Founded in 2014, the Welsh pub venue won The Stage award for best fringe theatre just two years later. Its artistic director tells Nicholas Davies about the challenges of recreating their intimate worlds on tour
Sitting in the bar that adjoins his theatre company’s headquarters in the heart of Cardiff, the Other Room’s Dan Jones starts talking about why the word pub in ‘pub theatre’ is all important. “For me and for people from my background it breaks down a barrier,” the artistic director says.
He continues: “Theatre was never really on the agenda for me when I grew up, so a place like this is really important in attracting people – and I see myself as having a responsibility to grow an audience for modern drama.”
The Other Room is a tiny theatre with 45 raked seats looming over a small stage, but it has never lacked ambition. A remarkably diverse range of new writing has been created within its walls since opening four years ago, with an emphasis on emerging talent on and off stage.
For Jones – aged 28 – the building has represented his entire career. “People here are brave enough to offer opportunities. I went from assistant to trainee director, then associate and now artistic director – I was really lucky that the company took a punt on my capabilities over my experience.”
Jones took over from founding artistic director Kate Wasserberg (now at Out of Joint), who had already overseen the theatre’s confident launch, which culminated in receiving The Stage award for best fringe theatre in 2016. It was a risky appointment, but Jones’ own work since has garnered acclaim from audience and critics.
The Other Room’s latest season of three plays is titled the Violence Series and represents a new direction for Jones and his team, with the trio of dystopian dramas embarking on the company’s first tour. “Everyone knows us here in Cardiff so we wanted to tour this series further afield – across Wales and also into London. We’re really pleased we’re going to Theatre503, a pub theatre that’s really inspired us.”
The three plays are all very different, exploring the ways that disparate, but equally troubling, types of violence are used either politically or within personal relationships. “American Nightmare, by Matthew Bulgo, is about US politics, while Tess Berry-Hart, writer of The Story, is a former lawyer who has worked with refugees and witnessed or heard about the most horrific things that have happened to them. Meanwhile, Mari Izzard’s Hela deals with a very personal revenge and how far people can go, and asks if violence is ever justified.”
The triptych of dramas is designed to potentially be binge-watched by the audience in each venue. “We present the two short plays as a double bill, with the third longer one playing on its own, but in each location, all three will be shown in one day, so you can stay and watch the whole series.” It’s a bold proposition and in keeping with the way audiences consume television shows these days. “We’re borrowing some of the flavour of Netflix or Amazon Prime – where people are willing to see a lot of content – but this will still be a very theatrical experience. We’re experimenting to see if we can get the best of both worlds.”
But with violence all too prevalent in today’s society, is there an appetite for more on stage? “Thematically, it’s the Other Room’s most ambitious season yet, but it’s far from a bloodbath. We’re talking about intellectual violence and political violence – there’s actually little physical violence in them. Besides, with the world feeling broken and people scared, we want to offer work that’s dealing with these themes, trying to make sense of them.”
One of the hallmarks of the Other Room’s work in its home venue is the way its small space is transformed by designers for each new show. Some of the company’s sets are as elaborate as a miniaturist doll’s house, meaning touring them presents a huge challenge. “We usually have one designer working on a season, with each set being up for two weeks in our venue – but for touring, we needed each designer to come up with something that could be put up and taken down every day and still provide the magic of the Other Room experience.”
Almost on cue, pieces of the set for one of the trilogy’s Cardiff run are carried through the pub and into the theatre space. There is something magical about the way the company creates new worlds in a Tardis-like room in the city. It’s something Jones acknowledges: “One of the special qualities is when an audience comes in and thinks: ‘Wow, they’ve done it again’, so we need to make sure they feel the same when they see our touring work. The feeling should be the same, so we’ll still be in small, intimate spaces and we’ll try to transform them, just like we do here.”
It’s a task led by the youngest team of any established theatre company in Wales, with all employees currently aged under 30, including staff contracted through their fully-paid Professional Pathway Programme, which is funded by Arts Council of Wales. The Violence Series is actually Jones’ first full season without his mentors by his side.
“The bar was set high here by Wasserberg and former executive director Bizzy Day,” he says, “but there’s still the relentless urge to defy expectations and to create work that’s thematically daring. Even though we’re fairly young, we’re always wanting to create a legacy.”
When The Violence Series tours London and Wales, Jones says new audiences can expect “ambitious and daring themes in a small space, where you would never expect such work to exist”.
The Violence Series opens at Theatre503, London on January 15 and tours until February 14. Details: otherroomtheatre.com