Unperturbed by connectivity issues that have plagued many of us during lockdown, Lindsey Huebner chats to the Park Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jez Bond. They talk digital theatre (not keen) nostalgia (a bit sad) and much more.
The unbroken sunshine-streak blazes on as I prepare to chat with Jez Bond, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Park Theatre. Plagued by connectivity issues that appear to be the hallmark of my lockdown experience, I take to the park, apropos of the theatre we will inevitably spend much time discussing. Environed by screaming youths, joggers galore and those meeting for distanced and not-so distanced chats in the park, Bond and I connect over the phone.
You might, like me, be intrigued to learn that the Park Theatre has only existed for seven years. Indeed, with such star-studded support and fiercely loyal audiences, it has more than merited its reputation as a fixture on London’s vibrant theatre scene with a sense of permanence that seems to extend beyond its years. Bond describes his job as so much more than what goes on in the rehearsal rooms, but also, “overseeing every piece of artistic output in the building,” not to mention the financial and managerial responsibilities intrinsic in the role of Chief Executive.
In the creation of the Park Theatre, Bond and Associate Artistic Director Melli Marie were actively searching for an area that could benefit from an arts institution but did not currently have one. Bond says the Finsbury Park area was earmarked, “not only because of the fantastic location, but the local population are some of the biggest spenders in the West End.” Bond says the council were “keen but cash-poor,” and although they could not provide funding directly, they extended building permissions so that the Park could create and sell flats above the space to help subsidise costs. Bond continues the story:
“Cut to my father, Jeremy Bond, who just passed away two weeks ago: he had a very strict Victorian mother and an upbringing that meant he was not encouraged to go into theatre but instead to go into business. He maintained this passion for theatre his whole life. When his mother died, he obtained royalties from educational books she had written which he generously bequeathed to the Park fund to get the theatre going.”
We reflect on the glorious legacy that this lifelong theatre-lover was able to leave behind, not only by supporting his son, but by laying the financial bedrock of one of London’s best-loved theatres.
While other theatres and arts institutions may have shifted focus toward putting productions online in some capacity, Bond and the team at the Park have had a different approach. Bond explains, “we haven’t engaged in any kind of new artistic output because the majority of our staff are furloughed and the people who aren’t are focusing primarily on keeping the company afloat and planning for the next era.” A welcome departure from the mad dash to create in the brave new medium that is Zoom and its technological cousins… a prospect that does not excite Bond:
“I’ve had so many conversations over the last little while about what we could be outputting, and I’m thinking, ‘actually, that’s not what theatre is.’ Obviously, we can use all these forms of wacky technology, and yeah, they’ll be zeitgeisty and fun and sort of schtick and yeah, we could film productions for people to view in their houses, but actually that’s getting close to television. What theatre is, is all of us being in the same room, breathing the same air as the actors and enjoying that immediacy that is now gone.”
It is, perhaps, a controversial opinion, especially considering the ubiquity of online theatre in the current climate. Bond is unperturbed, saying, “I always speak my mind. Other people might feel that they have to say the ‘right thing,’ but I just think we need to be honest about this. There’s no point in me lying and saying, ‘yeah, I’m really excited! I’ve got a load of zoom readings coming up.’” Bond’s passion is palpable as he says:
“I will work my guts off for theatre. I am convinced that what we love about it is the live experience. Let’s not lie about that. Sure, let’s try and come up with some other ways in which we can support our community, in which we can stay active, but let’s not pretend that this is what it is, that this is all that it can be and that it’s as good as it was before. Let’s be realistic about that.”
One aspect of the Park’s programming that has survived lockdown is their creative learning programs which benefit a vast array of individuals from professionals to young people to those with dementia. Of those participating in these programs, Bond says, “a lot of these people are the most isolated and the most vulnerable so we need to find a way to ensure that we can still provide for them.” This to me sounds like a theatre with its priorities in the right place.
As the conversation winds down, we depart the heaviness of theatre in the world of COVID-19 in favour of some good old-fashioned theatrical nostalgia. I ask Bond about what he might consider to be career highlights for himself and the Park. Again, the undeniable passion for the work he does radiates through the phone, evident even with my patchy connection. The first production that Bond cites is Whodunnit [Unrehearsed], which he says, “epitomises the level of support we have from some of the high-profile members of the industry.” He describes the production as, “a whodunnit spoof that me and my writing partner (Mark Cameron) wrote as a fundraiser. The real fun element of it, besides the fact that it was an absolute bonkers spoof-comedy, was the fact that the inspector was a different actor every night who had never read the script.” This high-profile actor would be fed lines through an earpiece and boasted such illustrious names as Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Damian Lewis, Ronan Keating, John Bishop, and Joanna Lumley – to name just a few. Another production that Bond considers to be a highlight is Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall, a two-hander about Trump’s immigration policy that today has proven strangely prophetic.
Perhaps there is a hidden benefit to the reflection that lockdown has bred… not only are we able to let go of methods and ways of working that no longer serve us, but this time may also elucidate those things worth coming back to. At the helm of a space that so easily navigates the glitzy, the gritty, and everything in between, Bond is resolute on the direction that the Park must take, saying, “we need to come back doing what we do. People love watching it and we love making it. It may take a while, but let’s get back there.” Despite the uncertain path, I too am excited by the prospect of once again engaging in the live experience from which we have been so deprived.
For more information on Jez and the Park Theatre, visit the Park Theatre website.