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        OFF WEST END AWARDS 2019

         By Siân Rowland


‘Pub theatres are the lifeline and blood for the theatre industry. They’re messy, gritty and unrelenting beasts. It’s where we all begin. They make careers, and at times, they break them. Crucially though, pub theatres are a place of social gathering between the casual drinker and the theatregoer. They’re unique and unpredictable.’ 

Jake Orr, Theatre503

There may not have been a red carpet and film crews at the Off West End awards last week but the fizz was flowing and the dress code of ‘alternative sparkle’ meant the stars shone as brightly as the Oscars. Battersea Arts Centre hosted and the newly-renovated grand hall was certainly a perfect venue for the awards and a timely reminder of the passion and creativity that exists within the theatre community.


Guests were handed an Offies Year Book along with a glass of fizz. Our host and Offies director Geoffrey Brown explained that the book felt like a better celebration of all the hard work and contribution of smaller venues. Every off west end venue is listed in the glossy year book along with contact details and social media so that instead of a throwaway programme, the book can act as a reference source for the coming year. And it’s an impressive list. The venues range from the tiniest pub theatre to the Royal Court and Young Vic with everything in between.  


So, it’s impressive that once again pub theatres held their own when pitted in the same league as theatres with greater funding and larger audiences.


Armed with gold star stickers to place against the winners in our books (one of the most amusing sights of the night was when a winner was announced and all heads bent to their books and stickers were placed carefully next to the correct name) the awards got under way and one of the first winners announced was artistic director of The Hope, Matthew Parker who won best social media in the Offies People’s Vote. Small venues don’t have the budgets for social media experts and campaigns so it’s all the more impressive when an artistic director like Matthew invests his own time into creating a warm, appealing social media presence. Matthew explained why he feels it’s so important to take time to engage with audiences:


‘Social media is our way of communicating not only what work we have going on but also our venue’s feel and personality. I make a point of responding to everyone who tweets a nice thing about a show they've seen at The Hope. I hope (ahem) in this way that people feel part of what we do at the little theatre with big ideas.’


Perhaps it’s because smaller pub theatres don’t have the big marketing budgets that investing some time on Twitter and other platforms can help engage with audiences, create a buzz around shows and sell tickets.


The social media award wasn’t the only win for The Hope. Out of the Forest Theatre won the best ensemble award for Bury the Hatchet, a show that our own Annie Power described as an, ‘… imaginatively crafted, quirkily funny show…an unorthodox delight.’ It’s always exciting when a small venue takes a chance on production that includes direct address, music and dramatized scenes.


So, what was it about this piece that made is such a hit? ‘It’s simple, explains Matthew, ‘great story, great writing, great acting and the most unbelievably skilled musicianship I’ve seen at The Hope or possibly anywhere on the off West End. Plus, they were a truly lovely bunch of people to host. They never once brought a problem to my door, only solutions and joy. I was and am so happy that they won this award as they really deserve congratulations and for their work to be seen by a wider audience. Sasha Wilson (who wrote and starred in Bury the Hatchet) is one to watch!’


Another London Pub Theatres favourite, Theatre503 was thrilled to win best new play with Br’er Cotton by American playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. There was a lot of excitement about this play and the way it deals with the challenges faced by an African American family living on the site of a former cotton mill in Virginia. Writing in The Guardian Bridget Minamore described Br’er Cotton as, ‘bold, brave and very, very funny.’


Theatre503 producer Jake Orr is rightly proud of the theatre’s approach to new writing. ‘Theatre503 exists to support and champion new writers and new writing. Everything we do is driven towards this goal. Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm came to Theatre503 through our Playwriting Award. It’s the largest offer we do for playwrights with any play written in English; the winner gets a full production at Theatre503, a cash prize, and mentoring from the Theatre503 literary team to develop their work. There is no other venue in London that is offering more first-time writers full length productions. Since the last Theatre503 Playwriting Award in 2016, all five of the finalists have had their plays staged in London, with three of those at Theatre503. That’s quite an achievement, and we’re proud and continually challenging ourselves to do more and offer a larger platform for the writers we work


Designers are often overlooked so it was exciting to see lighting designer Zoe Spurr winning the Offie for Tiny Dynamite at the Old Red Lion. Up against larger venues the Other Palace and the Print Room, Zoe was particularly pleased that a smaller venue won the award. ‘A well-rounded production, i.e. all creative and backstage jobs filled by talented people, enhances the production enormously,’ she explains. ‘Lighting and sound work hand in hand. A set design cannot be fully completed and appreciated without a lighting design. As members of the creative team, we collaborate with the director on the production, and as the journey continues to press night, we all have input into each-other’s creative roles on the show. Alongside actors, we too create atmosphere and emotion, and without us all working together a production cannot be fully realised.’

Zoe also applauds the Offies for recognising this often-overlooked talent behind the scenes. ‘It's imperative that creative members of the company are acknowledged alongside actors and directors, as individuals of a production who enhanced it by being involved. Both in and out of the theatre industry, a better understanding is needed of what our roles are, and the part we play in creating a piece of theatre. By awarding the individuals responsible for the creative elements, it not only showcases our profession to a larger audience, but also extends respect to the entire creative team, as no-one could create something worthy of an award without the full team behind them.’ This emphasis on a teamwork approach to creating a high-quality production is one that was echoed by presenters, speakers and winners alike on the night.


With special awards for the outgoing artistic director of The Bush, Madani Younis, Producer Sally Wood and a special achievement award for the BAC AD and chief executive David Jubb (who was truly surprised!) in addition to all the winners this was a really exciting night for Off West end venues but perhaps final speaker Jenny Sealey MBE of Graeae summed it up best. She noted the diversity and inclusivity of the Off West end scene and the wide range of ambition. Larger venues and the West End in particular, she observed, should take note. In an impassioned speech she also encouraged all theatre folk to just be kind to each other in these turbulent times.


We don’t create theatre just for awards but it’s nice when hard work and dedication is recognised and if anyone is in doubt as to why pub theatres continue to grow in popularity, Jake Orr has this to say: ‘Pub theatres are the lifeline and blood for the theatre industry. They’re messy, gritty and unrelenting beasts. It’s where we all begin. They make careers, and at times, they break them. Crucially though, pub theatres are a place of social gathering between the casual drinker and the theatregoer. They’re unique and unpredictable.’


We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.






@February 2019 Siân Rowland

London Pub Theatres Magazine Limited

All Rights Reserved

Images: Award winners from left to right -

Matthew Parker at The Hope Theatre (People's Choice Social Media Award),  Tiny Dynamite at the Old Red Lion (awarded to Zoe Spurr for best lighting design), Br'er Cotton at Theatre503 (awarded to Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm for best new play) and Bury the Hatchet at The Hope Theatre (awarded to Out of the Forest Theatre for  best ensemble