Rebecca Pryle and Tessa Hart hospitably direct me to sit on one of the auditorium’s comfy chairs while they perch on the raised stage (great for sight lines).
I’m intrigued to know how a theatre comes into being at a pub venue. Rebecca tells me that while she was working here, behind the bar, she met another actress working at the pub. They decided to use the space and find other like-minded people.
Tessa continues the story “I had already advertised and been in touch some months previously but I had to go abroad to spend time with my sick grandfather. When I got back, I replied to their advert and we got together initially just to start the Bread & Roses theatre company. We already had this space which was unused.”
The company who privately owned it said ‘yeah! just use it’”.
The pub is owned by Battersea Wandsworth Trades Union Council – and it’s the only trade-union-owned one in country.
“We pay a very reasonable rent. The pub also benefits because the theatre brings in more custom. During the first year the pub had a 26% increase in sales.”
The growth is phenomenal! Starting from scratch the pair first concentrated on building up good audience numbers.
“The first couple of months compared to a year later we had a growth of 800 percent. We had a networking event for people interested in working here. A lot of people came along so it was good to see the level of interest. Competitions were launched and a number of festivals. The Number of proposals to put on plays have also grown.”
Their success with audience members has had a knock on effect. People have an option of donating a few pounds when buying their tickets, and because support has been consistent, it has enabled a technical upgrade.
“People have really embraced the place. We have upgraded our 6 channel desk and 2 light stands to a full lighting board, and scaffolding around the room. Scaffolding means lights can go all around and do so much more. It can also support projectors and design elements – so it’s been a major change.”
The quality of the work shows in a series of five star reviewed shows, both in-house and from visiting companies.
Bread and Roses is mainly a receiving house. Every now and then they have something in-house. They have a scratch night of new short plays. They also staged Miss Julie (2015) and Clare McIntyre’s comedy Low Level Panic (2016).
Tessa adapted Strindberg’s Miss Julie to massive five-star critical acclaim. “The adaptation evened it out a bit between Miss Julie and ‘John’; to make it more of an even dialogue. It gave it a twist. I changed the ending; left it open. The control is constantly shifting, so the ending is left open as to who won.”
Although this seems particularly feminist theatre, this is not the heart of their work. They are consistently striving for equality, great diversity, and giving equal opportunities. This does include feminism but it also embraces gender, class and race. Giving everyone equal opportunities.
Both Pryle and Hart live in south London. Rebecca was born and bred in London. “My Mum’s American and my dad’s Irish”. Whilst she largely grew up in London she has also lived in Bristol and was in New York for three years.
Tessa was born in Berlin, her mother is German, and her father is from Guinea. She was born in Germany but mainly grew up in Brussels, Belgium. She’s been in Colliers Wood for 5 years: “So now I don’t know where I’m from!”
Rebecca completed a two year Meissner conservatory programme in New York which really taught her “to make your own work, find your own work and meet loads of people”. The quirky little venues in New York were mirrored back here in London. When she got back she “needed to do stuff in London” and found the same possibilities here. “The same openness, things not being set. Things don’t only work in a certain way, there are lots of different approaches. The culture allowed you to do that.”
Tessa believes that “London’s such a special place, in terms of the diversity of theatre. Pub theatres are very close to the people, very close to the audience; you can play into their eye. The pub is such a hub for the local community so to have a theatre just above that, it’s a really nice thing. You don’t get the culture of pub theatres in other countries, it’s something quite Britain specific. We want to create a venue which gives people equal opportunities to create theatre, not just those who come with money. We do box office splits, so there are no upfront costs for the companies.”
Bread and Roses seems to be beating to the rhythms of Clapham and its rapid development and I wonder how they would describe the vibe in this area? Tessa gave me “Exciting, vibrant, affluent, buzz, multi-cultural”.
Rebecca notes that the pub is really mixed race reflecting the racial diversity in the area: “Done a few pubs after shows and found them bland but there’s something different about this pub and the space we hold here. It’s one of the last hubs of community pubs. And then you’ve got the theatre crowd, different spaces where different people can be and it all works really well together.”
So what kind of people want to work with them in the theatre? Tessa laughs. “It’s quite diverse, but overall we get more interest from young people, a lot of recent graduates, for instance from East 15”. Tessa went to East 15 and that seems to have got the ball rolling. “One person from East 15 started and found out I was a graduate, then spread the word, then tutors came along, and then they are very good at networking, spearheading the news”.
And the audiences? “Both appealing to local and Londoners over all. People come here because they know the area. We’ve had projects specifically linked to the area. For instance, FOLLOW ME (by Ross Gurney-Randall & David Mounfield June 2016) is about the last woman in Britain to be hanged and events before her death linked to a pub in South London.
They’ve also got stories that are not specific to the location and it’s this mixture that keeps regular audiences coming.
Pryle manages the pub overall, programming the live music and comedy as well as the theatre. She also manages to fit in a career as an actress. (She was brilliant in her role in LOW LEVEL PANIC early in 2016). While we are talking Rebecca is taking business calls on her mobile and her adept management shows she is used to multi-tasking.
At this point in time the pub is about to reopen after several months of closure due to a redevelopment. So how is she coping?
“Not very well, it’s absolutely crazy, we’re opening in 8 days’ time. Otherwise not too bad when everything is in the swing of things, I work mainly during the day and two nights as well. Everyone is flexible here, great company to work with so you make it work. It helps when you’ve got great people working with you, good staff, strong team.”
They also have the advantage of having “lovely pub staff, nice people. Everyone who comes to the theatre praises the pub … actors, musicians, artists.”
The pair are clearly used to working as a team so it’s no surprise when Pryle adds Tessa as an afterthought “Great people around you, Tessa as well, of course.” Tessa laughs embarrassed by the compliment.
With such excellent teamwork their success is no surprise.
Tessa Hart and Rebecca Pryle were chatting with Heather Jeffery, editor of London Pub Theatres Magazine
Read our interview with Tessa Hart on activism in the theatre here
The Bread & Roses Theatre
68 Clapham Manor Street
London SW4 6DZ
020 8050 3025
What’s On click here
IN A NUTSHELL
Feel some artiness! After a refurbishment the venue looks really lovely. It’s a vibrant multi-cultural arts hub with a theatre, comedy club (featuring Edinburgh previews), screenings, live music stage, writer’s groups and other regular creative gatherings.
Bread & Roses is pleasantly situated in upmarket Clapham with easy transport links. It is just a few minute-walk from Clapham High Street, Clapham North and Clapham Common stations. Bus stops are also nearby on Chapham High Street.
Revivals of contemporary shows that have already had critical acclaim and mostly new writing, especially from visiting companies. They also occasionally show classics with a twist such as their all-female Tempest
FESTIVALS Bread and Roses Theatre host The Clapham Fringe Festival, OBR Festival and the UNHEARD Festival.
COMPETITIONS The Bread & Roses Playwriting Competition and The Bread & Roses Emerging Companies Competition (in collaboration with Hiive).
The theatre is great value for money, seats are currently not more than £14 and usually between £8 and £10. The pub also has really reasonable prices. Add the cost of theatre ticket, drinks and meal and it’s cheaper than the cost of a theatre ticket to a West End show or even lower. High in value, less risky!
Recently redeveloped, with walls knocked down to create more space it is THE ‘go to’ venue. The kitchen has reopened with new food menus. There is a new live music stage which can be seen from any angle. New bar. Beer garden. The overall effect is lovely! It’s big, colourful and has an authentic festival feel. The Company who runs the pub also run bars at Glastonbury and Latitude festivals.
DID YOU KNOW …
The Bread & Roses Theatre is winner of the 2015 & 2016 ICWP 50/50 Applause Award and is listed on TimeOut as one of their readers' six favourite small-scale theatres in London.
Bread and Roses Theatre opened The Clapham Fringe Festival in September 2015.
The Artistic Director Tessa Hart, also runs Goblin Baby Theatre company, an activist theatre. A fascinating interview with her on her approach to the One Billion Rising Festival and the UNHEARD Festival is on our blog read here.
The Bread & Roses is an award-winning free house owned by The Battersea and Wandsworth Trade Union Council (BWTUC) and run by the Workers Beer Company, part of BWTUC Trading, it prides itself as a pub with a social consciousness.
The Bread & Roses is named in recognition of the struggle of workers around the globe for a better quality of life. The name is taken from a song written during a strike of women textile workers in Lawrence Massachusetts, USA in 1912. 27,000 women went out onto the streets and marched for eleven weeks to improve their working conditions. Their banners called for bread and roses.
Through its Workers Beer Company fundraising arm BWTUC Trading has been running bars at major festivals throughout the UK and Ireland for over 27 years, these include Glastonbury, Reading, Leeds, Latitude, Proms in Hyde Park, Tolpuddle Festival and many more, including the Olympic Live Sites in 2012.
Outstanding performances from Hart and Pryle in
LOW LEVEL PANIC
Ricardo Correia - AUDIENCE (below)
Wanda Pryle - REBECCA PRYLE (top of page)
Alan Howard - TESSA HART (top of page
Kenneth Jay - PRODUCTION IMAGE OF
'LOW LEVEL PANIC' (above)