While a new wave of ADs is seeking to shake things up on stages around the country, some theatres are doing away with the role altogether. The Dukes in Lancaster has merged it out of existence. The Traverse is yet to commit to a permanent appointment.

When Steve Marmion abruptly parted ways with Soho Theatre last December after a decade as its artistic director, producer David Luff was promoted internally two months later. His title is telling: creative director. Luff’s appointment is the start of a strategic structural shift.

“We’re flattening the hierarchy of our creative team,” he explains, sitting in one of the red high-backed booths that line the theatre’s bar. “There still needs to be someone to report to the board, someone with a certain amount of executive say, but this is about taking a much more plural approach.”

Luff sticks out in Soho – partly by blending in. He’s a clean-cut, low-key figure who could stroll unnoticed through its peacock-stuffed pavements. He’s a family man who can keep his voice down, preferring to speak in sensible pragmatics rather than grandstanding statements. “I’ve never really been one for the limelight,” he laughs, but he insists that theatre needs introverts as well as extroverts – script-readers and problem-solvers as well as performers. Twice he refers to himself as a “nuts-and-bolts producer”.

Rather than running Soho’s programme alone, Luff – in tandem with long-standing executive director Mark Godfrey – will oversee a tight-knit team of associates: head of comedy Steve Lock, touring producer Sarah Dodd, associate directors Adam Brace and Lakesha Arie-Angelo with a literary manager to be recruited following Charlotte Bennett’s departure to Paines Plough. Together, they’ll pull together the different strands of Soho’s bustling and eclectic programme.

‘Soho’s theatre programme is at its most exciting when it tells brilliant stories that feel of this moment, of this city, of this environ’

“We realised that a producer-led model could actually promote the real diversity of voices on our stages,” Luff says. In other words: many cooks can serve up all sorts of broth. The intention is as pragmatic as it is progressive. “I don’t think it’s necessary to have this very visible artistic director speaking on behalf of everyone. It’s more exciting, actually, to promote the visibility of various members of staff doing brilliant things.”

It wouldn’t work everywhere, as Luff readily agrees. There’s still a place for artistic directors and the unity of vision and aesthetic that they bring – just not at Soho Theatre. “We have a slightly different model,” he says: five or six shows a night, short runs, speedy turnovers. Soho celebrates artistic overlap and blurred boundaries. It elevates idiosyncratic and genre-busting artists and thrives on plurality and permissiveness. All of that mitigates against artistic direction.

That festival model, born of redeveloping Soho’s building to open up two new studio spaces, has reaped phenomenal growth for the organisation. Since 2008, annual income has leapt from £2.2 million to £6.2 million with box office accounting for half that sum and bar takings a quarter. Arts Council England subsidy comes in below 10%, down from a third a decade ago. There are signs the tide has turned: three years of deficit has seen Soho dip into its healthy reserve by more than £800,000. It was, says Luff, a matter of missed targets, suggesting Soho fell foul of its success. Staff numbers hit 100, just as philanthropy seized up. “Unless you keep up that growth, it can be difficult to maintain,” he adds.

Artistically, however, the model can also crowd out Soho’s theatre programme, and Luff readily admits that there’s “a natural overshadowing” when high-profile comedians outnumber emerging playwrights. He’s determined to redress that, promising “a renewed focus on theatre and on producing plays”. It was, of course, Soho Poly’s starting point.

“We really want our main house to be a playhouse again, to have proper runs of six to eight weeks and to be programming it in a more high-impact way.” He talks of attracting up-and-coming directors and “higher-profile casts”, readmitting the importance of good design and competing for top out-of-town transfers. It’s an ambitious statement of intent and, if it seems to contradict Soho’s purposeful plurality, Luff likens it to the relationship of Edinburgh International Festival to its fringe: a tightly curated centre in the midst of a melee.

The key, for Luff, is “story, story, story” – a producer’s view, perhaps, about what pulls people in. “Soho’s theatre programme is at its most exciting when it tells brilliant stories that feel so of this moment, of this city, of this environ. It could come from another part of the country, a different part of the world, but it has to relate to the audiences coming into this building.”

Cora Bissett in What Girls Are Made Of at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Sid Scott
Cora Bissett’s What Girls Are Made Of transfers from Edinburgh to Soho Theatre this autumn. Photo: Sid Scott

This autumn Lucy McCormick and Sh!t Theatre will transfer from Edinburgh, alongside Cora Bissett’s gig-theatre piece What Girls Are Made Of and David Baddiel’s debut play. Next year, Luff promises “a modern Soho classic” revival, “a premiere from a mid-career writer we’ve had at Soho before”, a new comedy-drama and a commission developed in-house.

Luff actually started in script development, studying dramaturgy at Goldsmiths before producing on the London fringe. His early shows had a pulsating energy: a tub-thumping take on Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Polly Findlay’s stark, subterranean Thyestes, both at the Arcola. New plays tended to combine compact scripts with political largesse: Nicholas Pierpan’s The Maddening Rain tracked a frantic banker post-crash and Declan Greene’s Moth watched two teenagers grapple with apocalyptic anxiety.

In 2012, Luff and Patrick Myles acquired the stage rights to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, long before our media-saturated, mad-as-hell moment. Seven years on, Bryan Cranston took home a Tony award as its incandescent anchorman.

Network review at Belasco Theatre, New York – ‘Thrillingly inventive and chillingly prescient’

That prophetic edge sits well with Soho’s mission. Phoebe Waller-Bridge found her feet here, first as an actor, then with Fleabag; so, Luff points out, did Laura Wade and Chris Chibnall. Today, development is its raison d’être, with Soho Six playwrights under early commissions and Writers Lab for comics and dramatists alike. “We can be the home for brand new writers you’ve never heard of before,” Luff says.

Soho Theatre itself is pushing forwards too. Within three years, it will take charge of a 1,000-seat venue in Waltham Forest, a former EMD cinema that is currently being restored. Soho has taken over a 40-year lease on a peppercorn rent. “Comedy will pay the bills,” says Luff, who sees the venue as a beacon for big names and a launchpad for lesser-known comedians. An annual panto will, he hopes, prove lucrative, leaving room for circus, dance and special events, such as London International Festival of Theatre shows. Given the local population, with large Indian, Pakistani and Polish communities, Luff says: “Finding work that’s less language-based is going to be really important.”

That adds force to his argument against a single artistic director: the need to find work for other demographics. There is also, Luff says, a longer-term project at play in terms of expansion; something that necessitates collaboration and continuity. “It’s like in a football club,” he says. “When you replace the manager, you lose all the coaching staff and suddenly, your team’s got a whole new identity.” He cites Crystal Palace’s calamitous swerve towards ‘beautiful football’ under Frank de Boer. “Ours is more of a kit-room approach. It’s evolution rather than revolution.”

Citysong review at Soho Theatre, London – ‘poignant, lyrical and gorgeously written’

See Soho Theatre’s website for details of its current programme

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