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Marie McCarthy: Don’t despair, as generous help is abundant in the theatre industry

The Clapham Omnibus
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In 1889, the Old Clapham Library was opened by social reformer John Lubbock – the man who gave us bank holidays and believed strongly in libraries as centres of knowledge and discovery for all.

In 2013, 125 years later, I inherited a fledgling arts centre, one member of staff, two volunteers and Arts Council England funding for a production of Woyzeck.

The first thing I did was to call upon former colleagues and industry peers to ask for help. The advice and support was generously forthcoming. Gavin Barlow at the Albany told me how tough it had been for him at the start and Adrian Berry at Jacksons Lane said the same. The development team at the National Theatre gave me advice when we approached a particularly sticky financial challenge.

These shared horror stories, and success against all the odds, spurred me on. I was inspired enormously. After all, giving up wasn’t an option; it had taken a group of locals seven years to save the building from commercial developers. So in-between recruiting volunteers for front of house, creating a box office from my old laptop and painting dressing rooms, a vague outline of a vision emerged.

David Jubb has been another invaluable support and font of knowledge – he launched an initiative for local cultural organisations close to Clapham Junction to meet, share ideas and resources. The fire at Battersea Arts Centre understandably prematurely halted those meetings, but the opportunities for informal training for my team continue, for which I am very grateful.

Three years into our short history at Omnibus, we still receive no guaranteed funding and in this industry’s all too familiar landscape of limited resources, the sharing of generosity of spirit and empathy has been a key factor in our development, not just about joining forces artistically.

I am now able to share my horror stories and victories with a new theatre a few miles away. These support networks are creatively rewarding because we are solving problems, combining ideas and learning from experience.

Making work, building partnerships and collaborations outside of the building is imperative for us: Macbeth (partly on Clapham Common in 2015) and our production of Colour for under-4s inspired by the Rossetti poem that toured libraries and children’s centres, which will now be heading further afield to reach wider audiences in China. A literacy project is planned for Singapore and Hong Kong. These are unexpected collaborations that I would never have imagined was possible three years ago. We also have longer runs programmed for 2017 and receiving work from brilliant companies within and outside of London.

Omnibus’ artistic programme, audience and identity is now taking shape. With theatre at the heart of the programme, we are bringing to life the repository of stories that existed in this building for 125 years and providing a welcoming shelter for creative exploration, in turn sharing our skills and learning with anyone who wants it.

This month came the news of yet another unexpected development, winning a year’s worth of support from Vicky Featherstone and the Royal Court at this year’s Empty Space Peter Brook Awards. It’s a massive honour and one that brings incalculable value to our theatre.

It is easy to feel isolated, particularly at the beginning with no source of guaranteed funding and a long road ahead. The temptation is to keep your head down, plough on, and somehow muddle through, making the little you have stretch a long way. In our first three years, we have learnt that this has to be balanced with unconquerable optimism, an inclination to access the greater wealth of ideas, sharing practices and knowledge from our peers across the industry.

In the amazing spirit of generosity that exists in our industry – ask and someone will respond.

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