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Honest to God With... Matthew Parker
28th September 2016

Once upon a time, Matthew Parker was that director who did a show that we quite liked and had taken over the running of yet another Off-West End venue. Or, as we like to say, "we knew him before he was famous." Having directed in-house production Lovesong of the Electric Bear to a whole host of rave reviews, transferred it to Above the Arts, then gone on to direct another two runaway successes, Sea Life and Steel Magnolias, Matthew has certainly made a name for both himself and his little venue with big ideas, The Hope Theatre in Islington.

Two years into a mad, joyous and cash-strapped adventure, we find out what it's like living the dream of having his own venue to play with, how Matthew approaches his work and what's next in store for The Hope. 2016 is all sorted, but suggestions for 2017 incidentally are very much welcome on a postcard...

Matthew Parker

Photography provided by The Hope Theatre

VFTG: You've done three amazing in-house shows, bagged 10 five-star reviews... Does it get any better than this?

MP: I hope so! I've got to admit, Steel Magnolias was a real shock. The reaction both from the audience and critically was just phenomenal and way beyond something I'd thought. It was a bit of a bold choice for me because it's a very commercial play and there's a single location, single characters, very little theatricality, a linear narrative...

With Steel Magnolias, there's been no scope for that. You've just got to deliver what's on the page. So that was great. It was a brilliant shock that it was so well-received. I've never had 10 five-star reviews for anything. I've never seen a fringe show have 10 five-star reviews for anything and the audience was phenomenal as well. I mean, I had people I barely knew coming up to me after, just hugging me, crying. Does it get any better? Gosh, I hope so. The next thing is Her Aching Heart, which is so different.

VFTG: You had already committed to staging Her Aching Heart before Steel Magnolias. Having seen the reaction to your work, do you feel more confident or more under pressure?

MP: More confident. The last three shows I've done have been at The Hope and I think they have been my strongest work. I graduated seven years ago from drama school and, you know, I'm an artist. I have huge crashes of confidence and it's always scary when you're putting your work out there because it's your name. It's going to be written down on a website for eternity. You can't think about that. But obviously there is a part of me that likes that otherwise I wouldn't be in this game, would I?

I've given myself three very particular challenges this year... With Sea Life, it was take a piece of new writing, albeit 14-years-old, but never been done in London. It's very dark, very me. In fact, every tick box that I want in a piece was in that play and it allowed me to conceptualise and work really intensely with three fantastic actors and a great designer.

With Steel Magnolias, the challenge was to do a commercial piece with six women in one room and see what happened if I just did a piece with a linear narrative with accents and lots of stagecraft. But I teach stagecraft, so it was time to put my money where my mouth is with that one. I've never done anything in traverse either, so that was an additional challenge I gave myself on that.

And then with Her Aching Heart, I've never done a musical before! I've done shows with music in, music plays a huge part in what we do. My background's in dance so although I don't read music or play music, I feel music and music's so important to get an audience to feel something because we react to music in such a different way we do to language. I've done an actor/musician version of The Cherry Orchard that had bits of incidental music in it, I've done a JM Barrie play called Mary Rose which had bits of incidental music in it sung by the company, but I've never done a musical where people stop talking and start singing a song about how they feel. That's going to be really exciting.

VFTG: How far along are you? Have you started rehearsals or even casting?

MP: We're in pre-production now. I finished Steel Magnolias two, three weeks back, had about a week and a half catching up with everything because of course when I do a director's show, that's an additional full-time job that I'm having to add to my full-time job of running The Hope so there's always quite a lot to catch up on! And then I've just been on holiday for a week. So I just got back at the weekend, went back to work yesterday, the casting went live on Spotlight, I've got my initial design meeting with the set designer next week, lighting and sound the week after and this evening I'll get to hear the music for the first time. Bryony Lavery has written the lyrics but not the music, so I've got a composer to put those lyrics to music.

Publicity image for The Hope Theatre's Gothic Season

Photography provided by The Hope Theatre

And I've just about started my research. But to be honest with you, it's mainly been about getting it promoted at the moment, getting a team put together, contracts out and it forms part of our first ever themed season at The Hope. We have three shows in a row which we are calling "the Gothic season" and Her Aching Heart is the final one of those three shows. So actually the past two days have just been about getting my head around the Gothic season and getting that promoted before I let myself push my own one!

I want to read lot more of Lavery's work. At the same time I'm managing the show that's running at the moment, the one that's coming after that and trying to now start my meetings for programming 2017. Because I've got to get at least the first five months of 2017 programmed. Ideally before I start rehearsals for Her Aching Heart because once that starts, that's eight weeks of me out of the picture really.

VFTG: So, busy would be an understatement...

MP: You know what though, it's ace. I am touching wood, dear reader, I know what I'm doing now! I've been doing this for two years and I get it now! When I started this job I'd never been an AD of a venue before. I've got better at managing my time, I've got better at not working 24 hours seven days a week. There's never enough time. You've just go to prioritise, prioritise, stay positive and try not to worry when you have to say no to people about things. Which happens a lot.

VFTG: Where did the idea to do Her Aching Heart come from?

MP: I have a Filofax of plays I've always wanted to do. I've been writing in that for over ten, maybe 15 years. Her Aching Heart was one of the end-of-year graduating productions when I graduated from drama school the first time round, when I trained as an actor. The minute I saw it I went, 'when I become a director, I really want to direct this.' So it's sat in my head since then. It's 25-years-old and it's not really been revived.

VFTG: It's the one with all the funny stage directions, isn't it?

MP: Yep. It's got really amusing stage directions in it, which are lots of fun to read, it's very tongue-in-cheek. It's a funny pastiche of 19th-century Gothic bodice-ripper romances. It's beautiful, it's romantic, but it's really funny.

With Her Aching Heart being a lesbian piece, we have the obligatory chat about female roles on stage and whether there are enough of them. Matthew quite rightly points out that he's predominantly directed women this year and has never found a shortage of plays with good female characters in them.

MP: We're not marketing it as a lesbian musical. I'm quite political, but with a small p. I think theatre is theatre and I think art is art. I guess the love story is between two women but I don't feel I need to pull that out too much. Obviously that's an added interest from a press angle for those interested in lesbian work whether gay women or not. But my job is to get a piece of theatre, find a play that I really love that fires my imagination and then create a world out of that. It's a love story where the people in it happen to be two women.

VFTG: Looking back at your work, it's been very varied. We've had a giant walking teddy bear, a plate of sandwiches on somebody's head and there was the hair salon that Cath Kidston threw up on. The one thing that I think links all your work is the human relationship in each story. Is that what draws you to a story? What would you say is your common link?

MP: I'm always generally attracted to pieces that deal with psyche in some way. I'm no psychologist, my background is all artsy-fartsy-frilly. But I am interested in how people behave. One of the first things I ever directed way back at uni was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by the now sadly deceased Edward Albee and the thing that fascinated me about that - and I ended up writing my dissertation on it at uni - was the games that people play within their relationships. The masks that people wear and how people's mental health is affected by the people they're talking to when they're in a different situation to the one they're in and how there are different versions of them really floats my boat.

I find that in every piece of work I do, I'm always interested in finding with the actor who is the character for this person at this time. My work should feel alive. I try to do everything I can to pull away from cliché. So for example if an actor says 'Do you think my character is angry here?' I go 'Well, I don't think so, because nobody really ever is just angry. They're generally scared or jealous or there's something firing it. Find what's firing it rather than just putting a hat on it and just saying anger or happy.' Those aren't necessarily honest emotions.

The ensemble of Steel Magnolias

Photography provided by The Hope Theatre

And that was great in Steel Magnolias because the characters are so well-written and they change all the time depending on who they're speaking to. They have a different relationship with each of the five women in the room. In Sea Life, three people have huge amounts of history. It's all about, 'when he says that, he's said that for the past 18 years.' Or, 'when she said that, it's the first time she said that and that rocked his boat.' That sort of thing I'm really interested in. So it's about mental health and it's about how people behave with one another. It tends to be dark, I don't tend to do very frothy things. But who knows, maybe I'll whack a farce out next!

I never assume that the whole audience will side with one character more than another. Because that's not real life, you don't like everybody all of the time. So I'm always interested in finding every character's darkest moment and lightest moment and every character's most sympathetic moment to the audience and every character's tricky moment.

VFTG: Although there's something special about putting on a show in your own venue, you transferred Lovesong to Above the Arts. Would you like to do a transfer of Steel Magnolias?

MP: I'd love to, because I'd love to see my work out there. I'd love to take that story out there, I'd love to take those six actresses out there and have more people see them, I think they're all astonishing. But it comes down to the very boring reality of money. We don't have any!

The way I run The Hope is ethical. We don't take huge amounts of money from companies visiting so we ask for minimum guarantees to cover our basic outgoings. It means that we never have any rolling money in the bank so every time we do an in-house production it's sort of my husband and some very nice kind people who donate who help us do that. I will not cream money off other companies to then support my own work. I think that's atrocious.

VFTG: How does it feel taking work somewhere else? Was it strange doing Lovesong at Above the Arts?

MP: No, not at all. It was just different! I'm a very visual director and I'm very affected by the environment that I'm in. We had offers from various places but because the nature of that design was so all-encompassing and that you were sat within the machine, it had to be a room like that to do that, really. And it was a challenge. Every space is a challenge.

How did it feel? It was amazing. More people saw this brilliant story and more people saw Snoo Wilson's work. And he's so important to the development of art and theatre in this country and there's so much that happens on stage now that wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for him.

VFTG: Coming back to The Hope's ethical status, the last time we spoke to you, you promised us a revolution. It's been two years now, so how goes the revolution?

MP: Theatre N16 in Balham has signed up to the Equity Fringe Agreement, which is great because that's another Off-West End theatre. Because there is basically The Hope, The King's Head, Jermyn Street... The King's Head is almost twice the size of us! Jermyn Street again, it's almost twice the size of us! We were the only 50-seater in London!

So to have Theatre N16 join the revolution is lovely. It's really helped us get the word out about The Hope. The Hope has steadily increased its coverage, its audiences... There are people who are really established in our industry who know what we're doing. And I am part of a faculty of the Drama Studio London and I teach there and there's a whole swathe of actors coming out of there who know about The Hope. Because I bang on about it. So it's a little trickling process, but I don't know where it's going to go. I'm not going to stand on a soapbox and tell other people that they should do what we're doing. We're doing what we're doing because it's right for us. And like I said, I'm political with a small p.

I'm really happy with what we're doing, but also it is a real challenge. It does mean that we never have any money in the bank. It does mean that my ability to pay staff is always precarious month on month and it does mean we're heavily reliant on ticket sales and people donating to us and becoming a Hope Diamond. We've had a fair few of those over the past year and that's really lovely. It's helped us cover the costs of doing in-house shows. We've made three in-house shows this year which is a huge cost. And we have no resources at all. It's going well. I just want more people to come. I always want more people to come!

Every show bar two this year has had at least one sold out night. Every show has had at least one five-star review. We've had national press in, we've won two Offies. We're getting nominated for loads of them. Which is wonderful. Two Short Plays About Gays has just been nominated for two. It's just really nice to feel like we're part of the Off-West End landscape. Some people still don't know there's a theatre there. Some people sit in the pub and go, oh, is there a theatre here? But we have little leaflets in the stands now and some people pick them up and go, 'Oh, a theatre? It's just up there?' And we do get customers that way. It's great.

The Hope Theatre

Photography provided by The Hope Theatre

I'm so lucky in how I'm supported by James Smith, the landlord of the pub, The Hope and Anchor, who is essentially my boss. He didn't know me at all when I took over and we've become really good mates now and we really support one another. He's so supportive of what I and the staff do. And he loves The Hope. Particularly loved it when we had Steel Magnolias in and we were selling out every night in August. Because pubs go so quiet in August. There was night after night when the bell would ring for the show to start - the entire pub would clear upstairs!

It's going very well. When I took over, I said that I would do it for two years, see how it went... Earlier this year I said, I'll do three shows and see how it goes and now I'm really excited about what I'm going to do next year. Haven't a clue - if any of your readers have any ideas, do let me know.

Now I'm at the stage where I have to think about what I'm doing next year and there's a few actors who I really want to work with, so I spoke to them and they're starting to give me some ideas. I mean it, we should have a competition, your readers should tell us about what we should do next year, we want to do two or three in-house shows, but we don't know what they are yet. I honestly don't know what they are.

VFTG: You mentioned Hope Diamonds. You have different levels of support, don't you?

MP: We just about get by, we never have any additional money. So for example we never have any additional money if we want to do something like fix a seat or buy a new light. Seriously, it's simple little things like that. I just referred to the little stand with flyer holders. It's only £20 for six of them. But we don't have the money to do that. If someone donates £50 to us then it's something we can do that's special for the theatre. We've got a lovely beer mat on the top of the bar now that says there's a theatre upstairs. Only got that at the start of the year because someone donated £50.

VFTG: Every penny is well spent.

MP: Absolutely. Every penny is well spent. We have an annual reception as well, it's coming up soon. Everyone who donates £50 upwards gets invited to that and gets to meet all of us and have a lovely party. I am so grateful for anybody who puts a bit of money our way. But also anybody who comes and buys a ticket or sticks an extra quid in the donation box. You can also do it when you book online - you can just add an extra 50p. It's an extra 50p that I wouldn't normally have.

Essentially, as long as I keep programming really good work which we are doing then we float. What we can't do is transfer work anywhere. We really support new companies, but I'd like to be able to do more in terms of commissioning new stuff. I'd like to be able to see an idea and help push that through. That would be lovely. Money. In the end it doesn't matter. We'll survive. And if we don't then we'll close!

VFTG: Please don't close!

MP: I'm not going to!

VFTG: You've done some of my favourite shows this year, please don't close. I've seen some great stuff at The Hope.

MP: We're starting to see repeat visitors. They're becoming friends of The Hope and I really really appreciate it. Really appreciate it. Not that I take it for granted. I thought Steel Magnolias would really bomb. I really did. I was so scared.

VFTG: And you did it anyway.

MP: It was a massive risk for me doing that. It was so outside my comfort zone. Harking back to what you said about confidence, I don't think I'm a good director, but I'm really good at getting the right people in the room. Because those six women in Steel Magnolias loved the bones off one another. And it's quite rare to get six people in the room who adore one another that much in a heatwave in a four-week run in wigs that were boiling, bless them. Night after night after night they absolutely loved one another and that's the casting, working with my casting director Gabriella Shimeld-Fenn, we're really good at pulling the right people together.

It was the same in Sea Life. That show would not have worked if we did not have those three people. I see loads and loads and loads of talented people and it's wonderful and I'm really really lucky. But in the end it comes down to who I think is going to work better together. I don't wish to denigrate the word war, I use the war analogy, obviously it's not bloody war, it's prancing around doing a play, it's not a matter of life and death, it's not that important - it is just theatre, but - I need people who are going to be in the trenches with me, going into battle and not turn on me. I need people who are by my side because everything's a collaboration.

It only takes one member of that team or cast to not make it a joyous experience. And this job is bloody hard enough, I just want to have a lovely time. And it translates because everybody who saw Steel Magnolias is experiencing that those women respect and love one another on stage. It was such a clear relationship between them. Because they liked one another as women - as human beings. They really liked one another. And it's great, it's great when that happens. Half the job's done.

VFTG: I thought Ariel Harrison and Samantha Shellie were great; I've seen them both at The Hope before. Jo Wickham, I thought she was fantastic. I've seen her in musicals like Days of Hope before and it was lovely seeing the three actresses in the same production.

Jo Wickham as Truvy

Photography provided by The Hope Theatre

MP: Jo did brilliantly. The character wasn't quite far away from her actually. She's naturally very very kind and very very funny. It was that interesting thing where she wouldn't trust herself to stop acting! I've had to be really hard on her and I know that she appreciated it because we're still talking.

I pushed all of them as hard as I could, because I think that it's my job to make sure I've done the best I possibly can. Which means that I have got the best out of absolutely everybody in the production that I think I possibly can. And then once it starts, I let it go. I honestly let go. I don't go in and change things. I watch things. I check show reports and I make sure things are okay, but I don't tamper with it once it's up and running. And Jo - I really really really watched her and it's a really hard part, Truvy. Because you don't get any big moments. All the other characters get a big moment and she doesn't. And she has to very quietly almost unseen make everybody feel better all the time and the character constantly diffuses the situation. And also because we give her enormous hair and because she's tall, in traverse, I had to keep making her move all the time. And she just did it effortlessly.

They were all ace. Ariel I know because she was in my year at drama school at DSL. She's one of my best mates. I was dying to work with her so it's great to finally work with her on this. Sometimes that happens. You've got actors you are dying to work with. But I've had to wait seven years to work with Ariel. Been waiting for the right play!

And the same with Vicky Gaskin who played the lead in Sea Life. Same year at DSL. Waited seven years to work with her. Finally got to.

Samantha, I directed in a project whilst she was training and again I've wanted to work with her for the past four years and it just so happens that she ended up being in two plays almost back-to-back at The Hope. Because she happened to be in Piece of Silk playing a 14-year-old girl and then we cast her as Shelby and she was fantastic at that. That's a really hard part. A really hard part. It could be so saccharine and girly and pink and frilly and... You need someone who's ballsy.

VFTG: You've worked with friends and family before. Would you do that again?

Bryan Pilkington as Porgy

Photography © Scott Rylander

MP: I've worked with my husband Bryan Pilkington I think five or six times. He's a fantastic actor. I announced the three shows I was doing at The Hope this year and he was gutted. "There's nothing in this that I can do." Not that I ever just give him a part. I mean, he auditions for everything. I've made him do recalls before now. Because I have to be fair. Particularly with him. You have to be really fair. Because you don't ever want the other actors in that room to go 'oh he's just got that because they're married.' It just so happens that he's really good and he always gets the part. Thank God. Can you imagine that day when he didn't?

Lots of actors are people I know and I'm friendly with. I treat everybody the same. You get a part because you do the best job on the day in the audition. I have to do it like that. I have to go whoever is the best on the day gets the job. Whether I know you or not.

VFTG: But having cast people who you know and like, do you find that more challenging directing them? Or not really?

MP: No, it's just different. Often there's a shorthand because they'll know you, so they'll know your taste and your sense of humour. I use humour a lot in rehearsals. I play about and I'm silly and I bring a lot of my life into the room because I'm old and because I've lived an interesting life. I'm really lucky that in my 41 years of being incredibly interesting I've had all sorts of experiences, good and bad. I have no problems chucking those into the room. Often friends know that. That's fine. Often I'll know them, so there'll be a shortcut - there are references I can use.

But then with people I don't know, it's like a blank sheet of paper, isn't it? So that's just as lovely. And just as brilliant. But it's totally different. Every project I go into, I start anew. And it's a new bunch of people and you've got to make sure very quickly that we're all working together. I'm very very clear from day one that the only thing that matters is the play. The only thing that matters is the work.

It doesn't really matter whether I know them or I'm married to them or I've never met them before in my life apart from the audition. What matters is the work and just trying to figure people out.

The level of detail that I require from actors is huge. I imagine it's quite difficult to work with me because I really really push. And I will not let something just go.

We then had a brief chat about the pros, cons and general entertainment value for reviewers of directors watching their own shows on press night. Matthew never watches his own shows on press night (we've always noticed his absence) but other directors do and we admit to having a sneaky glance at their reactions watching their own work.

MP: I made a decision about two years ago to stop watching press nights. I do everything I can do to get it to press night, then I don't really watch it ever again. Once it's the press night, that's it, it's done. And it becomes what it is. And I don't sit and watch it. The actors will want to know what I think about it and what I think about it is 'well done, that was brilliant.'

VFTG: I haven't see any of the previews at The Hope and what you're saying is it can be a very different show?

Ian Hallard and Bryan Pilkington as Alan Turing and Porgy

Photography © Scott Rylander

MP: Sometimes. With Lovesong of the Electric Bear, the very first performance went so horrendously wrong it was almost laughable. It was so long. And Snoo's widow Ann was in and loads of Snoo's family and friends and they went 'It's just too long, just cut it.' I got the red pen out.

I don't like cutting things, it's not just about cutting things but there are certain things that just sometimes just don't work. And you try it and it doesn't work. Get rid of it. So we made big changes to that. Sometimes it's just small things. 'Oh, there's a laugh there, but it's not landing. Why isn't it landing? In the rehearsals that's been a laugh constantly. And now the audience are in it's not a laugh anymore. The rhythm's off. Why is the rhythm off?'

I don't ever want to make it sound like if you buy a ticket for the first night you're not getting a good show because of course you bloody are. It's a piece of art. It grows, it's organic. My process is to use the first couple of nights to settle down. Often there are scene changes... streamlining... We had a lot of that in Steel Mags. We didn't change anything, it was just there were some massive costume changes which were a nightmare to get right. But we got it right, by press. But first night, it took three hours.

Get it to press night, let press enjoy it, come out, have a lovely drink with the actors and then let it be what it is. It's really hard as a director. You're no longer important. You're barely wanted to be honest!

VFTG: As well as running The Hope and doing your own in-house productions, the last time we spoke to you, you had a lot of stagey commitments. Have you had to cut back on everything?

MP: Dog Orange is the first company I set up. That was a way of me taking a piece to Edinburgh because if you take a piece to Edinburgh you have to have a theatre company and it became a theatre company I worked with. I don't need a theatre company now because I have The Hope. All of the ethos of Dog Orange, the classic stories and flights of fancy is exactly what I do anyway.

First Draft has gone in a different direction, Laura Harling is taking work into care homes which is fantastic. It's no longer something that I work on.

VFTG: You've worked with her a few times though, haven't you?

Laura Harling in Lovesong of the Electric Bear

Photography © Scott Rylander

MP: Laura and I always work together and in various different ways. We've worked together as director-producer, director-actor, director-designer, she's done my headshots, she's an amazing photographer, she's worked on a lot of my shows... there's always a way in which I work with Laura on something. She's one of my best mates. She's really talented at what she does. She's brilliant at everything. And she was an absolute dead cert for me in Lovesong. Because that part was so hard. I just needed someone who could play pretty English rose and then a number of different men which she can just nail.

Those two companies aren't something that I really do anymore, I don't really do that much freelance work at the moment which is frustrating, I want to get my work out there to the world a bit more.

I love what I do at The Hope. I said I was going to do it for two years, I'm going to do it for at least three. I'm looking for a new agent now. Really want to collaborate with someone who's going to help me move my career forward. In terms of The Hope, I have plans, I'm not done yet! And it's going well!

Next month I'm spending one day a week teaching. Quite where that one day is coming from I don't know, but I teach stagecraft, so I teach everything from how to blend into a room, from configuration to how to work with props, how they decipher every description about the character, how to make it come to life.

VFTG: Her Aching Heart starts in November?

MP: It runs from 29 November to 23 December. There are 19 performances, it runs Tuesday to Saturday, they are no matinees. I start rehearsals early November. I'm really looking forward to it. It's a lot of fun and it's very like Lovesong in the sense that it's got lots of people becoming characters in front of you on the stage. It's two women and they play ten characters, I think, between them.

VFTG: And before Her Aching Heart?

MP: We have The We Plays opening, so that's two one-person shows written by Andrew Maddock, who was Offie-nominated for The Me Plays at The Old Red Lion, 2014. Offie-nomed for In/Out (A Feeling) at The Hope in January. Two plays, one about a chap, one about a woman. They're called Irn Pru and Cyprus Sunsets. And they're both bittersweet, funny, moving, dark and written with that voice that Andrew has which is every now but is very poetic. Urban poetry.

After that is the first of our three Gothic plays, The House of Usher, which is our new musical. Three-handed musical about the fall of the house of Usher which is by Edgar Allen Poe. Completely new. Cast of three. Created and directed by our associate director Luke Adamson.

Then after that is a play called The Worst Was This, which is a reimagining of a post-apocalyptic Jacobean world where the three witches from Macbeth run a pub putting dead bodies in pies and a young poet called Will and a young poet called Chris come and fall in love with each other. It's a Jacobean love triangle with death and cannibalism in it. It's brilliant.

And then her Aching Heart, a bodice-ripping Gothic-written romance with songs.

With so much going on at The Hope, it's safe to say that the venue lives up to its strap line of "the little theatre with big ideas." We're particularly looking forward to catching The We Plays and Her Aching Heart, so watch this space for our reviews of those shows.

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on what The Hope should programme for 2017 and/or you fancy becoming a Hope Diamond, please do get in touch with Matthew and his team, they would absolutely love to hear from you.



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