At a time when the country is recovering from economic crisis, and the arts industry has suffered from substantial cuts, it’s no wonder that many youngsters have found themselves in an education v.s paid work v.s. desired career predicament. Very few of us are fortunate enough to be in a situation where all of these things are satisfied.
However, when I heard about Paul Lichtenstern, philosophy student and Artistic Director of newly-founded theatre company End of Moving Walkway, and all he’s achieved thus far (at the tender age of 20…), I was excited to find out more.
“I studied theatre during sixth form,” says Lichtenstern, his passion and love for the arts evident in his voice through the phone. “Before going to university in 2012, I took a gap year and started volunteering at the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). The position I took on involved a lot of responsibility and organisation. However, it helped me to make the decision to spend the rest of my gap year in London, getting involved in as much as I could. The rest of the year was spent working mainly at the Old Vic, in the funding department. Whilst there I also got a couple of opportunities to direct and produce.”
Lichtenstein founded End of Moving Walkway with four others: Tahmid Chowdhury (Producer), Catherine Mackworth (Assistant Producer), George Linfield (Head of Marketing) and Lottie Patterson (Head of Development), all of whom are 21 or under and study at the same university. “I managed to form a close friendship group with four extremely competent people who are also passionate about drama. Although the initial idea to start the company was mine, within a few weeks we were operating as a proper team. They’re all amazing!”
The company’s first show, Oh The Humanity, written by American playwright Will Eno, premieres at the Tabard Theatre in September for a three week run. “This show we’re doing is one I actually directed in college with a bunch of student actors and it got a really positive response, so we thought ‘why not see what would happen if we form our own theatre company with professional actors and do this on a much higher level?’.” And how did they cope? “It started off a a low key project, but over the last couple of months, everything has fallen into place. People have jumped on board to support us and the venture, meaning things have accelerated very quickly – and in a very exciting manner. The fact that we’re young is something we thought about when we first started out, but we’re taking steps to make sure the company still has a level of respectability – as there’s an association with student drama and we’re definitely not a student company. We’re trying to move away from that.” The founders have even gone so far as to have an advisory board – who they meet with a few times a year to help where necessary and check their progress. “The fact we’re young makes it all the more exciting,” Lichtenstern reckons.
Lichtenstern has had his fair share of working on the fringe, in either assistant producing or directing roles. “I’ve seen things go right a lot of the time, but I have also seen things go wrong. As a result of it all, I developed an idea of how I would do things for myself. There was a difference between what went on at the fringe companies I worked for compared to the old Vic. There are loads of great fringe companies but there’s almost an expectation that fringe companies don’t have to be as ‘professional’. And personally, with End of Moving Walkway, I thought that just because we have a small scale budget in a small venue, it shouldn’t be any less professional either in the production sense or artistically. So the starting point of this company was whatever we do, it has to match the standards of wherever else you go to look. This is achieved in our website design, set design and how we do our programmes and also in the context of the production of the shows, artistically and how we manage our actors.”
Their ethics and values stand out, too, says Lichtenstern: “We had over 1,000 actors audition for the show and that’s from the very high calibre of professional actors. Which surprised me… but when you have all these actors who have professional credits in the West End coming to us and saying ‘yeah, you’re right – the fringe can be more than what it is at the moment’ – it was motivation to keep on doing things the way we wanted.”
As a result, it’s no wonder fundraising plays a huge part in this theatre company’s mantra. “Producing big shows isn’t cheap and the biggest thing needed in order for us to do fringe ‘professionally’ was to be able to pay our actors – to us, it’s just as important as building a decent set. As a result, we needed to ensure we have enough money in our budget to achieve all of that, because with other fringe companies people work for close to nothing.”
The company needed a total of £5,000 to successfully host its upcoming production for the end of last month. As of the end of May, it had exceeded this by more than £500 – and had more than 72 “backers” for the project. “It was a staggering amount of money at the start,” Lichtenstern explains. With predicted ticket sales, their non-stop marketing (“shouting loud, far and wide about it”) and the fact they relied more upon small donations from numerous people rather than grand gestures from the very rich helped make it possible. “It’s a really nice way to start a company by asking people to come aboard and support us on our journey – because it creates a sense of joining in and from there a fan base is created.”
How can theatre companies compete when it comes to funding? “Have a clear message and an easy to relate to pitch. We have had funding from other means and there are start-up schemes and philanthropists out there who support emerging companies, but it’s usually the bigger shows that easily obtain huge amounts of funding. When cuts are made in the industry it’s the smaller companies that get forgotten about. When really it’s them who need more funding. The big shows don’t need it!”
With the End of Moving Walkway gang planning further shows for the next few years, “I’d like to say we’d be doing really well in the short term future”, Lichtenstern optimistically concludes. I am sure we’ll be hearing about their endeavours in the future – and am (nearly) as excited as they seem to be about what’s to come.
For more information about End of Moving Walkway’s upcoming show, visit its website.