Park Theatre, situated near Finsbury Park station, officially opens tonight with the press performance of These Shining Lives. Here, its founding artistic director Jez Bond explains more about the venue and his first season.How long has the project been in development?
A long time. In a sense it's been in my head since I was 14 years old! It's been a concrete reality since we found the building about four years ago, and I'd been searching for roughly six years for the right building before that.
How has it been financed?
Well we haven't had any subsidy from the government or Arts Council. When we found the building we had the option to extend upwards, which meant we could add two stories and build three flats, which part financed the theatre. We also raised a lot of money through private giving and some through trusts and foundations as well. Our PR machine has been very effective - we had a gala night last November which raised £100,000 in one night. There's also the fact that lots of people are offering us 'mates rates' and are willing to offer us their services for free. So our architect is losing money on this project but is doing it out of passion.
What's your own background?
Up to this point I've been a freelance director. I've worked in regional theatre, abroad, tours in the UK and overseas. When I first came out of university I trained on the RTYDS (Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme) and I trained at the Palace Theatre in Watford and directed a main house show in their new building. It made me see that when you work in a building you get to work with a community and nurture a local audience - the thought of doing that in Finsbury Park really excites me.
What made you choose Finsbury Park?
The two main boxes we wanted to tick were accessibility to public transport and an area that didn't already have access to art provision. We want to work with communities who've never been to the theatre before. There are two huge council estates near us, and we've brought some kids in already who are really excited by what we're doing here. But of course it's only by having a theatre-savvy affluent population as well that you can support that kind of outreach work. I don't think ten or 12 years ago this area could've sustained a theatre, but now it can.
Do you worry about perceptions people may have about theatre?
Absolutely, but that's why we want the building to be open and encourage people to come in for a drink. The idea is to 'nurture' people in with a friendly bar and café and then hope they might be intrigued by what else is going on. But these things take years, and it's also important we keep doing education work and going out into the community, as well as programming work that appeals to a broad audience. Plus we're trying to cap tickets at around £20 to keep it affordable.
Did you model the space on a particular venue?
Not any specific venue but we did do a tour of over 50 theatres around the country, small and large, to really understand what worked and what didn't. We learnt a lot from all that, both about the big things and the smaller details. In terms of the design, I wanted to both spaces to be geometrically as close to the audience as possible. That to me is the most sexy configuration - I want the actors to be able to touch the audience.
And what's your focus in terms of the work?
If you look at our first season it's a balance of new writing and classics, and going forward it will continue to be like that. We'll of course be influenced by what our audiences are enjoying - we need to remain open at this space. But in terms of artistic identity I'd say it's 'good plays done well'.
There will be musicals, in fact I'm working on a new musical with a writer at the moment, but in terms of what we can afford they'll have to be smaller scale, or we'll have to get corporate sponsorship for them. We've joined the TMA because we want to pay people properly, but it is obviously difficult to break even with a large cast and band.
Tell us a bit more about the first season
The first production in Park200 is These Shining Lives, which stars Charity Wakefield, Honeysuckle Weeks and Alec Newman. It's the UK premiere and it's just the most poignant, powerful piece. It also has very strong female role which is good - we don't want a programme that is too male heavy. We're following that with a guest company, Jessica Swale's new production of School for Scandal starring Belinda Lang. And then our second in-house production will be a new play called Daytona by Oliver Cotton that Maureen Lipman brought to my attention - she'll be starring in it alongside another big name actor. Then we have a very fun farce by Ben Travers called Thark, in a sharp new adaptation by Clive Francis. And I'm co-writing the panto at Christmas, which is Sleeping Beauty. We also have a fantastic range of new writing in the Park90 space, including work by David Henry Hwang, Ross Ericson and NEw Zealander Gary Henderson.
So what's the long term plan?
It's all about the definition of success. For me I'd love to get through the first year having done shows that are well reviewed and received, maybe with a transfer or tour, and the accounts say we've lost £20. That would be success for me. In five years, the same but maybe we break even. And in ten years, maybe we make a few quid. That will go straight into salaries, because at the moment we're all earning a pittance and are reliant on our small army of fantastic volunteers. It's really touching to see the commitment that people have given to us. I'd love to look back in ten years' time and think 'wow, I built that'.
- Jez Bond was speaking to Theo Bosanquet