Tristan Baker and Oliver Royds brought theatre – and a real steam train – to London’s King’s Cross. Now, the Troubadour duo are opening two new venues, in Wembley and White City, to bridge the gap between the West End and arena markets, bringing audience comfort that even includes cupholders. Tim Bano takes the tour
Tristan Baker and Oliver Royds are pretty sure they’re about to revolutionise theatre. For two decades they’ve worked with their own production companies, often crossing paths, and they’ve experienced the usual producer’s lot of great successes mixed with catastrophic flops.
But their individual careers merged in 2015 when they built a temporary theatre next to King’s Cross station. There they put together quite a programme: The Railway Children with a real steam train, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first big hit In the Heights, Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy and finally Lazarus, a musical written by David Bowie just before his death.
Out of that experience came Troubadour Theatres, their new company specialising in temporary performance venues. They’ve taken the King’s Cross idea and developed a reusable, modular construction kit that can turn an empty site into a huge temporary auditorium in 12 weeks. The first of these will open in White City this summer – two spaces, up to 1,200 people in the larger and 900 in the smaller – with Sally Cookson’s adaptation of Peter Pan. We’re promised that the flying will be spectacular.
On top of that, they’ve renovated the old Fountain Studios in Wembley Park and turned it into another 1,300 to 1,500-seat black box, where War Horse will play in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Then they plan to take over the world.
They’re quite a double act: Baker is wearing a smart shirt and jacket when we meet, while Royds is more casual with a North Face coat and a rucksack. When it comes to dividing labour, Royds says: “Anything with a nice cocktail or a glamorous evening out is Tristan and I’ll be here with a hard hat on.”
Baker laughs. “Olly is – put your fingers in your ears, Olly – Olly is a genius. His brain, his eye for design. It’s him who’s designed White City, these actual structures.”
“And Tris,” Royds chimes in, “is more on the creative side with the shows and being in the industry.” Royds had already been involved in a number of site-specific, commercial shows for kids when The Railway Children came along. “We wanted a real steam train, but we couldn’t take it to an ATG or Cameron Mackintosh theatre, so we had to create one.”
King’s Cross Theatre was only meant to be there for 12 weeks. That turned into two and a half years. “Suddenly we had three theatres, 2,500 seats, 6,000 people a day, 400 people working there,” says Baker. “That’s where Troubadour Theatres grew from. We realised we could take a lot of people to an area, we could work with developers, we could help regenerate an area, we could build the venues very quickly.”
Although they wanted to continue the concept behind King’s Cross – temporary structure, permanent feel, fully adaptable to any show – the structures they had used there were “corporate marquees, hospitality tents”. They weren’t soundproofed, nothing could be hung from them, they had very little height and no insulation.
So Royds designed a kit himself from scratch, that also meant he could focus on sustainability. “Pop-up usually means quick, cheap, get it up and then throw it away. At King’s Cross we put in half a million pounds of soundproofing that we then had to throw away.”
He continues: “So we’ve designed a panel system that means we can retain 95% of the structure and take it to the next site. It’s much more cost-effective for us. It gives us a product that is much better than anything else on the market, but it’s also much more environmentally friendly. I flew around Europe for about nine months going to different tent expos. Tristan was in New York doing Girl from the North Country. I was in a field in Germany looking at tents.”
It’s raining hard. A stone’s throw from Wembley Stadium, backing on to Lidl next door, is a corrugated metal warehouse with a brick building attached. Its concrete courtyard is surrounded by spiky metal fences. This is the old Fountain Studios, a major TV and film studio that shut down in 2016.
Soon it will be opening again as a major new theatre venue when Royds and Baker have finished gutting, painting and equipping its insides. The two producers set off on a whip around the site with Baker’s excited labradoodle Maple Syrup in tow.
“We inherited it without a manual,” Royds explains as we hurry from stage door through the rain to the building’s front entrance. “So it’s taken us 12 months just to unpick what everything does, before we could even think about how we could turn it into a functioning theatre.”
Wembley is one of the most famous destinations worldwide for events of all kinds, but not for theatre. That’s what we’re hoping to bring to it
“There was no front-of-house space,” adds Baker. “No toilets, no bars, no rehearsal rooms. All we knew is that the space is very special – for creatives and for audiences. Wembley is one of the most famous destinations worldwide for events of all kinds, but not for theatre. That’s what we’re hoping to bring to it.”
The studio was used for filming TV shows such as On the Buses, The X Factor – One Direction was manufactured there in 2010 – and The Cube. The London episode of Friends was shot here, too. It was also a film studio at one point, hosting Robert De Niro in Brazil and Barbra Streisand in Yentl. They even shot parts of The Empire Strikes Back here.
Baker says: “There was an outcry when they announced they were going to knock it down, so the developers went: ‘Actually why don’t we get these guys in.’ ”
We duck under some tape that’s been strung across the warehouse door and walk into the newly formed front-of-house, which used to be a painting area and storage facility for the studio. The style could be described as ‘industrial chic’: exposed lightbulbs, steel beams, brick walls, brightly coloured neon lights. “We’re embracing the building,” Royds explains. “We’re not trying to cover it up.”
He also promises there’ll be softer furnishings when it opens, sofas and chairs where people can hang out before a show or during the day. Baker points out the many plug sockets lined low along the walls, each with USB ports, “so you won’t have that thing where the guy plugged his phone in on the stage set”.
There’s an upstairs bar that used to house the National Lottery machines, which was the only secure part of the building. The rest of the warehouse area was open to the elements – one of the first things they had to do was put in walls.
Baker charges ahead and slips behind a wooden partition wall, to an area of the Wembley Park site that he’s particularly excited about. “So many ladies’ loos,” he exclaims. “I think we’ve beaten everyone. There are more ladies’ loos in here than any theatre.” And there are. Rows and rows of them.
A smallish doorway opposite leads into the performance space, a cavernous cube of a room where builders are still getting it ready for opening. “Any creatives or producers we’ve brought here, their minds immediately go: ‘My God, we can do so much,’ because you’re not confined by those Victorian spaces. You can hang anything anywhere, build anything anywhere, you can have it in-the-round, traverse or you don’t have to have seats at all. You tell us how you want it,” says Baker. War Horse is the space’s first show, and is a shrewd choice: an international brand that can work on pretty much any scale, that can sell out a 1,200-seat space.
A site manager shoos us out because we’re not in protective clothing. We pass a half-built restaurant and upstairs to a self-contained suite of rehearsal rooms including a dance studio with mirrored walls and a sprung floor. These rehearsal rooms are all for general hire, and they want to work with the local community and schools. The attention to detail is important, and everything that’s sold both in Wembley Park and in White City has been carefully chosen. They’ve tested local ice cream, they’ve found a London-based coffee supplier whose coffee is fortuitously called the Troubadour and even the vodka is distilled in Wembley. “We’re really trying to work locally with businesses, it helps our footprint,” Royds says.
A flight down are the Troubadour offices, one of which has a particularly ripe history. “We turned Simon Cowell’s dressing room into our boardroom.” It’s huge. There’s a brand new bathroom – it was new when they inherited the building – with a flat screen TV sunk into the wall above the bath. At the other end is a wall panel that opens up to reveal a panic room. “If these walls could talk,” Royds says. Then there are the dressing rooms – all large, en-suite, and air-conditioned and we’ve done the circuit. “Okay, the car will be here in two minutes,” says Baker. It’s still bucketing down outside, but they’re keen to get moving to White City. Twenty minutes later we’re at another building site just by White City tube station.
You can hang anything anywhere, build anything anywhere, you can have it in-the-round, traverse or you don’t have to have seats at all. You tell us how you want it
In the cab, the producing double act explain how they ended up working together. Both are still continuing their individual enterprises. Royds is managing director of BOS Productions (that stands for ‘bums on seats’, appropriate for a producer for whom that is, ultimately, the bottom line) which he set up aged 21 after graduating from Newcastle University.
Baker set up his company while he was at university, where he had already got the rights to Calamity Jane. His production with Toyah Willcox toured the country and then ran in the Shaftesbury Theatre when he was 22. In 2011, he founded Runaway Entertainment with Charlie Parsons (who created The Big Breakfast on TV). The company has produced Footloose for the past 15 years, as well as shorter runs of shows like Guys and Dolls in the West End and Girl from the North Country in London and New York.
One of Royds’ first shows was a big success, but the next one “lost a lot of money very quickly”. A friend of his said: “Olly, I know someone who’s been through a similar up and down,” and introduced him to Baker, which started their 20-year working relationship.
At the muddy entrance to Troubadour White City, where the roof is still being waterproofed, the site manager recites instructions in the event of a terror attack. Hard hats, high-vis jackets and steel toe-cap boots go safely on – complete with Troubadour branding – and Royds and Baker lead the way into the main White City space, one of two here.
It’s impossible not to be impressed stepping into it. A scaffold shell encases a vast, 20-metre high empty space. The floor is made of concrete squares that interlock, the walls are interlocking soundproofed and insulated panels. The metal scaffolding works like Meccano, adaptable to any shape or size and capable of carrying mighty loads like sets and lights. Huge dock doors allow a truck to drive almost right onto the stage to unload. It is, essentially, an unfathomably large, endlessly adaptable black box.
Baker says: “Wembley’s not really what we do. What we really do is this. We take a car park, a field, a bit of space and build you a building. There are so many territories here and abroad that do not have enough theatres, or a big enough theatre for one of these shows. In some places, they might be building a £150 million arts centre that will take 10 years, and in the meantime they say: ‘Can we have one of yours for a couple of years?’”
The White City entrance area is an open three-storey space with a huge glass front which, despite missing most of its floor at the moment, already looks like the foyer of a contemporary art gallery. Like Wembley, it’ll be lit jazzily, there’ll be concrete floors and bars and, again, an abundance of toilets. Royds says: “We’re embracing the fact we’re not a beautiful Cameron Mackintosh venue with wonderful gold leaf everywhere. We’re a scaffolding structure.”
What we’re doing is event theatre, bridging a gap between the West End and the arena market. People say that the Netflix generation all sit at home, but they don’t. They want to go out and experience things
Even the small space is colossal, and in the middle is a slight rake with a couple of folded purple seats that Royds and Baker have been sampling. “We wanted really good leg room and we wanted them to be comfortable,” says Baker. “But not so comfortable they’d fall asleep,” Royds jokes. “And also we’re being practical – we’re adding cupholders.”
The thing is, with the Bridge, the Turbine, Nimax’s in-the-round theatre, the immersive Space 18 and with many theatres across the capital undergoing huge redevelopment projects, aren’t there too many new theatres in London already? Royds thinks Troubadour is occupying a different space. “We’re not really competing. What we’re doing is event theatre, bridging a gap between the West End and the arena market. People say that the Netflix generation all sit at home, but they don’t. They want to go out and experience things. We live in a world where it’s all about experiences now. We want to provide an experience.”
Baker adds: “We’re not trying to compete with the West End. There are so many shows that can’t get a West End theatre. We have the ability to be an alternative. When you see shows like The Jungle and Fiddler on the Roof, and what they’ve done to the Playhouse, that’s great. But it’s very costly. Here you literally don’t have to do anything. Just lift the production and put it in.”
His vision for the smaller space in White City is to transfer shows from “places like the Minerva or the Crucible or the Donmar or Southwark, places that aren’t a traditional proscenium – because there’s nowhere really for those shows to go.”
They will also bring in immersive shows, says Royds: “We’ve designed one of them so you can put mezzanine floors in and have three floors for a completely immersive experience.” Also, unlike the slew of new theatres in London, the Troubadour venues are temporary. They’ve got Wembley Park for seven years, White City for three.
As for how it works, Troubadour is not producing any of the shows. “It’s set up as a building operation,” Royds explains. “However,” Baker chips in, “Olly and I may well produce those shows as individuals. But at the moment we’re too busy building the spaces.”
Another member of the team, John Richardson, former chief executive of the Old Vic, is director of programming, curating the shows at each venue. The hands-off approach means that each show’s producer sets the ticket prices. There are lots of cheap tickets, Baker promises, and for good seats, too – no restricted views. They also point out that there’s an incentive for cheaper tickets in a Troubadour space because it’s much cheaper than hiring a West End theatre – “more than 50% cheaper”, Baker reckons. There is, however, a 50p charge on every ticket that will be donated to the Troubadour Trust, a new charity for increasing access to the arts. That means free tickets for people who’ve not been to the theatre before as well as sponsoring associate positions – lighting designers, sound designers – to make sure it’s not just “white, middle-class” people who can get a foothold in the industry by working for nothing.
So, what’s next? Have they secured their next site yet? “Which one,” smiles Royds. “We’ve got one more here, and we’re looking at a couple internationally.”
The hard hats come off and the tour is over. For Royds and Baker it’s back to finding more sites around the world, and spectacular shows to put inside them. “What we’ve realised after many years as theatre producers,” says Royds, “is that if it all goes wrong, I’ll become a builder and Tris will become an estate agent.” The mark of good producers: having a contingency plan. But if King’s Cross, Wembley Park and White City are anything to go by, it’s unlikely they’ll have to put that plan into action.
Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre opens with Dinosaur World Live from July 18 to September 1. Troubadour White City Theatre opens with the National Theatre production of Peter Pan from July 20 to October 27. Full details: troubadourtheatres.com