David Gilmore, Artistic Director of St. James Theatre, knows better than most how a theatre works. From carpentry to lighting, acting to directing, he’s done the lot. He got into theatre for the best reason of all: “I fell in love”. During his A levels, Gilmore had plans to go to university to read psychology, but he “went to the kind of school that, despite studying sciences, encouraged us to get involved in the arts. I went to the local theatre in Cheltenham (the Everyman) and started shifting scenery and stuff, and I loved it. After doing this during my sixth form years, a job came up – in-service training. I asked the director of the theatre if I could have the job, and he said ‘Yes, if you can start on Monday.’ So I left school on the Friday and instead of going to university, I started at the theatre on the Monday.”
Far from being an easy route, though, Gilmore then worked through this in-house training (a form of apprenticeship), doing two shows in each department (carpentry, lighting, sound etc.) before ending up as a stage manager. “My first love was not just acting but getting stuff on the stage – I started my career in theatre sweeping a stage and ended up directing shows.” After the training job in Cheltenham, though, Gilmore had to choose between continuing as a stage manager or pursuing his desire to be an actor, and acting won. Having done that, successfully, he then went on to run his own companies and to direct work.
I ask him whether being in charge of the programme of the first new theatre complex in central London for 30 years is an exciting blank slate, or whether it holds a worrying weight of expectation: “It’s a mixture of all those things, of course. I’ve run my own companies before, so I am used to the weight of expectation and having to balance a programme, select a season, pull it together. The fact that it’s a new theatre, in London, adds to it – the size we are means that the other buildings in our field have to be places like the Menier [Chocolate Factory], the Almeida, the Donmar, Hampstead.” Gilmore is clear, however, that while it’s important to be aware of the theatre ecology, “the important thing is to carve out one’s own path. They are all established theatres, with clearly defined artistic programmes. I need to find a programme that steers a way through all of those but finds its own way.”
On top of that, of course, is that fact that St. James is new, and therefore has to work harder to attract its audience. Sure, people might go because it’s new – the novelty factor – but that’s only going to work once, and only if they know it is there. Gilmore is keen to ensure that St. James becomes known for its artistic programme: “I want to get to a point where anyone looking at our brochure would think, ‘oh, yeah that’s the St James’. We’re steering a path between all those other venues. I want people to look to us to see work that isn’t being done anywhere else. It might be new work, it might be revivals, it might have a musical ingredient, but it must be good writing. I don’t see us doing the umptienth revival of Chicago – I want to do rarer things, timely revivals…”
He describes it as being a bit like a regional theatre, with the same need to build a loyal audience base: “the relationship is based on trust, but they [the audience] might see something announced that they know nothing about but they book based on the relationship, on the idea that because it’s St. James, it’s bound to be good. That’s the point we want to get to.” He’s rather scathing about the ubiquity of celebrity casting, too. “Sometimes theatre gets pushed off course – you shouldn’t do a play just because it could have a star in it, it’s not about having a star in it. You’ve got to be true to your core things – telling a story in a brilliant way that’s brilliantly written. Then you don’t need all the paraphernalia of commercialism to get that message across.” So there you have it: brilliantly written stories, told brilliantly. Simple. Sounds good to me.
Sandy Toksvig’s Bully Boy is currently playing at the St. James Theatre until 27th October. For more information and to buy tickets or for more about the theatre itself, visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.
Image credit: Bully Boy by Mike Eddowes