In 2003 Gods & Monsters Theatre (or Steam Industry Free Theatre as we were back then) started creating the free theatre season at The Scoop slightly by accident. The land between London Bridge and Tower Bridge was in the midst of huge re-development and was essentially a building site with City Hall in the middle, at the foot of which was this beautiful 1000-seat amphitheatre. Phil Willmott, with whom I had made several shows by this point, called to say he’d spotted this amazing space and we had to do something there.
We met with the property developers, More London, who were delighted at the prospect of a show in their space but the deal was that it had to be completely free to the public. The Scoop had been built in order to give something back to the local community and that was the only condition.
That first year we programmed purely according to what we thought would suit the space. We staged 16 performances of Sophocles’ Oedipus on about £2.50 and a lot of good will. On opening night we had no idea if anyone would show up. No one had ever used the space before, there was no signage, no box office you could call for information, no obvious front of house and for a little while I worried that we might simply play to an audience of myself and Henry, the homeless gentleman who had watched almost every run-through.
In the end over the three weeks we played to 5,500 people and they were the most diverse audience that I had ever seen in a theatre environment. Situated in the heart of Southwark, one of the capital’s most culturally, socially and financially diverse boroughs where pockets of real deprivation bump up against areas of huge corporate investment, we were naturally drawing people from across that demographic but particularly an audience many of whom would never normally set foot inside a more traditional theatre.
It’s not just about the lack of ticket price, although clearly that is a substantial factor. These days a family outing to the theatre costs about £250 in the West End by the time you’ve factored in transport and an interval ice cream. It’s also to do with the space itself – an amphitheatre sunken into the ground with no box office or front of house to negotiate. You can easily hover around the top of the space, watch for a few minutes and then decide if you want to join us. Likewise, audience members can leave whenever they like, unchallenged and without disturbing anyone. The easy access of the space encourages people to try us out and see if they like it. This free accessibility has been at the heart of our work in the Scoop and to make shows for that audience, ten percent of whom have never been to a theatre before, is a real privilege.
We quickly took the decision not to dumb down our repertoire on account of playing to a very broad audience. The core of our programming has always been those big, classical myths and legends that have endured for centuries. At the end of the day these are great stories and we strive to tell them as well as we possibly can do.
Last summer we played to 43,871 people over 4 weeks. 54% were under 35 and 29% did not identify themselves as white. 4,387 had never seen a play before.
We are blessed in our location at the heart of London and in an area – now – of massive footfall. But we have worked hard to remove the barriers that prevent people accessing the theatre in more traditional environments – both real and perceived barriers – and made it as easy as possible for people to say yes to us and to give it a go. One of my favourite things about this project remains spotting a group of local kids come into the space with a load of attitude and then watching as the spell cast by an ancient tale well told weaves its magic, and an hour later they’ve accidentally watched Agamemnon.
Each summer we also run an education project with Southwark schools, working with them in the space to create their own version of a myth. Over the years we have also taken our family shows into local children’s hospitals and day centres for the elderly – bringing our shows to those who cannot come to us – and striving to keep the theatre season rooted in the local community. We work with the brilliant people at Stagetext to provide captioned performances to ensure that they are accessible to deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people. I would like to find a way to facilitate described performances and touch tours going forward and identify which elements of the local community we are currently not reaching.
For me, accessibility and inclusivity is about making your work as easy as possible for people to say yes to. There’s always someone who thinks they have to say no, that the theatre is not for them, go find them and show them otherwise.
To find out more about The Scoop’s free theatre, click here.