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‘I’m looking forward to welcoming people back’: David Brady describes how it feels to be reopening the Lion & Unicorn Theatre

Welcome back to Fringe Focus, our series putting a spotlight on smaller theatres. Today’s guest is the artistic director of the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, David Brady. As well as running the theatre, he is also artistic director of the managing company, Proforca.

How has lockdown been for the company and the theatre?
It has been tough, I think. And it’s obviously tough for everybody. It is easier to shut a theatre down than it is to restart things up again. It was quite depressing watching show after show, after show collapse. I think the uncertainty has been a real challenge. So not knowing when to close and having to decide and then not knowing how to properly reopen.

I will say we are in a good shape, to some extent. We do not have massive stake holders to report to, it is our own business. So you can kind of make decisions. It makes it a bit lonely. And it also means as you go through the lockdown periods, you know, you’re trying to support your tribe and that’s been quite important to me. To try and keep everybody up to date in the loop, whilst at the same time, not having any information to give them, I think can be quite tough. So yeah, at a time of uncertainty, I think we have been lucky over the Lion & Unicorn because the brewery has really supported us through that time, and we feel like we are part of the family.

That has been super helpful. We will see how it goes in the next couple of weeks, but hopefully we are out of it now and a bit further towards something more closely approaching normal, if that makes sense. I think we are just looking at the right performances for the space. The Bread & Roses has done an amazing job on that last week. At the Lion & Unicorn, it is a unique set up. So it’s about making sure that we choose the right piece to go back in. We cancelled something like 167 performances. We’d got a year’s worth of work.

It is now about working out what fits. Where the challenge for the Lion & Unicorn is the room is only a finite size. It is about 60 people full capacity. We are going to have to reduce our capacity probably down to about 20. And then all the doubt around cancelling social distance in November, it is about just trying to get the right balance. The government might turn around tomorrow and say, by the way, you can get going, with the assumption that you can just fire off a thing.

We have a couple of plans, a couple of irons in the fire. If I can pull something off, that is quite exciting. We’ve got quite an exciting plan to kind of reopen the space. We are working on that at the minute, keeping the companies that we have worked with engaged, giving them opportunities.

You took over the lease on the theatre as well didn’t you, last year? Was that a good move?

Proforca performed at the Lion & Unicorn before, we had a play called Feel. It did quite well. I always tell the story, like if a pub calls you should pick up the phone and answer it. We had obviously got on well with the pub and I just got this random phone call one day. Can you come and see me? And I was like, Oh, OK. We’ve either lost something or forgotten something. He said the theatre lease is coming up. Would you be interested in taking over?

I thought about it for about half a second and then just said, yes. We love being part of their part of their family, which is good. It was not what I was expecting for a second year! In the first, you have all that excitement. Oh my God, how do I do this? And then in the second year, it was like, by the way, we are just going to throw a pandemic on top.

We were incredibly lucky. We’ve got some great associate artists. I think you’re probably familiar with the work of some of them. We kind of brought them along for the ride, and that has been great.

What about the other pub theatres? Do you group together to support each other?

Certainly, at the beginning of lockdown. I think we are all in our unique individual circumstances, but London Pub Theatres themselves hosted a couple of calls at the beginning. We have quite a good relationship with Heather and her team. We all know each other, right. So, you know, it is important. I think that we worked together to look after each other. We serve the needs of different audiences or we have got a different programming ethos is which I think is quite helpful. We hosted the last London Book Fair, and it was nice to get everything together. So somewhere in the archive, you can find a photograph of all the artistic directors together. And it was a really great day and a nice to have everybody together.

How special is it going to be to reopen the Lion & Unicorn?

I do not know how we can describe what it is going to feel like. I think people are all still a bit wary about going out and we are all in this situation. People don’t trust each other a bit because it’s like, you know, you got coronavirus. I think getting people into a room and the first time the show goes up and finishes., I think there will probably be a sense of relief that we remembered how to do it.

I think the feeling of the sense of achievement of getting a piece of work on getting it, seen, getting some people in to watch it. And I think one of the things I did yesterday was I kind of started the protocol for reopening health and safety measures. I think once you get over that shock of looking out at the audience and like kind of everybody wearing masks, I think once we got over that, I think people will forget and then we’ll just get on there. But, um, yeah, trepidation, excitement. It is that real sense that people have been really missing the opportunity to go and see stuff. So I think there’ll be some higher emotion as well. One of the things we did at Lion & Unicorn is like a bucket speech thing at the end, after a show to talk about the show.

There will be a proper new normal, when we have forgotten this.

David Brady, on theatre reopening

The first time will be quite emotional. I’m looking forward to welcoming people back and starting the process again. It is going to feel like a bit of a rebirth, but I think it is not going to be the full rebirth. This is the new sort of short term, temporary normal, and then there will be a proper new normal after that. That will be brilliant when we have forgotten this.

How did Proforca get started?

So, I did not do theatre until quite late. It was kind of my 30th birthday present to myself. We had written a play. We have got this work. We want to put the work on. So we resigned and thought let’s just do it and see what happens. That was 2016. And did it like to enjoy it, did a musical. It started as a sort of hobby, get a group of mates together and see what happens. And then shortly after that, it’s kind of become a bigger deal.

It is one of the associate companies of the Lion & Unicorn, it is kind of the managing in-house company and professionally sets the tone, I think in terms of its ethos in terms of how we work with other people. Uh, and certainly what work we think that theatre should make to some extent. We celebrated our fifth birthday, couple of weeks ago.

And it just grew very quickly really. And I think we’ve had just the brilliant pleasure, I suppose, of working with such amazing artists and creatives. It is a bit of a lab for new work, so we produce our own stuff in house, but also there are collaborations with some of our associate artists and the work that we want to make. Definitely championing new writing wherever we can. The thrust of what we do is brand new fringe pieces. Each show has got a different vibe, I suppose. I think when I went in, I had got a list of things that I wanted to do. And each show has ticked off one of those boxes. After five years, we come to the end of that original list. And now we’re starting with a brand new list. So hopefully we will see what that means for the future.

It is a great space. I am obviously biased, but there is a nice energy to it. And the way I described the Lion & Unicorn, it is a bit like when I was a kid, my granny and granddad, my dad’s one of nine to eight children. There was always somebody at my grandparents’ house that you knew. The Lion & Unicorn is a little bit like that you can go in and there’s always going to be somebody that, you know, and I think there’s always just like creative space and that’s what the kind of atmosphere that wants to create.

And I think the Lion & Unicorn and the sort of pub, and then the theatre by extension is re-establishing itself in the community as kind of a community space.

What about the cancellation of this year’s Camden Fringe?

I have an interesting relationship with Camden Fringe really because you, you do as much work for a show for that as you do for any of the ordinary programming. In terms of what Camden Fringe offers to performers and artists, it is invaluable. And I think it is a true alternative to Edinburgh. It’s a really good way in for perhaps people that can’t afford to go to Edinburgh fringe to get work made. We’ve got some work from the first year that actually had been developed a bit further, which was a great sort of test bed for that. This year was kind of odd because I had done all the work for it.

We had booked all the shows and then they all collapsed on top of each other. Zena and Michelle that run Camden Fringe are very dedicated, proper professionals. They have done it for many years now. I felt for them more than anything else because it is their baby. Camden, during August, becomes the fringe, right? So all the venues know how to work together and that kind of thing.

The brilliant thing about Camden Fringe, and what is missing this year, is the seed work, the early brilliant stuff.

David Brady, about Camden Fringe and support for fringe shows

We kind of operate as little islands on our own and come together one time of the year. We all kind of collaborate a bit, I guess it supports the artists. So, I think it was strange that it was cancelled. A bit of me was a bit relieved just from a work perspective because it’s, it’s insane. I mean, we have, we have two shows a day different shows and they rotate some of the venues, like the Etcetera Theatre, for example, they have really worked out how to run lots of shows each day. I would blow my tiny budget.

It is brilliant because you can, like, you can hop about all sorts of stuff. I think the brilliant thing about Camden Fringe, and the bit that it is missing for not having it this year is the seed work, the early brilliant stuff. Quirky, interesting stuff. It has got such a diversity of new writing, cabaret, comedy. In our first year we had international work that we programmed in. We had some new writing, comedy, old favourites, and it all fits in this harmonious, nice bubble. We had this running joke that we saved everybody, a seat in lockdown. I’ve just told Camden Fringe that we’ve saved them 3,200 seats for the next August!

The Camden Fringe is unique because they are not going to the Edinburgh fringe. And it is London grounded.

What do you think about digital theatre?

It has been brilliant for giving immediate access to people for digital theatre. So I think there’s been this whole innovative strands to fit to that didn’t exist before. And that is the brilliant thing about fringe theatre makers. We are trained to be innovative, whether that is performing in a venue that does not work, or in a space not traditionally used for that purpose, which we are used to doing. And this, I think is just an extension of that.

The challenge it is for digital theatre is keeping people interested. The ability to switch off is much easier, to get up and go away if you do not have full attention. I read an article about why people become tired on Zoom calls. And the reason for that is there’s an element of grief about the things that you’ve lost. And actually, I really felt that quite keenly at the beginning. When it has been done well, it has been great. Bloom Theatre, they did Saplings 2.0, which was great.

I think it filled a gap well right at the beginning. But I think you have probably noticed that it is starting to tail off a bit. We are going to look at some live streaming, or some digital recording in the theatre so that it’s not recording in people’s bedrooms and that kind of thing, it brings it just a bit closer to a theatre experience.

It is not a replacement for sitting with other people.

David Brady, on digital theatre

What made me cross during lockdown was railing against the fact that we got spaces that we could not use. The social distancing was so hard, and it still is. It limits what you can do. And it is not a replacement for the experience of sitting with 60 other people. We are going to strike a balance as we go forward. But I think that was what was really hard for me.

One place that did digital theatre very well was The Space in Canary Wharf. I think they adapted well, and they have produced some brilliant work over lockdown. If anybody has done it well, they certainly have. One of the things I always say about fringe theatre is that we typically make it for our family and friends. I think it is a myth of, you know, we, we make it because we are all going to be rich and famous. If that is the case, I have done it wrong!

It is a leveller to some extent. And I think hopefully if we can increase the access to this by giving people opportunity to watch it, that would not have done before, I think that is important. I think the other thing about digital theatre during lockdown that has been great is people have tried theatre that probably would not have tried it before because places like the National opened the archive. Theatre has become something that is consumed in your living room. It does not feel like it is an elitist experience. I think that has been good. And I think certainly the ability of those big venues to release that content will have kind of demystify the process a bit. Great, great experiences.

Do you think it should have been monetised?

I kind of see in two ways. Obviously as the artistic director of a venue, venues need to survive, and I think there is still a kind of societal responsibility to contribute to artists, you know, in the same way that you would contribute to Netflix. But there is this thing that everybody turns to artists to get them through this time. I think there is a balance to be struck. I think one of the things that we have done, at the Lion & Unicorn prior to this, is pay what you feel.

So I think it should be monetized. I think it should be monetized in a way that continues to support artists and not necessarily the platforms that it’s produced on because the platforms will survive regardless. Netflix will survive tomorrow, Amazon Prime tomorrow. It is about making it accessible to people that perhaps would not have gone before. So, people that have watched Frankenstein, for example, for the National might have gone, I hadn’t thought about seeing that before, but now I will pay 50 quid for a ticket to go and see it. And I think that that’s important. I would rather they spend the money at our fringe venue, divert their 60 quid and buy four tickets.  It is a careful balance, I think.

What do you think about the government’s approach to the crisis?

I watched this whole “give us some money” thing and I think what’s happened to the theatre industry in particular is disproportionate. Unlike pubs and restaurants, we’re not able to reopen earlier. They were able to get government support. They have been able to furlough their workers. It does not work like that in the theatre sector. I think the government sees theatre very differently in this country to perhaps if we were in Germany or, or, or France for this massive state funding for arts. But I think we are different, right? You don’t have the fringe type scenario in Germany, you have big national state supported venues.

The problem with it is accessibility to funding. Fringe venues don’t have access to that funding. Typically it’s not easy to get that, to get that funding. So it becomes a challenge in terms of like how you got the funding through the door. It’s not been made easy. It’s it goes back to what I said to you at the beginning about transparency. I think it is difficult because we are a pub theatre, we are not going to be the primary focus when there’s horse racing and cricket and other things. With the funding, I don’t know whether we should expect it. Like the thing that I struggle with is when your house is burning down, what do you save first? That is the challenge. The surreal thing about COVID-19 is it happened so quickly. Three weeks and we were locked down.

It needs to be tailored support for each venue.

David Brady, on government support for the theatre sector during lockdown

It is a shambles, but it’s a shambles because it’s a global health emergency. The most important thing is making sure that people Have jobs to come back to. I do not think their response has been helpful: it is not a cookie cutter. It needs to be tailored support for each venue. I think Scotland’s probably got a better approach to it. I don’t know whether that has something to do with leadership, but also a sense of priority. And again, I think in the current environment with the Tory government, we are not their priority, even though the theatre industry brings in more and more money than the Premier League.

If the regionals go, which is highly likely in some places, that will be a real problem for the whole industry. I know panto in particular, they’ve really let panto down this year. I am a firm believer in panto: it is the lifeblood of keeping theatres alive. It is kids first look at theatre generally and in lots of spaces, particularly outside of London. If I were going to tailor the supports I would be like, right, how can we get your panto up and running so that you can then look after everything else? I scientifically do not understand how you could sit on a plane for four hours next to someone with a mask on, but you can’t sit in the theatre. It boggles my mind.

Why does it disproportionately apply to the theatre and performing arts industry more than it does to other venues? I do not get that. And I think that is why they let people down, the challenge I must go back to is the uncertainty that I do not know if we are going to get cancelled. Fringe operates on a knife edge.

If we get a press release tomorrow morning that social distancing has been cancelled, we are six weeks away from it working. That is where they have let the industry down. Not necessarily in the handouts, it is in the practical application of how we can operate our businesses. I cannot plan for it.

I think that is the problem is I have got; we have got a year’s worth of cancelled shows. We’ve got new requests all the time for work. So, we are in an unusual situation in that we are ready. It is just a question of when.

If you have a 2000 seat theatre and you can fly in a machine that is going to test everybody at the door, fine. The risk of having 2000 people in a room is greater, maybe, than having 50 people in the room.

I think the problem is that they are taking this 2000-seater approach and they are not taking the 50 seats approach. It is about being sensible really. It is about washing your hands, wearing a face mask, all those things, and the rules need to be tailored to the solution. Clarity around all this would be good. Performers have always looked after themselves. The weird thing about fringe is that lots of artists live together. They are in relationships where they are in that bubble already. Some of the things that we are looking at work because performers are in a bubble already. We just need to distance them from the audience.

You see lots of things being planned next year, which is brilliant. We are going to have the best year ever if it works out. It is just not knowing. All we have been told is that we will get information on social distancing in November. What does that mean? I don’t know if it means that like November the first we can reopen. I don’t know if it means that it means January. I think it is going to be March. Things will pick up March of next year. We are ready. I am just going to stand by the door and open it.

The Lion & Unicorn are participating in the Theatres Trust #SaveOurTheatres crowdfunding project. You can support them here.

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