Interview: Theatre Delicatessen's new space

Pop-up Theatre Delicatessen arrives in Marylebone Gardens Pop-up Theatre Delicatessen arrives in Marylebone Gardens - © Rob Greig
Posted: Mon May 21 2012

Theatre Delicatessen is part of a new wave of collaborative theatre companies making a gentle alternative culture

Behind the brown facade of the old BBC London headquarters on Marylebone High Street, something strange is happening. Since it was purchased by Scottish Widows Investment Partnership in 2011 (price tag: £32.3 million), the offices, soundproof studios and cavernous basement have been unused.

But now the building is coming back to life. Green Astroturf has sprung up in the central foyer. Around the stairwell, electric lightbulbs bloom on tree branches. And the office-lined corridors are slowly filling up with young artists: their exuberance, their whiteboards, their works-in-progress - and their earnest confabulations about undrying paint and how to get 300 free tyres from Cornwall to London.

Marylebone Gardens will open to the public on May 22 with a Falklands-inspired 'Henry V' in the basement. A rolling programme of theatre, cabaret, scratch and live art will occupy the rest of 2012. And visitors will be able to pop upstairs and peek at the artists, doing dance in the newly polished parquet room, or renting beautifully lit desks for a song.

Roland Smith and Jessica Brewster, the creators and co- curators of the pop-up arts hub Theatre Delicatessen, have taken their cue from the London pleasure garden which occupied this spot long before the BBC (and then the super-rich) arrived in Marylebone.

'In the days of Dick Turpin this was the Rose of Normandy tavern,' explains Brewster, 'When we found out, we decided to recreate the gardens.' Hence their focal point: an indoor 'village green', which will be open day and night through the summer, to which you can bring your own picnic and watch Olympics events on a big screen.

Since Theatre Delicatessesen's first production, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', popped up in a warehouse on Regent Street, Brewster, Smith and the company's third director Frances Loy have built up unparalleled expertise in obtaining temporary tenancies in multimillion-pound central London buildings.

'We ran that first show off a double plug point,' Smith recalls. 'We couldn't have the theatre lights running at the same time as the tea urn, otherwise all the electrics would blow in the building.'

The electrics were the first thing they checked when hunting for their next venue: the Uzbekistan Airways building behind Selfridges, where they staged a madcap barter-based performance market called 'Theatre Souk'. It went down extremely well - and will return in the autumn to Marylebone Gardens. But it was a steep learning curve. In fact the learning curve, says Brewster, 'is still vertical' - because their ambition has expanded even faster than their company has: 35 Marylebone High Street is their largest residency yet.

How did they do it? By finding a great window for artmakers in the London property market and making it their own. Huge buildings stand empty for months awaiting development. If the owners let them to a charitable organisation on a peppercorn rent, they can save hundreds of thousands of pounds in council tax, because charities get an 80 per cent discount.

Smith and Brewster, who have day jobs at the National Lottery and in TV production, are connected, experienced, presentable and persistent: better able than many arty types to deal with paperwork and men in suits. James Bowdidge of the Property Merchant Group, who helped them find their first building, now leads their board. And this time, the size and expense of the building has allowed them to negotiate a £100,000 contribution towards their arts programme from their landlord.

Their flourishing collective is part of the new(ish) countercultural movement in theatre and elsewhere that provides a gentle, collaborative alternative to the norm. As Brewster says, 'People who want to be theatremakers now have moved away very rapidly from the old world where everyone in British theatre was called Peter and went to Oxbridge.'

Theatre Delicatessen sprang from frustration at the scope of fringe theatre spaces. 'For me,' says Smith, who directs the opening production of 'Henry V', 'the question was how to create work on a large scale.' He cites the situationists as inspiration: Brewster mentions Glastonbury and her wish to 'create that festival feel when it seems as if you've created an event by discovering it'.

Both are committed to working as part of a loose collective whose ethos extends to the way the resident companies contribute skills lieu of rent: 'Half Cut,' says Smith, 'whose show “Shelf Life” will be a real highlight in the programme, are the janitors - henchmen really, as they do all the lifting, banging and pulling up. Lab Collective run the rehearsal rooms. Faction are on reception.'

Others have contributed design, and immersive sound facilities for 'Henry V' and other productions across the building. When I ask why more theatre companies don't do this, Brewster and Smith - who juggle day jobs, young children, commutes, and multiple collaborators- grin wryly and reel off the skills they've had to master in pursuit of their dream. It's impressive: but not nearly as impressive as what they've achieved here.