Features Guest Column Published 22 January 2013

Brass Tacks: Running Camden People’s Theatre

Brian Logan at Camden People's Theatre offers a monthly glimpse into the day-to-day running of a fringe venue.
Brian Logan

Collate some statistics for the council. Meet a man from the local Business Improvement District. Order booze and evaluate a recent work placement. Those are among the tasks on my to-do list this week, which surely dispels any lingering suspicion that it’s all (any?) glamour running a fringe theatre. I’ve been co-director of Camden People’s Theatre – a venue dedicated to emerging artists making innovative performance – since October 2011. Back then, I was a programming novice and a venue-management ignoramus, with only a hazy idea of what running a theatre entailed. Who knew I’d be calling ambulances and schmoozing tenants’ organisations, hiring cherry-pickers and running scared of the London fire brigade? And who knew I’d be spending so much money on my own cashcard?

Exeunt thought it’d be a fine thing if I wrote a monthly bulletin from the frontline of venue management. I happily concurred. There’s lots of terrific coverage elsewhere on the site of the art of theatre; the beautiful, provoking, entertaining, mind-expanding bit. But what about the brass tacks, the daily grind that has to happen at venues like CPT so that great artists can get their first break, their foot on the ladder that leads to being the new Shunt, or Chris Goode, or 1927? Most people don’t give it much thought – but they’re missing out. I’m an arty-writer type who’s erred into the heavyweight business of running a building, and I’ve frequently thought: what have I done?! But I’ve never been bored. Each day brings something unexpected, each week something arbitrary, and every month something that I – that most of us – won’t have had to deal with before.

Most of the examples, I concede, illustrate not only the randomness of the theatre manager’s life, but my own inadequacies. Yes, that meeting with the chap from the London fire brigade would have been challenging anyway – it’s difficult (but essential) for a theatre on CPT’s breadline resources to keep up with safety regulations. But when he asked me the whereabouts of the fire alarm panel, I should at least have known what a fire alarm panel was. It was my fault, too, when the men from our landlords, Camden Council, came to conduct a routine check on the steampunk boiler-room in CPT’s basement, and found it semi-permanently inhabited by Lithuanian immigrants. (They were actors, it was a misunderstanding…)

But, even had I been a paragon of competence, I’d have been daunted by the range of activities – from admin to art, line management to local politics, odd jobs to audience development – that fringe theatre managers seem obliged to master. We often take phonecalls here from people asking, “can I speak to your HR/marketing/education department?” These calls make us laugh. At CPT, we have only three part-time staff members. For now at least (we’re working on improving this), we all do bits of everything. I schlepped to Sainsbury’s at 5pm last Friday to buy a crate of Pinot Grigio for the CPT bar, otherwise that night’s audience for Rachel Mars’ The Way You Tell Them would have been whistling for red wine.

The constant struggle, in the midst of all this random, frantic activity, is the struggle to keep one’s eyes on the prize – to remember that the only reason for doing all this is to put on great shows, nurture fantastic artists and create an environment where exciting things can happen. Weeks can pass at CPT when I dedicate zero time to that side – the most important side – of our activity. I’m programming our March Sprint festival now, weeks later than we promised ourselves we would. I’m fifteen months into the job, and the in-house production I expected to have developed by now seems as far away as ever. I should be seeing shows by new theatre artists every night of the week, but there’s hardly ever time. (I read Exeunt’s reviews instead.)

Even when I do dedicate attention to artists, it seldom goes smoothly. One Italian director I corresponded with about a CPT performance terminated our conversation in the following (badly translated) terms: “your behaviour is mediocre and your theatre rips the little life [from those] who do their job honestly and with passion. You are not worthy of [us]. What is your theatre?” That was a low. But there are also highs. I’ll use this column to share with you my rollercoaster experience of trying to make a brilliant but cash-strapped theatre work – and to stay honest and passionate, and keep mediocrity at bay while doing so. If I can do the experience any kind of justice, it should make for a lively read.

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Brian Logan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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