Nominees include Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle, Bunker Theatre, London and Orange Tree Theatre, London.
The top small-scale theatres across the UK that don’t receive core government funding. Judged on criteria including (but not limited to) artistic quality, business success, innovation etc.
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Over the past seven years, Alphabetti has embedded itself into the city’s cultural scene. It’s so loved that when the venue faced closure due to financial difficulties in 2016, a crowdfunding campaign saved it.
Now in its third venue (a former rubber-stamp factory) since launching, the company prides itself on producing and programming original work from emerging artists across a variety of genres, including music, theatre and comedy. It is the city’s smallest producing theatre, with just 75 seats. Despite its small capacity, the venue regularly holds performances inviting audiences to pay what they want.
This year’s shows included Gary Kitching and Steve Byron’s Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers, which signalled its move towards longer runs, while its season also included film, comedy and cabaret. It hosted a Christmas market in December. “We believe great art should be for everyone, not just those who can afford it. It means both artists and audiences can take a risk,” says artistic director Ali Pritchard.
In an effort to engage as many artists as possible, the venue regularly commissions response pieces to its main productions, and holds writing programmes, all aimed at giving creatives a feel for how to work with the company. The theatre has also been commended as a ‘safe space’ for LGBT+ artists. And if the work it is doing wasn’t enough, it has also adopted a pet theatre dog, Sir Rexalot.
When the Bunker Theatre announced earlier this year it was being forced to close because of the redevelopment of its Southwark home, the news was met with disappointment from audiences and theatre professionals alike.
Since opening three years ago, the theatre has put itself on the London theatre map with its accessible, brave and cutting-edge work. It has always punched above its weight, staging more than 160 productions. The majority of writers and directors working there this year identified as women, and it has been praised for giving talent from under-represented backgrounds a home.
Shows in 2019 included the refugee-led company Borderline’s show Welcome to the UK and Matilda Ibini’s debut play Little Miss Burden, about the experience of growing up with a disability as a black woman. Other highlights included This Is Black, a festival of world premiere theatre shows by four black artists, and the deliciously weird Before I Was a Bear.
More than 40,000 people have seen shows there, and it has strived to make itself affordable and accessible. Working with the Black Ticket Project, it has made more than 500 tickets available for free and £10 tickets have been available at each performance for under-30s.
As part of its ongoing commitment to nurturing talent, the company also offered up space as a ‘snug’ for writers, complete with free tea, coffee and WiFi – a welcome scheme in a city where such space comes at a premium.
The Orange Tree continues to go from strength to strength under the leadership of artistic director Paul Miller.
Productions that impressed critics and pulled in audiences in 2019 included a revival of Little Baby Jesus, actor Arinzé Kene’s debut play, directed by Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu. The production, which was awarded five stars by The Stage, ran at the theatre as part of the JMK Award, of which Fynn-Aiduenu was the winner.
The 2019 season also included Zoe Cooper’s new play Out of Water, starring Lucy Briggs-Owen, which was described as “captivating” and “sharply funny” by critics. Meanwhile, Actors Touring Company artistic director Matthew Xia staged two bold productions at the Richmond venue – Blood Knot by Athol Fugard and Amsterdam, the UK premiere of a play by Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur. Miller himself directed a fine revival of Terence Rattigan’s While the Sun Shines.
Under its OT New Artists scheme, the theatre is committed to discovering and nurturing the next generation of theatre artists. This includes a writers collective, where emerging writers are able to share skills and techniques.
Only five years ago the future of this organisation was under threat after it lost its Arts Council England funding. Since then, it has transformed itself into a vibrant and forward-looking producing house and a key part of the UK’s small-scale theatre ecology.