(Pictured: the pot of tea I drank after seeing the glorious The Lounge at Soho Theatre. On until 20th May, worth running to get tickets)
Inevitably my blog posts are filtered through the context of my life, so before I launch in, here’s a spot of context for you. (1) I’m freelance, and am often lucky enough to work on projects that give me the freedom to work wherever I want (as long as I can get online). (2) I’m also a writer, so I’m very happy to sit in places alone working on my novel, a short story, or, as of last week, noodling on something for the stage (suppose the desire to write for theatre was bound to reach a tipping point eventually given how often I go). And (3) I have a real problem with crowded places, rush hour in London is pure hell for me, literally traumatic (not taking poetic license here, it does actually make life awkward and was a contributing factor to the urge to go freelance).
As anyone who follows me on twitter will know, I go to the theatre a lot. I easily see 100+ shows a year. I love live performance. With my new, free-range lifestyle I’ve discovered a beautiful side to theatres over the last 15 months, and that is theatres as community spaces. Now I’m not talking about the gilded West End style theatres, they’d definitely look at you funny if you came knocking on their door hours before a performance asking if they have wifi, and preparing to sit down to do a few hours work. But what many Londoners may not realise (particularly those that do not explore theatre beyond the big West End shows) is that our beautiful city is full of glorious theatre spaces that offer a refuge from the crazy outside. Spaces full of people exploring art, story, human connection. Equally spaces where people sit, drink tea and talk about the final episode of Line of Duty with their friends. Places that help revive the souls of battered, tired Londoners, above and beyond the performances they host. Places that, like libraries, we should cherish as they offer a hub for people to gather, talk, create and drink tea (or other beverages, I’m not militant).
In an effort to avoid rush-hour I was turning up at these theatres earlier and earlier, until eventually I started going to some of them even if I wasn’t seeing a show. Because I felt so welcomed. Because it gave me a break from working from home in my PJs, which is great until you find yourself dangling from the ceiling after an outbreak of wall-climbing because you’ve not left the house in 3 days straight. Because I’d find myself surrounded by an eclectic group of people who were also drawn to spend their days haunting theatres. They are not all what you’d expect, so put away any preconceptions you might have, each theatre has such a different feel, reflecting not just the type of work they put on, but the flavour of the community surrounding the building.
When I first left full time employment I thought I might join one of those shared working spaces, but I’m glad I never got round to it. I mean, I can see the benefit if you want to network with people in similar industries. But I work freelance to support my writing, and this way I spend lots of time surrounded by people who are also creating their own form of art, or those that simply love theatre. And I’m not just talking about my fellow haunters of theatre spaces, I’m getting to the heroes of this post, the front of house staff. They are the life blood of any theatre, and for those theatres with ambitions to offer a space for people to be outside of theatre-going hours, they are its heart and soul.
I would like to dedicate this post to all those front of house people who have made me feel so welcome. Who keep me coming back, not just for tea and scribbles, but to see more and more shows: that there is a correlation is hardly a surprise. I’ve always regretted that the Almeida only has the one performance space, as their little cafe is a lovely spot and their team so friendly, although probably good for my weight-loss hopes that I’m kept away from their brownies.
So thank you to my front of house friends. Those who have told me about the music they are creating, the plays they are writing, the studies they are pursuing, the part of the world they grew up in, their fears, their hopes, their struggles. Those who sneaked me the staff discount (I’ll take your identities to my grave), those who genuinely thought I was staff (day made), those who invited me to free talks, or gave me the heads-up on a particularly great show that was coming up. Those who shared their own reactions to the show I’d just seen. Those who watched my laptop for me when my bladder gave in to the inevitable pressures of an afternoon of heavy tea drinking. Those who let me, someone who used to work in an office full of people, chat and banter with them, because I’m craving human connection. Those same people who offer that same human connection to other people who need it.
The public, including the theatre-going public, can be arseholes. After several jobs in retail and hospitality as a student I swore I’d never take a customer facing job again. So to those of you who turn up smiling (most days) to your theatres to face the public, you’re a miracle to me, a million times thank you!
Now to my non theatre addicted friends, if you are reading this and are feeling the urge to check out one of these magical friendly theatres (ideally catching a show while you’re there, because you can never have too much theatre, I know I’ve tried!), here is a selection of my favourites. It is not comprehensive, so please look around you, there could be a gem of a place in your neighbourhood waiting for you to unearth it (and please let me know if you do!). So in no particular order:
- Battersea Arts Centre
- Shoreditch Town Hall
- Bush Theatre
- Soho Theatre
- Park Theatre
- Southwark Playhouse
- The Young Vic
- The Lyric Hammersmith
- Stratford East
- Hampstead Theatre
- The Royal Court
- And once they finish refurbishing it – The Tricycle
And if you do go to any of those places listed above, be nice, the people working there are as special as the theatres they work in.