As Waterloo East theatre prepares to announce its very first season, Caroline Bishop talks to its director Gerald Armin about the process of creating a brand new theatre.
As commuters pack the trains heading out of Waterloo East station they may be unaware of the smart offices they are passing over. An architect firm, a graphic design business and a recruitment company are among those who have rented slickly minimalist digs under the arches that sweep off The Cut. Now, nestled on the corner of Brad Street near Soho Gym, a new arrival joins them. Waterloo East theatre will open its doors in September in a railway arch that has stood empty for seven years.
Its presence continues a trend. The spaces left derelict by London’s railways are increasingly being occupied by entrepreneurial theatre companies which see them as ideal for their creative needs. The Old Vic recently staged Beth Steel’s play Ditch in its newly acquired tunnels under Waterloo, innovative theatre company Shunt has long burrowed into the nooks and crannies beneath London Bridge and new family show The Railway Children has finally found a use for the old Eurostar terminal in Waterloo Station.
The latter is causing a few headaches for Gerald Armin, the director of Waterloo East theatre. “We are getting a lot of confusion for The Railway Children. I’ve had phone calls, I’ve had people leaving messages going ‘I turned up on Monday, you were closed’.” He shakes his head and gives a wry smile.
So let’s be clear, this is nothing to do with The Railway Children, which will leave Waterloo behind whenever its run comes to an end (though the confusion is set to continue as the show has just extended until January). Armin’s venture under Waterloo East station is a different beast entirely: a brand new, permanent, not-for-profit theatre which intends to stage visiting shows and co-productions year-round in a 150-seat black box auditorium.
“I can’t wait for the first round of applause”
The project is the idea of former actor Armin, who is privately funding the £65,000 set-up cost with his two business partners. After a career on the West End stage and stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1991 Armin swapped performing for producing, establishing his own production company, Fairbank Productions. “As a producer I was getting very frustrated finding a space that was economically viable to put on the production. I thought, two years ago, all these site-specific things are happening, there must be an office block or an empty space that we could just turn into a theatre,” he explains. “So that’s where it came from, not just for me to produce other stuff but also to help other producers.”
After one potential space fell through, Armin’s thoughts turned to railways. “That night I went home and Googled ‘how do I rent a railway arch?’ And it came up. I saw this one in Waterloo and I thought that’s interesting. The rent wasn’t very high and I thought there’s something wrong with this, it’s going to be dingy and horrible and small.” But one viewing of the place told Armin that wasn’t the case. “We came in this door and I walked in and thought my God, this is incredible.”
So why was the arch that no one wanted so coveted by Armin? “There’s no natural light, which makes it perfect for a theatre.” While the other arches are flooded with light through their vast glass frontages, the corner plot has a brick front, with only a small door indicating the existence of something behind.
Armin seized his chance, renting the property on a three-year lease from Network Rail, and in six weeks his builders transformed the derelict space – it had no electricity and a drainage system that wasn’t connected – into an auditorium, backstage area and front-of-house comprising bar, box office and mezzanine. It is an intimate space: the dressing rooms are cosy, to say the least, and the lighting desk sits on the mezzanine that doubles up as a bar overflow (picture those drinks spilling on the equipment). But it is no more intimate than many other London fringe theatres.
With one eye on the coffers, Armin has “begged, borrowed and recycled” as much as he can in order to fit out the theatre. The bar is made out of old Ikea bookcases, shelves were rescued from a skip, the seats were donated from a theatre in Chatham and the lighting truss – “the bargain of the century” – was bought on eBay.
Among the difficulties common to building any theatre from scratch – “all the red tape, licenses, the boxes you have to tick” – the unusual location of this particular project presented unique challenges. The front door to the theatre has been switched to the opposite side of the arch to those of the neighbouring offices, enabling the stage to be positioned under the platform of the station above, rather than the noisier train-tracks. It also means performances won’t be accompanied by the sound of commuters click-clacking along Brad Street during rush hour.
Attracting those commuters and local residents to the theatre is one of Armin’s aims; he is delighted to have 900 of them on the mailing list to date. But given that the local community already has access to the Old Vic, the Young Vic, the Union theatre and the Southwark Playhouse, with the National Theatre just a stone’s throw away, does it need another theatre? “I don’t think there is competition,” comments Armin. “I think we fall into the next category down. The Young Vic and Old Vic do fantastic stuff but their ticket prices are a certain level and they have stuff on for quite a long time. What we want to do here is have a mix of quite short runs, four to five weeks, and do cabaret, comedy, new stuff.”
“I went home and Googled ‘how do I rent a railway arch?’”
Prices will be kept “affordable”, he says, with pay-what-you-can and two-for-one nights planned, in keeping with other fringe venues such as BAC. “I think because we are over 100 seats we are in a good position to do that, because financially we could break even with a show. If you’re under 100 seats you break the bank.”
The theatre’s first autumn season – details of which are due to be released this week – will contain two plays and a musical, while Armin already has the beginnings of an education programme in place: “We want to do a mixture of plays and musicals, new writing, revivals, and also to try out new stuff, to take the risk. It’s hard to take the risks these days. To have a space where you can maybe put something on for a week because you want to try it out, we can take the risk if we’ve got something that’s paying the rent for five weeks. That’s what I’m hoping.”
Though Armin hopes to include in-house productions at a future date, he expects the first year to be reliant on visiting companies because “we have to be commercially sound”. In any case, he is keen to open his new theatre up to other producers and companies, to “become involved in something that somebody brings to me and says ‘I want to do this, can you help co-produce it?’ That’s the idea.”
After testing the space with a few shows that are going on to Edinburgh, the theatre will open in the first week of September, and Armin is chomping at the bit. “I can’t wait for people to come in; I can’t wait for the first round of applause.” Once the paint is dry, the dust sheets are removed and the bar is stocked, Waterloo East theatre will be ready to take its place in London’s ever-expanding second theatre district, south of the river.