An Object Lesson in Enterprise

No London fringe theatre has carved itself quite so distinctive or distinguished a niche in the last few years as the Bridewell, a welcoming and apparently endlessly versatile space located below the imposing St Bride's Church, just off Fleet Street and near Blackfriars station.

A former indoor Victorian swimming pool - the changing booths are still visible on the side balconies - it has swum against the big budget tide that has engulfed London's musicals to become the capital's friendliest facilitator for the production of small-scale new musicals instead. In addition to mounting its own in-house musicals and hosting visiting musical productions, it also stages new plays and revivals, as well as a popular lunchtime theatre series. A packed schedule sees it (and its busy, attractive bar) in use by day and night and often open for business seven days a week. In short, the Bridewell is an object lesson in how an enterprising young theatre should be run.

And the next few weeks see it firing on all cylinders. This week the play Nixon's Nixon - which was produced at the Bridewell in September 1999 - re-opens at the Comedy Theatre, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Bridewell's executive director, Tim Sawers, and artistic director, Clive Paget. Meanwhile, Paget is busy rehearsing the Bridewell's next in-house show, the British premiere of Jason Robert Brown's off-Broadway musical Songs for a New World. And in between, he has also directed and devised a revue devoted to the words and music of American theatrical composer Michael John LaChiusa, entitled lalalaLaChiusa, that can be seen on the theatre's otherwise dark Monday nights and that, it is also hoped, will fill the Donmar's dark Sundays during their Divas at the Donmar season in September.

Profitable Sidelines

Sawers, who trained as a chemical engineer and still has a profitable sideline in doing consultancy work for the oil industry, ploughs some of those profits back into supporting the theatre's work. "We wouldn't get the work on otherwise, because we get no funding," except for £5,000 per annum from the Corporation of London, he explains. Otherwise, the company has to rely exclusively on box office and bar receipts (a capital grant they received to build the new bar has seen their bar sales treble as a result), and on corporate and private sponsorship which it tirelessly seeks.

A show like Songs for a New World will cost around £65,000 to stage, of which it can hope to recoup around half of that at the box office. "Though the actors are paid, it's not what they ought to be paid, so the actors subsidise the work we do, too," Sawers goes on. The rest has to be raised elsewhere; and though a future commercial life might be hoped for the show, it isn't the raison d'etre. "The important thing here is the work, which is about trying to develop new music theatre as a genre."

Finders, Founders, Keepers

The building has created its own unique energy in fuelling the enthusiasm of those who have worked in it. Carol Metcalfe was as much the theatre's finder as its founder. She stumbled upon it, not with the intention of running a theatre at all but simply while looking for a space to house a production of the Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures she was planning to stage for a small-scale producing company, Breach of the Piece, co-founded with Paget and Sawers. "I was shown this rat ridden, derelict swimming pool, and having walked into it, I couldn't leave it alone," she recalls. "It became irresistible."

After launching the theatre in January 1994 with a Shakespeare double bill, Pacific Overtures became its first musical and began an association with Sondheim that three years later would see the theatre staging his previously unproduced early work, Saturday Night. "It was the kind of coup we needed to get the theatre going," acknowledges Metcalfe, who goes on to cite the composer's influence in other ways, too. "The way Sondheim has taken the whole form forward in his own work is an inspiration to us and to many people, and that's what we're interested in doing now. We're excited by the whole genre, and interested in the next thing and wanting to know where it's going. We're also thinking of how it relates, for example, to contemporary opera, which is another area we're interested in, so we've been exploring the different ways the form merge - all of which Sondheim has highlighted and exemplified in his own work."

Last year, Metcalfe passed the artistic reigns over to Clive Paget so she could concentrate on securing the theatre's financial future by fundraising, and Paget has pushed the theatre's reputation forward with outstanding productions of Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins and LaChiusa's Hello Again. "You can't beat this space for the type of work I'm passionate about, this is the perfect place to be doing it. There is no one else doing the kind of work I want to do," he points out.

In Tune with Talent

But it's always a struggle, especially to find an audience. "The audience for musicals is by nature conservative, and prefer not to try something new. Though we have a very loyal audience for shows like Moving On or Sweeney Todd", he says (referring to two Sondheim shows the theatre has hosted), "there is virtually nothing we can do to persuade them if they haven't heard of a writer or the work that it will be as good as what they know." So part of the mission at the Bridewell is not only to introduce new voices, but also to develop an audience for them. And eventually, Paget hopes that the theatre will itself be able to develop new British talent.

"In America, new writers are hugely supported by foundations, grants and theatres that have proper development programmes and commission their work. We have nothing like that here, and as a result, the best our young writers can do is cobble together a CD or tape and hope that someone will put it on. We need an opportunity to help them develop their craft."

If only the funding bodies would listen, the Bridewell would be a good place for that to happen. Carole Metcalfe is working hard to persuade them. "I'm trying to get the public funders to realise that we're doing something unique. Music theatre isn't all about the commercial sector; there's also a new, investigative part, which we're doing. What Soho Theatre is to new writing, we want to be for new music theatre."