by Amber Massie-Blomfield, Creative Producer and Writer. Former Executive Director of Camden People's Theatre.
A journalist of my acquaintance once told me that to write about a subject properly, you have to fall in love with it.
This shouldn’t have presented me with too much of a problem when I decided to pen a book about Britain’s theatres. After all, theatres have always been my great passion.
It started at the Theatre Royal Bath, where I was taken as a child. Sitting in the dark, I was seduced by the possibility of the stage; all that could be conjured there. It was the beginning of a lifelong romance.
Later my passion burgeoned in the offbeat venues of Edinburgh Fringe. And at Battersea Arts Centre, as a student, my mind was blown by the full scope of what theatre has the potential to be – how it can overspill the bounds of the stage and animate corridors and attics, parks and the streets.
More recently, in partnership with artistic director Brian Logan, I’d been leading a theatre of my own, as executive director of Camden People’s Theatre. It might have been diminutive, and a little rough around the edges, but on our stage I’d witnessed the miraculous: whole universes created with cardboard boxes and a roll of sticky back plastic.
Yet the truth was my rose-tinted specs were in need of a polish.
I was okay with the fact that a large part of my professional life was dedicated to creating spreadsheets, rather than hanging out in the green room with Judi Dench. What really troubled me, though, was how exclusive Britain’s theatres seemed to be.
In spite of the sterling work being done by many practitioners I admired, theatre still seemed to be woefully lacking in diversity, presenting stories that only spoke to the lives of a narrow – and privileged – section of society. Theatre, I have always believed, has the power to improve people’s lives – but how can it change the world, if the sector can’t even get its own house in order?
So I decided to turn my friend’s advice on its head. Perhaps, I thought, writing about theatres was a way of reconnecting with what it was that got my heart racing in the first place.
I started plotting an adventure – a dot-to-dot trip from Land’s End to the Hebrides, taking in twenty of the Britain’s most remarkable theatres. Motivated by my own curiosity, rather than any attempt at a thoroughgoing overview of Britain’s theatres, I charted a course that would take in the venues where I thought I might find inspiration.
They weren’t the biggest or shiniest places – instead I wanted to get off the beaten track to find the theatres in unusual settings and with fascinating back stories, where the art form was being reinvented and thriving against the odds.
It was a remarkable journey. I spent a night in a haunted hall and ended up doing a can-can to a desolate auditorium in the middle of an industrial estate. I explored a theatre rescued from a fire and a theatre in a former public lavatory.
On the Isle of Mull, I encountered a community that has risen up to fight a mainland takeover and keep their theatre in local hands. In St Albans, I danced in the rain to Katy Perry at an am dram production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed on the ruins of a 2000-year-old theatre. And in Earlsfield I joined residents as they gathered on an earth floor to tells stories of what had brought them to the area.
Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die is the story of my travels across the country: a love letter to Britain’s theatres. My journey didn’t solve the problems our sector faces. But I did find reasons to be hopeful – glimmers in the dark where I could see that, at their best, theatres are places where we learn to be compassionate and to celebrate difference.
As John Berger once wrote: ‘love is the best guarantee against idealisation.’ The stories included in my book will, I hope, offer a source of inspiration, to fight for all that a theatre has the potential to be.
by Amber Massie-Blomfield