Hitting the Right Note

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Originally written for The Stage.

For Danielle Tarento and Thom Southerland, it’s all about location. The producing and directing duo, who have found a rich seam in small-scale, stripped back musicals at fringe venue Southwark Playhouse, are always conscious of making the right match between show and theatre. “We’re very much about being respectful of the space you’re putting something in,” Tarento explains, “not just whacking it in because we happen to have a slot.”

We are chatting in the freshly refurbished bar of the Southwark Playhouse’s new home in Elephant and Castle, recently named The Stage’s Fringe Theatre of the Year, where Tarento and Southerland have found the perfect partner for their shows. The vast warehouse space has been utterly transformed since the theatre moved in, offering a main stage space that the pair find particularly inspiring. “To be in a 220-seat theatre that feels like a 600-seat theatre, yet to be no more than five rows away from the action, is extraordinary,” says Tarento.

The theatre’s strong track record with musicals, however, stretches back to its previous venue under the arches of London Bridge Station. Southwark Playhouse is now readily associated with musical theatre, but it was only three years ago that Tarento, armed with experience from fringe musical powerhouse the Menier Chocolate Factory, convinced artistic director Chris Smyrnios to put on the theatre’s first musical: a new version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Although he needed some persuading, in the end Smyrnios “couldn’t resist programming it”.

It was during the run of Company that the seeds of Tarento and Southerland’s working relationship were sown. Having previously encountered one another while Tarento was working at the King’s Head, Southerland “accosted” the producer in the bar after the show to discuss a new potential project. “I’ve sort of not been able to get rid of him since,” Tarento jokes, quickly adding, “thank God.”

Their first production together at the Southwark Playhouse in 2011 was Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, an unlikely musical rendering of a famous American legal case from 1913, which Southerland staged in traverse in the theatre’s Vault space. Unlike the sumptuous production that had been seen at the Donmar Warehouse just four years previously, this new version emphasised the grit of the story by working with its surroundings. “There’s nothing comfortable about sitting in the Vaults at Southwark Playhouse and watching an injustice happen right in front of your eyes,” says Southerland.

A damp, dingy railway arch is hardly the most auspicious setting for musical theatre, but the Southwark Playhouse’s atmospheric venue offered rich inspiration for Tarento and Southerland. Reflecting on Company, Smyrnios suggests that “the juxtaposition between the show and the space seemed to enhance the work rather than detract from it”. For subsequent shows such as Parade and Mack and Mabel, meanwhile, the Vault theatre was central to the aesthetic.

In the case of Mack and Mabel, which had been a famous flop in the past, Southerland is convinced that their version worked precisely because of its gloomy environs. “It doesn’t belong in a proscenium,” he insists. “This show is about being dirty and people not having any money, and scrounging to make a buck but wanting to create art, and it’s set mostly in a disused film lot. It needs to be vast, but it needs to feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic as well.”

Despite the gains, working on this scale also brings its challenges. “Every challenge is a benefit,” Southerland insists, but Tarento quickly breaks in with “that’s the director speaking – the producer will say something quite different”. She concedes, however, that the difficulties of producing a musical on the fringe do open up new creative possibilities: “the minute I say no, they have to find another way, and sometimes those other ways end up being far more interesting”.

“If there were too many challenges, we’d just go ‘let’s find somewhere else’,” Tarento adds. She suggests that the secret of their continuing partnership is that Southerland “creates the sort of theatre that I want to create”, which is heavy on story and light on “stuff”. “The stuff is lovely, some shows need a bit of stuff, but I think if you’re talking about things that are true, or things that require the audience to actively engage and have an opinion, just tell the story, don’t cover it up with stuff.”

So why is it important that this kind of work exists on the fringe? Firstly, as both Tarento and Smyrnios point out, it makes musical theatre affordable to those who might not be able to access it in the West End. But beyond that, Tarento says, they “give people the opportunity to see a different kind of theatre”. Smyrnios adds that venues like the Southwark Playhouse “provide the opportunity to revisit noted musicals, try out new ones and explore established ones in new ways”.

It is the implicitly trusting partnership between venue and producer that has enabled these kinds of risks to be taken. “They give us ownership of the building,” says Tarento. “They take ownership of the show. It feels like it’s an in-house producing house and we’re just working here and we’re doing the next show. That is unbelievably rare.”

The new building in Elephant and Castle, which the Southwark Playhouse moved into in May of last year, demands a new approach. Southerland raves about the new theatre’s “height and scale”, explaining that “you can do epic without losing any intimacy”. It was this mixture of the epic and the intimate that allowed the director to stage his version of Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Titanic, which he is preparing to transfer to New York when we speak.

Thanks to Tarento and Southerland’s success, the doors at the Southwark Playhouse are now open to musicals from other producers, such as Floyd Collins, The A-Z of Mrs P and upcoming show In the Heights. “There is now an audience who will come and see the next thing regardless of what it is or who has produced it, because they trust,” says Tarento. “That’s every venue’s dream, to have an audience who will come and see everything.”

For Smyrnios, although plays are still the Southwark Playhouse’s priority, musicals are becoming an increasingly important ingredient of the theatre’s programme, with space regularly set aside for them. As for the relationship with Tarento and Southerland, it has “gone from strength to strength”. “From the start there seemed to be a naturally productive working balance between producer and venue,” he says. “It’s been a relationship that has been fruitful for both of us and one we hope to continue.”

Tarento and Southerland have similar hopes, already mapping out future plans for the venue. Despite pursuing projects elsewhere, Tarento is confident that the relationship with Southwark Playhouse is one that the pair will keep returning to. “I think wherever we go and whatever we do, we’ll always end up coming back here.”

Photo: Annabel Vere.

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