Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Phil Bartlett: Hope Theatre Autumn Season

By | Published on Friday 2 September 2022

I always keep an eye on what’s going on at The Hope Theatre, because it’s a small venue staging really good stuff, and that’s the kind of thing we like best to focus on. So it’s likely we’ll be recommending a number of shows from the venue’s autumn season as we make our way through the next few weeks.

Those upcoming plays all look very promising, so I thought it would be good to find out more about them, but I was also keen to speak to the venue’s Artistic Director Phil Bartlett – who took on that job in 2021 – to find out more about his role, career thus far, and aspirations for the future.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about your job as Artistic Director and the processes you go through in planning a season?
PB: The Hope is one of the smallest theatres in London – which is very much part of its charm – and the team here is also very small, so the Artistic Director role entails lots of responsibilities that in larger organisations would usually be delegated to different departments.

Finding work to programme is key, of course, which involves reading lots of scripts and meeting as many theatre-makers as possible – but I also manage the theatre’s finances, marketing, social media and the brilliant box office team – it’s certainly a varied job!

CM: What drew you to this role and what did you/do you hope to achieve in it?
BP: I’m a real believer in the power of theatre buildings to be a force for good if managed well, and many years ago I spent a year as part of the artistic team at Theatre Royal Plymouth, which gave me an insight into how a very different kind of theatre building, and one that had inspired me as a teenager, was run.

There’s not one clear pathway to become an artistic director, however, so when the Hope job was advertised towards the end of the pandemic lockdowns, I knew it was a rare opportunity I wanted to apply for. 

CM: Now let’s talk about the autumn season: three of the shows in the season have longer runs – can you tell us about the first one, ‘Oh Suburbia!’?
BP: Performer Bob Karper describes ‘Oh! Suburbia!’ as a ‘one-man avant-garde theatrical revue’, and the production is every bit as unique and unpredictable as that sounds! Bob grew up in a fairly sleepy suburb in the American Midwest, and he uses this as a catalyst for a show which is filled with stories, songs and film, including an audio cast of senior citizens!

‘Oh! Suburbia!’ was scheduled for a full run at the Hope this summer, but only the first two performances were able to go ahead due to performer sickness. It still managed to pick up a Standing Ovation nomination from London Pub Theatres Magazine, however, and I’m so pleased the production is returning for a two-week run this autumn.

CM: I’m a bit of a Bronte fan so I’m intrigued by the sound of ‘The Moors’ – can you tell us about it?
BP: I first read Jen Silverman’s play ‘The Moors’ a couple of years ago and have been itching to direct it ever since, so when I got the job at The Hope it didn’t take long to decide what I wanted to stage as my first in-house production.

A period drama with one foot firmly in the present, the story begins when a young woman arrives at a mansion on the bleak and windswept moors – but there’s no sign of the child she’s been employed to look after…

On one level, ‘The Moors’ is a loving and whip-smart pastiche of novels like ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’, but there’s no need to be familiar with these books to be drawn in to Jen Silverman’s story – it’s very much a gripping  narrative in its own right, about women who find themselves having to be ruthless to get ahead.

Deliciously dark and often very funny, it’s on 11 Oct – 5 Nov, and is perfect for when the nights are drawing in.

CM: The last of the longer running shows is ‘The Light Trail’ – can you tell us a bit about that?
BP: ‘The Light Trail’ is a new play by Lydia Sabatini, about the relationship between teenagers Jas and Ellie and the effect psychosis has on their relationship and the lives of people around them. It’s both funny and moving – the script was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize last year – and this will be the first time it’s been produced. Quality writing from an exciting talent.

CM: The remaining shows in the line up all have shorter runs, I think – can you tell us a little about each of them?
BP: Yes – the Sunday-Monday programme has been a staple of The Hope’s programming for years – it gives companies the opportunity to stage their work professionally for a two-night run, reducing the costs and risks involved for producers who are often near the start of their careers.

In the autumn season the programme includes ‘Sold By Mama’, a riveting snapshot of LA’s hidden sex-trafficking subculture; ‘Growing Pains’, a comic coming-of-age drama; ‘Faustine’, a feminist updating of Christopher Marlowe’s play ‘Doctor Faustus’; ‘Parma Violets’, which explores the blossoming relationship between two girls, one of whom is from a traveller community; and ‘Try Again’, about three Latin American actresses all auditioning for the same role.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about you, now? What set you on a path to your current job? Did you always want to work in the theatrical world and how did you build your career?
PB: I trained in Glasgow at the Royal Conservatoire Of Scotland, and have spent the last decade working all kinds of jobs in the industry.

I’ve already mentioned I spent a year as the Resident Assistant Director at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, and I was also the Resident Director on the UK and Ireland tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Matilda The Musical’.

I’ve directed my own work on the fringe scene, delivered outreach projects for organisations around the UK, and have been an associate lecturer on acting degrees.

I always wanted to work in theatre, and I’ve also done lots of non-directing theatre jobs, such as managing the ticketing operations for festivals like LIFT and Dance Umbrella.

It’s all useful experience and keeps you connected to the industry – certainly I’ve picked up useful skills and knowledge in each of the jobs I’ve done that I’m able to draw on in my current role.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
PB: My favourite project I’ve worked on was a tiny one-woman play I made with a mate from drama school, and we staged it on the Free Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017. If you’re pleased with the work you’ve made, that’s all that matters – it got good reviews and picked up an award, but regardless it was a highlight because it felt like we succeeded in telling the story we wanted to tell, the way we wanted to tell it.

So often as a theatre-maker who is starting out, the challenges you face are linked to time and space and resources and the sheer bloody effort required to secure the conditions to create without compromising too much. If you achieve that, however big or small the work is, you’re winning.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? What’s coming up next for you after this?
PB: Well I’m currently preparing for ‘The Moors’, which goes into rehearsals in the middle of September, and I’m also putting together the programme for the Hope’s winter season.

I’ve somehow been at the Hope for almost a year now, and I’ve got a better idea of how I want to run the theatre, providing opportunities for as many people as possible – but it’s also a tricky time for theatre, and for everyone generally, so we need to be responsive to how we can best support theatre-makers and attract audiences in the current climate.

And after the Hope? That remains to be seen…

The Hope Theatre’s autumn season runs until 21 Nov. For individual show info and to book your tickets, see the venue listings here.

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