Changing of the Guard: David Gilmore at the new St James TheatreDate: 20 September 2012
Rising from the ashes of the former Westminster Theatre in London’s Palace Street, next to Buckingham Palace, the newly built, £7 million St James Theatre complex – comprising a 312-seat main house, flexible 100-150 seat studio, bar, café, restaurant and broadcast studio – launches its inaugural season this week, under the helm of its founding artistic director, David Gilmore.
Earlier in his 50-year career, Gilmore ran two leading regional playhouses, the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton and the Watermill Theatre in Newbury. His many West End credits include the original award-winning productions of Daisy Pulls It Off, Ken Ludwig comedy Lend Me a Tenor, Defending the Caveman and the premiere of Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall’s musical The Hired Man. Most notably in the West End, Gilmore’s production of Grease ran for seven years at the Dominion and Cambridge Theatres before returning to the Victoria Palace, and touring internationally.
Gilmore’s many other productions, at home and abroad, include plays As You Like It, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Hedda Gabler, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and [Ben Elton’s] Gasping; and musicals Footloose and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance.
As part of our occasional “Changing of the Guard” series with new artistic directors, Whatsonstage.com spoke to Gilmore about this brand-new venture, what it means to London and the risks and rewards of a theatrical business model without public subsidy.
Why did you want to become artistic director of this brand-new theatre?
Many years ago I was an artistic director at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton and at the Watermill in Newbury. Ever since, I’ve been freelancing. After years of being a freelancer, I thought it would be nice to get involved in running a building again. Plus, this is a new and interesting building - the whole model which it’s been projected to run on is very stimulating and exhilarating. That’s why I got involved.
What is the business model?
In terms of finances, there is no subsidy at all, and the main house only has 312 seats. There’s also a 100-seat studio, an all-day restaurant, a brasserie and bar. The building has to break even with the income from all those sources, as well as corporate daytime lettings. The building needs to be in use the whole time to make a 312-seat auditorium viable.
The 312-seat main house at the St James Theatre in Victoria
What theatres would you most compare yourselves to?
In terms of seating capacity, you’ve got places like Trafalgar Studios, the Donmar, the Menier Chocolate Factory, the Almeida. In terms of programming, I hope we can carve our own path that gives us a distinctive identity and doesn’t trample too much on each other’s territory.
How would you describe the St James' identity?
It’s very difficult to put identity into words, but you know it when you see it and it’s to do with the personal taste of the artistic director . You look at a programme for the Chocolate Factory or for Hampstead or the Almeida and they’re all very different. What makes them different is something to do more with one’s gut feeling and the work itself. The piece of writing – that’s what it all starts with, the script – must be a fine piece of work which is put on stage to the very best standard.
It would be great if we were “London’s rep” - not in terms of having a permanent company in that repertory sense but in terms of people seeing it in terms of a theatre that they go to regularly regardless of what’s on there. That’s what happens in good regional reps, they have a regular and dedicated audience. We will be seasonal, we’ll announce every season, over a four-show period. If you live within our catchment area, you might come along and sample what we’re doing.
How will you measure success?
The first measure of success will be that we’re still here! It’s a huge gamble to launch a theatre and particularly in the current economic climate. If we can continue to programme and plan in the way that we’ve started, to find and build an audience and to do shows that are well received, that’s how I’ll measure success. The core activity of any theatre anywhere in the country is to fill the main house every night of the week. I’ve got to stay focused on that and, if we’re full, I’ve succeeded.
There was a previous theatre on this site. Does this have any bearing?
“None whatsoever. The whole area has a very different identity from the one ten years ago when the old Westminster Theatre burnt down. This part of Victoria has undergone and is still undergoing a huge transformation. It’s the best, most vibrant place to be in London: 50 yards one away is Buckingham Palace, 50 yards the other way is a huge shopping complex full of restaurants. There are 3,000 people working for Google at the end of this street and another 3,000 people working for American Express. There’s another huge development beyond that, retail and residential, and just beyond that are ministries and Westminster. Cheek by jowl with that, it’s all residential. So right here in the centre of London, we have a transient working population of over 100,000 people a day, as well as a residential population – and we’re just two minutes’ walk from Victoria through which millions of people a year travel . And just between us and the station are Wicked and Billy Elliot.
What are you most looking forward to in the first season?
There are four shows so four highlights! I’m thrilled to say the first one, Sandi Toksvig’s new play Bully Boy, has opened out of London to uniformly rave reviews. It’s a terrific evening’s drama: it’s moving, it’s intelligent, and it’s powerfully acted.
The second show, the musical Daddy Long Legs, I’ve already seen in America and it’s delightfully romantic, musical and, again, intelligent. Our Christmas production of Cinderella goes back to Grimm’s telling of the story. It’s wonderfully inventive and magical, real theatre. I’d want my children to go and see it - it’s not wink wink nudge nudge-style pantomime theatre. And then in the new year Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country's Good is an intelligent show too, and it’s great to have it revived here by its original director Max Stafford-Clark (who premiered it in 1988 under his helm as artistic director at the Royal Court).
St James is billed as state-of-the-art, particularly in terms of its broadcast facilities. What does that mean?
Both performance spaces are completely hardwired. You could bring anything from a stand-up comedy act to a fully staged production and have it filmed by our associated film production company here then edited in our on-site editing suite, and you could leave with a high-definition, broadcast-quality recording of your show. You could then use that for whatever purpose - whether it’s to put the entire show up on a digital platform or for an EPK (electronic press kit) or simply as an archive recording - and it won’t be one of those old fuzzy grainy things that you used to get with theatre.
What are your plans for future programming?
Our first four shows will take us through to March 2013. The next season announcement, taking us through to summer 2013, will be made later this year. All I can say at this point is that we’re talking to directors, writers and producers about a variety of shows, straight plays and musicals. They will be either new to London or new to this country, and they will have interesting talent attached to them.
Prior to this appointment, what do you view as your greatest professional achievements to date?
It’s always such a hard question. Grease is an obvious one because it has been running for 20 years. There is no escaping the fact that having had the opportunity to do that, and doing it all over the world, is something that changed my life. When I ran the Nuffield at Southampton, it was great being able to move shows like Daisy Pulls It Off to London. Shows that I started, such as [Howard Goodall’s] first musical The Hired Man, are terrific. And then there are just productions that didn’t go anywhere or didn’t have any particular significance but that I was very proud of, such as a revival of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams. It was only seen by a regional audience but I thought it was very special.
What made you want to be a theatre director in the first place?
I knew I wanted to be in the theatre but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I started as a student ASM sweeping the stage. I was in sixth form reading sciences with a place at university to read psychology, and I started in my holidays and weekends working as casual labour doing get-ins and get-outs and then working as a flyman at the Everyman Theatre Cheltenham. I became besotted with theatre. When a job came up, I decided to take it and not go to university.
In those days, you could be a student ASM, and for 40 weeks you rotated: you did two shows with the carpenter, two shows with the set designer, two shows with the chief electrician, two shows with the stage manager. Then I became an ASM, then a DSM, and then a stage manager, during which time I was being given more acting parts. I was then asked if I would go to the Belgrade Coventry for a second year, and I had to choose between stage management or acting. I thought, well, I’ve done stage management, I’ll try acting now, and I ended up acting for ten years.
Ten years later, I was working as an actor at the Theatre Royal Lincoln with Clare Venables and Howard Lloyd Lewis. There was a moment when I sort of thought, I don’t really want to be standing here taking bows at the end of the show, I’d rather be at the back of the auditorium watching the actors taking their bows having helped them to get there. I had this conversation with Howard and Clare and they said, ‘well, how funny you should say that, we need an assistant director’. On the following Monday morning, I became their assistant director. Now nearly 50 years later, if my parents were alive, they’d be surprised that I was still in the same job!
Why is theatre important in modern Britain?
Theatre at its best is important in the same way that novels are important: they show what it’s like to be other people. They take you into other people’s lives, thoughts and emotions. The more we do to understand other human beings, generally speaking, the better we are. Theatre isn’t the cure for cancer, but it is part of the fabric of our daily lives, and the world is a better place if there are people in it who see plays, read novels, go to the opera, listen to music and generally partake in the cultural life of a civilised society.
What do you think of the state of theatre in Britain today?
If you were in any other country in the world and looked at the British theatre scene, you would think that anybody in the UK moaning about the state of British theatre should wake up and smell the espresso. Despite all of the cuts, the fact is, you are never very far from a theatre in this country. There are a million rooms over pubs putting on shows, and we have thriving institutions in the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe and the commercial West End. So, in a sense, it’s vibrant. But we mustn’t undervalue what is a national treasure and we mustn’t take it for granted. A healthy theatre needs looking after.
What would you say to entice first-time visitors to the St James Theatre?
First, if you have any interest in theatre, there’s something for you here in our programme. "You will laugh, you will cry and you will be held." Second, your entire evening will be top notch. Your seat will be comfortable and you’ll have an uninterrupted view of the stage. You will hear every word as acoustics here are phenomenal: you can hear a pin drop. You’ll be able to eat a fantastic meal before or after the show. And you will be well looked after by our staff, who are the most cheerful, smiling, helpful people. So what’s not to like?
St James Theatre in Victoria
The immediate challenges for a new theatre are myriad. What are the immediate rewards for you?
The best reward for anybody involved in the theatre is to stand at the back of a full auditorium with people cheering at the curtain call or laughing at the comedy or sniffling away a tear.
- David Gilmore was speaking to Terri Paddock
After a series of gala events last week, the St James Theatre’s inaugural season gets officially underway this week with Bully Boy, which opened last night (19 September 2012, preview 18 September) and continues until 27 October.