Posts

,

Park Theatre’s Jez Bond: “Many freelancers have tragically left our industry and there is a lot of hard work ahead.”

Park theatre artistic director Jez Bond is busy looking at revisions of his business plan. “We have some formulating to do with our smaller space, Park90, that might enable us to bring in work that we may have previously turned down,” he says. “Historically there have been a lot of shows that we missed out on because they couldn’t have necessarily afforded to rent the space,” he continues. “So, we are trying to find out if there are new models that can crack that issue.”

Jez Bond

Park Theatre not only presents off west end theatre in the heart of London’s Finsbury Park, but is a creative community hub and has been a significant part of the redevelopment of the area. As a small charity with no regular government or Arts Council funding, the pandemic led to a devastating loss of income.

Fortunately, Park Theatre was awarded £250,000 as part of the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) to help face the challenges.

I have interviewed Bond before in 2017– he is not shy. He’s funny, opinionated and happy to talk about anything.

We are talking on the telephone in the week that Chancellor Rishi Sunak outlined his latest Budget. Measures include a £300 million addition to the Culture Recovery Fund and £150 million fund to help communities take ownership of theatres, pubs and sports clubs at risk of closure.

“We’re grateful for the actions of the Chancellor but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that it’s all rosy: many freelancers have tragically left our industry and there is a lot of hard work ahead,” says Bond.

What, I ask, are his thoughts on the explosion of digital productions? He pauses. ‘I’ve been very clear and up front that I have no passion for digital,” Bond says. “It is a means to end – but it’s not something that I have a particular passion for. Broadening the reach is a good thing but let’s not pretend that there is a new exciting way – let’s not pretend that that is theatre, we want to get back to live theatre.”

What has kept him going throughout the pandemic? “We thought we’d be dead in the water at some point,” he says.

“My drive was to say that we have 40-50 staff and we cannot let these people go during the pandemic. At a time when there was and is no prospect of getting another job. It is our duty to ensure that we protect those livelihoods. When we engaged with our donors and wider community it was evident how much Park Theatre means to everybody. It meant far too much to just let it all go. Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in.”

Park Theatre

Park Theatre

How would he describe his approach through the scenario planning, shifting sands and executive decisions? “I have erred on the side of rational caution, sensibility and logic: Reading the data and following what’s going on in other countries rather than doing what people think or want you want to say. Even recently, with the Prime Minister’s roadmap: I don’t see June being a realistic date for performances to take place at full capacity.”

Every year, it seems, the debate rages on casting well-known names from TV or film to generate ticket sales. With ticket prices looking set to stay high, and severely reduced public subsidy, there is surely an increased commercial imperative to cast stars.

Bond’s ability to knock out commercial hits is extraordinary – David Haig’s Pressure, The Boys in The Band starring Mark Gatiss, for example – he’s frank about how he feels about them. “It’s a vital part of what we do – being able to take a play and give it an extended commercial life aids us both financially and reputationally. I’m very proud of the work we’ve presented.”

According to Bond commercially successful shows rely on star power. “There has to be an understanding of why those decisions are made,” he says. “Theatres do not choose celebrities because they are mates with them. They do so because they sell tickets. If we do a new play by an unknown writer and an unknown cast, it could fly and it could get great reviews. However, if you cast Damian Lewis or Miriam Margolyes you ensure that you have a selling point and you know that you can take that significant financial risk.”

“If we were subsidised to take risk, then it wouldn’t matter. Let’s put it very clearly: it is about survival.”

,

Park Theatre, Jez Bond: “Theatres have to come up with novel ways to make money.”

Jez Bond, Artistic Director of Park Theatre, sits hunched on the sofa, twiddling his hair. In a pink hoodie and red Puma trainers, he looks younger than his thirty-nine years. His voice is soft but street-casual, but what stands out is the cheeky smile; which make you notice his sparkly eyes and his determination not to take himself too seriously.

Jez Bond – © Piers Foley Photography

In a year that’s seen him direct Ian McKellen and continue to build Park’s reputation as an exciting home for new plays and celebrated transfers, Bond is also knackered. “I haven’t slept much because I’ve got a little baby at home”, he says.

Park Theatre opened in 2013 in London’s Finsbury Park. Described as “a neighbourhood theatre with global ambition,” it offers a mixed program of new writing, classics and revivals. As well as the main auditorium (Park200), the building includes a studio theatre (Park90), a rehearsal space and a buzzing Café Bar. Is it true that the theatre is part of a housing development?

“Sure, it’s 560 luxury apartments and a little theatre in the basement…” Bond grins, “Ha! That would be nice! No; that’s fake news. Essentially, it’s the other way around. We wanted to build a theatre and discovered a building that was a former office in this incredible area. We raised the money to buy the building… and to raise the money for the theatre we spoke to Islington Council to add two storeys to the front of the building: two 1-beds and one 2-bedroom flat. That gave us a million into the pot. We have to raise £250,000 a year to keep our doors open,” he adds.

Park-Theatre-Finsbury-Park-credit-Charlie-Ward-used-wk-20-2013-newsWEB-700x455-700x455[1].jpg

We talk about the recent Park Theatre fundraiser starring Sir Ian McKellen. Titled Shakespeare, Tolkien, Others & You, the show offered audiences the chance to get up close with Gandalf. How was it directing a legend?

“Absolutely incredible – he’s a work-horse and the most incredibly generous man. He did ten shows in a week and after every single show he either took thirty people out to dinner or did the signings and selfies. Every single interval – he was entertaining 6-8 people with private drinks in his dressing room.” Bond beams. “He was a joy to work with.”

I ask him teasingly if it’s true that he sold McKellen-branded wine at the event. His eyes widen. “The merchandising was great. We had an excellent sponsor in the form of Tikveš wines from Macedonia, who provided 1,800 bottles of special edition McKellen-branded wine, some of which were given away as part of the experience people bought, and some of which were sold independently on the night,” he says. Amazing.

Anyone feeling snippy about Bond’s vision, or his ambition, would do well to celebrate his savvy approach. “It’s fair to say the problem with the arts is that there is not enough support. We need a quarter of a million to keep the doors open without producing a show. Theatres have to come up with novel ways to make money. The government keeps saying ‘theatres have to be more entrepreneurial’ and what people don’t realise is, it costs a lot of money to fundraise. If you look at the most successful – the Donmar, NT or the Almeida – they have between 5-10 people in their development department – that’s a salary bill of what, £300,000? The government makes things harder with Gift Aid legislation tightening – so we are able to claim only a very small proportion of Gift Aid on the Ian McKellen money.”

Sir-Ian-McKellen-in-Shakespeare2c-Tolkien2c-Others-You-9.-Photo-by-Mark-Douet

Sir Ian McKellen

He is not too thrilled with the changes in legislation. “Normally you can contact someone to fundraise – now you have to know that they’ve said you’re allowed to contact them,” he explains. “If we do a fundraiser we need to know who is sitting at what table or in what seat. What we would usually do is look these people up or Google them so that we know: that’s so-and-so or she’s the chairman of that board as a conversation point.” But new privacy laws are making this impossible.

On the plus side, he says, it will stop the companies cold-calling vulnerable people selling double-glazing that they don’t need. “But on the other hand it will impede theatres and arts charities who are working with engaged people who want to be involved and just sometimes need a bit of a nudge. In order to raise the money to keep affordable theatre or give opportunities to the community you have to be a bit capitalist,” he admits. “The people who paid for drinks with McKellen offset open dress rehearsals for students, engagement with Age UK and communities from the local council estate experiencing theatre for the very first time.”

Bond’s own taste in theatre is straightforward: “I love well-made plays – ideally a linear narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. I like story; tell me a good story and I’ll stay.”

How conscious is he about equal gender representation on Park Theatre’s stages? “There are only a limited number of plays which we can afford to produce, we have conversations with guest producers and we really try and ensure diversity,” he says. “This season has ended up less female-focused in Park200 as we would have liked but we have balanced this by being more female-focused in Park90. In the next season we have some really good female led stories.”

We turn to the big show of the recently announced 2018 season, Pressure, which features his secret weapon: David Haig. “He’s the man! David has written Pressure and he is in it. It was originally at Chichester and so this is the London premiere. I read the play and said we’d love to do it. It should be great,” Bond says.

Pressure940x420.jpg

David Haig in Pressure (Runs at Park200 from 28 Mar until 28 Apr 2018)

How does he get such an array of big-name stars to perform at Park Theatre? Is it blackmail? He laughs. “Well, there’s a lot of skeletons in a lot of closets and if you’ve got the key…. Most of the closets are located in the housing development. They’re in the basement.” He smiles sweetly. “I’m joking.” Or is he?

Park Theatre’s 2018 Season is on sale now