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Interview: Amber Massie-Blomfield and the adventure of Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die


Image: Amber Massie-Blomfield, photograph by Lydia Stamps

Amber Massie-Blomfield’s debut book, Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die is the result of a two year theatrical pilgrimage to find the most beloved, unusual and progressive spaces hosting theatre across the country. Amber was Executive Director of Camden People’s Theatre from 2014 to 2018 and is a columnist for The Stage. She received the 2016 Society of Authors’ Michael Meyer Award and in 2018 a Special Achievement Award at the Off-West End Awards for her work at Camden People’s Theatre. We asked her about her first book, her adventures to find theatre in unexpected places and eavesdropping from the wings.

Eli Goldstone: Twenty Theatres To See Before You Die is your first book, tell us a little about how the idea first started springing to life.

Amber Massie-Blomfield:
I'd been thinking about the importance of theatres for a long time, from the role they play in their communities to the amazing histories they contain. Indeed, as executive director of Camden People's Theatre, exploring these ideas was a large part of my job. So I wanted to get out and visit some of Britain's most remarkable and intriguing theatres - not necessarily the biggest or shiniest ones, but the ones that were off-the-beaten track, that were thriving in spite of the odds, or had reinvented what theatre might be. A map went up on the pin board above my desk, with little white flags marking the theatres that intrigued me, and an idea for a road trip across the country began to formulate in my mind... and then, I thought, this would be a great idea for a book - after all, if you're going to write a book, you might as well have an adventure at the same time.

Eli: The book is the culmination of what feels a little like a long-distance relationship with theatre - meaning that to keep your love for theatre going, or evolving at least, it is important to keep making contact. I certainly feel that to be true. Did the journeys you took around the country feel romantic?

Amber:
Oh yes, wildly romantic! It was such fun to set off across the country, mapping my course by the theatres I wanted to see and ending up in locations I might never otherwise have visited. Often it was the most far flung theatres that were the most exciting to visit - places like The Mull Theatre, the Minack Theatre in Cornwall and Keswick's Theatre by the Lake. I even ended up spending the night at some of the theatres - Slunglow's HUB in Leeds, Battersea Arts Centre, and Morecambe Winter Gardens. Early on I decided to give myself permission to indulge my love of theatres, to seek out the places and people that inspired me to feel hopeful about the continuing role theatres have to play in our lives. Without wishing to ignore the problems presented by theatres - the fact, in particular, that they are too often the preserved spaces of a narrow strata of society - it seemed to me the best way to tackle these issues was by seeking out positive examples of where things are being done differently. For example Tara Theatre in Earlsfield, which is a multicultural community space, or Contact Theatre in Manchester, where all of the decision making processes are effectively handed over to local young people. Having said that, I'm certainly not immune to the romance of the red velvet curtains, the chandeliers and the gilt ornamentation of a more traditional theatre - I think once you've been seduced by all this stuff, you never quite shake it off.

Eli: You start the book by talking about all the theatres that you heard about, or that you read about, or actually discovered, that didn't make it into the final list. Is your hope that readers will be inspired to make pilgrimages of their own rather than ticking off a prescribed list?

Amber:
Yes, exactly. I wanted to make it very clear at the beginning that this was a personal journey, rather than an attempt at a thoroughgoing overview of Britain's theatres. Instead, I decided on the theatres I'd visit by seeking recommendations from friends and associates and, while I obviously couldn't include all of them, I tried to create a list that reflected the spirit of the suggestions I received. The title is quite playful - I intend it as a provocation, rather than an imperative. My readers, I'm sure, will disagree with some of the theatres I've included, and feel strongly about those that should have been on the list -  great. Hopefully, as you suggest, they will be inspired to make their own list, and have their own adventure, around Britain's theatres. After all, according to the Theatres Trust, there are over 1300 of them.

Eli: I felt intense pangs reading about theatres that mean something to me too - I have spent so many Augusts in Edinburgh, was sitting in the stalls the night before the fire in Battersea Arts Centre. How much did this feel like an exploration of your own history, through theatre?

Amber:
I'd perhaps describe it as an exploration of theatre, through my own history. I've been hugely inspired by writers like Olivia Laing and Maggie Nelson, who combine cultural criticism and memoir in their work. For me, it's a much more engaging way to bring to life the relevance of the arts than a traditional academic or critical essay, and an approach that's particularly appropriate when writing about theatres. One of the central ideas of the book is how much your experience of a play is informed by the associations that the place where it is performed carries for you. This is integral to what theatre is - as a live art form, it is completely shaped by the particular setting in which it happens. So the autobiographical strand was really important in prompting readers to think about the role theatres have played in their own lives. For example, I hope that as I revisit the Theatre Royal Bath, and try to reconnect with the emotions invoked by a childhood trip to the pantomime, readers will be prompted to think of their own early experiences to the theatre.

Eli: Like me, you've moved to the sea. I think there's a lot of theatre at the seaside. What are your impressions of that in Brighton?

Amber:
There is a great heritage of coastal theatres in this country. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, a trip to a seaside music hall or a pier-end pavillion was an intrinsic part of a British summer holiday - no doubt box office sales were given a boost when it inevitably rained! Many of Britain's seaside theatres have closed their doors since their heyday. In Brighton, one of the gems of that era is the Hippodrome, built in 1897 - apparently the UK's 'most significant circus theatre', designed in part by Britain's most prolific theatre architect, Frank Matcham. It has been closed since 2007, but a campaign is underway to get it operational again. I really hope to get a peek inside soon. More widely speaking, Brighton's theatre scene is definitely thriving - I've enjoyed checking out venues like the Marlborough, Attenborough Arts Centre, and Theatre Royal Brighton, and am about to get stuck into the Brighton Festival programme. Having moved to a new city, I'm reminded that one of the best things about a theatre is how it provides a readymade community - you just turn up, and there they all are. It's a wonderful salve for loneliness.

Eli: And how 'British' does the book, and the theatrical culture explored within it, feel to you?

Amber:
There's such a huge array of theatres in the book, I think it's much more about identifying how diverse and rich the theatre culture of this island is, rather than trying to arrive at a unified idea of what British theatre is. Many of the theatres I suspect would feel a greater affinity with the performance culture of mainland Europe than they do with the playhouses of Shaftesbury Avenue. But I do think there was something important about saying, look, theatre has been an important part of British culture for at least 2000 years - why have they continued to matter to us so much? And what do they contribute to our society now?

Eli: How is life post-Camden People's Theatre and what do you miss most about your role there?

Amber:
What I miss most is standing in the bar, eavesdropping on our audiences as they'd come out of the theatre and talk about what they thought of the show - it's what it's all about, really. I also miss the close connection I had with all the artists we worked with - how they'd pop into my office for a natter, or invite me into the rehearsal room to see some new material. But I'm so looking forward to seeing the marvellous places artistic director Brian Logan and new executive director Kaya Stanley-Money will take CPT next. And I'm loving freelance life - currently I'm working with clients like Pro Helvetia (the Swiss arts council), Free Word Centre and the Barbican, as well as spending some time developing new writing projects. Watch this space!

Eli: Finally, there are a couple of moments in the book where you mention feeling hopeful while watching something idiosyncratic happening on stage - a woman drinking her own piss, two strangers undressing together. Is it the intimacy of these moments or the audiences willingness to bear witness to it that matters?

Amber:
Ha, yes, those were certainly special moments! Without wishing to get too Pseuds Corner about it, there's definitely something about an audience's willingness to witness, and uphold, an artist's choice to make themselves vulnerable in this way, that's important. In the book I mention a wonderful historical moment, which Forest Fringe director Andy Field drew my attention to years ago in a blog for the Guardian. He talks about experimental composer John Cage's appearance on the 1960s TV game show, I've Got A Secret. Cage performed his avantgarde piece Water Walk, which would no doubt have struck many in the audience as deeply strange. The host introduces the performance by saying simply: 'he takes it seriously, I think it's interesting, if you are amused you may laugh, if you like it you may buy the recording'. It's a beautiful quote which I think summarises all I'd like a theatre to be - a place where difference is acknowledged and explored, but where there is the possibility we may just find common ground.

@ambermb

Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die
by Amber Massie-Blomfield
Pre-order your copy and get 20% off (7-20 May only)
Order your copy from pennedinthemargins.co.uk
Published by Penned in the Margins

Book Launch Event: Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die
Monday 4 June, from 6.30pm
Battersea Arts Centre
Lavender Hill
London SW11 5TN
Free entry. RSVP essential by Monday 28 May.
RSVP: pennedinthemargins.co.uk