Interview with Nicky Haydn on The Warren Outdoors

Credit Simon Dack / Alamy Live News

Skip to review of West End On Sea.

Last month, I was invited to the launch of what is possibly the most ambitious venture in live performance since lockdown. The Warren, normally Brighton Fringe’s biggest venue, went ahead and created its own outdoor pop-up venue with socially distanced seating. I was impressed by what I saw, and, more importantly, it’s been getting the audiences it needed – something that was far from certain at launch.

But there was something that puzzled me – how was it possible to put together something of this complexity with less than a month’s notice that outdoor theatre performances were permitted? To answer this, and other questions on The Warren in general, I took advantage of a train/cycle holiday along the south coast to catch up with Nicky Haydn, artistic director of Otherplace, to hear more about this extraordinary story.

I literally don’t know when we decided to do this … It all began with a “what if?” What if we were able to create something outdoors? We had no idea if it could become a reality.

I’m sitting in The Warren Outdoors before performances begin, and I have with me Nicky Haydn, artistic director of The Warren, to tell me how this all came about. But we’re going to be talking about more than The Warren Outdoors, we’re going to be talking about the venue in general.

So before the crazy events of 2020, let’s start at the beginning. I’ve been going to Brighton Fringe since 2009 when it was Upstairs at the Three and Ten – I believe things go back a bit further. How did Otherplace go from management of the upstairs room of a pub to the biggest venue on the fringe now?

Well, it did start before that. In 2005 I inherited the role to Manage the theatre above the Marlborough pub. I’d been a volunteering there, and I was also working as a performer, and the person in charge asked if I wanted to take over the reins of running it, and I said “yeah”. 2006 was our first Brighton Fringe and we had 19 events – in fact, some of the performers from then are still performing with us, maybe not at this venue, but at The Warren. We have the likes of long-nosed puppet, they did Shoe Baby in 2006; Kate Smurthwaite, she did a show in 2006 with us; The Maydays, who often perform with us.

Many companies have been with us long-time, and in 2008 we had our first fringe at Upstairs at Three and Ten. We converted a room above a pub into a little 46-seat theatre. And then – what happened? – there were some shows that I really wanted to bring to Brighton, and our stage, which you must recall it’s not the largest of stages …

Yes, it is indeed tiny.

… it just couldn’t fit the shows! And I mean, we had some incredible names play on that stage. Sarah Millcan played there, Romesh used to play there all the time, Seann Walsh, all these people early on in their careers, honing their crafts. But there’s theatre shows that wouldn’t fit. So we took a look at Wagner Hall which is behind Churchill Square, and we created The Warren for 2012. The stage was large enough to accommodate some of the larger theatre shows, but also accomodate a larger audience capacity, because as we were growing, demand for tickets was also growing. So we spent three years there, and it just snowballed, really, quite quickly, and here we are in 2020.

Then we went to the pop-up venue …

… St. Peter’s Church, and we had a brief one-year season at The Basement as well – which isn’t a venue any more, I don’t think. And then, in 2019, we are able to put The Warren on the site at Victoria Gardens, because there was works going on up at St. Peter’s. And of course in 2020 we were all set to go back to Victoria Gardens, and open and introduce our new venue Electric Arcade down on the beach front – and six weeks before we were due to launch the pandemic happened.

Well, we’ll be getting on to the pandemic in a moment, but before we get on to that, a bit more background. One of the headlining acts that you’ve got here is Shit-Faced Shakespeare. How did your association with them start?

In 2012 I went to see them in Edinburgh, on the recommendation of somebody else, and they said “I know you love Shakespeare, but you’re really going to love this show because it’s nuts.” So I went to see them and invited them down at Wagner Hall in 2013, and we booked them for five dates, and in fact they brought A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it absolutely went down a storm. I think we invited them back for an extra show at the end of the fringe, because we also put together a programme for Meadowlands festival that year, so they came and did that, and that was that, they’ve never stopped. We’ve been friends ever since.

We’ve been working with them seven years, and as we’ve grown, they’ve grown, so it’s a nice partnership.

Okay, so now we come to 2020, and as you were alluding to just now, the timing was not kind for Brighton Fringe, with everything stopped six weeks before. How was The Warren affected by this?

So, timing – it couldn’t have been worse, to be fair. This year, we had 280 visiting companies booked in to perform across our eight theatre spaces within our two venues – and we just had to press pause, because that seemed the sensible reasonable thing to do.

And … what was it like? Pretty dire; not easy but when you’re faced with a global pandemic, you just do what you have to do. We couldn’t be emotional about it; we just had to put the brakes on, and at that time, we had no idea what the future would hold. So we just said: let’s pause, and wait, and see.

If you were to look at this operational model outside of a life where Covid exists, you’d go “That’s completely bananas, that can’t work.” Normally, when I’ve produced stuff in the past, twelve weeks lead-in is your minimum.

So when did the idea to run an outdoor venue start?

I literally don’t know when we decided to do this. It feels in this crazy mad dream that it’s real and we keep going.

What happened was we talked about: “what if?” And it all began with a “what if?” What if we were able to create something outdoors? We had no idea if it could become a reality. Josh drew an idea, which is what we have here, where we are sitting. And the idea came out of a desire to rescue events in Brighton as well. So we spoke to lots of other venues and producers in Brighton and said “If we made something happen, would you join us?”, because everybody’s lost their income.

So Komedia said “Yeah”, and we put the proposal in; it was a space for venues and artists to show their work, but also for audiences to come in a safe way and feel like they could come out and enjoy live performance again. That’s basically what’s fuelled the whole thing, a desire to have work to share with each other; because, as great and creative as digital platforms are, there is nothing that can beat sitting in an auditorium with an audience.

And then obviously we didn’t know we’d get the go-ahead, we didn’t know anything.

That’s interesting, because from what you’re saying, it sounds like most of this was planned before you knew if outdoor theatre would be allowed at all.

Yes, it was that. To a degree, it was planned. We spoke to some of the key players who I knew wanted to play if we got the go-ahead. We put together a pencilled programme, and it was pencilled firstly because we didn’t know if the government would allow it, and secondly if Brighton and Hove City Council would give us the green light. But we just carried on, hoping that it would be allowed to go ahead. And from the moment of getting the green light from Brighton and Hove City Council to the moment we opened our doors: it was two weeks.

That little? I thought you had three weeks.

Two weeks. It was Monday or Tuesday we got the green light, we announced it on Wednesday, and it went on sale on Friday, so we were on sale for ten days before we launched, that was it.

If you were to look at this operational model outside of a life where Covid exists, you’d go “That’s completely bananas, that can’t work.” Normally, when I’ve produced stuff in the past, twelve weeks lead-in is your minimum. I think – from Josh drawing to the opening day – it was six weeks.

For Shit-Faced Shakespeare, the company had to come together … two weeks before they came. They lived together in Brighton in a bubble, and there was a standby cast in London should any of them not be able to continue.

There are two ways of looking at venues like this. One is that it’s a no-brainer to do it because there’s a lot of money invested and you want to recoup it; the other is that, even with all this considered, it’s a big gamble. From what you’re saying, it sounds like you saw it as a huge gamble, but you were determined to press ahead anyway?

Yeah, an enormous gamble, because not only are you putting on work in a global pandemic and asking artists to adapt what they do, to perform in an outdoor capacity subject to the elements; you’re also asking people to take a risk in an audience, and trust that we’re going to create an environment where it’s as safe as possible, and that the work isn’t going to be compromised. And actually, we’ve managed to achieve all of that. Audiences feel safe, artists are having a lovely time, and braving all the weather – the heat wave we had at the beginning, the wind, the rain – we’re here, we’re alive, we’re doing it!

Yes, massive gamble, but totally worth it. What are we going to do? Are we just going to sit at home, twiddle our thumbs, and wait for what?

One of the announcements just before it began was Jimmy Carr. You’ve programmed other big-name comedians since. You talked about reaching out to some acts to see if this was viable, but how did you draw the big names in?

Quite simply, most performers, during their last six months, haven’t had anywhere to do their work. So these artists – not only these comedians, but also these singers from these West End shows – haven’t been able to work in the way they’d normally been working. So people like Jimmy Carr were really open to it, because his tour couldn’t continue and this was an opportunity to perform. He came in our first weekend, and he’s coming back to close our season – he’s got two shows back-to-back on the last night. So he was really up for it – everybody’s been up for it.

If you’re a solo comic, you’re not having to “bubble”. For Shit-Faced Shakespeare, the company had to come together and create a bubble two weeks before they came. They lived together in Brighton in a bubble, and there was a standby cast in London should any of them not be able to continue. For a solo comic, it’s a bit different, it’s a no-brainer for a lot of them.

Sara Pascoe’s here next week, and she played with us in the early days of her career at Upstairs at the Three and Ten. And Luisa Omielan played with us last year, so we’re excited she’s coming back on the 18th. Russell Kane was here a couple of weeks ago, that was really short notice – he was supposed to be abroad but I think his travel got cancelled, so he was suddenly able to come and do something. And Seann Walsh, who’s been a friend of the venue forever, he came on Saturday night to to sold-out crowds, and it was amazing!

And at the other end of the scale, how did the grass-roots acts get programmed?

I’ve directed outdoor shows before, and I know the sort of work that works on a big outdoor stage. There’s one entrance and exit, there’s no anything, it’s just that! So you have to have work that is robust, and it doesn’t depend on big sets, big flats, and it needs to fill a big stage, and it’s a big auditorium. We need performers who can reach out and communicate with that sized audience.

The sound is really brilliantly directional to speakers on each table. So unlike a big gig – if you were in a park, for example, you’d have a big stack of sound system – this is sent to each person’s table, so you can create an intimate environment with you six people around the speaker and watch the stage. So it works really well.

So I just called them. All of the fringey acts, local acts, I phoned them and said “We’re doing something crazy, do you want to join us?” So Bright Buoys, who you saw, they were one of the first phone-calls I made, and said “This is nuts, we don’t know if we can do this, if we can do you want to come with us?” Of course, they won the Otherplace Award last year at the Edinburgh Fringe, and they’re so positive, and they weren’t able to be in Edinburgh, so they said “We’ll spend three weeks by the sea, that’ll be nice!”

We were talking just before the interview about the cast for Unmythable. That was interesting.

The person who was go and see Shit-Faced Shakespeare also said go and see Unmythable. So I went to see it, it blew my mind, I loved it, and I’ve been trying to get that show subsequently for years, but the timings never worked out. Literally, it’s been a courtship, that finally worked out in 2019. Paul, who was the artistic director of the company, who was originally in the show, had re-cast it over the years and it was now an all-female cast. And when I phoned him – again one of the early phone calls for The Warren Outdoors – I said “If you’re available and the cast’s available I’d love you to bring Unmythable; because of the nature of the piece, I think it would be fantastic in the space along the beach”, and he said “Yeah, I’ll see what I can do.”

One of the ladies in the show in May couldn’t do it because she was on another job, and so Paul said “I’ll play Jason”. It was an all-male cast, and then it was an all-female cast, and now it’s a mixed cast where he got to perform his original role as Jason.

It played in the early bit of the season, then came back on the 17th, and it was amazing, and it performed in a very windy, tempestuous evening, to a really busy crowd who loved it.

Now, one footnote to all of this is: next door to us we have Electric Arcade, which I believe has plans way beyond Warren Outdoors. Tell me all about this.

Well, it’s planned on paper and in my head at the moment, with lots of conversations and plates spinning. We will continue into October, there will be live performance, within government guidelines, of course. The Cabaret stage in there will be able to house work, and there’s performers I’m talking to. I’m sorry I can’t do some big announcement of who and what and when and how, but watch this space because there will be live performance, and potentially some screenings, and potentially showing some screening in The Gaiety, one of the smaller studio spaces.

Let’s look ahead to next year. There was a point when it was assumed that next year would be back to normal; now people aren’t so sure. And the shock announcement from Edinburgh is that they’re working to the assumption they’ll be 40% the size of 2019. What are your expectations at The Warren?

I think the Edinburgh thing is really interesting, because that’s based a lot on the international artists maybe not being able to come, but also a lot of international tourists, as Edinburgh’s long been a destination for international travel. I don’t know how sensible it is if we in Brighton  compare to Edinburgh, because we operate different models anyway. Edinburgh performers come for long runs; in Brighton the fabric of the fringe is completely different.

We are planning Brighton 2021 Fringe now. We’re just starting conversations now with all the relevant parties who are involved in the creation of The Warren, in terms of the site itself and the venues; and Josh is starting to draw what the venues might look like. And there will be all manner of drawings, because the sands are always shifting.

The Warren 2021 will go ahead, in a way we can and a way that makes the most sense to do. We’ve got a lot of companies that want to come, and audiences want to watch stuff! We’ll see, but we are planning it, it is happening.

Predicting the future is difficult, but let’s assume that by 2022 or wherever, we are back to where we were before. There’s two kinds of performers at Brighton: those who’ve already had a successful run at Edinburgh and take on Brighton as part of a tour; and you’ve got people who’ve not done Edinburgh and are maybe eyeing it up getting started in Brighton. What composition of the two do you have at The Warren?

It’s interesting, because in the very early days, back in 2006-2007, the shows we were having were very much on their way up to Edinburgh.

If we were to take all the companies, there would be a similar portion of those on their way back and those on their way up. And then there is a portion of people who are not going to Edinburgh but might be doing some of the other fringes, such as Barnstaple or Buxton. And some companies come with last year’s Edinburgh show and this year’s upcoming Edinburgh show. There other shows that haven’t ever contemplated Edinburgh but just on a national tour that we managed to pick up. And some local companies who make work. It’s very very even, I’d say.

One big disparity between the venues is typical run length. Sweet actively encourages performers to run for seven days, The Rialto is typically five, The Warren when I last checked is three to four. Could you see yourselves going up?

The way it works when I’m programming is that it all depends on the show. It would be so much easier if there was a magic formula, but shows and companies don’t work in that way, so it’s a case-by-case. The average is between three and five actually, it’s gradually crept up, but if I think a show should run only two days, and I think that will make the most financial and artistic sense to them, I will say “I don’t want to give you and more than two, because I think you should just do two.” And other shows do long runs – obviously Shit-Faced was due to do a very long run in The Hat, because they are a show that can sustain it now.

What’s nice about Brighton, and all the venues in Brighton, is that it’s always somebody’s opening night and always somebody’s last night. The energy that companies bring on their first night is so brilliant that you get swept along in a wave of enthasiasm. And the companies being able to perform against each other. When you’ve got six venues, as there was at The Warren in 2019, it was amazing for new companies to rub shoulders, in the dressing room or the bar. We don’t have VIP areas where the performers disappear like some places in Edinburgh. It doesn’t matter who you are; you’re sitting at the table drinking your cup of tea or your pint, and you’re sitting next to that fledgling performer or that famous face off the telly.

That’s what’s really nice about Brighton Fringe, it’s such a mix. People have got short runs, long runs, some people come at the beginning and come back at the end, and working relationships are forged and friendships formed for life at Brighton Fringe.

So The Warren is becoming the “supervenue” of Brighton Fringe. Do you plan to follow the Edinburgh supervenues and carry on growing to meet demand, or will there be a point when you say you’re big enough?

“Supervenues” is a really funny term, because everything we’ve done has been organic. I grew up here, I went to school here, and when I was a kid I went and saw Brighton Festival shows in converted rooms at the Old Ship Hotel above the old Nightingale, and the Theatre Royal when they used to put Festival shows on. And so the desire has always been to provide a platform for artists that want to put work on. And that’s always been what we do, And it feels like it’s snowballed, but it’s grown organically and slowly.

So Covid has drawn a line in the sand and now we have to rethink. Artists are rethinking the work that they make, and the relevance of the work that they make, and what they want to say to an audience. I can’t answer that question because I honestly don’t know.

So finally: who should apply to The Warren next year?

Anyone. Everyone. If you’ve got a show, if you’re a new performer, or you’re a seasoned pro who hasn’t played with us before, or if you’ve played with us, I’ve got the memory of an elephant. Even if you’ve played with us back in 2009, I will remember you!

So if you haven’t got on stage in a little while and you want to get back on stage, drop us an email. Still we have companies that come back after seven years saying “Remember me?” So it’s lovely, and we continue to build that community. Everyone apply, we’ll be there.

Nicky Haydn, thank you very much

And a bonus review …

And whilst I was passing through Brighton, I took the opportunity to catch one more event at The Warren Outdoors.

West End On Sea

One of the many founding ideas to get The Warren Outdoors off the ground was making use of some of the many West End singers who’d otherwise have nowhere to perform whilst the West End theatres are closed. And so you can see musical performances to a West End standard on Brighton Beach instead. I could end the review right here. It does what it says on the tin, and it’s a no-brainer. As Nicky Haydn says in the interview, there are performers queuing up wanting to do something, and this is a unique opportunity to hear live performances from the top flight of musical theatre for a fraction of the cost.

Although this is in the theatre section, the show is sensibly a compilation of songs from assorted musicals, rather than trying to force a story into it. All the performers have a local connection, so in theory there’s nothing to stop someone doing something similar with West End performers in another area. All the performers are playing to their obvious strengths here, so there’s little to fault, but if there was something I’d pick out as the strongest area, it’s the songs that leave room to act. I realise we’re taking all of these musical numbers out of the stories that support them, and most of the songs performed in isolation are just songs; but in Suddenly Seymour, where we get to see Seymour and Audrey at their most poignant moment, that was something special.

Here’s the odd thing though: even with all of the social distancing measures in place, at West End On Sea you will find yourself to the performers than the majority of the audience in a typical West End theatre. This is why I place the most value on the songs where you really get to act and feel it, because this is something you lose a lot of performing at a distance. This, combined with the attention given to big star names and all the other bells and whistles, means that the individual skills of these performers get undervalued.

I need to be careful here, because the livelihoods of everyone who do the bells and whistles are under threat too. There was a time when I thought a permanent West End meltdown was a possibility – I now expect the West End to eventually get back to business as usual. But even if the worst comes to the worst and the lavish-scale West End shows never return, it won’t be the end of the world. West End On Sea shows what you can do with just a bare stage and a piano, but small theatres can and have put on whole musicals with minimal resources allowing performers to shine in a way you simply can’t appreciate at a distance. Hopefully this discussion is hypothetical – I think even the people behind West End on Sea would agree that the ideal situation is to make themselves redundant as soon as possible – but if we go into next year and things haven’t changed, this could be taken a lot further.

In the meantime, however, however, you can enjoy this show for what it is: a celebration of some of the greatest musical numbers that makes to most of the current extraordinary situation. It probably helps if you recognise the songs and their context within their musicals they were written for, but you can enjoy it no matter what. Would normally say “long may it last”, but that isn’t the point of this show, so instead, it’s worth catching while it lasts, however long it may be.

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