Low-budget theater caught in drama on changes to London skyline

The sun is reflected off The Shard in London, Britain in this January 30, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh/Files
The sun is reflected off The Shard in London, Britain in this January 30, 2015 file photo.

Reuters/Eddie Keogh/Files


LONDON Reuters) – London’s tallest building, a 95-storey gleaming glass tower named the Shard, has changed more than the skyline.

    Completed in 2012, it spurred redevelopment at the ground level that ripped at southeast London’s cultural fabric by forcing the eviction of Southwark Playhouse, one of the capital’s most successful low-budget theaters.

These fringe alternatives to the mainstream West End typically lead hand-to-mouth existences characterized by battles to hold on to makeshift premises.   

But the drama at the foot of the Shard has a happy ending that could become a trend as London’s city planners acknowledge cultural activities do more than coffee chains to build communities.

Following an outcry from audiences and a campaign led by writer-actor Stephen Fry and actor Andy Serkis, Southwark Playhouse has been promised a new home in the revamped London Bridge quarter when that is completed around 2018.

    “Investors and incoming businesses are now realizing that mixed use, liveable commercial areas are more successful and desirable than the bland 20th-century versions that empty at night-time and weekends,” Team London Bridge, set up to develop business in the area, said in an email.

SECOND HOME

    Pending the reprieve, Southwark Playhouse also found itself a venue at the foot of a skyscraper under construction, this time 44 stories high, in a redevelopment to the south at Elephant and Castle.

    With two secure homes, Southwark Playhouse will be rare among London’s off-West End theaters.

    Between now and 2018, it is continuing its more than 20-year-old tradition in a warehouse between its two future venues.

    “We learn something from every home,” said Artistic Director Chris Smyrnios.

More than that, the company has won glowing reviews in running two shows simultaneously in separate performance spaces.

    Its defining characteristics include an educational vocation dating back to its founding in 1993 in its first Southwark home: a former chapel in what was then a neglected area of the city.

    Partly thanks to the theater, the neighborhood became gentrified, the rent soared and the theater moved to the London Bridge railway arch that it had to leave six years later.

    Southwark Playhouse combines performing new writing with Shakespeare and other established texts, such as a work by Pulitzer winner Sam Shepard, playing until late September.

And with two companies that offer acting opportunities specifically to young people and to over-65s, Smyrnios says the aim is to reach the community and develop the next generation of talent.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Jussi Rosendahl)

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