It’s been eighteen months since Matthew Parker became Artistic Director of The Hope Theatre, re-launching the pub theatre with a special Equity agreement committing all productions at the venue to paying actors and stage management a legal wage.
I produced a show at the Hope last year, and a week of research and development shortly after Parker came to the venue. I’ve seen a number of shows and readings at the venue as well. I wanted to talk to Matthew about his relationship with visiting companies and with his team. Since talking with him for this interview, he’s brought me on board to produce the first of this year’s just-announced in-house shows, Sea Life by Lucy Catherine. If that isn’t embedded criticism, I don’t know what is.
This is entirely in line with Parker’s practice both as a director and while running the building. He works closely with people he knows well, and treasuring those working relationships: “One of our regular Stage Managers Jo Abram took over as Technical Manager at the start of this year, and Luke Adamson now does one day a week doing all kinds of things, offering graphic design services and audience outreach work with us and development work, and he’s starting to take over programming work for Sunday/Monday evening slots too.” Even the box office team are made up mostly of actors who have worked with him in the past.
But Parker has also developed close relationships with emerging companies: “Because we’ve only done one in-house show everything else has been companies coming in. Two of which have already come twice. Lots of the companies that I’ve had come in are ones that I established relationships very early. Within the first few months of me taking over I established relationships with most of the companies that have produced work over the last year and a half. It has sometimes taken a while to find the right project, to find the right slot, but I’ve known that I wanted to work with them. I’ve not yet sought out a company: it’s always been people writing to us. Because the space is so particular, because it’s so intimate, because you have an immediate connection-reaction-response, if you are a theatremaker and you watch a show in that space you get excited about it.”
“There’s a brilliant company called Thick as Thieves who are following their The Tempest which they brought to the Hope last year and which they’re now taking on a regional tour with Twelfth Night. And that’s happening because they’re brilliant, but also because they came to us and got a stack of 4 and 5 star reviews, and that mean that regions are looking at them. The fact that we’ve been a major stepping stone for companies, that makes me dead proud.”
Parker isn’t likely to take an unsolicited play on himself: “We get hundreds of submissions from playwright, but I’m not in a position to produce an unknown piece at this time. I’ve been in theatre since the age of 4. I’m now 40. I took over a theatre 18 months ago. I’ve got plays I want to do! So I have to work through at least some of that list! We’ve just announced Sea Life which is new to London – produced just once before at Bristol Old Vic Studio in 2000. With Lovesong of the Electric Bear producer Cassie Hodges and I had that for two years, just waiting for the right time and place.”
But he has thrown the doors of the Hope open to developing new work. My own experience of coming to the Hope has been as much about seeing work-in-progress and hearing rehearsed readings as about seeing productions: “I get a lot of playwrights who are excited by that immediacy, the heartbeat in the Hope. And I think when people write they don’t tend to see it outside of their head, you tend to see it inside your head, so when you’re in a space where it almost feels like it’s inside your head, I think writers really connect to the space. We have really cheap rehearsal space, and really good deals on getting your play read one afternoon and getting people along. It’s tough to get companies confident enough to take a punt on producing new writing, and if that means that the best way is to do rehearsed readings and develop it over a year and a half, then great. I’m not going anywhere.”
“It’s always a collaboration with companies. It’s not a rental, it’s not just a space up there where company’s can do what they want. I need to know that I want to work with them, and they want to work with me. I love it when it’s a company really early on in their stages of development who just fly the minute they’re in a situation when they can think not about renting a space but instead can pay a legal wage to their actors and their stage management. We offer really cheap PR service and graphic design services too: I love it when a company can take all of that and run.”
Running the Hope has given Parker a chance to showcase and expand his work as a director. Parker has just announced that he will be directing three in-house productions this year, following on from his first in-house show, Lovesong of the Electric Bear, which won two Off West End awards and transferred to the Arts Theatre last year. Along with Antigone, which he directed for Tales Retold at the Hope in March, he will have directed four shows in the Hope this year: “Antigone did really well, so it’s very exciting. We’ve had people who’ve come specifically because they enjoyed Lovesong. I adore theatricality, and I direct theatre so I can direct with that heightened theatricality.”
Parker’s all-female Antigone prefigures the female-heavy programme of his in-house shows: with two of the three in-house shows, Steel Magnolias and Her Aching Heart, with all-female casts, and the third, Sea Life, focusing on Roberta, who is trying to articulate her identity as an individual, distancing herself from her twin brother Bob.
“They’re three very different shows. A fantastical piece of new writing about family and England and history in Sea Life by Lucy Catherine. A rich, lovely, summery classic Steel Magnolias which is not only all female but with four characters that are over 50. It’s a gorgeous play – of course being a gay man of a certain age I grew up with the film version of it, but the play is beautiful and very bittersweet. And then I’m going to do a Christmas show – a 25th anniversary production of Bryony Lavery’s lesbian musical Her Aching Heart – a gothic romance of two women that have just come out of a relationship and are both reading the same Mills and Boonsy type bodice-ripper. They drop into the book and start acting out the characters. As we found with Antigone, music works really well in that space, it’s got a great acoustic. I’ve as yet not done a musical so I can’t wait to get my hands on it.”
“I have brilliant creatives that I work with and the productions that I do there do not get limited by the space and are big ideas. So the more I can get out there, and the more people are seeing what is achievable in that space, the happier I am, and the more companies can come in and create whole new worlds for people to walk into. I don’t want to just walk in and see a black box. I love watching the things up there which I don’t do in my directing practice. In January we had in/out (a feeling) by Andrew Maddock directed by a brilliant guy Niall Phillips and it’s just not the sort of play I have any experience of directing – urgent new writing written in verse – but it is a brilliant piece of writing and watching Niall bring it to life was inspiring. It means that I can sit there, watch the dress rehearsal and go ‘Oh, I love this, I so love this, I wouldn’t know how to do that, I wouldn’t know how to do this scene.’ That really fires me up.”