Transcribed for the hard of hearing. Audio available here.
Terri: Hello and welcome to In House, the Stagedoor podcast that explores the ins and outs of London’s most exciting and innovative theatres. My name is Terri Paddock and this week I’m at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington where I am joined by Artistic Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher.
Welcome Adam, and thank you for having us here. We are sat in the auditorium, the 110 seat auditorium at the back of the King’s Head pub, and it’s really exciting to be here because this is a truly pioneering theatre; this is the theatre that launched the ‘’pub theatre’’ scene. An incredible history. Can you give us a potted summary of that history and also a little bit about the founder of the space?
Adam: Yep sure. Ok, so Peter Brook and his alumni dragged theatre out from under the proscenium arch in the 50s and 60s paving the way for Dan Crawford, my predecessor, and the founder of the King’s Head Theatre to emigrate from the USA — he was born in Hackensack, New Jersey — and he brought with him a tradition to set up a dinner theatre.
He looked around and he found the King’s Head Theatre on Upper Street in 1970. In fact, in the 1970s and 80s, Upper Street wasn’t as trendy and hip and bourgie and gentrified as it is now. And the story goes that he walked into the King’s Head and said to the publican: ‘’I hear you’re selling’’, and the publican said: ‘’Selling!? I can’t wait to get out of the place!’’, and so Dan got the lease, and then he went about building the King’s Head Theatre, which, at the time, was the first — can you believe it or not — the first pub theatre since Shakespeare’s time in the UK.
Now of course, there’s an amazing collection of pub theatres and alternative theatre spaces in found spaces across the capital and, indeed, across the country. What Dan did was show audiences and artists that you could make special, exquisite, fragile, exciting, unique work in spaces that questioned what theatre was and what theatre meant.
Terri: And some incredible milestones along the way when Dan was running it — he ran it until, I believe, he passed away in 2005?
Adam: That’s right yeah.
Terri: Can you recall any of the milestones during his tenure?
Adam: Yeah sure, and you know it’s also worth pointing out that he was the longest serving British Artistic Director, in England rather, because he was American, at the time of his death — it was an incredible tenure. So the likes of: Tom Stoppard ‘The Artist Descending the Staircase’; Steven Berkoff’s production of ‘Kvetch’ and ‘East’; French and Saunders had some of their earliest performances here in the 1980s; Victoria Wood started her career here; Hugh Grant; Richard E. Grant; Joanna Lumley had some pretty amazing productions here which moved into the West End; Maureen Lipman.
Terri: It’s an incredible list. And sorry I’m jumping backwards now but I read a story about Dan’s coming into the theatre space, it’s in the back of the pub, and that he spent, I think, his last £15 or some small amount of money in refurbishing the space for performance. Does that ring true?
Adam: Yeah it does actually and when I became artistic director in 2010 there was a lot of that original stuff still here: we had lights from the 1950s and 60s; and the rigs still; and we had these incredible red velvet curtains hanging around the room. Stephanie, his wife and widow, explained to me that he drove around in his car to West End Theatres saying: ‘’what have you got that I can have to start a theatre on Upper Street?’’, and they gave him lights and curtains which he then fashioned to make the King’s Head Theatre.
Terri: So 2005 — Dan passed away, you mentioned you came here in 2010, in those five years in between, what happened with the King’s Head?
Adam: So the King’s Head was kept alive. The King’s Head was, from what I understand, in a state of grief and shock: when someone has been running the organisation for 35 years and all of a sudden they’re not there — it would be the same as losing anyone that’s immediate and close to you. What happened is that Stephanie-
Terri: Stephanie Sinclaire.
Adam: Stephanie Sinclaire-Crawford (Dan’s wife) was able to invite a lot of the alumni from past decades to band together and do a series of fundraisers to make sure that the King’s Head was secured, from a financial perspective, which she did really well: she held gala nights in the West End and here at the Kings Head and navigated the King’s Head through a very difficult time. Artistically, there were some great productions here: Phil Willmott’s production of ‘F*cking Men’ ran here, (Joe DiPietro’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘La Ronde’ that is), transferred here from the Finborough Theatre.
Terri: And you’re bringing it back?
Adam: We’re bringing it back, yeah. But Phil’s production ran here for 6 months which I think makes it the longest running off West End production. Then it moved into the Arts Theatre and there was also a wonderful production of ‘Wet Weather Cover’ that was on here as well-
Terri: yeah I think I saw that –
Adam: Yeah where they had a caravan. So what Stephanie was able to do with a group of people (which included Daniel Torrento for a time) was to curate the space with a mixture of in-house work and visiting companies and kept the theatre running.
Terri: And then how did you step into this scenario? Were you one of the visiting companies?
Adam: Sort of — well — what happened is — your colleague, and co-founder of ‘My Theatre Mates’, Mark Shenton, along with the rest of the award panel on the Peter Brook Awards (founded and led by, of course, Blanche) awarded the Cock Tavern Theatre, which was a theatre that I’d founded in 2008 –
Terri: in Kilburn…
Adam: In Kilburn yeah, above the Cock Tavern, awarded the theatre The Dan Crawford — as it was called then — Pub Theatre Award for Innovation as I was selecting some very specific Bush Theatre revivals. Anyway, part of that award was to get this award in Dan’s name, and Stephanie contacted me, Dan’s widow, and said I’d like to meet you, will you come to the King’s Head for a drink and see a show? and I said yes, absolutely. So I came along and we sat at the bar. We were talking before the show and I was telling her about what I did at the Cock Tavern Theatre, and she just stopped me and grabbed my wrist and said ‘’it’s like I’m sat next to Dan’’. She was like — it’s not like you’re Dan, but there’s something about you Adam and it’s really kind of like — not freaking her out — but she said she had this kind of spiritual moment if you like where the way that I was talking about theatre, and the energy I was talking about theatre with, made her remember the spirit with which Dan had run the Kings Head. I was really flattered because I’d been given this award and he had started this great theatre, and I was very young and naive, and it was a huge compliment to be paid by this custodian, this guardian angel of the Kings Head Theatre.
I did end up transferring a show in here. It was an American play called ‘Studies for a Portrait’ by Daniel Wrights which had been at the White Bear Theatre, then at the Oval House Theatre, then the King’s Head Theatre, and then off the back of that Stephanie invited me to become the Artistic Director.
Terri: And in addition to running the Cock Tavern, previous to running the King’s Head, you co-founded a wonderful theatre company, well an opera company: OperaUpClose.
Adam: That’s right, I founded OperaUpClose along with Ben Cooper who now is a producer at the Young Vic and Robin Norton-Hale, who is now the artistic director of OperaUpClose.
Terri: And you had a residence again at the King’s Head with OperaUpClose, is that right?
Adam: That’s right so when I was offered the position I kind of spoke to some friends, some trusted people you know — mentors if you like — and they were like: you need to do something Adam; you need to do something that gives this place a neuroses; you need to do something that kind of like really shakes it — you know really reintroduces the Kings Head Theatre. And I was like, well, I’ll turn it into an opera house.
So I came up with this idea of turning it into London’s third opera house. London’s little opera house is what we came up with and so yeah we brought OperaUpClose here and at that point we’d only had one show at the Cock Tavern so we hadn’t laid down any roots anywhere. And I think that was a really great choice — not only for the building — but also for OperaUpClose: to have somewhere where they could call home and where we could have staff and creatives be and create work on a regular basis. It was an incredible four years.
Terri: It was, it was a great time. And you still bring occasional opera productions to the King’s Head?
Adam: Yeah, so OperaUpClose are doing really well now. I guess they’ve kinda grown up if you like and they’ve spread their wings. They’re doing a lot of touring now. That’s left me here at the King’s Head Theatre, still as passionate as ever about making work in small spaces and so I’m continuing to do that. I’m continuing to make opera in pubs which is what I always set about to do when I founded OperaUpClose, which they no longer do, with really clear artistic boundaries and policy around how we make it, without any ambition for that to change. That’s not ‘’oh that’s what we do when we’re here’’, it’s like no that’s what we do because that’s what I’m investigating in this form of opera.
Terri: Fantastic. So with Stephanie’s incredible compliment about you reminding her of Dan, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about your personal background, you’re not American…
Adam: I’m Australian!
Terri: So you also have come to the UK and brought a different aesthetic.
Adam: Yeah I guess. I guess. You’ve got that kinda outsider thing, which I guess you can understand, like being from somewhere else. I actually came — you know there’s — I don’t know — a spiritual coincidence — but I came around the same time as Dan died. I landed here to study directing at the Central School of Speech and Drama.
Terri: And why did you want to study here?
Adam: Well you know I’m from Canberra, which is the capital city of Australia, the political capital and I’d studied as an opera singer at a music school but also taken some directing courses as well in the faculty of drama. It had gotten to the point where the population of Canberra’s only 350,000 and if I was serious about having a career in either one of those pursuits, I was going to have to leave Canberra, and Australia is a big place, so moving from one city to another is a significant thing to do — in fact, moving to Paris is closer geographically than moving from Canberra to Sydney. So I reconciled if I was going to move city why don’t I just go big. I was going to have to re-do everything in terms of friendship groups, support networks, everything was going to have to change, registration on my car, everything — so why don’t I just go the whole hog and go to London?
Terri: Fantastic, and was it a shock to your system when you arrived?
Adam: I’d spent some time here when I was 19, in between finishing what’s called A-levels and starting at the conservatoire, so I’d spent 9 months living in the UK. And I’d been an exchange student in Sweden when I was 16 so I’d already had the taste of living in Europe, in Western Europe. I’d already got the bug so to speak.
Terri: So now we’re back in 2010, you’ve taken over here as Artistic Director. How young were you at the time? You mentioned you were young…
Adam: 2010… I dunno 27, 28?
Terri: What was the biggest challenge for you coming into the space in 2010?
Adam: The biggest challenge? I think what it was is that we were a group of artists who were running a company, and it was so exciting but we were learning so much everyday and I love it when things go wrong, because you learn so much and it’s great when things go wrong; people sometimes get upset when things go wrong and I always offer them solace by saying: ‘’but what have you learnt?’’, you know like, and ‘’whatever this has cost you just focus on the lesson because that’s what you’ve gotten out of this’’. So those first couple of years were an incredible learning curve for me as an artistic director whose undergraduate degree was an operatic tenor…
Terri: Yes because you’re running a business, you’re running a building now.
Adam: Yeah and this building really is a business; from producing terms we come from the 35-seat Cock Tavern Theatre where there was no money. So we didn’t have to worry about that it was just run on good will. And then coming into a theatre with 110 seats… All of a sudden as we’ve demonstrated you can turn it into something that looks like sustainability on a fringe model. So those early lessons were very difficult, but also quite formative and have really aligned with my — what I had already — values inside me about how to make work and how to make ethical and sustainable work.
Terri: And at what point was the dinner part of the King’s Head experience ditched?
Adam: Yeah I mean people tell me stories — I love talking to people who came to the theatre when Dan was running it because you know I sit at his desk, and I’m in his shoes-
Terri: I remember trying to squeeze myself between the seats and the tables, but I can’t remember when the dinners stop.
Adam: See I was never here for any of that. I think it was around after he died. I think it was around 2007.
Terri: So you’re not tempted to bring that back?
Adam: Well… I am. I am tempted to bring it back as an event, or for a season, but the reason why Dan had dinner theatre was it was a way to convince people to come to the Kings Head because back in the day there weren’t restaurants on Upper Street, as I said earlier, it was a bit of a dive and whereas now every second shop is a real estate agent or a fancy restaurant so we need we don’t need to offer a restaurant, there’s so many other great places you can eat. But I hear stories about — what was it cold chicken and warm ice cream? Or someone would call up and Dan would say ‘’there’s only tickets available for food tonight’’ kind of thing — it was just that kind of entrepreneurial streak of, like, we’re going to get this show on — it’s going to be successful no matter what. That vibe and that feeling within the theatre is still there today, it just manifests itself in different ways, so instead of a dinner show now we try and push a Kings Head Theatre branded mouse-mat or tote bag on you.
Terri: oh I know I love the merchandise it’s fantastic. But, actually, they are going to start serving food in the space again soon…
Terri:… as part of a massive, massively exciting development for the theatre. So tell us what’s happening with the Kings Head now.
Adam: So Islington Square is a phenomenal development that’s happening just behind the High Street in what was the Sorting Office –
Terri: The Royal Mail Sorting Office?
Adam: The Royal Mail yeah. It’s huge. It was built during the time of Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s son, at the beginning of the 20th century and you could say at the height of the British Empire, so it wasn’t just a place where you send a postcard to your auntie in Yorkshire: this was the epicentre, the kind of central nervous system of communication of the British Empire and London: you go up on the top of the building, because we are on a hill here, if you go up on the top of the building you can see Crystal Palace you can see Alexandra Palace, this site was chosen to be in the middle of those radars. Huge. Enough space for you to call it a little town and it’s being redeveloped into homes — 300 new homes — and it’s a genuine mixed use of homes with: council housing; shared ownership housing; outright ownership; serviced apartments; serviced offices; new restaurants and shops — lots of independent operators in there as well-
Terri: A cinema? also..
Adam: A cinema, yes. an ODEON Cinema which does serve food, it’s one of those new fancy ones; a third space health club as well with a swimming pool. And the King’s Head Theatre was invited, back in 2015, just after OperaUpClose left, I was sitting at my desk thinking ‘’oh my god, OperaUpClose has just left, what am I going to do now?’’, and I thought something will happen, and of course it did and we’re really excited about moving in.
Terri: Yes, so, it’s quite a major undertaking isn’t it?
Adam: You could say that! That’s quite an understatement!!
Terri: Well I mean the Islington Square complex itself, in addition to everything you’ve just described it’s big, a £400 million project isn’t it?
Adam: It’s big it goes all the way from Theberton Street to Almeida Street which is a whole block.
Terri: And it’s incredibly destructive for you as a theatre but when and where are things happening so you’re going to stay here are you coming home until…?
Adam: So we’re here until we move into our temporary home which is The John Salt, which is 3 doors down and that’ll happen so that we can knock down our dressing room which is at the back of the theatre to facilitate our new entrance.
Adam: Which is pretty exciting I think.
Terri: I mean it’s incredible that you really will not be travelling far at all, so theatre-goers will still effectively come to the same address, won’t they? Because the entrance to the theatre will be adjacent to the King’s Head pub and as part of that then where we are sat now — the King’s Head Pub — is going to add dining.
Adam: Yes exactly yeah.
Terri: So people can come for pre-show meals at the King’s Head and then see a show. I love that.
Adam: The great thing is that this dressing room here, this wall here (which a lot of people have been in since 1970) is a wall of interest to the local authority planning department, which means it’s going to be preserved. And it’s also our new courtyard before our box office. So audience members and artists will walk through our new courtyard and part of that will be the old dressing room wall including the doorways onto the old stage, so there’s a lot of precedent for these types of moves happening as theatres expand and grow and get more permanent and larger spaces, but it’s unique to keep something of the old.
Terri: It is and, as I said, in such close proximity, that’s pretty amazing. You’re pretty lucky if you can stay in the same postcode but you’ve got the same footprint so that’s exciting. So what is the new King’s Head going to comprise?
Adam: Well it’s going to be a 250-seat theatre which will be on two levels, so there will be a gallery level as well as the downstairs.
Terri: So more than twice as large as your current auditorium?
Adam: yeah so we can get between 100 and 120 in here depending on formations… it’s quite a nice number as well, 250, in terms of being able to produce exciting musical theatre work or slightly larger plays. Then we’re going to have a studio space which will retain the values that we have and the passion that we have about emerging talent and emerging companies so that they can still have a laboratory space to create exciting new work from anything from one night to a full season.
Terri: Fantastic, and when you announced this last August it attracted huge attention and a lot of excitement, but also I was surprised at the time to see that some people were a little bit sceptical and a little bit sad that you were no longer going to be technically a Pub Theatre, were you surprised by that response?
Adam: No actually I was surprised that it went so well, genuinely, when things like this happen you spend a lot of sleepless nights thinking through everything and thinking the responsibility on your shoulders to make this successful, but also to make sure that you’re doing the right thing — you know — is this the right thing for the King’s Head? and I am so sure that this is the right thing to do but I also understand why some people will feel sentimental and nostalgic about what the Kings Head was, and I don’t think that they’re wrong. In the process of losing something, which we undeniably are, we are gaining a whole lot of something as well and that something doesn’t just include the possibility to make work more sustainable and to retain artists on their artistic life-cycle for a much longer period (by working through and graduating through the two spaces), but it means that we have a security of tenure for the King’s Head Theatre, which means it’s safe for generations to come.
Terri: Yeah. When the small backlash occured I was contacted by Stephanie Sinclaire, Dan’s widow, who shared something that she then asked me to republish, in which she was saying to the naysayers: look, you need to face up to some harsh realities, you don’t know the truth and how difficult it’s been to run this theatre and to keep it alive, and a huge fan of yours and encouraging everyone to very much get behind you and support everything that you’re doing. But she did share some details about the economics of trying to keep the theatre alive, and about losing Arts Council funding and how that had affected Dan’s health and her health in trying to keep the theatre alive. So I just wanted to read a little bit of this if I could. She also said that the move that you had announced had actually been something that she and Dan had been trying to make happen for many years, even prior to meeting you, so that they had always seen that some kind of development like this, I guess, would be necessary to secure the long-term future of the theatre.
Adam: Yeah there’s really exciting model boxes where Dan and Stephanie had plans to take the roof of this theatre and to build a gallery space .
Terri: Wow. Have you kept those? Will they be part of the exhibition?
Adam: Yeah, they’re around..
Terri: But at the time also Stephanie said you know the Kings Head is not about bricks and mortar — it’s a spirit. She believed that the powers that be destroyed Dan, but they didn’t kill his spirit and his spirit of the theatre and she defines the spirit of the Kings Head, which she believes is alive and well, as a spirit of: risk; adventure; innovation; inspiration; inclusion; authenticity; honesty; exploration; and making magic on a shoestring. Do you agree with that?
Adam: Yeah absolutely. That’s always been with the Kings Head theatre is about. That’s the exciting thing about our studio space because we could have just had a much bigger theatre but no, we need to keep the studio space. The studio space is the future of British theatre. That’s where the new stuff happens. There is no National Theatre, there is no RSC, there is no West End without small studio spaces: that’s where people go and cut their teeth, that’s where people get discovered, that’s where people make mistakes in safe environments, that’s where people can flex their muscles and try things out, that’s what people meet the artistic collaborations that are the future of theatre. You have to have a laboratory. You have to have an R&D room. You have to have a cauldron. You have to have a kitchen. You have to have a melting pot. That’s what the Kings Head theatre has always been.
Terri: What is amazing to me about the spirit that Stephanie’s described, and that you’ve just elaborated on so beautifully, is that you stick to that spirit while at the same time — facing the harsh economic realities — manage to pay everyone.
Terri: And you’ve been a real champion for the Equity Fringe Agreement and making sure the actors are always paid. How did you get involved in that and how important is that in being part of the Kings Head ethos?
Adam: How did I get involved with that? So Equity have got this wonderful new role which is currently Emmanuel de Lange who’s the organiser for the fringe, the low pay/no pay kind of role, and we work with him now and it’s fantastic. Predating him was Paul Fleming — who is the overall overriding organiser — we approached him and said look, we would like to do something at the Kings Head theatre on a consistent basis rather than just when we’ve got funding or retrospectively paying when the box office goes well. And he met with us and we showed him our accounts, we showed him how it works, and we came up with something that we thought would be sustainable, so that if something goes really well, we’d do that, but if something goes really bad, we’d do that. Then year on year, we revisited that from 2011 up until 2016 where we got to where we are today. So, when we first started it was based on hourly rate and it was like the minimum, minimum, minimum as like a kind of experiment and we were really quiet about it, we didn’t shout about it, because we didn’t know whether it was going to work. But we tried it and it worked and then the next year we put it up, and then we got to the point where were we are able to commit to pay a weekly amount of money so that people that work here know exactly what it is they are going to get, regardless of how many hours they work, on a main show.
Terri: And how many shows are you putting on here at the Kings Head each year, approximately? … I’ve got this written down somewhere, I can remind you…
Adam: I know that in July we’re doing 35…
Terri: Wow, that’s amazing.
Adam: But that’s a new writing festival
Terri: That’s the Playmill festival isn’t it?
Adam: Yeah that’s the Playmill festival. We probably produce about 8 or 9 ourselves…
Terri: 8 or 9 yourselves and about 90…
Adam: That’s right it’s 90 yeah. But that’s across all the different programming slots we have so we’ll do a second show that could run from anything from a week to 4 weeks.
Terri: And so all of those visiting companies — they also meet those Equity standards?
Adam: Yes so we have different rates. So we have the main show — which is the thing that’s on for a month which rehearses for three or four weeks, that’s it’s on at 7 o’clock, that has the higher ticket prices — they pay our full rate. And then what we do is we insist that for everything else around that they follow the fringe agreement.
Terri: Amazing, that’s amazing. It’s also a great feature when you come to a show here you get this preamble: your Front of House staff come up with the merchandise and the bucket and explain all of this, and really involve the audience in being supportive of this effort, and in realising that artists should be paid.
Adam: You know what it is — for me, as an audience member, I find it quite empowering to understand — almost like when you’re at the supermarket and you’re making a decision between a product based on its ingredients, or whether it’s organic, or whether it’s fairtrade or vegan — you’re making choices as a consumer culture. So I find it kind of empowering to know when I am asked to pay for my ticket where’s that money going?
Terri: Yeah. The programming — coming back to the programming — it must be a logistical nightmare: 90 shows a year, you’ve got different start times as you mentioned, they’re all going to slightly different schedules. How do you squeeze it all in? And how do you plan your in-house productions around these visiting works?
Adam: Yeah, so there is method to it. There is. I guess it’s one of the benefits of having an Artistic Director that’s been in-role for 8 years in a pub theatre, you don’t usually get that kind of tenure. I’m also joined by Louisa Davis, who’s our producer, and we’ve been working together since 2012 and she stayed after OperaUpClose left, so there’s this kind of wealth of experience and knowledge that’s within the walls, whilst continually bringing in new, fresh talent to all the different roles; a big part of our ethos is to give people the first chance of trying something. And some days it does feel like we are managing the Heathrow flight path — it does — and I never worry about going to a party, or a function, and not being able to answer the question of ‘’what are you working on now?’’ kinda thing — cause it’s like oh my god — I have to stop for a second and think about it — we’re in pre-production for so many different things. I think people talk about the Kings Head Theatre as being entrepreneurial in that sense: where it is about diversification; it is about not putting all your eggs in one basket. For me, that’s what works for me, and that’s what interests me, and that’s what kind of satisfies me as a theatre-maker as well. It’s not about just obsessing about one thing — I like to do lots of different things at the same time, so, I think as the leader of the Kings Head Theatre, I’m kinda suited to this kind of organisation because I like the challenge.
Terri: And how many shows are you personally directing each year?
Adam: It varies year on year. The year that I started here with this new artistic policy post, you know, this new artistic policy which was a kinda like all-encompassing artistic policy, so years 15, 16, and 17 were incredibly busy years for me — where I was back doing 5 or 6 new productions per year or revivals of my older productions per year. However, in 2018 I’m not directing anything new. However! ‘Trainspotting’ is on at the vaults…
Terri: I love that show!
Adam: ‘Strangers in Between’ is on in the West End, and ‘Trainspotting’ is going to New York and probably going to be transferring my 2017 work elsewhere, so there is a legacy of work that keeps going.
Terri: So do you keep going back into the rehearsal room with the actors?
Adam: Yeah to revive things, but there’s two reasons why I’m doing that. The first reason is that Islington Square is a very the big thing and I’ve never done anything like this before; it’s like a brand new job so I’m kind of focusing all of my emotional resources and time on working with my excellent team. I’ve got a new executive director — she’s not new, Fiona’s been here for over a year but-
Terri: What’s her name? Fiona…?
Adam: Fiona English. Iron Man completer, marathon runner, and Executive Director of the King’s Head Theatre. And writer of our musical that we are bringing to Edinburgh this year! Called ‘’Hamilton (Lewis)’’.
Terri: I like it!
Adam: So I’ve made a conscious decision to be more available to that once-in-a-lifetime thing because I don’t want to mess it up, so I want to be there!
Terri: Good on you. So you’ve just ticked off a few other things that I was going to bring up — that in addition to the 90 shows that you do here at this address, you do transfer stuff to the West End, and tour, and Edinburgh, New York.
Terri: And Australia!
Adam: and Ireland!
Terri: Oh wow! Amazing. So, again, is that something you are keen to do more of?
Adam: Oh yeah, that’s always been what the King’s Head has done, you know there’s 50 West End/Broadway transfers since the beginning of the King’s Head Theatre, and there’s always been a continual flow of work coming out of the King’s Head into other spaces — even during OperaUpClose’s time, there was consistent work going into the West End geography — into the Soho Theatre — and Tennesse Williams’ ‘Vieux Carre’, directed by Robert Chevara, going into the Charing Cross Theatre for a very successful season. So we’re just continuing in that legacy.
Terri: And you think with the new space that will just happen even more?
Adam: Oh yeah, totally. I mean 250-seat theatre in Zone 1 that an outside producer can use — I don’t think there’s another one — so that’s really exciting I think, particularly for musical theatre and I really hope that it becomes a space that is going to have three purposes. One, for the Kings Head Theatre to make more ambitious and exciting work in. For us to welcome regional companies — to be a non-London-centric-London-theatre — to be a place for regional artists to be showcased. And for exciting producers to come and do first revivals and UK premieres of musical theatre work that needs to be done in a 250 seat theatre in Zone 1.
Terri: I like that idea… more musicals in Islington! That sounds good to me.
I wanted to say when you said about me not directing what it’ done is.. it’s been an opportunity because we’ve got this amazing trainee director scheme here, and I love creating opportunities for emerging artists, and I love taking a gamble, I love taking a chance, and what it means is that this year, and next year we’re going to be able to work with a lot more of those graduates who have come up through our trainee director scheme.
Terri: And how does that scheme work? How many directors do you take on a year? And how long are they here?
Adam: 4 per year, 2 every 6 months, so even within the course there’s a sense of pedagogy: with the old and the new. I pitch it as a masters-style-like year in that it lasts for 12 months and it’s geared towards people who already have a little bit of experience as a director either on the fringe or being involved with University theatre. But it doesn’t cost anything, as opposed to a masters, and you get to work on shows and meet people and work on shows where we co-produce outside the building — that’s always part of the deal — whenever we do a show (such as shows at the Park or the Southwark) we always attach an assistant director, and then at the end they get a show; they get a professional show where they get paid and they get a professional production.
Terri: I’ve done some work recently with Dave Spencer who was on the scheme. And he’s got his own company Another Soup. He took ‘Soul of Wittgenstein’ from here to Omnibus.
Adam: That’s right. Which was his show his trainee directing showcase that he did here which he then transferred to Omnibus.
Terri: Can you name some of the other graduates?
Adam: Oh sure I can! So Jen Davies who was on the same cohort as Dave Spencer is about to open ‘Adam and Eve’ at the Hope Theatre. But Jen will also be taking a new play called ‘Sorry’, which was developed through the Birmingham Rep to Assembly this year. Jen and Dave are great stories because they started off as assistants, then when the West End season happened, with ‘La Boheme’ and ‘Strangers’, they were paid Associate Directors on those two projects. So showing that lifecycle of growth with artists: it’s not just about a year then go. It’s about: OK, so what do we do now? We try and create as many opportunities as we can, as possible, with our current theatre, but having the new space it’s elongating that lifecycle where we can up the stream and down the stream longer. So we can get artists earlier in our little studio space doing one-off things and we can keep them forever, because there’s no reason why they wouldn’t want to keep returning to a space like that.
Terri: Oh you’re being greedy now!
Adam: Well not full time but there’s no reason why people can’t, for the rest of their careers, think about doing a show at the King’s Head Theatre.
Terri: And it’s wonderful to imagine having an ongoing relationship with people that you’ve been so nurturing with..
Adam: Yes. It’s an artistic and cultural conversation. It’s an ongoing cycle of pedagogy between graduates and the new coming through. Because it exists: theatre-makers are so generous. It would just be wonderful to have this rather informal structure of a theatre doing it. I mean you do it with doctors in university-training-hospitals — I mean… are we saving lives? I don’t know, maybe. But we are doing it in the theatre as well, you know? The machine is running. We don’t receive any funding we work so hard to make it work, so we want to maximise the most amount of that as possible. Put a trainee director in that technical rehearsal, let them watch, let them learn, let them see what happens. Sorry to side-step you there, I’m just very passionate about the trainee directing scheme.
Terri: No not at all — it is an important side step. Let’s talk about programming in terms of giving other opportunities to other theatre-makers; you do that a lot through some of the festivals that you programme. Can you tell us about some of the key festivals in the annual calendar?
Adam: Sure. So this year for the first time we’ve ran a female playwriting festival which was a direct response to Ed Hall’s letter, that he can’t get his hands on any good female plays and that they don’t sell tickets; I think that was the broad kind of message of the letter..
Terri: Did he come along to see the shows?
Adam: Do you know what he didn’t, and I couldn’t tag him on Facebook because I couldn’t find him. But what we did is we decided to re-publish his open letter the front of the program so that the audience could you know be part of that dialogue rather than just soap-boxing in about it.
Terri: Did anyone else from Hampstead Theatre come along?
Adam: I don’t know, they haven’t made themselves known, but I hope they did: it was a wonderful festival where we had a main show and then we did three other late night shows.
Terri: And that was called ‘Who Runs the World?’
Adam: ‘Who Runs the World’ yeah, which was curated by Louisa Davis, our senior producer, and Helena Jackson, one of our trainee director graduates, had her showcase in the season as well. And Helena who’s just graduated is coming back to direct ‘La Traviata’ in October which is a big opera by Verdi and she’s 23 — female opera director — say they don’t exist? They do at the Kings Head.
Then another season we do is our Playmill festival which is when we do 3 weeks of brand new work, this year it’s 35 companies.
Then we’ve got the queer festival in August and September each year as well which is LGBTQI+ work, which we are focusing more and more each year on how we can really encapsulate the full spectrum of queerness.
Terri: And any other schemes that we should be plugging as part of this conversation? Do you have a playwriting award?
Adam: Oh yeah we do, we do yeah…
Terri: Ah but you want to talk about it??
Adam: No I do! I absolutely do!! It’s just so funny there’s so much going on.
Terri: I know!
Adam: But people go: ‘’how do you make it work at the Kings Head!?’’: move really quickly and do loads- spin lots of plates.
So we have the Adrian Pagan Award, which is in its third award cycle and ‘Sex with Robots and Other Devices’, by Nessah Muthy, is on at the moment, co-produced with Cloakroom Theatre, which is a female-led theatre company, and this is their first big show that we are supporting and funding.
And Adrian Pagan was an amazing playwright who went from being a Stage Manager at The Bush Theatre to being a playwright at The Bush Theatre via the Verity Bargate Award, demonstrating that you can become a playwright even if you’re a Stage Manager. I love that idea; I love the spirit of Adrian. In fact, I opened the Cock Tavern with with the first revival of Adrian Pagan’s ‘The Backroom’. He gave me essentially my big break if you like, and so to honour that and to say thank you to that I set up this award.
The first year was about working in theatre, but not as a playwright, so encouraging ushers, finance, lighting designers, anybody to submit their play, and Thomas Pickles won that, and the next year was about your second play — the all difficult second play — which Adrian never got to write, and that was won by Kate Lock. We produced that here, ‘A Russian Doll’. And this is the third year and what’s going to happen next year — stay tuned!
Terri: OK, I’m aware that I’m — particularly with so much going on — I’m taking up a lot of your time so I’m gonna just ask you a few final questions if I may-
Adam: I thought it was going to be so difficult to talk for this long but, look, it’s been fine.
Terri: No! Come on! I could get you chatting forever, you’ve got so much so much to say.
Dan was here for 35 years, you’ve had quite a long tenure as you mentioned for an Off West End Artistic Director you’ve been here now for…
Adam: Eight years.
Terri: Eight years.
Adam: In the Pub Theatre, yeah.
Terri: Have you any idea how much longer you’d like to be here? Are you going to go for 35 years?
Adam: Wow… so… You know… I don’t know is the honest answer. When OperaUpClose left I was like: no I’ve got some things to do; I’ve still got some things to do with the Kings Head which were some really amazing productions like: Tommy Murphy’s play ‘Shock Treatment’; producing opera in a different way — which is the way we’re doing it now; the queer festival — all of this stuff; making new writing work but paying people — I wanted to explore all that; reboot the trainee director scheme.
Terri: You just keep achieving these incredible things and setting the bar higher..
Adam: So if we weren’t moving now would be time for me to invite somebody else in to take over however I’ve got a new job now — like, really going from a 110 seat theatre to a 350 seat (or roundabouts) in a new development with two spaces, with an amazing new team that’s growing because of the opportunity to move — that’s a new job. So whilst technically I’ll still be the Artistic Director of the Kings Head Theatre, I’m going to be growing on the skills and the lessons that I’ve learnt and taking a fantastic team with me into a completely new universe.
Terri: And how big is the team?
Adam: At the moment we are 12 permanent staff and the number of non-permanent staff fluctuates — depends on what we have in production.
Terri: And at the new?
Adam: I don’t know.
Terri: You don’t know but you’ll need a few more heads…
Adam: I’ll tell you who is amazing — Jez Bond has been an incredible source of support.
Terri: And Jez is the Artistic Director of the Park Theatre.
Adam: Of the Park Theatre yes. So he’s tread this path before me. He’s just been amazing. I just want to shout out to Jez and say thank you because he’s always at the end of the phone.
Terri: I love that Artistic Directors can be supportive of one another; I should mention to you I interviewed David Byrne at the New Diorama and David was saying — he also was plugging you and The Kings Head and saying how very excited he is for the new development.
Adam: What David has done at the New Diorama is incredible, particularly with that scheme that he had where he’s able to help finance shows.
Terri: Artist Development Scheme.
Adam: Yes, wonderful.
Terri: Incredible ok so you’ve achieved so much we’ve covered a lot of ground but you’ve come back to one of the other questions I still had in my mind, you said that you are not afraid when things go wrong.
Terri: No! So I wonder if you could tell us a couple of things that have gone really wrong since you’ve been here but, then, turning it into the positive but have been the biggest lessons for you?
Adam: Ok. So ‘Strangers in Between’ transferred to the West End and did really, really well. But the first time we did it, it didn’t go very well and it was because — I think there were a couple of factors at play — this is something you learn as an Artistic Director which is really interesting — which is tuning into the nuances of what the audience want to see and when. So we produced ‘Strangers in Between’, which is a great Australian three-hander by Tommy Murphy, and we did the European premiere in June. And it was the day that the referendum for Brexit was announced.
Terri: Oh don’t remind me…
Adam: So on the press night, when we stood up to do the bucket speech we were like: I bet this press night is going to be the one thing you will remember about today… not! And you know people didn’t want to watch an Australian comedy, they wanted to talk about what it meant. I remember talking to my chair about it, James Seabright, I was like: you know James, it hasn’t done financially or hasn’t had the reviews — it didn’t quite get over the line, it didn’t make it at the box office, but I believe in it, and what do you do in these situations? And he was like: you’ve just got to follow your instincts.
So we did it again the following January, just after Christmas when it was cold and people wanted to see a funny, hot-weather Australian Comedy, and it did really well.
So I guess that’s one of those examples of… I never look at things when they don’t go well and think oh, this is terrible! I might for a moment — I’m human — I might for a moment, and reach out for some vegan ice-cream but ultimately we have a culture at the King’s Head of yeah, but, what can we learn from that? So that the next time that we do it we learn and we do it differently.
Terri: So timing is a good lesson.
Adam: Timing is everything, yeah.
Terri: And on the brexit point, have you thought about more to address some of the issues that arise in this country around Brexit?
Terri: Oh go on tell us…
Adam: Well… That would be giving away stuff that we’re doing next year! But we are doing an opera next year, an exciting opera.
Terri: Brexit: the Opera?
Adam: No, it’s not Brexit: the Opera. It will be a famous, well-known opera full of banging tunes but the way that we do opera at the King’s Head Theatre, of course, is that we always ask whoever’s making the opera to reassess it and make it something that is going to matter today. And that’s either by re-telling the story with a parallel to something that is happening today or by setting in today. And so we will be looking at that in February next year.
Terri: So of the shows that are already announced, that you can talk about, just tell us — what should we be coming to see here at the King’s Head in the coming months?
Adam: So we’re doing Mart Crawley’s UK premiere of ‘For Reasons That Remain Unclear’.
Terri: And Mart Crawley wrote ‘ The Boys in the Band’
Adam: Yeah — which is having it’s belated broadway premiere right now. This play was written before its time. It chimes in beautifully with what’s going on at the moment regarding abuses of power, particularly abuses of power and sexual abuse. Beautiful play, and we’re really proud to be having it at the King’s Head.
And then October is Helena Jackson’s production of ‘La Traviata’, which is set in a Gentleman’s Club in Bristol, which chimes into news of the London Gentleman’s Club and the aforementioned abuses of power.
Terri: And in addition to this incredible programme and these choices of shows you’ve also got Playmill (the festival you mentioned in July), this is theatre-goers opportunity to come and see the King’s Head in its original home and then come back to see it in it’s new home.
Adam: Yeah! You should definitely come and see these shows because then you can say you were part of the last season, or saw it for the first time if you haven’t been. Yeah.
Terri: Perfect. So, just to conclude, to all you theatre-goers out there if you’re excited by the brilliant work being done here, do follow the King’s Head on the Stagedoor app. Stagedoor’s clever little algorithms will keep you up-to-date with your favourite theatre-makers, and all of the exciting new work here and elsewhere. Thanks again to Adam, thanks for joining us, and until next time, thank you for listening.
Adam: Thanks Terri!