When I interviewed rising star director Roy Alexander Weise recently, he said something which clicked in my mind. At first, however, I couldn't work out exactly why. He was talking about how he first got into theatre. What he said was this:
"My first trip was after school and walking home. I needed to pee so I popped into a building that was open, which happened to be the Ovalhouse."
That moment, as a 13 year-old school kid, was the first time Roy had ever been into a theatre. And his visit wasn't with the intention of doing anything theatre-related. It was instead to answer an urgent call of nature. It's a great story, but that's not the reason it clicked in my head. The reason for that was that I had heard it before.
They didn't even really know what sort of building it was, they entered the theatres out of necessity
It took a tweet from Matt Trueman, highlighting the two stories together, to jog my horrendous memory. It was Arinze Kene, who I interviewed last year. The theatre was different – it was the Arcola this time – but his words were remarkably similar.
"I was 13 and on my way to basketball training in the summer and it started to pour down. I ducked into the nearest place, which happened to be a theatre - the Arcola Theatre in east London."
In both instances, after entering through the doors of the theatre out of necessity, and not even really knowing what sort of building it was, they were approached by the youth theatre. The rest, as they say, is history. Weise won the JMK directing award in 2016 and subsequently directed a hit production of The Mountaintop, he was assistant director on Hangmen, X and Escaped Alone at the Royal Court and is directing two of his own shows this year. Kene won best supporting actor at the Evening Standard Awards last year and has starred in EastEnders, One Night in Miami at the Donmar and has written a host of plays. These guys are two of our brightest young British acting, writing and directing talents, and they first stumbled through a theatre's doors entirely by accident.
It's more and more vital that theatres are buildings which bring people in, act as community centres and places of connection
I don't think Arinze and Roy's stories are in any way isolated. I expect there are hundreds of stories like that out there. And it demonstrates a vital, important thing for theatre buildings today. That as well as being a theatre, they need to be an open, accessible space within their community.
I interviewed Ellen McDougall the other day, ahead of her first announcement of shows at the Gate Theatre, and one of the most important things for her, was trying to open up the theatre. For anyone who hasn't been, the Gate Theatre is tiny. You enter through a small unassuming door, up a steep flight of stairs, and round a corner into a tiny, 75-seater theatre. It's not open before 6pm when the box office opens and there's very little foyer space.
Following the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, there will be a real need for the community to come together
But that hasn't deterred Ellen. She's intent on connecting with her wider community and trying to open the theatre's doors to them. Her first event, before any of her shows start, is this weekend, where the venue itself will be open between 12 and 6pm on Sunday for anyone who wants to pop down for a visit. The theatre is also taking over the Portobello Pavilion in Powis Square on Saturday as part of InTransit Festival, and will offer free food, events and talks from names such as Ben Okri and Paterson Joseph. It's safe to say that following the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, there will be a real need for the community to come together.
This is no new idea, of course. Last year Rufus Norris expressed a desire to see the National Theatre as space for the community both day and night. Stella Duffy, heading up the excellent Fun Palaces initiative - founded by Joan Littlewood, no less - knows the power of theatres as buildings which bring people in and act as community centres and places of connection. That, in our current world, is becoming more and more vital. And if Roy and Arinze are anything to go by, out of these palaces could come the theatre heroes and heroines of the future. That's too important to ignore. Can we try to make sure theatres keep their doors wide open? Even if that is just for people to duck in for a wee.
- National Theatre
- Gate Theatre
- Arcola Theatre
- Joan Littlewood
- Stella Duffy
- Ellen McDougall
- Arinze Kene
- Fun Palaces initiative
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