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Finborough Theatre, Neil McPherson: ‘Fringe theatre is undergoing a lasting change… I don’t want it to become a rich kid’s playground.’

The Finborough Theatre has had a remarkable year; acclaimed sell-out productions, London and New York transfers, the tenth Channel 4 Playwrights Scheme Playwright in Residence Bursary, nominations for The Stage Debut Award and an Olivier Award.

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Neil McPherson

Since 1998, Neil McPherson has been artistic director of the Finborough pub theatre. It’s fair to say he knows what he’s doing on the theatre front and if you’re in the market for a chat about that then today is your lucky day.

Anyway I hopped on the phone with Neil to find out what he’s got to say for himself.

In 2018, the Finborough celebrates 150 years of the Finborough Theatre building with the FINBOROUGH150 series, an anniversary selection of the best plays from 1868. McPherson may be approaching twenty years in post but he shows no signs of losing enthusiasm. “Next year is the 150 Anniversary of our building so we are going to be doing an anniversary selection of the best plays of 1868 – our new season, for example, features one play from 1868 alongside five pieces of new writing,” he says, excitedly.

Last week, Lyn Gardner wrote about the state of play of the London fringe, saying: The days when the London fringe was a place where the penniless and the radical could find a nook of cranny, where they could thrive, have long gone. Does he agree? “Sadly, Lyn is absolutely right.  Fringe theatre – as it is now – is on the cusp of a massive change,” he says. “Almost as big as the shift of print media vs the internet. For many years in London – the number of fringe theatres stayed constant – then suddenly over the last five or six years – a dozen theatres or more popped up. And that brings its own challenges for a 50-seat venue paying market rent,” McPherson says.

He continues, “I’ve never been a subscriber to the belief that “fringe” means amateurish. I’ve always tried to take the best of the fringe – the ability to find new and exciting writers, directors, designers, actors theatre; the ability to respond to events quickly; and to be radical and controversial; and marry that with the best of the commercial theatre’s values – a respect for training, and high production values, for example,” he says.

“It’s got to be good – just because it’s a fringe theatre doesn’t mean it can’t be world class.”

We talk about the renewed discussion of masculinity in crisis and the constant developments around sexual harassment. “I think the best thing we can do is shut up, listen – with humility – and do and be better. It’s time for a big change. And, it goes hand in hand with bullying which also needs to be addressed,” says McPherson emphatically.

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What steps has he taken to ensure that he is doing all that he can within the organisation? “Just this very last week we’ve altered our production manual we give to companies’ clear guidance. We also have the Royal Court code of conduct on display in working areas. The awareness is all, and, as my favourite teacher at drama school used to say “N.T.T.” which stands for “Nobody’s That Talented,” he says, laughing.

Earlier this year McPherson was nominated for an Olivier Award for his play Is It Easy to be dead – a play is about a remarkable WWI poet, Charles Hamilton Sorley. The play received solid reviews and transferred to Trafalgar Studios. McPherson is realistic about the sustainability. “In terms of critical acclaim and commercial sales – we could transfer 1 in 3 of our shows; however, we only transfer 1 in 7. And perhaps not always the most deserving ones. I always go back to the Noel Coward quote “Just do what you like and believe in and just hope to God other people like it too,” he says.

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Alexander Knox in It Is Easy To Be Dead. Photo: Scott Rylander.

McPherson is deeply aware of the importance of seeking out diverse voices and not being dependent on playwriting competitions. “I’ve judged some playwriting competitions in the past and personally I think it’s best to just do the new writing development work I’m doing anyway and then put on the plays when they are ready,” he says.

“I’m not altogether convinced by decision by committee, and I think quite often with competitions, we know something has to win and so we pick one that is the least bad,” he tells me, before adding, “They can be a good thing and an important thing but it should only be part of it the process, not the whole process for getting new voices discovered.”

What are the biggest challenges for the Finborough in 2017? “The Equity low pay – no pay campaign is hugely important, and we’re doing all we can to do our part. But nothing happens in a vacuum, and the campaign does have serious knock-on effects which in the long run may mean a lot less opportunities for actors and creatives,” says McPherson, adding that 9 out of 12 Finborough main shows paid at least Equity Fringe Agreement minimum this year.

“It’s slow progress, but we’re not being lazy,” he says. “The people now putting on shows are coming from a much more moneyed background than, say, five years ago. But, as an example, one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with – a female working class director/producer – she should be having a really successful career now but she’s more or less had to give up because she can’t work in the current climate as she is terrified of being sued if she was to do another fringe show.”

Is there anything that he’d like to add, I ask. “Fringe theatre is undergoing a massive and lasting change and I don’t know where it’s going to go yet, and we’re confronting those new challenges on a daily basis. I don’t want it to become a rich kid’s playground,” McPherson replies.

The Finborough’s 2018 season is now on sale 

 

Coverage of the above interview in The Stage

Coverage of the above interview in The Stage

 

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Guest blog, Jamie Eastlake: “Someone somewhere can help. Theatre N16 will survive. It has to.”

Jamie Eastlake

Jamie Eastlake

  • 178  PRODUCTIONS
  • 132 Theatre Companies on risk free deals
  • 1500 Artists
  • 140 Directors
  • 110 New Writers
  • 17 Technicians
  • 200 first credits for actors cvs
  • 25 Actors on Equity contracts for in house productions
  • 28,000 People through the doors and rising
  • 11 BSL performances
  • 3 cheap Rehearsal spaces
  • 42 Number of productions transferred

Theatre N16 has filled a gap in the industry. I’m not saying there aren’t models like ours. However there’s not enough of them. There’s always a debate about  class divide in the arts and the lack of accessibility for so many different individuals, females, BAME actors and producers with not a pot to piss in. N16 was always about giving hope to these people. It sounds proper wanky but I genuinely think we have achieved this.

We’re looking for a new home. One that we can set the foundations up for years to come. We’ve been extremely unlucky so far. It was the perfect space for us. Times were very tough to start. Because I was desperate to secure somewhere our initial agreement was a bit of an odd one. We had to prove to management that we were going to be a worthy asset. This meant programming theatre Sundays- Thursdays and then on a weekend giving the space back to the pub to hold parties. This wasn’t just giving back the space. This was completely de-rigging it and taking down set. If we had a three week run of a show they’d have to do three get outs. It was crazy. No matter what has been thrown against us we’ve overcome it. It didn’t take us long to prove to be a a valuable asset and secure 7 days a week to allow us to offer a more comfortable operation for theatre companies.

My dream move would be to secure a stand alone property. Somewhere where we can run a bar at the same time as the theatre. A place where we can make revenue to support even more companies and artists. We’ve already got the business model planned out from our shortlist for the space in Streatham.  I’m sure there’s people running spaces out there who are sick of what they do, they could be the people who answers our prayer. We’re working on a patron plan that will see us having a bit of leverage in the bank. This will allow us to get the best possible space we can get. This is the dream model. If a cracking pub space in a great area on a great deal came about we’d love to talk it through. Pub theatre is very special to me. I love having a pint, seeing a show then going downstairs to catch the second half of a footy match.

What this call to arms represents is hope. I’m blown away so far my all the messages and people crying out that someone  somewhere can help. Theatre N16 will survive. It has to.

Watch the documentary about when we opened in Balham. I think it sums up everything about us.

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Alastair Knights talks about My Fair Lady 60th Anniversary concert, his next directorial venture and more

Alastair Knights

Alastair Knights set to direct My Fair Lady 60th Anniversary concert

The cafe is bustling with people. Alastair Knights is on a break from rehearsals for Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at the Union Theatre. Knights leads us to the bar area and we sit on an old sofa. He’s just returned from America and is a little jet-lagged. Last Summer Alastair directed The Spitfire Grill to great acclaim at the Union, went on to direct Kings of Broadway; featuring music from shows and an all-star cast of West End talent. He was also behind the St James Theatre RE:act scheme. Now, he is set to direct the hotly anticipated My Fair Lady 60th Anniversary Concert later this month.

Alastair Knights

Alastair Knights

How much of the industry is who you know vs what you know

I ask him how much of the industry is who you know vs what you know. “Oh God. Who you know! Friends help each other out. You need to be talented and prepared, that’s a given. But what you do need is luck. You need that little moment and if you don’t get it you’re fucked.” It’s clear from speaking to Alastair that a little luck goes a long way.** It was in 2013 that Knights and Musical Director Alex Parker devised and directed Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and staged Putting It Together – A Musical Revue at G Live in Guildford. Putting It Together was a hit later at the St James. One man in the audience was Robert Mackintosh, who runs the St James Theatre and brother of theatrical producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh. He adds “I had my luck because Robert Mackintosh decided to drive to Guilford to see Putting it Together. I wouldn’t be here now if that hadn’t happened. Actually, I’d say it’s 60% who you know and 40% what you know.”

Favourite off -West-End-Theatre

We discuss London venues and I inquire his favourite off-West-End theatre. “The St James Theatre. They gave me my first opportunity in RE: act, a short-plays initiative, and over the last year we have worked with 120 emerging artists. Writers are paired with upcoming directors and actors to create a response piece to productions. It’s an exciting place to be.”

Actors are the bravest people ever

Sitting in one of London’s most vibrant pub-theatres, it is apt that Alastair speaks of his admiration for fringe theatre workers; It’s here that shows can be calling cards for emerging artists. “I’m strongly for Fringe Theatre. I think actors are the bravest people ever. It’s so exposing.” He delves deeper into this advocacy, “There is a lot of discussion around low pay work, but fringe theatre gives actors and directors such wonderful opportunities. I would have never been asked to do Little Voice at a West End or big regional theatre. For me, working somewhere like The Union is a creative and collaborative dream.”

Whats next on the direction list

Alastair’s modesty is endearing. Some directors talk like they’re reading from a script; Alastair speaks with utter conviction and clarity of thought. His enthusiasm is persuasive to the point of being faintly intoxicating. I probe to find out what is next on his directing wish-list. He beams “Fanny and Stella! It’s a new musical I’m working on with composer Eamonn O’Dwyer. It’s about two female impersonators in the gruesome underbelly of Victorian England. We have the rights to Neil Mckenna’s book and we’ll workshop the show next month.”

More about the My Fair Lady Concert happening at St. Paul’s Church

For someone at the start of their career Knights has a lot already under his belt, his ambition is palpable. He tells me about the My Fair Lady Concert he will be directing, “Amazingly, Liz Robertson called Cameron Mackintosh and he suggested Alex Parker and I put it together. We are celebrating 60 years since the first Broadway performance! It’s a gala performance at the iconic St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, the location of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins’s first encounter. We have an incredible cast including Patricia Routledge, Kara Tointon, Frank Skinner, Gina Beck and many more telling the story of the inception of the show, along with songs from the musical itself. The evening is generously supported by Cameron Mackintosh and all proceeds are going towards St Paul’s Church to improve access.”

We talk briefly about imposter syndrome. He says that, if he wasn’t doing this he’d be working an office job. “Probably PR. That’s what I’d probably be doing. Definitely marketing, actually, because I like talking.” Well, quite.

The last five photos on his phone

At this point I ask what are the last five photos he took on his phone. He giggles and coyly begins to list: “The Little Voice Poster, me with a teeth whitening strip in California, a soundboard desk here at the Union, me and my best friend in Hollywood and a theatre in LA.” Whilst looking at his phone, it strikes me that I’m five seconds away from being able to contact Cameron Mackintosh.

The thing about being star struck

I ask Alistair if he’s ever been star-struck. “All the time. I think the first time that I worked with Elaine Paige was a huge deal for me. She is so incredibly talented. Her voice is insane; she’s in her 60’s and looks amazing. What’s more in rehearsals she sang Nobody’s Side from Chess at a Danceworks in Fulham, at midday, and proper belted it. A dream. I know I’m going to be star-struck when I start rehearsals with Patricia Routledge!”

Finishing on a Sheridan Smith note

As we draw to the end of our lunch I ask him if there’s anything he’d like to add, or retract. He seems concerned about Sheridan Smith, who has taken time out from Funny Girl due to exhaustion. “I find the Sheridan Smith situation really, really sad. I’ve seen her be absolutely incredible on stage in Flare Path and Legally Blonde. I watched her in Funny Girl and the spark was missing. I hope she takes some time out and returns better.”

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (@LittleVoiceLDN) runs at The Union Theatre (@TheUnionTheatre), Southwark from 4 to 26 June

My Fair Lady at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden on Sunday 19 June