NO space will go to waste in the Stratford Play House says new operator Proon Productions.
The team, including artistic directors Ellis Creez and Rebecca Hallworth and technical manager Phil Tysoe, recently took over the former ArtsHouse venue – and have been busy planning how to utilise the building to its full potential.
They recently came under fire from residents who criticised them for a ‘deadly silence’ – having promised community would be at the heart of the Rother Street theatre – after they were announced as the new operator in May.
But despite a lack of social media communication, the trio say they are working behind the scenes to deliver the promise of a community venue – more sustainable than the old ArtsHouse model.
Phil said: “It’s been a long hard admin slog which is the sort of thing that doesn’t just flow with us naturally so it’s been a case of doing compulsory things like licensing and sorting health and safety issues.
“If we’d opened the door straight away that would have ground us to a halt, but it’s about getting together a rock solid foundation and it certainly feels like we’ve been spending a lot of time doing that.
“It’s only since July we’ve had keys. The whole of June we were powerless to make commitments. It was a very frustrating time.
“So to secure the acts we have in such a short space of time we’ve actually done really well.”
Ellis told the Observer to make it sustainable, venue owner Stratford Town Trust had said it needed more people and a better mix of activities.
“I saw a schedule from the last operator which only had on 12 things in six months, compared to about 30 activities we’ve got planned.
“With the way it was before people would step in and find this vast empty space and feel intimidated and leave.
“Every space is a potential performance space. We were thinking of having a little stage in the atrium for children’s entertainers or a juggler, and use the outside bit in daylight hours.
“It was all bit corporate before, all dinner jackets and lectures – a bit stuffy. We are very much for the people – those who have been to work and want to relax and go and see a show.”
He added the venue would also provide artists with an opportunity to network, and the team was appealing for performers to entertain guests in the foyer before shows.
The managers are planning to utilise areas in the venue in a number of ways from open mic in the ‘variety bar’, along with spoken word and comedy nights, to a coffee-cart social area, entertainers in the courtyard, and even a mural on the back of the building.
Phil added: “To make it work commercially we can provide a lot more community opportunities in the other spaces. Before a lot of it was dead space, if nothing was going on in the theatre space, then nothing was going on in the rest of the place.
“It’s not necessarily commercially successful to put a dance school on for instance on a Saturday night as they did before, it’s much cheaper for community groups to use in the week and they would have access to all the facilities, and it’s not going to cripple us either, as it would be a fortune to hire on a Saturday night.”
The operator also came under fire over hire costs it had discussed with former ArtsHouse regular Northern Soul, which saw the community divided on social media.
Ellis added: “We’re not greedy – our first thought wasn’t ‘how can we make a killing?’ – it was ‘What can we do with this great venue?’.
“We were actually told we needed to turn our vocational desires into business and we are having to confront the fact it is a commercial enterprise.
“We’re not a big corporation. We’ve all got contacts and friends and we’d love to say to them ‘just come and perform’.
“This can be our dream venue – now what we can do with it? – that’s what the motivation is.”
Veteran comedy duo Cannon and Ball will be the first act on the Play House stage when they perform their new show ‘The Dressing Room’ on Friday September 21.
A string of productions are set to follow including ‘Doctor Doolittle’, ‘Hits from the Blitz’, and music from legendary rock and roller Roy Wood.
And returning favourites will include Orchestra of the Swan and Stratford Literary Festival, along with a revival of Proon’s very own family show ‘Hoot Owl’.
The team also plan to open the Play House four days a week to the public, with Monday to Wednesday for use by community groups.
Residents are also be invited to a free activities day on Saturday October 20 including an as yet to be revealed world-record attempt, a screening of Buster Keaton’s silent classic The Play House, and live music.
Visit stratfordplay.co.uk for information and tickets.