Joshua McTaggart: The accidental artistic director

London’s newest artistic director talks about The Bunker, the future and the last 12 months

Artistic director of The Bunker Joshua McTaggart
Artistic director of The Bunker Joshua McTaggart
© Simon Paris

In 2015, director Joshua McTaggart and his business partner and producer Joel Fisher were on the hunt for a space which might host their next play. A year on, and neither of them could have predicted that that search would lead them to become London’s latest – and possibly youngest – theatre managers.

"We were trying to put on a couple of productions, and we found a venue to run," says 25 year-old McTaggart. It seems as much of a surprise to him, as anybody. After initial talks with the owner of a tiny car park underneath the Menier Chocolate Factory, they found themselves submitting a proposal to turn the space into London’s newest fringe theatre, The Bunker.

The 110-seater space has been open since October which, needless to say, means 2016 was a year of epic proportions for McTaggart. And a very steep learning curve. "We had to put together a creative proposal and a finance proposal and by the time we were in, all those things were entirely different, because that’s the nature of the business." It was to the credit of the building’s owner – a culture enthusiast from New Zealand – that he saw something in McTaggart and Fisher. "We were very fortunate that he took a risk on two young guys who had never done it before," says McTaggart, "But I guess that’s how you learn, by jumping in."

'People lounge around and it becomes a bit like a living room'

But did London need yet another fringe venue? It was one of the main questions asked when The Bunker was announced. When I ask McTaggart, his answer is yes because in his and Fisher's vision, The Bunker offers something new.

The space itself has a comfy DIY aesthetic, with raked seating that opens onto a small, simple stage. So far, so similar to every other small theatre in London. But look closer and there are marked differences. Comfy reclining chairs make up one side of the auditorium – the seating is un-allocated, which is an attempt to encourage punters to get to the venue earlier. The tiny bar is an immediate part of the space as a whole. In fact, says McTaggart, the bar is so tiny that after the show, people are encouraged to use the auditorium as an extension of the bar.

Comfy seats at The Bunker
Comfy seats at The Bunker

"A couple of months ago I saw someone with their shoes off and their feet on the sofa. People lounge around and it becomes a bit like a living room," he explains. The whole idea of The Bunker is that the plays themselves are only part of the output, there’s a programme of after-show events – dance, Q&As, talks and readings which are all inspired by what’s onstage at that moment – which is designed to make audiences stick around in the space for longer.

It seems to have worked so far, with the last week of their first show Skin a Cat selling out. McTaggart has said they have already achieved their audience figure aims at the venue, without the season actually being over. Abigail, McTaggart’s first gig as director in the space, opens this week.

So far, the Harvard graduate’s programming has been dynamic and different – featuring a new musical, a play about vaginismus and the London premiere of a scorching Philip Ridley play. Abigail, by Fiona Doyle, is next and it's a work close to McTaggart’s heart – Doyle’s first professional play Coolatully was his first professional London job – he assisted David Mercatali on the production at the Finborough in 2014.

'I heard a lot of 'I would help if Brexit wasn’t happening''

Abigail is a love story, a two-hander featuring an older man and younger woman set in Berlin. It deals, in the words of McTaggart "with the brutality of love". It will, clearly, be quieter than their recent rock musical Muted, which tested their strong relationship with the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is directly upstairs. On the day of their first preview of Muted, it was the Menier’s press night for She Loves Me. "We were poised with our mobile phones to take the call saying ‘turn it down’, but it never came," McTaggart says. Sound hasn’t bled through and the two venues continue to work in harmony together.

It’s one hurdle in a year full of them. Sponsorship and funding took on new levels of difficulty in 2016: "I heard a lot of 'I would if Brexit wasn’t happening,'" he smiles. But McTaggart is philosophical about whether it was a mistake to open a new theatre last year and says his background growing up in Weston-super-Mare helped shaped his can-do attitude. "There will never be enough money to make art. I come from a working class, single parent background where we didn’t have much money," he explains, "I’ve always lived my life without money being the driving factor." Although, he freely admits, that in terms of fundraising, it’s Fisher who has the talents.

The Bunker
The Bunker

2016 wasn’t just a tricky year for money, it was a tricky year for ideology too, of course. But McTaggart hopes that The Bunker can be a positive part of that. And it’s here he quotes American performance artist Taylor Mac who said recently that he wanted to make work which creates the world he wishes to see, rather than commenting on the world that is. "I don’t want to sit in an echo chamber, or pat myself on the back…" says McTaggart, "The last 12 months highlighted that there is a huge division in ideology and belief globally and I wanted a space that allowed people to gather and debate and discuss." So while events rage outside, perhaps we should hunker down in The Bunker and look to the future.

Abigail runs at The Bunker from 12 January to 4 February.