Amongst London's theatres, the Royal Court, Hampstead and the Bush may still lead the way in new writing, but Soho Theatre Company is rapidly gaining ground thanks to its difference in both focus and structure. Soho's trailblazing route is to concentrate not merely on premiering new plays but on something potentially even more valuable - discovering and nurturing new writers.
Attached to Writers
This emphasis on the writers, as much as the plays, is reflected in the very name (Soho Theatre and Writers Centre) of the splendid building the company has acquired for itself. And its new Writers' Attachment Programme is already paying rich dividends, with two debutant playwrights from it seeing their work reach the Soho stage this year. Chris Chibnall's Kiss Me Like You Mean It premiered last month and Suzy Almond's School Play opens there this week.
"That's a pretty good strike rate," says Soho's artistic director Abigail Morris, who also directed Kiss Me..., and is gratified that the play found a large audience despite some negative press in many broadsheet newspapers. "It's a play that really appealed to people, and that has brought people here who've never been to the theatre before."
If one of Morris' missions is to discover new writers, another is to create new audiences. "People really enjoy coming here," she marvels, "and it's important for first time theatregoers to find it comfortable and not intimidating. I want it to be a good experience for audiences."
Of course, no theatrical event can ever guarantee that. Indeed, Morris makes the point: "You never know what you've got till it's up before an audience." The journey of a new play from page to stage is never complete until it meets the public. But even then, there's still a further stage - when it has to meet the critics. Though Morris is understandably reluctant to be quoted on her own reactions to some of the negative press Kiss Me... received, she was certainly surprised. "We had an odd experience with that because, at the four previews, we got standing ovations, and so didn't really worry about the press night."
The fact that audiences came - and some came for on repeat viewings - despite the potential damage of those notices is testament both to the loyal following Soho has already won, but also to audiences who seem able to decide their own minds.
Accessibility & Discovery
One of Morris' other tasks is to change the whole approach audiences take to new writing itself. "People don't say they're going to see a new film, do they?" she notes. "I want them to come here with the same approach. But people are beginning to trust us; they're not always going to like everything equally, of course, but they like what we do."
But while theatregoers will always face the risk of wasting both time and money seeing the untried and untested, Soho combats this inherent fear by placing accessibility - and affordability - high on its agenda. On a Monday night, for instance, you can attend a play at the theatre for a fiver, less than it costs to go to a movie.
And for that pittance, you could be discovering the work of the next Timberlake Wertenbaker, Sue Townsend, Hanif Kureishi or Pam Gems, all of whom had some of their early work premiered at Soho, during its original incarnation in basement premises in Riding House Street, near Oxford Street.
On the Move
The company called Riding House home from 1969 (when it was founded) until 1990. For much of the 1990s, it led a peripatetic existence, with the exception of a three-year residency at Lisson Grove's Cockpit Theatre in 1992 when Morris took over the artistic reigns.
Morris had some notable successes at the Cockpit, including one production - Diane Samuels' Kindertransport - which subsequently went on to be restaged at off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre and at the West End's Vaudeville. The Cockpit also made some potent impressions on the director. Not least, it "informed my overseeing the design of this place (the Dean Street residence). Whereas the Cockpit was one of those spaces that was designed to be flexible but was not really right in any configuration, I wanted this theatre to be somewhere that worked beautifully and simply and didn't try to do so many things that it didn't do anything properly."
From 1995 to 2000, the company was without any permanent performing space. Morris remembers, "We were camping and sleeping on other people's floors, as it were, and it was frustrating because we had great plays coming through but weren't able to put them on and so had to give them to other theatres. But it gave us the chance to develop the community and education side of our work more, and that proved fruitful and exciting."
A New, Purpose-built Home
Even more exciting, though, was finding the ideal setting for the theatre the company now owns. Morris and her administrative producer Mark Godfrey looked at more than 150 buildings and in May 1996, after identifying 21 Dean Street as their first choice, the company became the first (and only) arts organisation to purchase a property on the open market with lottery funds.
With £8 million secured from the lottery, and an additional £2.6 million raised by the theatre, Soho Theatre now has a handsome, purpose-built space, a separate studio, and room for writers to work in a supportive environment. And the rental of the smart, street-level restaurant below it goes to pay all of the building's overheads, which frees the theatre's funds for spending purely on artistic activities.
These activities are focussed on the theatre as a seedbed for new writers and the writing they produce. "The whole sequential series of workshops that makes us unique has been going on for a long time," Morris explains, "and the linking of writers with the process of production has been going on since the company's inception."
But the Writers' Attachment Programme - in which six writers are funded to be based at the theatre for a year - is something new, and now integral to both the Soho's own developing history and its impact upon London. Bravo.
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