January 26, 2010 / 12:40 PM / 9 years ago

The play's the thing on London's small stages

LONDON (Reuters) - If you’re scouring London for impressive theater to suit a budget reduced by the recession, chances are it’s just around the corner.

Emerging theatrical talent and some internationally recognized names are treading the boards at scores of tiny, independent theatres in pubs, under railway arches and in old warehouses across the British capital.

Directors say that using make-shift venues so small audiences could reach out and touch the actors allows the kind of experimentation that would be virtually impossible for the big budget productions of London’s glitzy West End theatres.

“Smaller stages and smaller budgets allow the creatives and the producers to tackle unorthodox works without the commercial pressure of crowd-pleasing and recouping the original investment,” one up-and-coming director Michael Gieleta said of London’s independent theater scene.

“That’s why the so-called fringe is such a vibrant, creatively exuberant destination.”

Many audience members at these smaller productions are friends of the cast, who can be found at the bar after the show, debating the night’s performance and buying drinks at prices usually below those in West End.

Pub theater tickets are even more of a bargain, averaging around 15 pounds ($24.48) each. Regular and hugely popular pay-what-you-can nights mean it often costs even less for an evening on London’s fringe.

That compares with about 33 pounds a ticket for a Friday night balcony seat at top-selling West End musical “Oliver.”

The term fringe — as in the annual arts festival the Edinburgh Festival Fringe — is a term many actors bridle at.

They often prefer to refer to independent theater on the basis that fringe can imply amateur. Actors in independent theatres are paid, in theory, even if they only receive a share of such profits as there are.

Those willing to be involved for very little or even nothing at all have included some of the biggest names.

Gieleta’s latest production was “Artist Descending a Staircase” at the Old Red Lion pub theater in Islington, North London.

The play is one of the lesser known works of established playwright Tom Stoppard, who was actively involved in the critically acclaimed production.

“I don’t really want to use that over-used phrase, but really the play is the thing,” Gieleta said.


Islington is one area of London that could claim the title of alternative theatreland.

As well as the theater, founded in 1979, at the Old Red Lion, it is also home to the bigger budget Almeida theater, the tiny Hen & Chickens theater pub and the King’s Head, regarded as London’s original pub theater and which has helped to launch the careers of Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and Steven Berkoff.

Established in 1970, it was the first pub theater in London since Shakespeare’s time, its website proclaims, and it set the trend for countless other theatres to spring up in seedy back rooms of pubs across the capital.

Many pub and independent theatres struggle to survive, including the King’s Head, which has repeatedly been on the brink of financial collapse.

Its fortunes have been helped as recession-hit Britons abandoned foreign holidays for “staycations,” and a weakened British pound helped to bring in foreign visitors, boosting box office receipts.

“I think there is something in the fact people are staying at home and going to the theater,” said Stephanie Sinclaire, widow of Dan Crawford, who set up the King’s Head theater and ran it until his death in 2005.

Sinclaire is now the chief executive and artistic director of the King’s Head, continuing the legacy of the man she described as “one of the great impresarios of all time.”

Some also link the current success of theater to its power to provide a kind of comfort in difficult times because it’s not as passive for the audience as cinema and television.

“You have to engage with theater,” said Dominic Hill, artistic director of the Traverse Theater in Edinburgh, which is involved in the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, as well as in producing work all year round.

Testimony to the need to engage, the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe sold a record-breaking 1,859,235 tickets.

“Theater appeals at all times,” Hill said. “You could say never more so than at a time when people are tending to think about the value of what they do, about their place in the world and about what state the world is in which they have that place.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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