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Bridge Theatre's co-founder Nick Starr: Opening a season during Covid 'feels like an opportunity'

The theatre opened its doors for its first show since March last night

Ralph Fiennes during the Bridge Theatre's first performance since March
© Craig Sugden

While venues up and down the country reveal that they are having to put plans on hold until 2021, some theatres have, in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, managed to open with safe, socially distanced productions.

One of these is the Bridge Theatre in the heart of the capital – nestled just opposite the Tower of London, the theatre has just kicked off a brand new season. Rather than one-off events or single nights, it's a full, rep experience, with multiple performances per day, featuring a new play by David Hare (performed by Ralph Fiennes, above) as well as Inua Ellams' An Evening with An Immigrant, Yolanda Mercy's Quarter Life Crisis and Zodwa Nyoni's Nine Lives.

If that wasn't enough, there are also an array of Alan Bennett's famous Talking Heads monologues performed by stage greats such as Imelda Staunton, Lucian Msamati and Lesley Manville – returning to the pieces after filming them for the BBC earlier in lockdown.

Chatting to the co-founder Nick Starr, a lot of the venue's ability to open has been down to the fantastic work done by architect Haworth Tompkins, years before a pandemic was even dreamed of: "By removing the seats you get a rather beautiful bowl-like geometry to space. The architects Haworth Tompkins are absolutely brilliant."

The venue was last open for a performance of Caryl Churchill's A Number with Colin Morgan and Roger Allam, a fortuitous way for things to wrap up staging-wise, Starr says: "Where we left it on 14 March, was in its thrust format. That is actually the most successful way to have a group of people feeling as though they're in the same space. What's good is that because the seats unbolt very easily, in that auditorium, you don't have that dour feeling that it's a few people scattered in a large space."

Starr, who spent over a decade at the National Theatre before leaving in 2014 and going on to the Bridge three years later, said that there's new-found freedom within this two months' worth of programming. "Because you have fewer seats and more performances, while the demand and appetite are obviously going to be suppressed (people need to weigh up whether they want to go out to the theatre), the supply is currently almost non-existent. It feels like an opportunity."

The producer said that it reminds him of his days working at Warwick Arts Centre, years back: "The idea of having a more arts centre-feel has been enabled by being able to turn things around between performances quickly. Once you can schedule something in rep, you have so much more flexibility to weave things into a programme."

An Evening with an Immigrant, part of the new season

The new shows are a starting point, Starr says, for further projects over the rest of the year: "We're already planning beyond this current season which ends at the end of October, while retaining the ability to play in rep. We mustn't run before we can walk, so I suspect the next ten days will teach us a lot and allow us to press ahead."

But the co-founder is quick to stress that the Bridge is in a better place than many venues: "We're lucky in the way that we work and who our investors are, the nature of the seating and the size of the space make it just about possible to do this economically."

Again – it all comes back to the architecture: "A large modern theatre with a big sociable foyer has been a stroke of luck at this time. While the sociability will obviously be down, the big airy foyer opening to a big public space is a blessing."

Starr has nothing but praise for the guidance around making shows safe. "The public health guidance has been clear and straightforward to follow...I've got a good feeling from the team at the DCMS. I feel as though they're behind it in a good way. It's easy to see how you can go above and beyond what the science is saying."

If reopening the Bridge isn't enough of an endeavour, Starr and co-founder Nick Hytner are also plugging away preparing to open a brand new theatre, this time north of the river around the recently redeveloped King's Cross. The venue is currently nameless, Starr adds: "We thought we had a name but then decided to question it, so currently it's TBC. That's going to be a very interesting neighbourhood I think."

One part of the Bridge Theatre may not have such a rosy future, Starr tells me in a piping hot bit of information: the venue's famous madeleines – revered when the location opened its doors back in 2017 – may be getting the chop: "I love the madeleines, they're great. But at some point we might need to retire them. There's a question mark over that."

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