Saturday, 30 May 2020

Movement through Lockdown – An Interview with James Haddrell, Artistic & Executive Director of the Greenwich Theatre

I have increasingly become more interested in fringe and smaller theatres, they regularly offer a more eclectic output than the West End theatres with their long run productions and occasionally prohibitive pricing.  The fringe scene offers an entry point for new creatives and a freshness that is sometimes lost when you consider the output of some larger theatres.  Over the years, I have attended numerous productions at the Greenwich Theatre and have regularly been astounded by the vitality of their performances.  Productions such as Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ with movement, paint and paint brushes standing in for the brutality and horror of Shakespeare’s most extreme play.  Also London Classic Theatre's production of ‘Equus’, the rarely produced yet startling psychological play written by Peter Shaffer about the boy who blinds horses and the psychologist who seeks to help him (whilst simultaneously trying to understand himself as he undergoes a crisis of faith in his profession).  I vividly remember the horse costumes, the skeletal frames and heavy masks worn by the cast. 

As a result of the current Coronavirus situation and the closure of theatres and art venues internationally, I decided to ask James Haddrell, the Artistic and Executive Director of the Greenwich Theatre if I could interview him to learn more about his role within the theatre industry and how the Greenwich Theatre is coping during the current crisis.  He kindly agreed. 

What does your joint role as Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre entail? Also prior to working at the Greenwich Theatre, did you always work within the theatre industry?

I started my arts career in cinema, working in marketing for the then independent Harbour Lights cinema in Southampton. I moved from there to the Warehouse Theatre in Croydon, a fringe venue with a strong focus on new writing. From there I moved to Greenwich Theatre as Press Officer in 2001. I have worked there ever since, first as Press Officer, then Marketing Manager and then in 2007 as Executive Director.

At that time the role of Artistic Director did not exist. The Executive Director led the company and programmed the venue, but there was little artistic creation at the venue. That has changed during my time, hence the change in job title. We now produce on a semi-regular basis, co-produce every season, and run an over-subscribed and ambitious artist support programme.

The executiveelements of the job remain though, so my job is a fusion of running the business, leading on strategic and commercial decision making (supported at all times by my Commercial Director, Simon Francis), and leading the artistic identity of the company.

What do you consider are the unique characteristics of the Greenwich Theatre that differentiate it from other venues?

Greenwich Theatre occupies a very important position in the theatre landscape. In London there are few venues of the scale of Greenwich where regional companies can showcase their work. National touring companies looking for London dates have limited options available to them. At the same time, fringe companies looking to grow their work need a stepping stone up to the mid-scale. On the fringe, financial risks are relatively low but the cost of presenting work grows exponentially as you move to larger venues and that cost can be prohibitive. Greenwich offers a low-risk platform for those small companies to try out their work on a larger stage.

Throughout the years, I have attended a number of productions at the Greenwich Theatre ranging from ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ (which starred Mark Rylance and Jane Horrocks) through to more recent productions such as Lazarus’ ‘Lord of the Flies’.  Do you feel that offering an eclectic range of short-run productions is important for presenting theatres?  How do you select the productions that you choose to stage?

It’s always a balancing act for us. The short runs can be challenging in terms of marketing, as the opportunity for word of mouth is limited. At the same time, a diverse programme can be problematic – the notion that presenting a wide range of theatre can bring in a wide range of audience members is often a mistake. A venue needs an identity. That's certainly easier to achieve when you are a producing house – we all know what a Royal Court or an Almeida show looks and feels like - but its also possible when you are a presenting house. At Greenwich Theatre, there is huge diversity in subject matter and style of work on stage, but wherever possible the work divides into a small number of strands - work by some of the country’s most exciting emerging companies, new writing for children and families etc.

In terms of selecting work, again, it’s a balancing act. I am naturally drawn to new or young companies who display a strong artistic sense - but who may need support in stepping up from the fringe to the mid-scale. Occasionally we work with brand new graduate companies, but more commonly we present work by companies who have made at least one or two shows already in a smaller space and who need the opportunity to grow. When we produce our own work, I am interested in a range of ideas - in recent years we have produced the new play Gazing At A Distant Star, the rarely revived Michael Frayn play HERE, and the European premiere of Tracey Power’s adaptation of The Jungle Book. In each case the shows we selected satisfied a particular need - Gazing launched our new studio and was suited to a small stage space and offered a chance for a gifted writer who had so far only had short pieces staged; Here was produced for the local festival Greenwich Performs and was designed to uncover a rarely performed but significant piece of writing; The Jungle Book launched an aspiration for an annual summer show for families.

I guess, at its heart, our programme is about taking work which has huge potential and giving it the chance, through mentoring, co-production, full production or just access to a decent scale London stage, to fulfil that potential.

In your recent article in the ‘South London Press’ newspaper (24th April 2020), you spoke about the economic problems facing presenting theatres (those theatres who primarily rely upon touring productions rather than producing their own shows).  Please can you talk a bit about how the Greenwich Theatre is funded?  Does the majority of its income come through box office sales or through grants etc?

The story of Greenwich Theatre’s funding is an important one. When I took over as Executive Director the venue had debts of around £250k. The annual turnover was about £1.2m per year, and 60% of that came from grants - from the local authority, the European Social Fund and various project funders. Now the company has virtually no debt, the turnover still averages £1.2m per year, and less than 10% of our income comes from grants. The grant income that we do receive comes from the local authority, and we have just been awarded an Arts Council England emergency response grant of £35k, but we have increased earned income and donations exponentially to replace lost grant income over the past decade. That means this period of inactivity is particularly challenging for us, with almost no income.

In the light of the Coronavirus pandemic, theatres internationally are being adversely affected by the enforced closure of all venues; do you feel that there are adequate measures in place i.e. Government grants etc to ensure that theatres and art venues of all sizes will be able to survive?  Also do you believe as I am starting to feel that a centralised charitable fund could be established to support the smaller theatre companies, theatres and their associates who may not have sufficient resources to survive the prolonged closure?

To this point, no, there are not sufficient measures in place to support arts venues through this period. The furlough scheme is useful, and we are certainly making use of it, but our industry also relies heavily on freelance workers and to date the government is only offering income support for that group of artists to the end of June, while the earliest any theatre is talking about reopening in this country is September. We are not eligible for the government grants as our premises are considered too large, and we are resistant to the idea of incurring additional debt to get us through this period when we’ve worked so hard to clear our inherited debts.

Arts Council England has made a major commitment to the industry with their emergency grant provision, stopping all project grants and awarding funds to artists and companies on an emergency basis instead. However, the £160m set to be distributed can only go so far. It sounds like a huge sum, but venues like us who are not part of ACE’s National Portfolio of regularly funded companies could only apply for up to £35k - and for us, £15k of that will be spent on audience engagement activities while we’re closed, so the total of support funds is only actually £20k - and we estimate losses to July of around £250k. There are obviously savings from being closed as well, but still we are looking at a deficit for the period of around £100k - and audiences are not going to flock back to venues when we reopen. Sales are going to be slow as confidence gradually returns, so losses are going to increase. This is not to suggest that we are disappointed with the ACE grant - it is a huge testament to the faith that the funder has in our work - but it is important to acknowledge the scale of the crisis that we’re all facing.

A central support fund is a great idea. However, it’s worth saying (although I know this sounds brutal) there are inevitably organisations that were already operating with business models that put them on a trajectory towards failure. Bailout funding should be allocated where it will genuinely save an artist or an organisation, not where it will temporarily shore up an operation that is destined to fail anyway.

In your ‘South London Press’ article on 11th May 2020, you talked about the current trend of providing streaming media online of theatre productions such as the National Theatre’s weekly offerings of their NT Live archives and you interestingly and validly point out that many theatres, although they can offer archival recordings of their productions, they will not match the production values of the National Theatre’s output (owing to the fact that the NT recordings have been created with the intention of cinema exhibition), so thus, most recordings may only be of interest to a more limited audience, who can accept the limitations of a single camera setup etc.  Personally, I feel that the NT Live productions and the other streamed productions offered by the Globe Theatre, BBC and Hampstead Theatre etc at least enable shows that would otherwise be forgotten to be shared.  One positive of the streaming phenomenon that you identify is the possibility for a greater engagement between the audience and the producing companies via social media.  Do you feel that there could be an argument to suggest that a larger number of shows could be streamed or offered once their runs are completed, providing the theatres and the production companies etc receive royalties for the productions? I suspect that this could only work with the larger theatres unless the NT Live and other pay-per-view streaming theatre channels would be prepared to support the fringe theatre scene.  But I would be interested to hear what you think?  Also how has the Greenwich Theatre engaged with social media during the Coronavirus?

This is a really interesting question, and something we’ve been thinking about ourselves. Providing access to shows to people who can’t get to a theatre is a very valuable endeavour, - one that theatres have been made to consider during the pandemic and one that I suspect will continue beyond the reopening of venues. We are looking at the mechanics of live streaming shows as they happen, so that audiences can either attend in person or watch online. I also think that the costs of producing very watchable recordings of plays has come down in recent years - I’m kicking myself for not filming the work that I’ve directed over the past few years. I think there’s an argument that all Arts Council England funded companies and venues should allocate a percentage of their grants to making their work available remotely - something for the industry to consider as we go forwards.

During the shutdown of theatres we’ve been running Greenwich Connects - a programme of activity which uses social media and digital platforms to reach audiences, actors and industry creatives, to offer entertainment and structure. We stream a show every Friday but have been exploring additional activity around the streams as you point out. We challenge actors to submit monologues on twitter every Monday, offer industry advice sessions on Instagram on Wednesdays, are part of a national Facebook streaming of SK Shlomo’s family beatbox sessions on Thursdays and issue a writers’ challenge every Sunday - and now that ACE have confirmed their funding, there will be more to come, including the relocation of our annual Greenwich Children’s Theatre Festival onto a range of online platforms in July.

Please can you talk about any outreach or community programs/projects that the Greenwich Theatre is involved in?

Because of the nature of our funding, all community and outreach projects are dependent on both project funding and partnership working. Last summer we supported a free outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which I directed, presented in Thamesmead with a cast of professional, amateur and student performers. We run regular activities in schools and were on the verge of launching an after-school club at Eltham Hill Secondary School when the schools closed down (so that will now commence in the autumn). We have plans for a range of online workshops, particular for children and families, which are about to be announced…

As a regular theatre goer, I feel as though I should be doing my bit to support the theatre industry during the Coronavirus but it is hard to know where to start as I cannot support every theatre and company whose work I have enjoyed over the years.  As a theatre practitioner, what would you advise?

This is a tough one. I read your blog about the challenges you face in deciding who to help, and I found it really useful as someone sitting on the other side of the table seeking donations. For me, a donation or act of financial support should be linked to a sense of future engagement or involvement - don’t reward the theatres or companies you’ve loved in the past, help those that you are most likely to engage with in the future. I know that probably won’t narrow down your list much! I’d also say, where you can, instead of making a donation, look at purchasing a membership or a season ticket for future work. We would clearly all value your support at this tough time, but the value of that to us and to you increases dramatically if it’s linked to a commitment to future visits. We want to see you again!

Once the Coronavirus has passed, how soon do you anticipate that theatres will be able to reopen and do you feel that the whole experience could open up more useful dialogues concerning the Government’s support of smaller provincial companies and fringe theatre?  Also a more thorough investigation into ticket pricing, particularly in relation to West End theatres?  I am starting to feel that by imposing Broadway pricing onto many West End shows, less tickets will be purchased by the average audience member.  I have seen seats for future West End shows being offered at £150 plus for ‘premium’ seats.  Even allowing for theatre running costs and casting etc, is it ever possible to justify charging that amount of money for seats?  I will not pay those prices but it worries me that smaller venues will suffer as the result of audience members spending that amount on a West End show, when essentially they could see six or more shows for the same amount if they focused on local and fringe theatres.  Is there a sense of community between the fringe theatre scene or does it feel like every theatre fighting their own corner to survive?

The reopening question is an interesting one, and won’t be the same for all theatres. The challenge is making the economics stack up between the number of people in the audience and the cost of the show on stage. The West End will likely be closed until next year, as running a typical West End show to 25% capacity, which is the best we can hope for with socially distanced seating, doesn’t deliver enough to pay the rental on the venue and the costs of the activity on stage. For smaller venues, the same challenge exists but the margins are more navigable. At Greenwich we are reopening in September with small shows, rehearsed and performed with social distancing rules in place - some on the main stage, and some in the studio with cabaret style table seating. You would be pushed to run a show like that in a 1000 seat venue as it would be lost, but for us it will work well. I think that may bring more focus onto smaller theatres, as they’ll be up and running before the major venues, and the importance of investing in the grass roots of theatre production will become very clear.

West End ticket pricing has been an issue for me for a long time, and it has even been raised in the House of Lords as a concern, well before COVID-19. The reason prices are so high is often that a lot of money has been spent in creating the show, and the recoupment can take years. Producers know that a multi-year run is always far from guaranteed, so they need to protect their investors by making the recoupment period as short as possible. However, you’re right - if people spend £150 to go to see a West End show it’s going to use up their budget fast. I hope that the period of time when smaller venues are open will attract new audiences to try out those smaller spaces and then balance their theatregoing between the two in future, where previously the huge marketing investments of the major theatres grabbed the attention of most people and used up the money they could realistically spend on going to the theatre.

The fringe theatre scene has always had something of a community spirit but I think that has grown as a result of COVID-19 and it will be interesting to see whether that continues.

What are your future plans both within and outside of the Greenwich Theatre?

At Greenwich I am looking forward to getting the venue open again and seeing our audiences, albeit in a new way. We had to postpone an in-house family show that was fairly well developed but that will return next year, and we have started looking at plans for a small-scale in-house production for this autumn. We are also interested to see what we can keep as a legacy of this period - in terms of online engagement, streaming capacity etc.

Outside of Greenwich I produce, direct and project manage on a freelance basis and have a new musical, a community play and a sonic arts installation all in the pipeline for next year - more news on those in the future!

Thanks, James for letting me interview you and good luck for the future!

Photos (Thanks to James for providing two photographs of him at work).

James Haddrell

James Haddrell

Greenwich Theatre


Many thanks to you, James for letting me interview you.  All productions, companies, plays, publications and organisations are copyright to their respective owners.

The Greenwich Theatre has a website which is listed below:

Smooth Faced Gentlemen who produced the excellent 'Titus Andronicus' have a website too:

London Classic Theatre also have an excellent and informative website exploring their past, present and future work:

Lazarus Theatre Company produced the astounding 'Lord of the Flies' and continue to imbue classic plays with a Brechtian slant:

Please continue to support your local and fringe theatres when the current Coronavirus has passed.  Creativity and artistic expression are not limited to the West End!

                                                                                            Barry Watt – 30th May 2020.

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