Camden People's Theatre

Brian Logan Brian Logan - © Rob Greig
Posted: Mon Jan 30 2012

Last year, former Time Out critic Brian Logan took over a small London theatre. He shares his tips on surviving the fringe.

Back in early September, I was so naive. I could write about theatre. I could make theatre, and did - with my company Cartoon de Salvo. But when Jenny Paton and I took over as co-directors of Camden People's Theatre five months ago, we knew zilch about running an arts venue. O, that someone back then had offered us a guide to the dos and don'ts of fringe theatre management! Should you find yourself similarly neck-deep in ignorance, here are a few principles to survive by…

Don't get mad, break even
Within days of our arrival, Camden Council told us that their modest but invaluable annual grant to our theatre - our only regular financial support - would end in December. Welcome to CPT! The next month, we hosted Analogue's immersive show for audiences of one, 'Lecture Notes on a Death Scene'. It was, we felt, an artistic triumph. But with its maximum audience of, er, seven punters a night, it was a financial headache.

We duly reality-checked: covering CPT's running costs isn't easy. To create a hub for inventive theatre right in the centre of town, to dedicate our venue year-round to all the genre-busting, wheel-reinventing, adventurous stuff that doesn't conform to the usual writer-director-actor hierarchies - well, bringing that vision to life might not, it turns out,
be a profit-making exercise.

Do bring your galoshes…
In our longest, hardest week so far, we had to paddle from the front door to our office every day through two inches of spurting radiator water. The lesson: focus on making Great Theatre happen, by all means, but never at the expense of sound plumbing.

… and your autograph book too
When we hosted the TO Critics' Choice show, 'A Place at the Table', in November, we didn't imagine a docu-theatre piece about central African politics could be a celeb magnet. Feathery hats off, then, to Polly Jean Harvey, who paid it a surprise visit. Hats back on again, however, for the Michael Jackson impersonator who barged into family drama 'Frankland & Sons' to give an unasked-for musical turn. (We told him: beat it!)

Don't take your work home
Jenny and I are partners in life as well as business, so CPT follows us home, and shouts at us when we get there. We have to turn it from the door - if only for the sake of our wee baby girl Cora, who doesn't enjoy ma and pa calculating box-office splits while Igglepiggle's talking. (Mind you, it's one way to put her off pursuing a theatre career of her own, which would be ruinous for our dotage…)

Do keep an eye on the diary
It was December before I registered that the flagship event in any CPT year, our annual Sprint festival, was
a mere two-and-a-bit months away (March 9-31). Probably - I thought, vaguely - we should get round to programming that festival. I was right: we should. Five weeks later, and breathless, we've lined up a rip-snorting roster of experimenters and gadflies, storytellers and foot-lit revolutionaries (Dancing Brick, Curious Directive, Kazuko Hohki, Greg McLaren, NIE… how long have you got?) for this spring's extravaganza.

Do keep the faith
The lesson: when fatalism beckons, keep your eyes on the prize. CPT is a great place, with an 18-year tradition of trailblazing theatre of which we're just the latest custodians. In five months, we've knocked up against some daunting obstacles, mostly relating to money, local politics and leaky radiators. They could easily divert us from the job of protecting and promoting this tiny central London dynamo of art, exploration and fun. But our heads are still above water so far - even if our feet are sometimes two inches under it.