Bury St Edmunds theatre producer who went from Suffolk to Broadway
- Credit: Archant
Suffolk theatre director Alastair Whatley is celebrating ten years of success by taking two plays to New York. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to him about how theatre can still capture an audience’s imagination
“You don’t need to live in London to find top quality theatre on your doorstep.” That’s the driving force behind Suffolk-based theatre producer Alastair Whatley that has taken him from an office based in the family kitchen to nationwide UK tours and to Broadway.
Alastair established The Original Theatre Company from his parents home in Whepstead, near Bury St Edmunds, ten years ago and set out to play a mixture of new plays, forgotten gems and tried and tested classics.
Highlights from his first decade on the road include a critically acclaimed extended tour of the World War One drama Birdsong, a revival of Sir Peter Shaffer’s The Private Ear & The Public Eye, a new take on Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa as well as a timely re-imagining of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path and a loving recreation Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.
However, Alastair’s ongoing collaboration with writer Torben Betts has proved to be the launch engine for the theatre company’s second decade and the reason for their two Broadway runs.
With support from the Arts Council, Alastair and The Original Theatre Company are supporting new writing and their first associate writer is playwright Torben Betts who penned the black comedy Invincible for the regional touring company and has now followed this with a modern satire Caroline’s Kitchen.
Invincible was ‘a made in Suffolk’ production opening at The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds before touring UK and ending up in New York playing at 59E59 Theater as part of the Brits Off Broadway Season. Caroline’s Kitchen is set to follow in its footsteps making two years in a row that this modest Suffolk-based theatre company has made it across the pond.
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Speaking to Alastair it is clear that he’s very pleased with the way that the Original Theatre Company has developed and even more pleased with the fact it is clearly continuing to evolve.
Going to Broadway is a wonderful tenth anniversary present. Are you happy with the way that things have developed over the years?
AW: “There is always a disconnect between the memory and the reality but as I remember it, we spent the first couple of years doing Shakespeare productions on tour – both indoors and out – but the company had always aspired to do a mix of work both old and new. As a company we have always trod a line between tradition and innovation forged in the mould of the great actor-manager companies of old and inspired by the barnstorming theatre troupes who took big plays to eccentric places. That first production of Twelfth Night went everywhere from The Lyric Hammersmith in London, to the Edinburgh Festival to Accrington Stanley Football Club to cliff tops and school halls we took it everywhere.”
I suppose the name of the theatre company was a clue to your ultimate plans?
AW: “I remember coming up with the name The Original Theatre Company. It was during that long hot summer of 2004 and I was out of university and I was sat in my Mum and Dad’s kitchen just playing around with the idea of setting up a theatre company and it seemed the perfect name...but it has taken us a long time to live up to that name. I think the big shift will be a re-balancing of our work. We will continue to be universal, accessible, creating work that anybody can come and see, particularly families, but there will be more new work, along with great plays that, perhaps, haven’t been seen for a while.”
How did your working relationship with Torben Betts come about?
AW: “Torben Betts has been the resident dramatist at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre and (poet and dramatist) Liz Lochhead is a huge fan and said Betts “is just about the most original and extraordinary writer of drama we have” and I wanted to work with him.
“Having said that Invincible was a nightmare to produce. Nobody was interested in financing it. The Arts Council said ‘No’ twice and yet I knew there was a great play here if only we could get it in front of an audience and so it proved to be. But, at the same time we had Flare Path going out on tour, I was directing Shadowlands and at the sametime trying to get money to together to get this unknown play finished and ready for performance.
“But, what is interesting is, both Flare Path and Shadowlands were big shows for us and did very well but Invincible outsold them both by some margin and that’s without anyone famous in the cast, it was a title nobody knew, but it sold by word-of-mouth, that most reliable of advertising. People who saw it, liked it alot and told their friends.
“It’s clear that audiences want something that is good and original and its encouraged me to be bolder with my programming and it’s led directly to me commissioning Torben to write another play Caroline’s Kitchen.
Presumably you have been encouraged by audiences’ appetite for new plays?
AW: “Word-of-mouth is still important but the biggest thing for theatre is the way that we consume entertainment has changed – particularly at home. There was a time when you had to be in to see your favourite television programmes and they didn’t look as good as cinema or theatre but now you can get what you want, when you want from downloadable box sets, the production values are superb and you don’t have to leave the confines of your sitting room.
“So, I am very aware that live entertainment, theatre, has to offer something you can’t get from a TV screen. People will still come out for theatre but you have to make it special. What we are offering is something that you have not seen before. You will laugh a lot, you will cry, and it will be a big experience.
“I believe that the play’s the thing, that we all deserve great entertainment, that regional theatre is important, that theatre outside London is creative and innovative and we can be both creatively and commercially successful and we can collaborate and promote new talent. By doing that we are all winners.”
Caroline’s Kitchen, by Torben Betts, will be at the Colchester Mercury Theatre from April 9-13.