Nurturing a new generation: Sam Walters and The Orange Tree Theatre

The Orange Tree Theatre in  Richmond is arguably one of the most supportive organisations for young people in the industry. Artistic Director and founder Sam Walters knows all too well how difficult the world of theatre can be, as he struggled for years to establish his theatre. Perhaps this is the reason The Orange Tree offers outreach programmes to school children as well as providing chances for budding young professionals to express themselves with its trainee director schemes and encouragement of new writing. This kind of support is just one of the many attributes that make The Orange Tree a branch of opportunity from which people can blossom.

The Orange Tree is currently preparing to celebrate its fortieth anniversary. At lunchtime on New Years Eve 1971, the visionary Walters and what was then the Richmond Fringe Theatre Group performed their first piece in the upstairs function room of The Orange Tree pub. What Walters describes as “two night’s worth of pub crawls” led to his discovery of the Orange Tree public house, and thus began a 20-year working relationship until the company relocated in 1991 to what is now The Orange Tree Theatre, just a stone’s throw away from its original beer-stained holdings. Since its formation on that December afternoon, The Orange Tree Theatre has rooted itself in its surrounding community as well as in the theatrical world through its ethos of shared experience and its aim to bring everyone – from primary school children to senior citizens and from the less advantaged to the better off – together in one space.

One of The Orange Tree’s defining features is its status as London’s only full-time professional theatre in the round. Scenographically, this means the audience is entirely encapsulated by action. For instance, in Walters’ most recent production, The Conspirators, a rather intense whipping scene might leave some fearful for the tip of their nose. According to Walters and The Orange Tree’s Literary, Education and Community Director Henry Bell, immediacy is key in making theatre a relevant experience. Walters describes this era somewhat sadly as an online generation. Bell explains that “if theatre is going to survive, you have to exploit what is unique and different”. Bell’s comment is all the more illuminating in light of the audience’s position in relation to the performance space at The Orange Tree: they can see other members of the audience as well as the action onstage. There are moments when, despite being immersed in the drama, audience members will watch each other and feed off each other’s reactions, undoutedly heightening the impact of the action on stage. Staging alone then can allow the audience to “share something with one another” as Bell suggests, creating that immediacy that Walters, and perhaps many others, believe cannot be replicated in the modern alternatives of film or online entertainment.

In stereotypical terms, The Orange Tree tends to draw in the older generations. Considering the fact that the company has been going strong for 40 years, it is hardly surprising that it has accumulated an established fan base. This does not seem to be a reflection of the work produced in the theatre itself, with many young actors featuring in current production The Conspirators and future shows promoting emerging writers. Yet Walters notes that “it’s quite difficult getting younger people into the theatre”, and recognises that “there are an awful lot of things going on for them and theatre is quite low down” on the list of priorities. He remains positive, however, and refuses to generalise about the younger generation: The Orange Tree is doing its best to attract a younger crowd with concessionary tickets for under 25s and Pay What You Can seats available on Tuesday evenings. Coupled with a standard glass of house white coming in at just £2.70, The Orange Tree might just be the perfect place for younger adults to see quality theatre at a fraction of the cost of West End seats.

The Orange Tree’s tailormade educational outreach programmes provide hands-on opportunities ranging from Primary Shakespeare Projects to more advanced workshops for teens. Walters believes that “it is important to get kids into theatre when they are young”. Given that these school programmes have run for 21 years, The Orange Tree has achieved this mission: many of the children that once attended workshops now return to the theatre as adults. Bell, who is at the forefront of delivering school projects, suggests that these programmes are vehicles for getting “the most expensive and exclusive schools alongside the most deprived together in one room” so they forget any social barriers and perform together with a uniting enthusiasm for theatre.

Looking beyond the grassroots level, The Orange Tree also supports young people with an existing interest in the industry. The theatre offers weeklong work experience placements for Year 10 students, allowing them to explore the working environment of a professional production house. Every year sees two new trainee directors join the creative team, developing their work within a supportive framework that culminates in a Director’s Showcase. In addition, the theatre accepts script submissions from emerging writers, a process that can realistically result in young writers receiving a professional production of their work. These opportunities provide a platform for young people to learn and develop ways to express themselves creatively, and hopefully launch their careers.

In the run up to its fortieth anniversary at the end of this year, The Orange Tree began its new season with the UK premiere of Válclav Havel’s banned play, The Conspirators, also celebrating its fortieth anniversary. The production marks Walters’ twelfth interpretation of a Havel piece; the pair developed a bond that dates from The Orange Tree’s support and performance of Havel’s banned work during the turmoil of the 1970s dissident movement in what was then Czechoslovakia. Walters’ current production has much to offer to a wide demographic, highlighting similarities between Havel’s original work and the current situation in the Middle East. Walters felt a Havel play would be the “absolutely the perfect way” to start the anniversary; certainly, the long lasting, supportive dynamic between Walters and Havel reflects the core ethos of the theatre.

Whilst the theatre is firmly rooted in its community and continues to provide entertainment and education to many – people that Walters jokes he sees on buses and in the supermarket – the organisation also interacts proudly with the wider theatrical world. With distinctive features such as its permanent, socially inclusive ‘in the round’ performance space; its encouraging and inclusive work with children and young people; its wallet-friendly tickets (and beverages); and its support of aspiring artists, The Orange Tree creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere for audiences and creatives alike. The Orange Tree is responsible for providing its audiences and all those associated with the organisation with more than just theatre to be enjoyed. Walters describes the most rewarding aspect of drama as the moment of recognition that “it is jolly nice when something comes along and makes you realise how important theatre truly is”.

The Conspirators plays at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until Saturday 1st October. How To Be Happy by David Lewis opens on Wednesday 5th October and plays until Saturday 5th November.

For more information on the theatre, buying tickets, and The Orange Tree’s Trainee Director Scheme and script submission policy, visit the website here.