Going down the pub to make drama out of an arts crisis

Tim Hodgson Spread EagleNext door to the Town Hall, where the David Lean Cinema has been dark for two years and where the status of the town’s museum is under threat, the arts in Croydon are about to get a boost.
TIM HODGSON, pictured, the artistic director of the Old Joint Stock Theatre Company from Birmingham which is behind the initiative, explains the importance for local culture of the new pub theatre that opens above the Spread Eagle tonight

There weren’t really any arts venues where I grew up in Birmingham, but there were plenty of ex-arts venues, empty buildings with permanent creative signifiers on the façades. One was the Kingsway Cinema in Kings Heath, with “The Kingsway” and the year 1925 emblazoned on its stonework. It was where my parents went for their first date. I never saw the cinema in use, it closed in the early 1980s, but I walked past the building every day on my way to school and was so sure that one day I would bring it back.

I had dream after dream about it: the décor of the box office, the atmosphere of opening night, even the foliage we’d put at the front entrance by the street. It was something I held on to when I was tempted to skip school or similar.

It never really mattered to me whether it would end up a theatre, an independent cinema, or whatever – what I wanted was for there to be Something There, an arts venue earnestly trying to do good work, supporting the creative communities I knew were there in our suburb, busy behind blank front doors and conspiring around corner tables in the back of pubs. Somewhere which could offer them space and support, a home, a centre, a welcoming place where they could come in and discuss ideas and hopefully we could help them out.

By the time I left school, the Kingsway had become a Gala Bingo. I went inside one day and it was far more beautiful than I had imagined – I had never expected art deco arches and a great soaring dome above the stage. It was barely a paint job away from being a fantastic venue for our region.

Then early in 2012, The Kingsway burned down – one of those mysterious fires which occurs just after a planning application is rejected. The shell remains, boarded up, with “Who Burned Me Down???” scrawled on the hoardings in six-foot-high pink paint. Incidentally, on my parents’ first date, the movie they went to see was The Towering Inferno.

Around the same time as the Kingsway fire, I was offered the job of running The Old Joint Stock Theatre in the centre of Birmingham, an extraordinarily well kitted-out studio theatre, opened by Fullers Brewery at a cost of £300,000 in 2006 and bizarrely under-utilised as an amateur theatre for hire ever since.

Croydon's newest theatre: the Spread Eagle opens tonight above the Fuller's pub

Croydon’s newest theatre: the Spread Eagle opens tonight above the Fuller’s pub

We immediately set out how our quality control was going to be many, many notches above what it had previously been, but we also put the word out to Midlands theatre companies that our door should be considered always open – if someone has a good concept, we would do anything we could to help. Great work would be the aim, and hopefully that reputation would also make us sufficiently profitable. As I said countless times, just drop by and we’ll see what we can do – we have space, contacts and enthusiasm.

Now The Old Joint Stock hosts a writing group and a range of workshops for writers, actors and directors, a number of resident and collaborating companies, a celebrated musical theatre company who have the exclusive UK rights to Rent this Christmas, and we also run a free monthly “best of local new writing” showcase which will be curating a night at the Birmingham Rep in 2014 as part of their comeback season.

Together with Bex Phillips, we’ve also founded The Old Joint Stock Theatre Company, specialising in new writing and big plays for our small spaces. Our latest production, Tea At Five, recently returned from the Edinburgh Festival, where we sold out the majority of our run and played to glowing reviews from a range of publications including The Times and The Stage.

It is this production which opens The Spread Eagle Theatre here in Croydon tonight. Our Winter Season is some of our favourite work from the past 18 months, but we want the Spread Eagle Theatre to be a showcase for new homegrown work. I wouldn’t pretend to know Croydon inside out, but I do know what it’s like when there aren’t enough local spaces to see interesting work – it’s suffocating and it’s demoralising, and I started to question whether there was any way to keep creative talent from draining out of community. The open door policy at the Old Joint Stock really showed that those people were still there and even more galvanised to get things done.

That is the policy at The Spread Eagle Theatre. We’re a small team and it’s early days but we really hope you’ll get behind us, and come and see Tea At Five (it is playing Wednesday to Friday this week). In the longer term, we’d love local groups to get in contact, in all art forms and at all stages of an idea. We have space, contacts and enthusiasm, and we’re upstairs at The Spread Eagle.

  • To contact the box office to book for Tea At Five or other Spread Eagle productions, call 0845 680 1926
  • You can contact Hodgson by email at spreadeagle@fullers.co.uk

Coming to Croydon

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to Going down the pub to make drama out of an arts crisis

  1. “it’s suffocating and it’s demoralising,” to see a town with no Arts strategy, except to sell off, close down, or price out anything the Council can. But we do not need millions from the sale of priceless Chinese crockery, we need to take ownership of the problem and solve it ourselves.

    Let’s make Croydon Arts a success come to the Arts Debate on 10 October 2013 at 7pm at the Unitarian Church Hall by the flyover; get on-line and makes sure that we have all stakeholders involved in setting an Arts vision for Croydon https://www.facebook.com/pages/South-Croydon-Community-Association/457000714418244 .

    It is our town, our culture, together we can make it a vibrant success. An independent Arts Organisation for Croydon can bring vision, funding and jobs to the town.

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