“We opened nearly a decade ago, which is terrifying,” says Helen Matravers, sitting in the buzzy cafe that’s attached to the New Diorama. A trained actor, Helen realised early on in her career that she was happier behind the scenes, and has been working at the Regent’s Place-based theatre in a producing role for four-and-a-half years now.
They’re a registered charity with a core staff of four. “The auditorium sits eighty,” says Helen, “it’s quite small, but that means there’s not a bad seat; it’s a versatile room too.”
The structure itself falls under Section 106 of the Regent’s Place development: with that comes the responsibility for the building to act as a hub for the local community. “We have an annual engagement through various strands of around 9,000 a year,” says Helen, “which is pretty big for a small team.”
That ranges from their youth initiative to working with the Third Age Project, a charity targeting low-income over-sixties who live on their own and are socially isolated.
Aside from the community aspect, what else are they involved in? “Our USP is that we support the organisational development, performances and future life of emerging and mid-scale companies and ensembles,” says Helen. Their most recent model completely turned the way fringe programming works on its head.
“We now offer talent five-week runs, which is unprecedented in the scene in London. That means full PR, marketing and financial assistance – anything and everything they need really. Press and other programmers – national and international – are invited to see their work, and there’s the potential for them to pick them up and take them on somewhere else. We’re all about making sure they can sustain themselves; we give them a toolkit.”
The arts are unpredictable, tough and unfunded. “We raise money every day of the week,” says Helen, “and are better equipped to do that than our artists. We want to help them make that leap to becoming a self-sustaining operation; our aim is to push them to the next level and see them move beyond us to larger venues.”They also create their own in-house productions. “In 2018 we took a show off-Broadway,” says Helen. “David Byrne, our Artistic and Executive Director, wrote and directed it. It’s really great to have a performance-making footprint of our own; it puts us on a level with the companies we’re backing.”
They build strong bonds with the groups they work with, going on a journey with them and acting as a springboard. “We keep in touch and follow their progress,” says Helen. “For example, Rum and Clay took Testosterone to the Edinburgh festival, were selected to be part of the British Council showcase, and went on to appear in Brazil and Kazakhstan; Idle Motion toured to China; and The Faction opened the Qatar National Theatre.”
Historically the team supported around thirty acts per season. “This year we took that down to seven,” says Helen. “We stripped it right back in order to really focus on what those ensembles do and what they specifically need from us to be able to survive in the long term; it seems to be working so far. We’re currently playing to around 95% capacity, which is incredible – we’re really grateful.”
Their ethos is to be a local theatre that produces high calibre work. “People are always surprised to find us in the middle of quite a corporate plaza,” says Helen. “We’re keen to make residents who live close by feel as welcome as visitors from the arts community. We charge £15, and have offers that make attending even more affordable.”
They focus on accessibility, too. “We caption our main shows, have relaxed performances, and are on one level,” says Helen.
And what have they got coming up? “There’s Operation Mincemeat in May, a collaboration between three members of Kill the Beast and composer Felix Hagan.” The satirical musical tells a seemingly outrageous story regarding a secret World War II mission, that is in fact true.
There’s the Incoming Festival in June, too. “It’s a seven-day event at the end of the month,” says Helen. “We have two shows a night at £5 per ticket – that tops off our season.”
She talks passionately about her role. “There’s lots of plate-spinning, but it’s fun, very worthwhile, and incredibly rewarding.”