Paul Robinson ... From Oliviers to PornDate: 14 April 2010
Paul Robinson is co-artistic director of Theatre503, which staged Katori Hall's Olivier Award-winning play The Mountaintop in June last year. He's currently directing Maltese import Porn the Musical at the venue, having re-worked the show following its premiere at last year's Edinburgh Fringe.
Paul Robinson: We were really pleased to be there amongst the Olivier nominees. It was palpable as the nominees were announced that the cheering was effectively split down the middle for Enron and Jerusalem: perhaps people enjoyed our show but were afraid of not showing their appreciation of the favourites. It was a David and Goliath situation. Our eyes were certainly downcast. It was very funny actually when the winner was announced; the moment became quite surreal. It was ten seconds before anyone on our table actually reacted! It was just delightful.
It certainly was a contentious decision. We were amongst the vast majority who didn’t think we stood a chance – not that we weren’t immensely proud of the show and didn’t think that it deserved to be there – but those shows that start in fringe theatres generally aren’t on the list. To be considered alongside the ‘bigger players’ really boosts our profile and helps us put forward the case for more consistent public funding. Fringe theatre feeds theatre. There really isn’t a career that doesn’t start on the fringe, especially the London fringe.
We’ve struggled immensely with the recession. Initially, there was that sense of people staying home and venturing less into the West End, which would suggest that the fringe could benefit. However, I don’t think any theatre would benefit from the perception that the arts are an expendable luxury. As the arts journalism sector has also been forced to make cuts, it now follows a priority system which demotes us, and takes us off the radar. The significance of press attention is huge, a positive critical reception for us is overwhelming: we cannot afford to market our shows the way the West End can.
In terms of proposed Arts Council funding cuts, we will be the venues under the most threat. If the Conservative proposal goes through with a focus on investment, then they will be putting the money into venues that are already deemed a success story. As subsidy is cut and funding from trusts and private sponsorship is retreating, even the big venues are looking in the same tighter and tighter pool as us. Generally, we get nothing in terms of corporate or private sponsorship. We do new plays, and there is no money available in that. More often than not, there needs to be something in it for the company, and what can a small theatre above a pub in Battersea offer? Broadly, actors who are big box office draws will not be tempted to gamble on a fringe show. Hopefully, new writing will become recognised, or re-established, as a priority by the Arts Council. As far as we are concerned, new writing as a priority is a no-brainer.
I hope the Olivier endorsement will be useful in terms of our profile. It was the big story of the night: we made the front page of the broadsheets! The irony is that when we went into the West End with The Mountaintop, there was corporate interest – only we didn’t need it then with major WE producers onboard. I don’t mean to be so bleak, but it must be said that it is really hard for fringe venues and the case needs to be made for us to receive subsidies, based on quality, from an arts body. It’s not going to work with this focus on investment: we need subsidy.
On the back of this prestigious award, we are now doing something quite silly, Porn: the musical. These state-of-the-nation, zeitgeist plays…they rarely have a degree of irreverence. The world is a scary place and people write plays that deal with that. The ‘quality’ plays are generally straight and serious. Porn is unashamed fun.
I originally saw the show at Edinburgh in an amateur production from Malta. The most important thing to say is that it is a comedy. It is along the lines of Monty Python and Avenue Q. It is about a man from Malta, Stefan, who finds out that his girlfriend is the island ‘bike’ and decides to go to America and become a famous carpenter – “like Harrison Ford or Jesus” – and ends up working in the porn industry and falling in love.
My love of it has been defined by working on such a piece of unadulterated fluff, and dramaturgically turning it into something more art. Structurally, we care about our characters from Edinburgh, but now they have an arc within the hilarious froth. We care…but we are also mercilessly mocking these characters! What I love is the wonderful love story and evil subplot in Porn. Audiences will love it. Someone suggested the tag ‘Don’t bring your nan!’, but I do not want to be ageist in terms of appealing to a certain demographic…my Nan would have loved it! However, I would say if you are a prude, then it’s not for you.
Looking further ahead, in June we have ‘503 Five’ – five new first-time writers put on Arts Council funded productions. We also have Madagascar by JT Rogers, whose last play The Overwhelming was at the National. I do not know of any return for The Mountaintop in the UK, though it would be great if there could be a regional tour of James Dacre’s original UK production. The re-cast Broadway production is the next step for the play. I'm hoping that the next play Katori Hall writes will be put on at the National. Someone should commission her.
Porn the Musical continues at Theatre503 until 1 May 2010.