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Jamie Eastlake: Too many of London’s fringe theatres are broken

The Bedford pub in Balham, home of Theatre N16. Photo: Andreas Lambis The Bedford pub in Balham, home of Theatre N16. Photo: Andreas Lambis
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In recent years, new theatres have opened all over London – leading some voices to claim that “sheer theatrical vanity and ego” have driven young directors and producers to “find a room and appoint yourself artistic director” over working in existing venues.

Yes, I found a room and named myself artistic director. And the initial piece that launched this discussion by Jake Orr did make me question why, 18 months ago, I decided to get together with some friends and create Theatre N16 above a pub in Stoke Newington [the venue has since moved to above the Bedford pub in Balham].

But I knew why, deep down – and I know why others are doing it as well: it’s fucking difficult, as a young theatremaker, to get into existing Off-West End and fringe venues that have been around for donkey’s years. And, to be quite honest, a lot of them are broken.

I wanted to open a theatre because I was sick to death of being ripped off by venues. Most London fringe venues, without naming any names, charge a fortune in rental fees – making the barrier for creating new work too high for most young theatremakers.

To add insult to injury, in most cases it’s almost entirely unclear what this rent is buying – minimal support to the point of being ignored, volunteer or inexperienced technical staff, and ineffective in-house marketing is, unfortunately, the norm. The end result is a system that makes it almost impossible to recoup production costs on the fringe, let alone pay young creatives desperate to get started in the industry.

And that’s where getting the hire is even an option – it’s not uncommon to be turned away because you’re too young, too inexperienced, or your work is too avant-garde or original. No one takes a punt any more – meaning a lot of the new, exciting voices just aren’t being heard.

When I started being turned away from venues run by people with less experience than me – I started a theatre company at nine years old, spent a year on a management team in a London theatre and produced my first professional work at 18 – I knew I had to do something different.

No one takes a punt any more – meaning a lot of the new, exciting voices just aren’t being heard

I also fully and fundamentally reject the notion that London has enough theatres. Many boroughs outside central London are crying out for creative hubs – and by putting a space on their doorstep and charging fair prices, you’re offering a different kind of night out to those for whom theatre may not be the obvious option.

When we set up N16 in Stoke Newington, it didn’t have a theatre space, and now Balham has been introduced to a performing arts venue – and with a growing local audience that more than covers our very low hire fee in most instances. We’re making a difference – and while we’re by no means raking it in, that was never our goal.

I believe new spaces such as the Bunker and Theatre Utopia in Croydon will continue this trend. I believe they will champion up-and-coming theatremakers and make their lives a bit easier from day one. So let’s applaud those taking a punt in troubled financial times, and see a new generation of theatre owners break down some of the barriers to access that are stymying creativity in the capital.

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