Getting a theatre up and running is a tricky business. As well as the obvious challenges such as raising funds (a particularly daunting prospect these days), obtaining a licence and attracting audiences, there are the unforeseen problems that crop up along the way.
Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters opened The Print Room, a new 80-seat venue tucked just off Westbourne Grove on 10 November.
“We seem to spend most of our life talking about toilets”, the thoughtful, slightly reserved but courteous Bailey reveals to me over a cup of coffee and chocolate wafers, a few days after the opening night of The Print Room’s first production, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Fabrication. We are sitting in the theatre’s cluttered Green Room, which currently doubles as a storage space for assorted props and administrative paraphernalia.
The open and engaging Winters takes over the story with relish. “We thought we were very fortunate in having three toilets. Well, ding-a-ling- a-ling, we found that we needed seven. Where do you find room for seven toilets here, in this tiny little space?” she asks, gesturing around her. “So we’re working on it. It’s top secret at the moment. We may have to hand out buckets…”
Putting to one side the headache of troublesome toilet requirements, how does the pair feel, nearly one week after opening The Print Room’s doors to the public?
“Very calm,” Winters replies after a moment’s consideration, looking relieved and almost surprised at the same time. “I might be speaking for myself, but I think we have both been very calm and very happy. Of course we worry – about the money! – but we have had unbelievable support from the neighbourhood, and friends, and people we’ve never met before. On Saturday we had a lot of people come who had heard about us, so that’s been nice.”
And what has the reaction from the theatrical world been like? Launching a new venue during an economic downturn must have raised some eyebrows, I suggest. According to Bailey, there has been surprise, but it has been positive. “We wrote to a lot of people who said, ‘My goodness, how can you be doing this at this time? What a wonderful thing.’ We haven’t told them we’re closing next week!” she jokes.
When did the two first cross paths? “We met through a mutual friend,” Winters says. “But I already knew Lucy’s work and thought it was just marvellous.”
From renovating a 1950s warehouse into a theatre to selecting the plays to be staged, critically acclaimed director Bailey (whose productions include, most recently, Macbeth at the Globe) and respected designer Winters have devoted the past half-a-decade to realising The Print Room, which began life over a large glass of wine at the National Theatre.
They agreed to what Winters describes as being “locked away in a room together” for days on end in order to make The Print Room happen because of their shared belief that theatre should be fresh, exciting and challenging. And in the quirky corners and possibility-filled spaces of a disused printing house in Notting Hill they found a home for their vision of complete artistic independence and expression. Bailey explains: “We’re here, we’re not in an office down the road; we’ve not just got a room above a pub, or on one level. I think that’s it – having our own space, literally. We are in control. You don’t have distractions from below, and, ideally, if you’re coming here it’s because you want some culture.”
Does she think it is rare to find a London fringe venue devoted exclusively to theatre? “Absolutely. I don’t think there are many places like, say, the Lyric Hammersmith around. But we’re not fringe, we’re off-West End!” she corrects me, laughing. “I don’t know why it’s called ‘fringe’, it’s a terrible name.”
Such an all-consuming enterprise as opening a theatre would test even the closest of friendships, but it is clear after spending five minutes with Bailey and Winters that they get on extremely well. They finish each other’s sentences, make each other laugh and occasionally even speak in unison (“although we still haven’t quite decided if we’re going to kill each other yet,” Bailey says jokingly).
Perhaps most importantly, though, Bailey and Winters feel that their respective skills are a good complement. “I mean, look at this place,” Bailey says. “I couldn’t do what Anda has done to it. It looked completely different when we first saw it.”
Given The Print Room’s focus on “experimental theatre, music, dance and visual art”, Pasolini’s Fabrication could have been purpose-written for the venue’s opening night. Never before performed in the UK, this challenging play about a father’s sexual obsession with his son, based on the Oedipus myth, is also a hymn to the importance of sight and experience – ultimately, to theatre itself.
It is interesting to learn, then, that showing Fabrication at The Print Room had not been Bailey’s intention at first. “The play actually happened separately”, she explains. “I’d been working on it for about 20 years, had taken it everywhere without success, but felt very strongly about it. Anda was a total encouragement; because she read it, loved it and felt it would be good to launch the theatre with, I thought, OK then.”
Fabrication closes on 4 December, to be followed in the New Year by Alan Ayckbourn’s Snake in the Grass. I suggest to Bailey that there is a playfulness in juxtaposing a virtually unknown (certainly on these shores) psycho-sexual drama with the work of a playwright beloved of school curriculums and best known for his witty dissection of English middle-class foibles.
“I think playful is the right word,” Bailey agrees. “Who would have expected we would follow up [Pasolini] with Ayckbourn? But it was a revelation to me that he’d written this extraordinary play, which is just slightly outside what you might expect.
So is one of the aims of The Print Room to challenge expectation at every level, not just in terms of choice of play but order of programme as well?
“Yes, I think that’s right. And there’s the simple fact that the theatre won’t even look the same from one production to the next”, Bailey points out. “Some people thought that we were only going to put plays in this little box [the set for Fabrication], but we want to keep it as flexible as possible… and you know we have white walls, so we can do white-wall productions as well.”
Bailey and Winters’ dedication to keeping things flexible and avoiding rigid compartmentalisation extends to using The Print Room as a space for art exhibitions, poetry readings and album launches.
One of the first steps in this direction is the so-called Printer’s Devils, a small (but growing) group of young writers, artists and musicians who have been granted the patronage of The Print Room. Bailey explains why this is such an important initiative: “When you’re starting out, it can really help to feel part of a community. [These people] are just at that point where they can learn from and support one another. We can’t afford to pay them, but we can offer them a space to develop their ideas, for nothing, and help them find financial backing where we can. Hopefully we will be able to hold a Devils’ Festival next year.”
When Winters mentions that they also have a choreographer on board, Bailey nods vigorously. “We should say more about that: we want to expand into that area as well, not just directing. We would like to incorporate choreography as well as artists.”
“We want this place to be a hive of activity,” she stresses. “We want to bring as much as possible to the table.”
And Bailey intends for this embryonic company to outlive the Print Room, if the need should arise. “We haven’t purchased the property; we are just lodgers, so we are paying rent. Obviously, we want to go on doing that for as long as we can. But it’s possible that the owners will want to develop [the building] at some point. Hopefully, though, we’ll be able to carry on as we are, just in another space.”
These are laudable aims. Ultimately, though, it is money that will decide whether Bailey and Winters are tilting at windmills with this daring project or the creators of a permanent fixture on the London theatrical landscape.
Bailey is realistic about their situation. “The Print Room is privately funded. But we can’t continue to be privately funded. We need to widen our field – no theatre this tiny really makes a profit.”
Winters, who hopes the theatre will break even some time next summer, agrees while admitting, “It’s hard to ask for money, we don’t want to force ourselves on people. But we do already have a supporter, who has a name on a bench in the theatre. Hopefully we will end up with lots of names on benches. Would you like one?” she asks me laughing. “We’ll give you a discount.”
While I can’t afford a bench, I can afford a ticket to the next show, and the one after that. The Print Room is a breath of fresh air and an act of defiance in the face of swingeing cuts and government scepticism about the commercial value of the arts. Winters and Bailey should be applauded for their vision and supported to ensure it remains a reality.
Published by Exeunt Magazine