Interview with the Artistic Director, Michael Kingsbury
Kingsbury is tall, and has presence. There is something very impressive about him and as our discussion continues it becomes clear that he is what theatre is all about.
The theatre was co-founded with his father in 1988, when Kingsbury was still working as an actor. “During the first few years my father was around. Sometimes we had outside projects, to re-invigorate. As a director, we had tours - West Yorkshire playhouse, Salisbury playhouse, main shows at Arcola, the Park, Southwark. We set up one of the longest established theatres … Kings Head and Old Red Lion are older”.
At the time the theatre was on the ground floor and the rooms upstairs were left empty. Young’s decision to redevelop the pub gives them a huge restaurant area downstairs and a brand-new purpose built theatre upstairs. “The Brewery respects the history of the theatre – a cultural asset, a tradition they wanted to continue. We have a presence in the community, a following – brings a lot of people in to drink, pre-show and post show food.” Kingsbury smiles with some relish as he continues to explain that “we have something extra in pub food, with pubs closing down all over England these extras make the difference.” And the theatre? After much discussion about the best available use of space with the brewery and an independent architect they now have 55 seats with plenty of leg room. It is sound proofed, air conditioned, has state of the art lighting and sound systems, a dedicated foyer and … well … you’ll have to come and see for yourself.
Kingsbury has seen a lot of changes. “Pubs were different, rough and ready working class pubs, not many woman … sporty element only started 10 years ago. Now they’re slick … gastro now. In area terms, of where people live, driven further afield, driven out. London’s ludicrously expensive.” You can still see some of the history of the pub in Charter posters about the first meetings of working people mid- 1840 asking for and demanding a vote for shorter working days.
Now, with this new lease of life, it is an opportunity for Kingsbury to re-think and re-brand. “it’s intoxicating to do that, to look at things with new eyes. We have a strong programme; keeping the programme as hot as we can. What is retained is creating a space where risks can be taken. People can develop as writers, actors, technicians, designers. A blank canvas that can grow in atmosphere that’s helpful and conducive to unlocking theatre.” Kingsbury and his team can advise on all aspects of production: Overlooking PR, rehearsals, suggesting key people, trying to assist and develop.
Kingsbury is most interested in the centrality of the writer; in nurturing a group of writers, and keeping links with them. He is also mindful of the practicalities. “We want to collaborate with key people who help us apply for funding, it’s a partnership, with good new work, we’re producing the next generation of theatre makers”.
Kingsbury is particularly looking towards working with people who have experience in the industry. “Most that approach us are new up and coming companies. There’s too much emphasis on young people. We’re interested in people in their 50s, 60s, 70s people finding creativity later in life - writers becoming actors, actors becoming directors. It happens organically because they’re already in the business. We’re up for lost classics, occasionally. Got some Orson Well’s play, Bright Lucifer written when he was 19 and Brice Stafford who’s directing …” Kingsbury has a habit of half formed sentences as though he’s been in the business so long, things can be taken as read.
Kingsbury puts much emphasis on character driven plays which have got to entertain. He presents an image of a vital and ever morphing theatre as discussions and talks happen off stage and post show with a body of people who work closely together. He rarely takes immersive or verbatim. Sometimes he has had devised work for a week’s development but what he’s really looking for are plays which show character development.
“All the richness of human experience is worthy of production. Obviously, looking for accomplishment, a shape to a play, big … good parts for actors”. He explains that even ‘short’ parts can be substantial. “Found an exciting author in Los Angeles working on a television project. We speak every other day on the phone. He’s character driven and detailed, won Alfred Fagon Award, commissions with Royal Court, quality work. It’s good to be working with him.”
As well as forging a relationship with a group of writers who are writing for the venue he has two new associate directors. They plan to have themed seasons. Whilst this might be contemporary themes it might include their Lost Classics Project. “It’s important because its plays not written by Shakespeare that haven’t seen light for 300 or 400 years. Could go RSC, globe, or go crazy and put them on here. ‘Appius and Virginia’ by Webster and ‘The Second Maidens’ Tragedy by Middleton. Many things still fresh and contemporary, the philosophy and the outlook now. They are part of our heritage and culture and its exhilarating when they work – good ideas on the table.”
Kingsbury is very quietly spoken but there’s a power behind it. He trained as an actor at Central School of Speech and Drama, went into regional theatre and television with extensive credits.
“ … started to produce work in Austria, formed a company with the rather grand name of ‘London City Theatre”. He laughs at his audacious younger self. “Got funding from British Council and American Express for about 8 years. Concentrated on quality post war British drama, Howard Brenton, Jack Shepherd, Denis Potter and then started to produce, early directorial things, set up White Bear, still acting, acting in shows here”. He acted in ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ last year.
Finally, what are the issues closest to Kingsbury’s heart?
“I’m Interested in politics, increasingly the unequal wage turf going down, security diminishing, human stories, people wanting to connect with other human beings, resonances and political momentum but has got to be embedded in character. Even plays which aren’t political, in some way generally are. Contradictory full of holes, very few plays aren’t in some way political. There’s a Joy in making work and doing it well.”
With an absence of nearly a year, White Bear Theatre is back with a brand-new programme and seats to fill. That must be a terrifying prospect, but there’s something that Kingsbury keeps saying, like a mantra, he believes you’ve ‘got to live dangerously’.
“You’ve got to take risks otherwise there’s no point in doing it. That’s the purpose of studio theatres to be dangerous and take risks and to grow from that.”
Michael Kingsbury was chatting with Heather Jeffery, Editor of London Pub Theatres
The White Bear Theatre
138 Kennington Park Road
IN A NUTSHELL
White Bear Theatre has a long-standing tradition of producing excellent theatre. Numerous plays have won off West End awards. Plays have transferred to West End theatres, toured nationally and internationally.
Recently redeveloped the brand-new Theatre, boasts a technical upgrade, is fully air-conditioned, has an exclusive foyer for theatre-goers and raked seats with plenty of leg room.
A stone’s throw from Kennington tube station, which is just one stop from Waterloo on the Northern line. On top of this, there are parking spaces available outside the venue.
Tube: 2 minutes’ walk from Kennington Underground (Northern Line). Kennington is just 4 stops from Leicester Square and one stop from Waterloo. Turn left out of the station along the main road and the White Bear is 220 yards on the right.
Parking: Spaces available outside the venue
Bus: 3, 59, 133, 155, 159, 414 buses stop nearby.
National Rail: Elephant and Castle Train Station, then bus.
Focusing on new writing and lost classics, main shows run Tuesday to Saturday. It showcases talent, extends possibilities and offers a space where risks can be taken.
Sunday/Monday night slots are dedicated to theatre makers at an early stage in their careers and to more established playwrights’ work which is in development.
This beautifully redeveloped pub with its stunning bar as a focal point, now serves pre and post-show food. It can be enjoyed outside in the newly re-opened garden or enjoyed sitting next to a roaring fire. The White Bear has been on this site since c.1780. Today it has cosy armchairs, restaurant and bar areas serving craft beer, ales, lagers and British fare made with seasonal, fresh and locally sourced produce.
THE LOST CLASSIC PROGRAMME includes workshops and talks, as well as archive and documentation of each production, connecting with actors, audience and academics.
The White Bear Theatre has a literary department that accepts unsolicited scripts. They provide free feedback for all plays and there is always the possibility of being invited to a meeting to discuss further development of the play.
DID YOU KNOW …
The White Bear was founded by Michael Kingsbury in 1988
People who have cut their teeth at The White Bear include: Joe Penhall, Emily Watson, Tamzin Outhwaite, Kwame Kwei Armah, Vicky Featherstone, Torben Betts, and Lucinda Coxon.
The White Bear has also developed and hosted work by a new generation of theatre makers including Verity Bargate winner Vicky Jones, Blanche McIntyre, The Ugly Sisters, and Simon Evans.
Former White Bear Associates include Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Box of Tricks Theatre.
The White Bear has received numerous awards including Off West End Awards in 2011 and 2012, and the Mark Marvin/Peter Brook Award for 2012/13. Other awards include Time Out Best Fringe Venue, Peter Brook Empty Space Award for Best Up and Coming Venue, Carling London Fringe Awards for Best Actor and Best Production, and the Fringe Report Award for Outstanding Achievement.
Plays that have transferred include The Confessions of Gordon Brown and Madness in Valencia, Revisited which played in the West End for 18 months, completed 3 first-class tours and was chosen for the Royal Variety Performance. The London première of John Osborne’s second play Personal Enemy transferred to the prestigious Brits Off-Broadway Festival in New York.
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