Fringe theatre is becoming an ever more powerful presence in the London theatre scene. With venues numbering in the dozens and work being done for the sheer love of it rather than pay, inevitably some don't live up to expectation, but a number of theatres are fast gaining a reputation for high-quality programming.
The Union Theatre in Southwark and Upstairs At The Gatehouse in Highgate are two such venues. Run by mum-of-two Sasha Regan and business partner Ben, the 50-seater Union recently put on a highly successful production of Pirates of Penzance that garnered rave reviews. Their programming runs the gamut of everything from Alan Aykbourn to the controversial Caryl Churchill. The Gatehouse is run by John and Katie Plews, who started Production Company Ovation, which oversees the theatre, back in 1985. It puts on a mix of musicals and plays - The Bovary Tale and Zanna, Don't! are two recent productions - and likes to bring in brand-new behind-the-scenes staff to learn their craft.
Sasha founded the Union 12 years ago with a Prince's Trust loan, a bank loan and a lot of hard elbow grease. Based in a converted warehouse, she used all her contacts (her boyfriend was a carpenter, his father a BBC site manager) to get the theatre off the ground, and her efforts haven't been in vain. She has built up a strong core audience through putting on a spate of high-quality productions.
"People trust that we put on shows of a certain type of quality," she says. "People come and see one show after the other - for us, that's amazing. We've got a mailing list, and I recognise people now by name, we send people Christmas cards."
John has done the same with the Gatehouse, working at programming content the more affluent, middle-class demographic of Highgate will enjoy, something he feels is extremely important for his theatre. "We've converted a lot of them into enjoying smaller-scale theatre," he says. "They love the intimacy of it... the thing is with all small-scale theatre is that you've got to offer what you think your local audience wants. You need a core audience who are prepared to come along just for a night out. - they didn't have to park, they won't necessarily eat out, they can have a drink and walk home."
Sasha says balancing the books for a fringe theatre is a hard-learned skill. "With a play, it's totally a little gamble every time you do it," she admits. "You can only really break even at these sorts of places, because you've only got 50 seats. If you have 300 seats...ooh, it would be lovely, you could actually make a big profit and pay everyone!"
"We get no grant or subsidy so it's got to work at the box office," John agrees. The Gatehouse runs two schemes - Angels and Patrons, where individuals can help contribute towards running costs (£30 per person for Angels and at least £2,000 for Patrons). "It helps that Katie and I run a Production Company," he adds. "We know how to run a small business - that really helps in terms of keeping the theatre on the right financial tracks."
Both Sasha and John freely admit that their theatre works on profit-share and expenses for actors, meaning most go unpaid, but this is a situation most fringe theatres are in. "There are an awful lot of actors who would rather work on the stage for profit share than stack shelves," says John. "People have accused us of exploiting actors and I'm afraid that just doesn't happen. Anyone can tell that the number of people we get through the door will not pay for us to go and buy a Rolls Royce!"
Sasha, too, does what she can with a limited budget. "I gave expenses," she says, "and then I provide them all with food at the matinee and buy their drinks and stuff like that. I think we're all like a big family when we're here.
"I think, actor-wise, we are a venue now that lots of people are looking at, so for [HMS] Pinafore [a previous production], we had the best people in the industry coming to see that show. Those actors WILL get auditions from it, they will get something on their CV that people have talked about or heard about.
"For an actor, I expect the actors that come here are actors like me, in that they are proactive in their careers, and if they haven't worked in a while, or if they need to change their agent, or they need some casting directors to see them, then by doing a show here, it's more or less saying 'here you are, come and have a look at me, see if you like me'. We all do it for roughly the same reason, which is to further our careers, I suppose. And then we'll get the money later on!"