Interview: James Haddrell

Between Tuesday 24 May and Saturday 4 June, Greenwich Theatre will be showcasing the work of a number of very different

James Haddrell, artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

companies and performers as part of its inaugural Emerging Artists season.

Little Soldier will be reviving their first production, Pakita (following a successful run at the Hampstead-based New End Theatre last year) and Gomito Productions will be celebrating its ten-year anniversary as a producer and its brand new status as Greenwich’s first associate company. Meanwhile, LGB fringe theatre companies Wild Oats and City Lights are collaborating on ex-Broadway show The Temperamentals, which will receive its first airing next week, at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival.

These are busy times for Greenwich Theatre, but its artistic and executive director, James Haddrell, isn’t fazed. For him, this season represents the culmination of what he’s been seeking to achieve since moving three years ago from the role of marketing manager to his current position (in what he describes, wryly, as “a very old-fashioned process: I worked my way up the ladder, pushed the director downstairs and took over the company”).

Tom Wicker: What prompted the Emerging Artists season?

James Haddrell: Greenwich Theatre has had a strong and specific reputation for presenting high quality, touring classic drama for a local demographic of white, middle class audiences in their fifties. But, increasingly, these people are moving away from the area. They may dominate the road that the theatre is in, but you don’t have to go very far to find emerging communities, families and young professionals. It’s a changing picture.

TW: So you felt, increasingly, that the theatre wasn’t serving its local audience?

JH: Yes. I wanted the theatre to have a strong and up-to-date identity. This was something I’d wrestled with for several years.

Another bit of the context is what’s happening to the touring circuit in this country at the moment. Public funding for touring at the mid-scale, where Greenwich Theatre sits, is being pared away. This is something, it seems to me, that the Arts Council doesn’t acknowledge. It looks, for example, as though we haven’t been touched by the cuts – we weren’t funded before and we aren’t funded now –but, actually, they’ve cut so many companies that tour on our scale that holes started to appear in the schedule. So, it became evident that we could offer a stepping stone; a potential opportunity for these companies to upscale without huge investment, and to play a bigger space.

TW: How did you start?

JH: In a fairly low-key way, by identifying companies we thought we had something to offer and working with them in a range of ways, from supporting their marketing campaigns to providing a free rehearsal space. And then, last year, we launched an artist development programme. We identified four artists or companies who we thought were at a point when that stepping stone was tangible.

We worked with Spanish actress Patricia Rodriguez, who starred in Pakita, to launch her company, Little Soldier. The others were [a capella group] Filament Theatre and WoodenFingers, who were basically buskers who did their thing in the park. We commissioned a piece from them. We had a very unusual meeting where, because they work out of a suitcase, they came and did their show in my office!

The fourth was Simply Told, a company we’d worked with before. They had links to the Magic Circle so we collaborated with them on an immersive piece with a lot of magic and psychological messing around with people.

TW: So how did your work with these four companies lead to the season that’s about to start?

JH: In each case, because what we offered them was different, the benefits came about at different points in the year. So although we were starting to do this work in a more organised way, there wasn’t a moment to celebrate it, to shout about it in a broad way. That’s why we’ve launched Emerging Artists. People can come to see the companies we’ve been working with most recently, in a single fortnight.

TW: What do you hope the effect of this season will be in terms of perceptions of Greenwich Theatre?

JH: Because we’re still a touring house, primarily, we don’t have the luxury to flex our artistic muscles. If you see a show at the Lyric Hammersmith it feels like a Lyric show. Producing houses have a flavour; even if what they do is varied, there’s a unified artistic feel. This season is like a mini version of that. Without wanting to seem pretentious, because it’s true, all of these companies appeal because of their hyper-theatricality. I hope people will start recognising Greenwich Theatre’s taste. It’s about being audacious.

I think that what Greenwich Theatre is doing now is breaking with its history. Although it was a producing house up until the late Nineties, it was a fairly classic producing house, producing classic texts and staging them in traditional ways. And then, as a receiving house under the previous director, it was still fairly traditional. There were attempts to dabble in new musical theatre, but the kind of work that was coming up was adaptations of classic novels. Whenever there was anything non-traditional – which happened occasionally – it was seen as that “thing over there in the corner.”

We do still have an audience for classic theatre, and we couldn’t afford to drop that bit of what we do. So every season there’ll be a solid number of classic dramas, musicals and comedies. But instead of foregrounding that and putting the rest in the corner, or saying, “that was all in the spirit of one celebration, we’re going to have another kind of celebration now”, we’re going to be wholeheartedly schizophrenic.

TW: Was producing Pakita at the New End Theatre a significant step?

JH: That was a big first for us. That was in October and I would say that we are already a very different company in terms of what we want to achieve and where.

We’ve made a very conscious decision, as a company, that we aren’t a theatre – we’re an arts foundation. We have a regular home, but that’s the home for the computers and the frocks – we’re not bound by it in any way. We have obligations to our local authority, of course, but even then, we produce a lot more work outside the physical venue and in the wider borough instead. For example, we do a free outdoor summer show every year.

TW: How do you juggle the responsibilities of being both artistic and executive director? 

JH: The situation both energises and frustrates, but it energises more. With my executive director hat on I have to do things I hate [such as cutting staff last year] while, with my artistic director hat on, rise to the challenge. There’s a risk, I think, when you cut money or people, of beginning a downward spiral. Because once you start saying, “Let’s do one less show this year” or, “Let’s do one less festival”, you never come back from it.

TW: What are your thoughts on off-West End theatre following the recent ACE funding decisions?

JH: The Arcola Theatre is interesting to look at in that regard. If anyone has had to be nimble on their feet, it’s them. And they’ve created a reputation for quality of work with such astonishing speed. It seems to me, as someone who’s half in and half outside that world, that there’s been a bit of sitting back and resting on laurels. There’s a perception, as an outsider, that the Arts Council has its favourites. I think the cut to the Almeida will wobble that, because it was significant. It was a proper cut. So maybe that will shake up people a bit. I think it should. Off-West End is at risk, if it isn’t frightened every now and then, of becoming stagnant.

TW: What gets you through the difficult days? What keeps you on track?

JH: It’s partly the staff, I have to say. There are, very simply, not enough hours in the day, but yet they come to work and get the projects done. Really, what we have is a fringe-sized team running an off-West End venue. This morning I was cleaning a wardrobe because pigeons had got in and we can’t afford contract cleaners; tonight, I’ll be the front-of-house manager on the show and run the bar. And that’s true for everyone. The job descriptions are a bit of a joke. It’s a complete free-flow!

The other thing that keeps me going is that audiences are going up. We’re in an odd moment in our business plan – which is very much on track – in that our audiences are going up and our revenue is going down. We’re doing more free work, we’re doing a lot more children’s work – which has much cheaper ticket prices – and when the recession began to bite we dropped our prices in general. Our spend-per-head is well down. And this isn’t something I have a problem with at the moment. I’d rather have 300 people at £5 than 100 people at £15. It’s a better experience for everybody.

The fact that audience numbers are going up keeps me going; as does the fact that audience numbers are also increasing for the kind of work we weren’t doing five years ago. In my office I have the posters of the shows that we’ve taken out of the theatre, because that’s such a big change in our philosophy. And it’s working.

TW: What’s been one of the best experiences of your job?

JH: Every couple of years we produce a show with Kidbrooke Secondary School. I was talking to the head the other day and when kids go in they still ask: “Is this the murder school?” That’s what it’s still known for: that stabbing. [In 1997, student Carl Rickard was killed by another pupil outside the school gates.] So it’s a tough school and the kids have seen a lot of changes in their lives.

[A few years ago] we co-produced Romeo and Juliet with Kidbrooke. We brought in a professional team and the kids played the roles. It played at Greenwich and it sold out; we took it to Riverside Studios where it also sold out; and then we took it to the Edinburgh Festival where it played for a week in the George Square Theatre, which is one of the biggest at the Fringe.

For me, that was just such an astonishing experience; such a huge moment. I mean, my God, it’s a big enough deal doing a show in a London theatre rather than your school hall, let alone in another country. If there’s emerging talent in the world, it’s coming from down there. So the poster I have on my wall isn’t the one from Greenwich. It’s the one from Edinburgh.

For more information on the Emerging Artists season, as well as other shows at the Greenwich Theatre, see:

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