As part of Tonbridge School, the EM Forster Theatre offers a programme of productions for both students and the wider community. Theatre manager Kat Portman and director Gavin Bruce chat to Fred Latty about bringing a diverse cultural offering to local pupils and the public all year round
TELL US HOW YOU BOTH GOT INVOLVED AT THE THEATRE
Gavin: I arrived as head of drama five years ago, having worked at a day school in London. At the time I took over as head of drama, but a couple of years in the head asked me to take over as director of theatre and bring the internal and external factions of the theatre together. We have a lot of things coming in, but we’re also a producing house and the boys create a lot of theatre in-house.
Kat: I come from a producing background and was interested in working in a theatre rather than outside one. I was aware of the theatre because I’d had a couple of shows that toured here in the past. What’s exciting for me is the combination of the quality of the boys’ work, plus the external work and letting external audiences know about the theatre and what we do here. It’s that combination that’s quite unique.
IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU PROMOTE THE SPACE FOR USE BY THE WIDER COMMUNITY, AS WELL AS THE SCHOOL?
Gavin: We try and broaden our horizons and include the community wherever we can. A lot of the school is hired out for public use, but the theatre really is the hub of the community. We’re trying to encourage more of the community to come in to use the facilities and enjoy the things we’ve got coming in.
DOES THE THEATRE HAVE THE LATEST EQUIPMENT AND FACILITIES?
Kat: Absolutely. When you produce your own theatre, you’re working in small fringe venues, so coming here to a 370-seat theatre, which keeps up to date and is ready for when a show comes in, was fantastic. Also, the studio theatre seats around 90 people and is completely flexible, so for me coming from a producing background, the facilities are amazing.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE RECENT AND UPCOMING HIGHLIGHTS FROM YOUR PROGRAMME?
Gavin: Internally, we’re preparing for our junior production of The Grapes of Wrath, which features a cast of 45, the Colorado River, live fire and a full-size Hudson Super-Six car onstage, which we’re building in-house. We’ve just had a production of Jerusalem, which was fantastically staged with a full-size caravan, and last term we produced a version of Hamlet which went down very well. Externally, we’ve had NT Live screenings here, which are gaining in popularity and have had several sell-outs. Because we’re a theatre, we can screen these performances direct from the National, which people like to watch in a theatrical space, so they’ve really taken off.
Kat: The theatre’s built up a great audience for children’s work, which often sells out. We’ve got a mix of stuff coming up this summer, like a couple of smaller kids’ shows in the studio and an Edinburgh show preview. For me, it’ll be interesting over the next year to really feel out what people want to see, what we can sell and what’s good to bring in. It’s always a good balance between being appropriate for the pupils and an external audience.
LIKE A LOT OF THEATRES, HAVE YOU HAD TO DIVERSIFY YOUR OFFERING IN RECENT YEARS?
Gavin: It’s different for us because we have an in-school audience, so we’re in a luxurious position. It’s more to do with what we’re going to put on to attract more people into our venue, rather than what we have to put on. We’ve invested over the last couple of years in a lot of very high-quality music, so we’re now a professional music venue as well.
WOULD YOU SAY THERE’S A LOT OF VARIATION IN THE PROGRAMME THROUGHOUT THE YEAR?
Gavin: Each season is very different in flavour. We tend to do a big autumn production internally and a lot of productions in the spring, but less in the summer, which is when we pack it with external providers. We work a lot alongside other local schools as well. We invite a lot of the local girls’ schools in to audition for our internal productions, but also have schools visiting to do their productions at the venue in the summer.
ARE PUPILS VERY HANDS-ON IN CREATING THEIR OWN WORK?
Kat: The students are involved at every level, which is great. We go under the umbrella of Tonbridge Arts, which includes the music department, the English department and the art department, so there are two galleries that are very often used for outside artists putting exhibitions on. They are open at the weekends to the public and often free as well. It’s just about trying to get the word out there.
DO YOU ALSO OFFER CULTURAL EXCHANGES TO THE STUDENTS?
Gavin: We have a group that goes to Edinburgh every summer and puts together a piece to take up to the Fringe, which is quite an exciting venture. We also take a production up to Riverhill Gardens as part of the Sevenoaks Festival. I’m looking at the moment to take a show out to Sri Lanka next summer, where we’ll support CAL (Child Action Lanka) and all the orphan children in Sri Lanka who have been affected by the war and tsunami.
HOW ABOUT CREATIVE WORKSHOPS?
Gavin: In the last couple of years we’ve worked with the National, which has a scriptwriting competition. We’ve had a finalist in two of the last three years who have had their plays read professionally in a rehearsed performance, which has been very exciting. We also run a series of workshops throughout the year, for which we target some of the younger boys and some girls from local schools. This year we’ve had professional workshops on War Horse and a movement workshop, as well as some Shakespeare, puppetry and mask work. We’re looking to build on that and really offer professional workshops to our boys and the local community.
IN YOUR OPINION, IS LOCAL THEATRE AND CULTURE THRIVING?
Gavin: Absolutely. One of our challenges is that we’re so close to the West End, and a lot of our clientele work in London, so we’re competing with the West End sometimes. It’s about putting things on that are exciting and attracting people in with different types of shows. We often go to the Edinburgh Fringe to look at new work and bring it back to try and introduce local audiences to things that are a bit newer.
FINALLY, WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR THE FUTURE OF THE EM FORSTER THEATRE?
Kat: It’s about developing and building on what’s already here, and trying to have enough of a body of work that people know, or that they might want to take a look at. We need to develop and build on that to try and find out what the community wants and what we can draw them in with.
Gavin: From my point of view, it’s about getting our name out there and the awareness of the theatre. We’ve got a fantastic facility here that’s very well-equipped, and I’d possibly like to see in the future a theatre company that has a residence here, using the facility to write and create its own work, which can then feed into the work we do here at the school.
Some events to look forward to at the EM Forster Theatre over the coming months
Ballet Central 2016
Thursday March 24, 7.30pm
Tickets £14.50, £12.50 concessions, £10 dance school groups Ballet Central 2016 features a sparkling programme of ballet, neoclassical, contemporary and narrative dance. The company’s young and dynamic dancers will showcase their talent with a diverse performance of newly commissioned works and celebrated revivals.
NT Live Encore – Hangmen
Thursday April 21, 7pm
Tickets £14, £12 concessions Following a sell-out run at London’s Royal Court Theatre, Olivier and Academy Award-winner Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, The Cripple of Inishmaan, In Bruges) returns to the West End with Matthew Dunster’s award-winning production of his deeply funny new play Hangmen, broadcast live to cinemas by National Theatre Live.
The Curious Adventures of Pinocchio
Sunday May 1, 3pm
Tickets £8, ages 4+
Crickets, cats, foxes and, of course, the world-famous puppet, will spring out of our collection of dusty, old magic books, while Patrick Lynch from CBeebies pulls all the strings and turns all the pages to bring you the true story of Pinocchio. Who nose? He might even find his father and become a real boy. Come and join him on his incredible journey – you’ll have a whale of a time.
The Day it Rained in Colours
Friday May 6, 7.30pm and Saturday May 7, 3pm and 7.30pm
Tickets £8, £6 concessions (children under 16 and seniors)
The Day it Rained in Colours is a musical by Roy Etherton, based on his bestselling children’s book of the same name. The award-winning Absolute Gospel Company will be staging this production. The company has performed locally, nationally and internationally, and their work has also been presented on television and radio.
NT Live – A View from the Bridge (Encore) Thursday May 12, 7pm
Tickets £14, £12 concessions
The great Arthur Miller confronts the American dream in this dark and passionate tale. In Brooklyn, longshoreman Eddie Carbone welcomes his Sicilian cousins to the land of freedom. But when one of them falls for his beautiful niece, they discover that freedom comes at a price. Eddie’s jealous mistrust exposes a deep, unspeakable secret – one that drives him to commit the ultimate betrayal.
EM Forster Theatre
High Street, Tonbridge, Kent TN9 1JP 01732 304 241