Artistic Director of Theatre 503, Paul Robinson speaks to Theatrefullstop About championing New Writing!

Paul Robinson

If you were to walk past the Latchmere Pub in Battersea, you would be mistaken as to think that the venue was devoted to solely serving the very best ales, spirits and wines. However, the venue, also known as Theatre 503, has been at the forefront of showcasing the very best of new writing for over three decades. Having taken on the role of Artistic Director in 2012, Paul Robinson has continued on in true Theatre503 tradition, by championing new writing with the addition of Theatre 503 Playwriting Award. In one of the most theatrically diverse cities in the world, in terms of the small scale fringe shows, West End Shows, Off West End Shows, Outdoor performances… the list goes on, it may be deemed as being financially safe to keep to well known productions to draw the crowds in. Theatrefullstop were lucky enough to speak with Paul about taking risks in a new writing venue, the importance of funding to support Theatre 503s work and talks about the various opportunities available for budding writers!

As the artistic director of one of the countries leading new writing theatres, your job is inherently risky. How difficult is it to have to take artistic risks on a daily basis?

Artistic risk is essential.  If we, in a 63-seat unfunded venue dedicated to new writing, weren’t prepared to be brave and take artistic risks, then frankly no-one would be prepared to take them and that would be very bad news for theatre as an art form.  I believe passionately that we need to be artistically brave.  The problem, of course, is that artistic risk can translate into financial risk, and when we’re already operating on a shoestring, I’m naturally aware that any additional financial risk is dangerous.  That is difficult, but we deal with it day by day – refusing to take artistic risks would negate the whole purpose of what we do.

Do you think it’s difficult for small theatres to produce new, exciting work and stay afloat? If so, why?

If the new work is genuinely exciting, it will attract an audience.  One of the trickiest issues for a small theatre in staying afloat is that its small size is both a plus and a minus – it’s possible to keep costs low, but if a production is a hit, there’s a very tight limit on the number of people that can see it which means that the show can make only half as much money as it could have in a venue twice the size.  It’s a constant balancing act. 

What is your point of view on Equity’s Professionally Made, Professionally Paid campaign (for every performer to be paid at least the National Minimum Wage) and will it affect small fringe venues with limited seating and therefore limited profit-making ability?

I absolutely believe that ideally every performer should be paid at least the National Minimum Wage and we aim to achieve this as a minimum on all of our longer run productions.  It’s simply not physically possible for us to make enough money at the box office to pay everyone involved National Minimum Wage, so being able to do so depends on a massive amount of fundraising from the Arts Council, trusts and foundations, and generous individual and corporate donors.  That fundraising is very difficult and ends up taking a very large percentage of our time.  While I support the Professionally Made, Professionally Paid campaign, I feel that the campaign really needs to be taken to funders and funders need to be encouraged to think about howthey can help subsidise payment of National Minimum Wage in small venues with worthwhile projects.  Otherwise all any of us would ever be able to produce in under-100-seat venues would be one and two-person shows, and artistically that would be a real shame.

What importance do you think private funding has in small scale theatre, as opposed to arts council/public money?

Private donors tend to be funding fewer projects and so they can have a more direct and personal relationship to the work in a small-scale theatre – I would say that you definitely see your money go further when you donate it to a small theatre as opposed to a medium or large one.  From the theatre’s point of view, we really value our relationship with our donors, but we certainly couldn’t rely on them exclusively – public money is absolutely essential as well. 

What process does a young writer have to go through to submit a play to 503? After a play is submitted, what happens in-house next?

Writers can submit a play at any time by uploading it to our websiteScripts will be read by two different members of our reading team and discussed at one of our monthly literary meetings.

Are new writing venues focusing enough support on developing artists/writers from more rural areas/outside of the capital?

Obviously on a practical level it’s easiest for a venue to engage with artists who are reasonably local to the venue, but if a development scheme is well-designed there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to accommodate writers from further afield.  For example, in both our current and most recent groups of in-house writers on attachment, one or more of the five writers lived outside London and they were able to receive exactly the same support on attachment as the London-based playwrights.  In those instances, the writers needed to be happy to travel to London reasonably frequently – we would love to be able to offer support to regional writers that didn’t involve occasional travel to London, but at the moment this is a longer-term goal which we’re still developing.

With pieces like 503Fusions, Theatre503 works to showcase young writers in short, inventive nights of theatre – how essential do you think it is for other London theatres to encourage things like “Fusions” in addition to their regular programming?

I think ideally every venue should provide some kind of showcase opportunity for those young and emerging artists who aren’t yet ready to take part in their regular programming.  Those opportunities not only help the artists develop their work and build relationships with audiences, they also crucially provide a way for the emerging artists to build working relationships with each other, which could prove to be important for years to come.

What importance does 503 place in training and developing the next generation of theatre makers?

We absolutely see ourselves as a springboard for early-career artists. 503’s main focus is on playwrights, and we try to place writers at the heart of everything we do.  Our literary team spend a massive amount of time giving personal feedback to writers, and we provide intensive development through structured schemes like the 503 Five and 503 Playwriting Award.  However, we aim to be a resource for other artists as well – our literary department’s Rapid Write Response evenings are a great learning and development opportunity for directors as well as writers.  In addition to providing assisting opportunities for emerging directors and designers, in the last year we have also run several low-cost skills workshops for actors and directors.

In the wake of a number of new fringe theatres being announced recently and some recent large scale transfers for smaller theatres – what do you think the outlook is for small scale fringe theatre in London?

The number of fringe theatres in London has indeed been expanding, which means that for the sector to survive and thrive, the number of audience members attending small theatres also needs to increase.  I think that as long as we keep sending a very clear message that fringe theatre can be of a very high quality and a very rewarding night out at a fraction of West End prices, and as long as the sector as a whole keeps focusing on audience development, the outlook could be very positive.  As you say, recent large scale transfers for smaller theatres help to remind the theatregoing public that the fringe is a hotbed of talent.  One of the biggest issues is the competition for press attention, since the number of venues is increasing at the same time as print publications are reducing the number of shows they’re able to cover, meaning that the competition for reviews is far tougher than it was a few years ago.  It’s a shifting landscape and blogs and websites are becoming increasingly important – we need to think about how that coverage can be used to attract audience members who might not normally attend fringe theatres.

What is your vision for the next 5 years? 

For 503 to thrive as a home for groundbreaking new work!  Some of my key aims over the next five years are to keep increasing and broadening our audience; to increase the reach of our work through more co-productions with venues outside London; to keep improving our writer development programme and to find more ways to provide support to writers outside London; and above all to find the best new plays that no-one else is staging and to give them the productions they deserve.

Interview by Samuel Clay.

Animals is currently showing at Theatre 503 until Friday 8th May. For more information on the production and Theatre 503, visit here…

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