In such straitened financial times, and when Arts funding continues to be in turmoil, it is an impressive achievement to contemplate setting up a new theatre company, let alone a new theatre.
But then, Jez Bond, (left) Artistic Director of new London venue Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, is an impressive chap. Graduating from Hull he was awarded the Channel 4 Theatre Directors Bursary, training as an Assistant Director at Watford Palace. He worked for Y Touring, becoming Associate Director, before working in Regional Theatre and abroad and on the fringe. “But I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of actually running a venue,” he says. “Having bricks and mortar that you can build a reputation with, and to work within the community and you can nurture an audience and build a local fan base.”
In 2009 Bond acquired a disused office building in Finsbury Park, “I’d been looking for about five or six years to find the right space,” he reveals. “The two main criteria we had to satisfy were, one – that it was an area that was poorly served by arts provision and an area that could benefit from having a theatre, and secondly – we wanted to find an area that was well served by public transport.”
Just minutes from the thriving hub that is Finsbury Park Station, The Park theatre has the advantage of being in an area with “a big arty population. We did a lot of market research, and Finsbury Park and surrounding areas have got the highest concentration of creatives, actors, directors, writers, producers living there in the whole of London.” And with the Victoria Line on the doorstep, it is taking West End producers – and vitally, critics, just fifteen minutes to reach The Park.
But Off-West End venues can often be cold, bare spaces, poorly served with state-of-the-art facilities. While this does, frequently, encourage great inventiveness on the parts of the creatives, it can be a somewhat less salubrious night out for the average theatre goer. Surprisingly, Park Theatre is an astonishing feat of design, practicality, usefulness and comfort. Bond’s plans for the space could never be called conservative.
“Most people come to the building, having seen the plans, and go ‘Oh my God it’s huge, you’ve got two spaces!’ – until you arrive on site, it’s very difficult to understand the scale of it,” explains Bond. “Essentially it’s a proper theatre that we’re building. Although it’s a conversion, I tend to say we’re building it from the ground up, because we’re doing major conversion works, putting stories on, taking roofs off, taking floors out. We’ve done a lot of work on the back-of-house, to make sure we’ve got a couple of showers, a couple of toilets, good dressing-rooms, a small laundry, a little bit of storage. Our whole philosophy for the building is that the user experience will be excellent, whether you’re coming in front-of-house, whether you’re coming in back-of-house, whether you’re using the toilets, whether you’re seeing a show, or just buying a glass of wine; that you have a really good experience and you’re valued as a person within that building.”
If Bond talks with passion about the building itself, he positively runs away with himself in excitement talking about the programming of work, and his ambitions for the space. “I wouldn’t be doing the project if it wasn’t the intention to build up to becoming a producing powerhouse,” he states firmly and with conviction. “Park 90, which is the flexible studio house, will be a receiving house and will always be a receiving house, although we want to be able to perhaps build up to develop plays in there ourselves. Park 200 is the space we’re going to start doing a mixture of receiving and producing in-house.”
And as for the programme itself – does Bond have a particular bent or taste that will influence the style of Park Theatre? “It always does, and it probably always should, relate to the Artistic Director’s own taste, because he is the artistic leader of the building and that’s why our artistic policy is actually, apparently on the surface, very, very broad.” Bond laughs for a second and then states, wryly “Good plays done well,” before continuing “I like plays that speak to me on all sorts of different levels; plays that make me laugh and make me cry and if you can do both in the same night, that’s my ideal night out at the theatre. Emotive work, and work with a strong narrative drive. That can be a play from 500 years ago or a new play. We’re looking to do, I suppose, a regional theatre varied programme, where you have a new play, a classic 20th-century drama, a traditional Christmas Panto.”
But ambitious as the plans are, there must be some acknowledgement of how difficult, financially, young theatre companies looking for a space to work in, are finding it. Bond recognises this, and hopes that Park will, in time, be able to help. “We want to build to a stage where we are able to support companies and say ‘come in on a box office split, or come in with a minimum guarantee and we’ll help you out’ – for the first couple of years, it will be companies coming in, paying the rent. That rent has been set at a rate that is comparable with venues all across London. We took a look at venues from the smallest 40 seat fringe to the larger 200/300 seats Off West End and they all work out at a very similar price per capacity and so we’re going to come in, in the ballpark, of all those. We’re not going to be cheaper, but we’re not going to be more expensive. But what we are going to do which is different, is a very transparent package. Some people have told us of booking venues where they heard it was one price and then at the end they got charged an extra fee for the extra matinee, they were charged for the gaffer tape they used, for putting their brochures in the foyer. So what we want to do is say ‘no, no, the price is a fully transparent package; we’re working together with you.’ It’s not an us-and-them thing.”
With their state of the art facilities, and Bond’s passion for bringing theatre to an area that has been hitherto rather starved of Arts venues, Bond is equally adamant that Park Theatre will reach out to the community. “We’ve spoken to some of the local schools, Six Acres and the Andover estate, both of whom are very excited about the possibility of bringing some of the young people in. They have such limited resources, I mean we went to, I think it was the Andover estate, where they just had a tiny little room and a couple of staff and they do drama, and they do football and everything in the same room. Suddenly to walk five hundred metres and go in to a fully functioning professional theatre for an afternoon is exciting. For me it’s all about giving people responsibility. As a 14-year-old, being handed a bunch of keys and left alone in the building, running up ladders rigging lights, rigging sound equipment – that’s how I really felt passionate about theatre. We’ve already got a very exciting possibility, which is that we’re installing a tension wire grid in Park 200. It basically negates the use of ladders. It’s a wire mesh floor above the heads of the people in the circle, and you walk out on this mesh floor and you focus the lights through it, and because of the distance between the lights and the mesh floor, and the mesh floor and the stage, it doesn’t pick up the shadows. It’s great for productivity because it means you can be focusing and rigging the lights at the top, whilst painting the floor and building the set down below. But for me, it’s exciting to young people because it means you don’t have that terrible Health and Safety nonsense and you can say to a 14-year-old “Right, up there with the lights; show’s on tomorrow, sort it out”.
A contemporary, affordable arts space, with quality programming and a commitment to the community is the kind of space that deserves wide-ranging support. And here too, Bond’s passion and exhausting energy have paid off. An impressive list of Ambassadors lends the project credence and gravitas, Sir Ian McKellen, Celia Imrie, Tamsin Outhwaite, David Horovitch, Sean Mathias and Roger Lloyd-Pack have all signed up to work with Park Theatre. How difficult was it to get such high profile names to come on board? “They were very happy to come on board. Talking to people about it is one thing, getting them in to the building is another. We luckily managed to get them in to the building. Once they’re through the building they’re hooked. They are very, very committed. We made a really strong decision not to have patrons who were just a name on a piece of paper, but to use the term Ambassador and make sure we could get people who would actually roll their sleeves up and get their hands dirty. So our Ambassadors hold little parties on site for fundraisers, are writing letters to friends and colleagues, are doing interviews in the press, and all sorts. They are really, really active and of course interested in working with us as well.”
Finsbury Park suddenly seems to have a touch a sparkle about it.