BWW Interview: Artistic Director Jez Bond Discusses The Park Life Fund

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BWW Interview: Artistic Director Jez Bond Discusses The Park Life Fund
Jez Bond

Days before the lockdown, the Park Theatre had sell-out performances of La Cage Au Folles, was preparing for Clybourne Park, and was doing vital work in the local community. Now, the staff are furloughed and the future is uncertain.

To help secure the venue's future, Artistic Director Jez Bond has set up the Park Life Fund. In 48 hours, they raised £300,000, but there's still £100,000 left to reach their target.

The money raised will help them reopen when the time comes, so they can pay staff, rehearse productions, generate an audience and resume community work.

Jez chats to BroadwayWorld about how Covid-19 has impacted the Park Theatre, what he misses the most, and why people should donate.

How has Covid-19 affected the Park Theatre?

We're so much more than a theatre - it's so much more than the shows we do, the work we do onstage. We have a number of workshops and classes for people both young and old, and we work with some of the most isolated members of the community - for example, we have our dementia group - and it's been really important to try to keep in touch with them and still provide something for them.

We've been doing some work online, and we're looking at doing more - obviously, that comes with its challenges. But what's really crucial for us is to try to keep a presence in the community and keep engaged with the people who really need Park Theatre, who have relied on us as a sanctuary and a community hub.

You've launched this amazing initiative, the Park Life Fund. Can you explain a bit more about it and what the donations will help you achieve?

In the first week of lockdown, I called some of our donors who I know love and support Park Theatre, and we were really humbled by the outpouring of donations from them, because we were in a huge crisis, not quite knowing if we could afford to keep going and furlough the staff.

That initial fundraising meant we could keep going, but it still means that if we come out the other end in the New Year (which is looking increasingly likely), we're going to be really wounded by what's happened. And with all the people that we work with, we need to come out of this as strong or stronger as we were when we closed our doors. Otherwise, we're just sort of limping along and not able to provide the shows, the access, the outreach, the diversity, all the great things that we championed.

So we started this Park Life Fund to say, OK, you're giving into this pot knowing that we are going to survive this, and this pot is going to make sure that we not only survive it, but we come out fighting for you so that we're there for you, for your community, for our neighbourhood when we get to the other side of this. So we can do all our programmes again, so we can keep going with our outreach, so we can keep our ticket prices affordable, so we can keep our access programme running - all of the great things that people know and love us for.

You reached £300,000 in the first 48 hours, and you've got hundreds of messages from those donating on your site. How does it feel to have such a supportive community during such an unprecedented time?

It's really humbling. I had genuinely no idea that we were going to raise anywhere near that amount of money. Everyone is asking and everyone is being asked of, because lots of people are in a similar situation, everybody's going to be feeling the pinch. It's just incredibly humbling to know there's such support, that everybody utterly got what we were and why it was important not to let the arts die and why Park Theatre needed to keep going, and they wanted to get behind us.

It's just a fantastically emotional journey, hearing people's stories about why they're giving. Some people have said, "Look, I'm going to give you this, I don't want you guys to die, you can't fold, this means too much for us personally, it means too much for the area so I'm going to dig deep." That is just so touching.

What have you missed about the Park Theatre?

We pride ourselves on having a family feel at Park Theatre. When everyone comes in we do a meet and greet with the new companies, introduce everyone to people at the building, we really welcome them into the fold, and it's just sad that the guillotine has come down on that process for now.

We were 10 days off the last performance of La Cage Au Folles, which was almost sold out and doing really well, a very entertaining show. All those people, our onstage families have all dissipated, gone back to their houses, and we're keeping in touch on our WhatsApp group with them. We don't know whether we can restart with that show or whether that will never happen again or whether it'll go out on tour.

We had Clybourne Park, the Bruce Norris play planned - it would have been the 10-year anniversary since it was done at the Royal Court and then transferred to the West End, and we had that in rehearsals. We had a lovely company there that we were chatting with every day - there's always such a buzz in the building - and then suddenly they just had to vacate and put all their stuff to one side. They don't know whether they're coming back to do their show.

Also, what's going to happen after this: there's going to be a massive global jigsaw puzzle of culture, where you just don't know what the availability is going to be. So I guess the hardest thing for us is saying goodbye to people, and in some cases not even having the time to say goodbye personally, and not knowing when we're going to see them again, not knowing any sense of time or what the new order will be. That's been the toughest thing.

And on the flip side, what are you most looking forward to when the Park Theatre reopens?

It sounds strange to say it right now, but I'm looking forward to having 200 people sitting in a room, laughing and crying and breathing the same air as the actors on stage and feeling safe to do so - because that is live theatre.

You can do as many Zoom readings and films from your own house and archive recording releases, and they're all fabulous and there's great stuff coming out, but ultimately theatre will always live because it is that live experience that you can't get anywhere else.

I'm just looking forward to opening our doors again to our community and feeling that burst, that atmosphere, that energy which people love when they walk into the bar and auditorium.

Why should people donate to the Park Life Fund?

Because we just can't let the arts suffer right now. It's very easy for people to think that the arts aren't important, but aside from the huge financial benefit that they actually deliver to the UK economy, the fact is that a neighbourhood theatre like ours is going to be there for you when we return to some form of normal. You're going to need a safe space to come in and have a coffee, have a meeting, see a show and engage with some art, and have a laugh to take you out of yourself - and that is what theatre can do.

We have to make sure that doesn't die, and all of the education that we do and the work we do with so many different communities who are underserved, underprivileged, isolated, we've got to make sure that those ancillary events still exist as well.

So, I would urge anyone to support us, because in supporting us, we can support you, our community, our neighbourhood.

To donate to the Park Life Fund, and for more information about it, visit the Park Theatre website

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