In an exclusive two-part series, Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Richard Stride, the Artistic Director of Groundlings Theatre. In part I, they discuss the challenges of running Groundlings and finding support, the recent addition of the Theatre to the national ‘Theatres At Risk’ Register, and the unique and little known history of this amazing venue, nestled in the heart of Portsea.
Paris: How long has Groundlings Portsmouth been in operation?
Richard: [We’ve been running] under the Groundlings name for about 20 years, we’re just about to come up to our birthday, the 20th June [celebrating] the first performance we did way back in 2000, which was Twelfth Night.
How do you keep Groundlings in operation?
We’ve had to look at operating this theatre very differently perhaps to many other theatres, so usually about 20% [to] 40% will be income through ticket sales. Most other theatres will then find the other 20% to 40% of their income through grants and subsidiaries and things like that.
We came in and took over this building ten years ago and refurbished it and we didn’t have that option [because] we hit austerity straight away. There were no grants, no funding available so we had to find the other 20% to 40% through other means. We do things like weddings here, we also send our shows out to other venues, do wardrobe hire, party hire, bar mitzvahs – everything you could possibly imagine! We also go into schools and do events, so we basically find all the other money through other operations and other ways to support the main theatre.
What support do you get from the local community?
We have volunteers that come from far and wide. We even have a chap who lives in London who will come and give us a week a year and do things like that, so one of his weeks of holiday a year, he’ll come and volunteer for a week and we’ll see him again the following year.
The Theatres Trust recently deemed Groundlings to be ‘at-risk’, along with many other venues in the UK. How does it feel to have Groundling’s placed on the at-risk list?
It sounds like a bad thing, but the positive side of that is that it focuses people’s attention on those particular theatres that are at risk. To be on the at-risk register you can’t be just at risk, you have to be a viable theatre that, with investment, [would] succeed and do very well. They gauge it on things like ‘what is your community output?’ [and] we scored absolute top marks for community engagement [and] also [for] heritage, [and] how well we run the theatre.
One of the problems is we’ve taken over a building that is 236 (I think) years old in total. It’s a very old building, it’s twice the age of the Kings [Theatre], same with the New Theatre Royal. [This means there are] extra pressures to trying to make this building work. We need about another £800,000 to restore it back to its original glory and to keep it around for another 100 years.
It used to be a school?
It was a school downstairs but then a theatre upstairs so it had that weird combination! The reason for that is that it’s inside the city walls and in 1784 when it was built, it was actually against the law to have a theatre inside the city walls. [Instead] they used to call them halls, so it was originally called the Beneficial Society Hall of Southsea Common because this area was called Southsea Common, not Portsea.
Basically they used to do sneaky things like they put a school house underneath, and got around the authorities that way. They weren’t allowed to put on a straight play, so they would put music to it and it became known as a ‘music hall’ and that’s the birth of the ‘musical’, [that’s] where we get it from.
There are no [other] existing theatres in the United Kingdom that [date from] before the ban was lifted in 1788, so this is the only one of its kind. That’s why it’s unique.
That’s a really interesting piece of history, I grew up here and my family still live here and I didn’t know that!
When we bought the building we didn’t know that either! It was only [when] an Australian person sent me an email [saying] did you know that the venue has changed its names and it once was a theatre?
And when [we were] restoring upstairs, [we thought] ‘Really? [This was] a school house? Really? [With] these big massive fire places and grand high ceilings?
I just went ‘No, this isn’t a Georgian school house, this doesn’t feel right’.
And then when we started unearthing things and looking underneath plasterboards and everything else, we started finding some of the ornate stuff. In the loft we found some gilding which would have probably been the front of the dress circle [and] suddenly we said, ‘Ahhhh, I get it!’
Also recently we went to a theatre that [orginates from] a relatively similar period and it was amazing walking round, and going ‘I’ve seen that in ours!’
So it was pretty much a lost theatre. It closed as a theatre we think sometime – there’s no actual record – about 1860 to 1880, roughly in those 20 years. So there’s no one in living memory that would have known it was a theatre hall.
You have a drama school. How much interest is shown in that by the local community? Do you have many members of Portsea who go, or do you have people traveling from other parts of the city for the classes?
Again it’s really varied. We have kids that travel from Southampton, Chichester, Waterlooville, places like that. And then in Portsmouth I think probably about 70% come from the island of Portsmouth. There are a certain amount that come from the very local community, some people live just down the road, but it is very, very widespread.
I think that’s possibly because we’ve been consistently named one of the top drama schools in the UK. We [also provide] a lot of opportunities, it’s not about just training young people but giving them opportunities to go on and do amazing things afterwards as well. That’s been really important.
Do you have much uptake from local schools for your Theatre in Education programme?
Yes. It is difficult for [schools] because one of the things is money; they don’t have vast amounts of money to spend on these kinds of things. It’s a real shame because my viewpoint is the government should be putting more funding in.
There’s a lot of evidence that if you put live theatre in front of anyone, it has an emotional content to it, it resonates much more than being given some information. [Theatre] makes it more real, so when we get drawings and pictures [from children who’ve been to the theatre], it’s amazing how accurate the costumes are that they’ve drawn, because they’ve remembered it.
I remember sitting in a tube train in London once and a young 14 – 15 year old lad sat with his parents opposite me and suddenly started doing this clap routine which we did in The Victorians. I just looked at him and he went, ‘You’re that guy that was in The Victorians’ and of course he’d watched that, probably when he was 7 years old but he still remembered the routine with the clap and everything else because it had stuck in his mind.
He said, ‘I always loved that day, that was really good. You came and did a workshop and a show.
‘I remember everything about the Victorians’.
Funnily enough, the complaint we often get from teachers is, ‘Thank you very much for coming, the only thing is I have nothing left to teach!’ because [the children] remember everything [from] that day. I always say, start using that as a seed and learn more about that period even if it’s not on the national curriculum – just delve in even more because there’s loads more interesting stuff.
Using songs and plays makes such a big difference and it does stick in people’s minds.
If you make a song up about the six wives of Henry VIII, it’s very easy to remember. Quite often when people ask me, I’m singing the song in my head to get to the right one, it’s like the rhymes; divorced, beheaded, died, divorced beheaded, survived. A lot of people remember that because it’s got resonance to it, it’s got alliteration and all those little things. We like patterns and we remember things of high emotion.
If I asked you what you were wearing seven days ago, you probably wouldn’t have a clue, but if I asked you what you were wearing on 11th September 2001 (9/11), you would probably be able to say. It’s because it carried a high emotion and that’s what sticks in our minds. Theatre is about high emotion.
Out of your education programme, which would you say is the most popular?
The ones that come up a lot are particularly the Egyptians, and I think that’s partly to do with there’s not that much around here. You can’t go and visit the Pyramids, so we have to bring the Pyramids to them, whereas [with] the Victorians, there are Victorian warships locally that they can go visit.
[Also] the ancient Greeks [are popular]. The Tudors tend to go out not quite as much as some others because again we have Southsea Castle and Mary Rose Museum. But the [sessions on the] Mayans, WW1 and WW2 go out quite a bit so it’s quite wide ranging.
It tends to be that your get the Greeks in the summer and the Victorians in the autumn. You tend to go through seasons of them.
Find out more:
Find out what’s on at the Groundlings Theatre website, and find out more about their education programme and volunteering opportunities. You can also call the Box Office on 023 9273 7370 to book tickets.
Don’t miss the Theatre’s massive sale of costumes, sets and props to raise money to support the theatre. Thousands of items will be available from as little as £5, on 21st March 1pm to 5pm, Groundlings Theatre. Don’t miss it!
Want a different kind of day out? Join the historical figures of Groundlings as they take you on an exciting tour of this mysterious theatre. There are lots of dates to choose from, check here.
Image by Andrew Hurdle.