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Interview: Mark Ravenhill Talks Lockdown Writing, Pub Theatres And THE HAUNTING OF SUSAN A at the King's Head Theatre

The Artistic Director and joint CEO of London's oldest pub theatre speaks to BroadwayWorld!

Interview: Mark Ravenhill Talks Lockdown Writing, Pub Theatres And THE HAUNTING OF SUSAN A at the King's Head Theatre

Mark Ravenhill is a playwright, director and the new artistic director and joint CEO of the King's Head Theatre, London's oldest pub theatre, which is currently celebrating its 50th year. We spoke with him about the theatre's anniversary programming.

How are you doing in this new post-lockdown era?

I'm doing great thanks. I decided that after lockdown I would apply for my current job at the King's Theatre because I wanted a totally different experience versus the various lockdowns.

During the lockdowns I did lots of writing and mentored lots of up-and-coming writers, but I wanted to throw myself into working with lots of people as a sort of antidote to the past couple of years. It's amazing how busy and time consuming my life is at the moment, all for a tiny room behind a pub! That's what I do it for, though: when you just throw yourself into things, it becomes your life.

Who were your earliest inspirations growing up?

We didn't have that much access to theatre when I was growing up, so I guess it was mostly television. I was a child in the in the '70s so we're talking about things like Doctor Who and Sooty and Sweep.

I was very fascinated by puppets and puppet shows on TV. There was a company called Power Puppets that you could buy string puppets from I used to ask for those for every birthday and Christmas. I wrote a lot of scripts, collected costumes for the puppets and then put on a lot of puppet plays - and made my brother be part of them!

I didn't really start seeing much of theatre until I reached sixth form, as my teachers would take us on theatre trips. I went to Chichester for college as it was the only place in the country that did theatre studies and saw quite a lot of things at the Chichester Festival Theatre when I was 16-18 years old. Our college would also take us on bus trips to London and stuff so that's when I really started to see theatre.

Speaking of Doctor Who, what's your reaction to the casting of Ncuti Gatwa as the new Doctor?

I haven't watched it for quite a while, but I have been watching the interviews with Ncuti and he seems like a great choice. He's very warm and intelligent and it just feels really exciting to have him playing the Doctor.

The King's Head Theatre is celebrating its 50th anniversary. How does it feel to be part of this milestone moment for the venue?

It's exciting. The King's Head was actually the first pub theatre. You can't really imagine London without its permutations of pub theatre these days, but it was founded by Dan Crawford, when he bought the whole pub and added a little theatre in the back. It started a whole movement.

There was no Almeida Theatre or any other pub theatres around at the time. It was this incredibly unique place, a totally new idea, where the audience come to a room behind the pub to see a play. Although pub theatre has since spread far and wide there's still a degree of excitement about things you wouldn't expect to find in a room behind a pub.

The opera work that we do in the moment like La bohème is part of that excitement for the audience. I love the notion of an audience coming to a slightly rundown pub into an even more rundown room at the back, all painted in black. But then, you've got performers who can really sing and really act. Being that close to people with that much talent, you can see the audience getting on a high.

I love that sense of "What's going to happen when I go through this little door at the back of the pub? What's going to happen in that space? It's tapping into that wonderment of what's going to happen in that space, a tatty black room behind a pub where we're not pretending to be posh!

Interview: Mark Ravenhill Talks Lockdown Writing, Pub Theatres And THE HAUNTING OF SUSAN A at the King's Head Theatre
La bohème at the King's Head Theatre

What particularly excited you about putting a queer spin on La bohème?

I know La bohème well, and I was involved in a much more traditional version 27 years ago. When I arrived here at the King's Head, I found out that this version already existed, and I wanted to do further work on it to expand it a bit.

I thought it would be a really good piece to do as my first thing at the King's Head, and to re-establish our relationship with our loyal audience, who have been coming to our little operas for 11-12 years. The combination of the freshness and familiarity seemed like a great way to get out audiences back and feeling comfortable about coming back to that theatre, it seemed like a good thing to offer.

We've seen various examples of works being gender-flipped etc. Where do you think the balance lies in reviving familiar works in this way and supporting new LGBTQ+ work?

That's very much what the King's Head is all about, doing both. Just before this current programme, we did a season of shorter runs of new companies doing predominantly LGBTQ+ plus work. We had 20 or 30 companies coming on, some with very young voices.

I think that programming a combination of brand new emerging talent and more established titles and more established theatre makers creates a really healthy creative discussion.

You're also performing your new piece, The Haunting of Susan A, especially for the anniversary celebrations. What can we expect?

When I first arrive at the theatre, I sat in the space and reflected on the past 50 years and all the things that could have happened in that room; all the memories and very intense experiences that people making a show and people coming to show would have had.

That led me to think about ghosts because of the idea of memory or something that's clung onto a space, leading me to writing a ghost story/play or sorts for that space.

Interview: Mark Ravenhill Talks Lockdown Writing, Pub Theatres And THE HAUNTING OF SUSAN A at the King's Head Theatre
The Hainting of Susan A

Does your process as a director change when approaching a new work or an existing work or do you very much take the same approach whatever the piece?

You've always got different collaborators in the room. When directing an opera, it is very much a primary relationship with the musical director, who has just as much authority in the room as you do.

Then when you're directing a new play, that primary collaboration is usually between you and the writer - it might be their first play and so it's important to bring them into the theatre and given them a presence and a voice in rehearsals.

The Haunting of Susan A is different again because I've written it myself, and I'm playing myself in it, so we've brought in Iman Qureshi as an associate director, whose play The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs is running at the Soho Theatre. A show always needs that outside eye.

Although I don't have the biggest part in the play, I definitely want that outside voice, so Iman is going to provide that for us. You need someone who speaks for the audience, guiding you through to something that actually works from the perspective of somebody sitting and watching the show.

How is the health of the industry looking to you at the moment? Have you have you seen a healthy return of audiences to the King's Head? Do you think more can be done to support audience confidence post-lockdown?

In January/February we still didn't have a clear idea of whether there would be another lockdown or not. That's had knock-on effects for us in terms of our ability to plan and for our audiences.

We've seen audiences return gradually since the spring and I'd say we're getting there. While we're not as far ahead with planning as we might have been three years ago, along with audience levels etc., week by week and month by month, we're able to plan a bit further ahead. We're also seeing a bit more audience coming every month, so it feels like we're heading in the right direction.

This is still quite a treacherous time for all of us though because the government's Cultural Recovery Fund has ended. That was a lifesaver, but it was based on the idea that as soon as it ended, theatres would be back to full capacity and income. Things haven't sprung back instantly, and we no longer have that financial safety net.

We're not back to full capacity audiences and programming just yet but we're getting through by the skin of our teeth and the seat of our pants! Things were never predictable, but now it's even less so about whether you can plan projects and whether and audience will turn out or not.

I think a lot of people are now wanting really big events after being isolated for so long; they want to come to a great big musical or a great big show with really expensive tickets, and feel like they've treated themselves and spent too much money after two years of not being allowed to. That's not the sort of things the 110-seat King's Head does.

That said, shows for family audiences are doing well at the moment because they particularly want to get out to celebrate that they can go out again after being stuck at home. Unfortunately, a limitation of being a pub theatre is that you can't do family work in the pub theatre.

We're planning to move to a new building, a bigger building and once we're outside of the pub, we can start to do work for families. I'm keen to do all sorts of family shows, and redefine what a family show is. The things families are concerned with are so diverse and different now.

I'm guessing you won't be charging £400 a seat for your shows.

Yeah, I wish we could be lucky enough to get that money, although those producers have since reduced the ticket prices now. It's an interesting phenomenon that didn't exist before the pandemic, but now with shows like Cabaret, people want to feel like they're really treated themselves, but it's something that only a few theatres can do. Regrettably, we're not one of those theatres but we'd certainly love the money.

It's all part of a wider ecology, where we provide all sorts of different prices, and I think that's fine. Some producers have very cannily identified this strange gap in the market where people are prepared to pay hundreds and hundreds of pounds to see a show. Fair play to them. It's just a new part of the theatre eco-system, creating these very expensive luxury nights night out that didn't really exist here before.

I say, let them do their thing, while we have subsidised theatre, we have fringe theatre; we do things differently.

Interview: Mark Ravenhill Talks Lockdown Writing, Pub Theatres And THE HAUNTING OF SUSAN A at the King's Head Theatre
The King's Head Theatre

What advice do you have for aspiring directors, writers, and performers?

You've got to have a strong sense of what you want to do. Now that I'm a bit older, I don't think doing just anything creative for hire gives you enough fuel for your career, you just end up enduring things. If you have a really strong and passionate sense of what stories you want to tell and the type of theatre you want to make is really important.

Equally though, you could potentially make yourself blind to other doors that might be open to you. So a combination of a strong central passion balanced with going with the flow can lead to really great opportunities.

Have you got any other projects you'd like to tell us about?

I did a lot of writing during the during the lockdown. Currently, I've got a play optioned by a West End management company so we'll see where that goes depending on if they can secure the right names for it.

I also wrote a pilot for a TV show that I created. At the moment the broadcasters are very excited about that so I'm doing some more work on that at the moment. I've always aimed to balance making down and dirty fringe theatre, but I also want to balance that with some big mainstream work, which would be a very satisfying balance in my life.

Before lockdown, we did The Boy in the Dress in Stratford. We were about to announce a West End transfer in 2020 but then lockdown happened. We had a West End secured then but it's gone back into hold mode for now, but hopefully that show will re-emerge over the next couple of years and make it to the West End.

Why should people come to see The Haunting of Susan A and help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the King's Head Theatre?

When the King's Head work is good, it's just a celebration of what you can do with very little money in a tiny room. Our work is surprising and should be celebrated. I want people to talk about the extraordinary things that happen in this pub. Things that you would never expect to find when you walk through a pub.

The Haunting of Susan A at the King's Head Theatre until 26 June

Photo Credits: Simon J Webb, Nick Rutter

From This Author - Fiona Scott