Theatre Utopia: An interview with artistic director Jamal ChongCultureTheatre
Croydon – unpolished, lively, ever-evolving – is very much its own town. Ask an outsider to sum it up and they might talk of trams, Whitgift Centre shopping, Kate Moss and, less positively, the Croydon facelift. They’d be far less likely to mention fringe theatre. In recent years, the few theatres that existed here have dropped off one by one.
This doesn’t faze Jamal Chong, owner and artistic director of the last bastion of Croydon’s performing arts scene: Theatre Utopia. Take a saunter through the cacophonous Surrey Street Market, turn down a cobblestone path and you’ll find yourself at Matthew’s Yard, home of Theatre Utopia’s black box studio. Champion of new writing, it stages everything from straight plays to drag acts, and offers quality grub besides. (Another bonus deserving of mention: it’s one of those theatres that lets you bring in your beer in a glass…)
The Upcoming spoke with Jamal about the changes this unique space has undergone since new management took over last year, and just why fringe theatre is so enduringly vital.
What challenges do you face being the last independent theatre in Croydon, and existing on the edge of London?
People think Croydon is far away. And prior to us taking on this space it had a lot of am-dram shows. People didn’t really know there was stuff happening here. When we took over our aim was to reach out to a younger audience and younger companies. And when people started coming here from London they were like, “it’s so easy!”.
Do you still have am-dram here?
Yes, we cater for everyone. We’re happy for anyone and everyone to use our space. “As long as it’s being filled” is kind of our motto. We just don’t want it to be empty!
What changes did you implement when you took on management?
We actually performed here, my company Misprint Theatre, last August, and back then it was in nowhere near the shape it should have been in. Half the room was painted white, half was black, there wasn’t fire safety… When I walked in I saw the potential. I thought, “Wow, you could do some great stuff here”. We finished off the room, put up a wall, bought more chairs. We made it look and feel like a proper Fringe space.
You aim to offer a platform for new theatre. Why is it so difficult for newbies to break into the theatre world?
Because of money. Theatre Utopia offers a 50/50 box office split so companies get the space for free and we split the show’s ticket money at the end. Off the top of my head, there are six venues that do this in London; it’s very rare. The average price to hire a venue slot for an hour in London is about £500+ and that’s not guaranteeing any audience. Once those venues get the money they don’t have to promote. So obviously it works in our best interests to do as much promotion as possible.
You must be popular!
Yes, we’re filled up all the way to March. We try to push new writing and we like to see new stuff.
Next year we definitely want to be the preview point for companies so they can debut their show with us before taking it to Brighton, Edinburgh, Camden Fringe. We want to encourage new writing.
So tell me what else is here, at Matthew’s Yard.
There’s Burger Beer who do beers and good food. Hoodoo’s do the café area as well as the live music room, then there’s the art gallery and the theatre. All sorts of creativity under one roof.
What else goes on here?
Dance classes, hula-hoop, yoga. There’s a church service that uses it every Sunday. We try to keep slots available for rehearsals; a lot of companies just come to rehearse. But it’s mainly used for classes and shows.
Do you do Scratch Nights at Theatre Utopia?
Yeah, we’ve had a few scratch nights. They’ve done really well and we’ve got more coming up. We love them. It’s low risk for people as they can test out their work and get feedback. If it’s something they think they can finish, they bring it back to us as a final product.
You have a lot of variety. Is there anything you’d like to see in the future?
We’ve had musicals, cabaret, straight plays, comedy, dance. We haven’t actually had puppetry. We’re trying to get some in. And this week is our first ever physical theatre piece, Method in Madness from 14th to 16th October.
What highlights have there been?
It’s the first timers. We had a kid, just 18, who did his first ever musical in a professional venue, Forbidden Fruit. He sold really well each night. You could tell he was nervous and it was all new to him and he came away with a lot of experience.
Are you on hand to offer advice as a performer?
Yes. I guess my role is artistic director. Because I’ve been here a year now I’ve gained a lot of knowledge so when people come to me to book a show I have a whole list of things I can tell them: what they should do and who they should contact to come and review. I can guide them in the right direction.
It’s a very intimate space. Have performers found this adds an intensity or different context to their work?
We can fit 80 audience members. Fringe theatre is great in that you’re all in it together; you get that intimate feeling. We’ve had some intense shows and you can definitely see people move in their seats. It’s raw, which I prefer. The best way to describe us is we’re like independent cinema. You’re not going to get that blockbuster feeling but you’re still going to walk away from a great show. I love knowing what people are writing about now, as opposed to reproducing some play from the 60s, or some Shakespeare.
Does Croydon appreciate the arts?
They appreciate music more at the moment. I think that’s because there hasn’t been a venue that caters for fringe theatre like this. So what we’re trying to do is put on shows that are a little bit risky, a bit edgy. We had a festival called Tempting Failure, a big thing in performance art, dealing with self-harm. That’s one of the edgiest things we’ve had. We could book Shakespeare plays, but we’d rather book things we’ve never seen before and take that risk. That’s what I love about fringe theatre, you don’t know what to expect. And when you see something that’s quality you walk away thinking, “I’ve seen something amazing for a tenner, what a treat!”.
What criteria does a show have to fulfil for you to approve it?
When we first started – anything. Nowadays I like to meet beforehand and get a sense of the company. Because we cater for the Croydon community, we always try to keep slots available for Croydon residents. Probably a quarter of the shows we’ve had so far are by local people.
What else is coming up?
We have the legendary Diva’s Night – a drag act. I’ve just booked a magic show. We’ve also got the Croydon International Film Festival returning on 22nd October. We’ve got Golem, a tale about Frankenstein. That’s our seasonal play, in time for Halloween.
Do you have a favourite Croydon spot, other than here?
It was the Black Sheep, but that closed down. So, the David Lean cinema.
Are there any comedians at your comedy night that we should keep an eye on?
We had Tony Law and Nish Kumar perform Edinburgh previews here, put together by Matt Crosby from Badults. We have another one this month and the money’s going to the housing charity Shelter. Matt has managed to get another great line-up. There’s a guy called Dick Coughlan who we’ve booked in for April. He’s really good, his humour’s a little bit risky.
What would you say to someone who’s never been to Croydon?
It’s just an unusual place. It’s got a vibe. Spots like Matthew’s Yard are worth the trip: great food, people, shows, company. There’s always something happening. (While we chat the sound of live music is going on in the background.) It’s the kind of atmosphere where you can just talk to someone and no one really minds. Croydon is getting Box Park and Westfield too, so Croydon is going to change.
What would you say to someone who’s never been to the theatre?
Give it a shot. There’s a reason why it’s one of the hardest industries to get into; everyone wants to be in it. You could walk away after watching something so personal and relatable. Especially now because social media has given everyone the confidence to be themselves, we’re seeing that in plays, where people are writing about stuff they’ve actually experienced, from relationships to body image to abuse. Theatre is probably the most relevant thing, more than TV and cinema, because it’s live, right in front of you. Anything can happen on that night. Things can go wrong or really right.
Thanks for chatting to us, Jamal!
The next show at Theatre Utopia is Method in Madness, running from 14th to 16th October 2016.
For further information about Theatre Utopia, visit here.