Later this year, Samuel L. Jackson will make his Broadway debut in The Mountaintop. First seen in the UK, Katori Hall’s play began life in a little theatre above a pub a Battersea, where it received rave reviews, an Oliver Award and a West End transfer. This week, I spoke to the men in charge of that little theatre, Tim Roseman and Paul Robinson – joint Artistic Directors of Theatre 503.
Initially working separately and freelance, Tim and Paul began their careers by directing a range of different material at a number of different theatres, but always sharing a passion for developing new work. Tim continues the story: “When 503 was advertised it seemed the perfect opportunity for wider thinking about new playwrights and how to produce a whole new body of theatrical invention.” They ended up applying for the job together, and have successfully run the theatre as a duo for over 4 years. I asked them about the differences between running a building and working freelance. Paul: “There are pros and cons to both. As a freelance you tend to be able to just focus on the art. When you’re running a building you have to have responded to 20 emails and fixed a leak by the time you enter the rehearsal room. But it’s also wonderful to be at the artistic helm of a building, to lead and (hopefully) inspire a whole team.”
“Theatre 503 is the launchpad for a generation of new artists”
Tim and Paul have been inspiring that team since 2006, developing its reputation and attracting top writing talent up their staircase. Having won a Peter Brook Empty Space Award and been described as ‘arguably the most important theatre in Britain today’ by The Guardian, the venue has grown to become a powerhouse of new writing: the place to see the next big thing on a small stage. I asked the directors what their vision was for the theatre’s development, and their response was characteristically focused and ambitious: “It’s our aim to be the most important theatre in the country for playwrights at the very start of their career. 503 is the launchpad for a generation of new artists – we believe in putting work in front of an audience as the only real way to learn your craft.”
The focus of the theatre seems to be on development – on nurturing talent and providing an invaluable opportunity for the next few generations. The team at 503 read around 1000 scripts a year – they have taken it upon themselves to discover young writers, and provide a platform for their work. I asked them what they looked for in their writers: “We look for a voice that we haven’t heard before, someone who has a unique way of thinking about and reflecting the world.” This desire for originality is reflected in the huge variation of work that the theatre produces, but not at the expense of quality: “A good writer doesn’t just have a voice, they also have craft. It’s no accident that the verb ‘to write’ isn’t in the word ‘playwright’. Like a shipwright or a wheelwright, a play is something you bend into shape.” I asked them what the best way was for a writer to develop their craft: “Write every day. Don’t rush it and crucially don’t send your play to a theatre before you’re happy with it. Self-produced work is fine but getting a director or even several directors interested in your work is a good route to production. Know your industry and be that wonderful balance between acutely modest and a shameless self-promoter!”
As well as commissioning and discovering new playwrights, the theatre seeks to provide opportunities for young directors, offering a six month resident assistant director scheme, and various positions on their productions. I asked what their opinion was on learning to direct: “Director training is a new concept in the UK, and thankfully it’s taking off. Until now, it was considered that directing couldn’t be taught, that you simply had to have a brilliant mind, and, ideally, have gone to Cambridge.” But their advice for young directors is much more practical: “The best way to learn how to direct is to spend as much time working with actors, writers and designers. Learn it by watching it and then doing it. Read as many plays as you can. Go to the theatre all the time, Know who actors are. Never think you know how to direct… It’s about doing it but having a framework around you – mentors, more senior directors, etc. whereby you can get feedback and get better. Just repeating the same mistakes in public isn’t good for anyone.”
It seems that Theatre 503 is set to repeat the same successes in public under the direction of Tim and Paul. The little theatre in Battersea is a hotbed of creativity and an innovative, exciting environment. Big ideas on a small stage, and a potentially massive platform for the next big thing.