In our latest interview, Matt Barton interviews Georgia Leanne Harris, the artistic director of London’s newest theatre. They talk about opening a theatre in a pandemic, and Harris’s vision for the future.
Perhaps the last thing anyone might have expected – even in a year which has continuously defied expectations – was a new theatre company to open in London. Shows have been postponed, tours cancelled, jobs lost and theatres closed, but out of this despair comes an 80-seat fringe venue in a Camberwell pub.
“I’m glad that you said ‘positive’ and not ‘insane’, ‘brave’ not ‘stupid’,” says Georgia Leanne Harris, Artistic Director of The Golden Goose, when I tell her how refreshingly positive this news feels. Her indefatigable optimism is modulated throughout the interview by cautious reservation, never taking her rare fortune for granted. It was with this same fortuity that her friend and boss, Michael Kingsbury, stumbled upon the pub 18 months ago, realised its potential and persuaded the owners to let him convert it. Harris previously worked with Kingsbury at the White Bear Theatre, and at the time running a brand-new theatre seemed like a golden opportunity, “and then the world broke.”
“I was on the cusp of opening a theatre – this is not a stage that I was expecting to happen in my career right now,” she recalls. “Then we concluded this was too good an opportunity to waste. Bit by bit, we’ve clawed together a season. We’ve got a couple of R&Ds coming up and a Christmas show. We’re just trying to give this space we now have, which is functional, to the people who want and need it.”
Of all Harris’ guiding exigencies, it’s this commitment to local engagement which is imperative, as she believes a lot of London theatres haven’t quite managed it. “We’re in quite a vibrant area, and I’ve already had a lot of locals tell me how exciting it is. What’s also nice is I know many people don’t want to necessarily travel much, so we can say ‘we’re here for you’. We really want to do arts workshops – not just acting, but directors and designers, too, to ask people what’s currently missing in their community that we might be able to do.”
This determination is only galvanised by the defiance with which they opened the theatre against the challenges of Covid. It’s an energy which has informed the programming: “I got frustrated when the things we were looking for, and the offers we were receiving, were from the same people – it was like a microcosm of what the theatre industry does.” Instead of succumbing to this convenience, she sent “a slightly ranty Twitter callout” to demonstrate there’s more diverse interest available to an artistic director. “There are now about 300 people who I haven’t yet got through, but that’s amazing to me that we have the opportunity to facilitate artists at all stages of their careers. I think a lot of people want input on their work because we’ve all been sat inside our houses for so long, and that already feels collaborative.”
She appreciates there’s “a massive responsibility” in her ability to viably produce theatre after a period in which it’s been impossible for some to produce anything to keep afloat. For Harris, it’s therefore important to platform “all kinds of artists. I don’t know it’s my job to dictate to them what issues they cover; equally, it’s my job to ensure there’s representation there. We want to be a space where artists can do and say what they want; I want to let the art speak for itself.”
The result of this effort is an inaugural season as quirky and striking as the theatre’s name. The five shows which span October and November feature small casts exploring fundamental human experiences from loneliness to our relationship with food. “I’m personally drawn to comedy – I don’t think what everybody needs is five shows about sad people sat on their own in a room during lockdown. We lived it; we don’t need to see it again right now.”
The opening show is Mark Lockyer’s confessional monologue about recovering from mental illness, ‘Living with the Lights On’, and ran at the Young Vic in 2016. “We wanted our opening show to be hopeful. Having nothing and not being sure for six months has understandably led to a feeling of despondency for a lot of artists, so our opening show is absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic. It’s about somebody going to Hell and back, and ends with this feeling of hope which I think a lot of people can relate to. It’s soul food. I think comedic theatre which tells a story really opens your heart and can soothe. I think we all need a bit of hope and joy.”
It’s this warmth which Harris hopes will define Golden Goose’s reputation. “It’s such a wonderful place where epic stories can be told. We want to be a venue seen as approachable and welcoming, where you can come and take risks. I’d really like to achieve a return to what fringe theatre began as: a way into the industry. We’re drawn to new work because that’s what we enjoy, as that’s where we find a lot of new artists. Just to be a place where you can come and have a go, and hopefully we can then make something really exciting and accessible. We think we can facilitate excellent storytelling, and for me that’s what theatre should be.”
Perhaps there’s no better time for a story like this: for the industry to see a theatre open their doors for the first time, rather than close them for the last. With such an optimistic outlook and sincere devotion to their local community, they seem a golden goose in a vast flock of London theatre companies. We can only look forward to seeing what golden eggs they produce.
For more information and tickets to upcoming shows, visit the Golden Goose website.