Ali Pritchard, artist director of Alphabetti Theatre
, is an intriguing gentleman. Curious, generous and humble. He is one of those peculiar people; he is a catalyst. A man with a salacious fervour for gender equality and experimentation in the arts. I sat down to discuss the history of Alphabetti, what the company is going through at the moment and survival of an independent theatre. In the basement snug of the theatre we began with Ali telling me how it all started.
Alphabetti Theatre began above the Dog and Parrot pub, down by the Centre for Life. After being threatened with failure by my professors (Drama and Script Writing, Northumbria University), if I didn’t take the show up to Edinburgh, I decided to take it up. We had a really successful sixteen night run on the Laughing Horse Comedy Bus (2012). We sold out every night and were christened the next Monty Python by the BBC.
When I returned to Newcastle there was nowhere that would take me on, no small spaces to perform in. So I thought, right, I’ll find another venue. I approached the Dog and Parrot, at the beginning of 2013. It started with me renting the space, now Jumpin’ Jacks’, for a week to put on the sketch show, Teeth and Eggcups, that we’d taken up to Edinburgh.
The owner at the time bit my hand off. That same week he’d had to shut the whole pub down. They had put on a metal band whose lead singer had a pigs head and a baseball bat; wearing a full lycra suit – with the microphone zipped to his mouth – he began smashing the pigs head into the crowd. So when I approached him he said, ‘Theatre! Your want to do theatre? Of course I’ll let you do that.’
He gave us a bit of money to clean and paint, put down a new floor and fix the lights. When we put on the show, the venues we had talked to never came. However, I found two things: the first being an audience that wanted theatre and secondly other theatre makers who needed a small space.
They came to me and asked to rent the space. I told them yes, but I’m just renting as well, just like you. It ended up with the owner letting me run with it, to take over the space. We had every night in the week, apart from Tuesday and Saturday. He kept the bar money and we kept the door. He didn’t charge us rent. Sometimes we got some arts council funding and sometimes we didn’t, but everything we took on the door we shared with the artists. We programmed work, I built a green room and it was grimy, really grimy, but it was lovely.
So how did the transition to the location at New Bridge happen?
The transition to our location at New Bridge Street came during a strange time. A new owner took over the Dog and Parrot. He didn’t really want a theatre and demanded I prove what I was doing there. He gave us a month. We ended up having a really successful six months there. Regardless he came to me and said that’s enough.
Towards the end of the time there I’d gotten ill. I’d lost over two stone in a fortnight and was in a bad way. Now, without a venue, I put on a reaction piece to Paddy Campbell’s Wet House at Live Theatre; How did I get to this point? During this time I came into contact with a man, whose now one of our literary agents. He was homeless then, became a good friend, and I took him in to live with me. Between the play and my friend I became aware of the safety net I had, my family. A bastion during a time when you really are never more than two pay cheques away from being homeless.
My friend, the homeless man’s girlfriend runs New Bridge and I talked to her about taking over the basement which, up till then had simply been a dumping ground for art work and an illegal nightclub. She consented, we cleaned it up and in opened doors in March 2014.
At this point, I’d never really wanted to run a theatre, I never wanted a theatre, it just kind of happened.
What position is Alphabetti Theatre in at the moment?
Well the audience weren’t forth coming. I realised that the audience were happy to see theatre, in a room above a pub, but once we opened the theatre they didn’t exactly race over.
We were trying to figure out what to do, how to run as a not-for-profit arts organisation. We always planned to operate on a break even structure. I had to take loans from the bank and all the while I still never wanted to run a theatre, but we needed to keep going, this space needed to exist in Newcastle, for everyone else. The audiences did want it and the artists wanted it.
So it was still me, with a few friends volunteering and when I had money I paid them. We weren’t a company, we’re a sole trader, I say we, but it’s still just me and all the debt is mine. For a person who’s by themselves, only ever had part-time jobs and been self-employed, they don’t give you much leeway for debt.
I had £10,000 debt for Alphabetti. It was up and down, we got a bit of funding, a new bar manager who helped renovate the space so we had an interesting bar and theatre. As our reputation grew and won awards we were able to attract more interesting artists, put on more experimental performers and provide a space that people wanted.
We know it’s not the best space for this and it’s not the best space for that, but we know everyone bends over backwards to help so it’s very personal, we know everyone’s giving the most they can. So when we have complaints it’s very difficult.
June to September, this year, really crushed us as a theatre. It’s when everyone’s gearing up for Edinburgh, for the Fringe. We thought this would help, but it didn’t happen. We struggled, hand to mouth. It wasn’t the quality that was the issue, but just people were elsewhere. We still wanted to provide the space for experimentation and excellent work, but by mid-August I couldn’t pay the staff, I couldn’t pay myself, I couldn’t pay the rent. I was left asking myself why am I putting myself through this agony, when I don’t really want to be doing this. The reason I was doing it was because if I didn’t no one else would, but it felt like no one wanted this anymore.
At that point I argued with myself and decided that was it, it was over. I’ll call it a day and work a horrible office job to pay off the debt and find other ways to put on my work. It was a friend who suggested putting it out on social media, I didn’t want to. I caved and put out that Alphabetti was going to close unless we raised £10,000 at their suggestion, just to see what the response was. It would mean that we could transform into a charity instead of a operating as a sole trader. We had two fundraisers coming up at the end of August and if they didn’t work then we just wouldn’t get to September. No stock, no money, no anything.
The response was incredible. We raised over £800 from the fundraisers. Behind the bar we took something silly, I mean people would come down for a coffee, pay with a £20 and leave the change. It was then, that I felt, that people do still want this, it’s just people have been away, one of those things and they do still want it. Someone else suggested a Kickstarter. I don’t really like them because they need to really be for a reason, some people just abuse it. The only thing I wanted to use it for was to get a chair lift fitted to make the venue accessible. My friend said, why wait, what happens if you don’t get to that. So we did it and we hit over £3,000 in six hours. The next twenty days we raised another £3,200 which was just incredible, I never expected it. At the moment we’re just under £8,000 and that’s just the first month. With the programme and shows we have I know they’ll do well because of the talent we have coming in. Now instead of raising £10,000 by the end of December we’ve got about £1,500 to raise which is looking very likely. So I’m quietly confident and have started planning for 2017.
Other partners began crawling out of the wood work to help us, to keep Alphabetti Theatre open. I also traveled around the country to other, similar venues: New Diorama (London), The Bike Shed (Exeter) and Slung Low Hub (Leeds). Places with a similar ethos, supporting one another with accessible prices and art for everyone with a great quality. Having their support as well as from the audience gave a hug that was needed at the time.
The interview was interrupted by a drayman from Northern Alchemy who had come to fix a gas problem for free, during his busy schedule. Ali is called away to attend rehearsals for Bacon Knees And Sausage Fingers, a performance about how we reached this point, but for two bizarre characters on the high rise bridge written by Gary Kitching and Steve Byron.
The programme until the end of the year and beyond is host to an arcade of great work and strong performances. For more information I implore you to get in contact via the website, call on the landline or, in a more humane fashion, walk down the eighteen steps it takes to find yourself in the basement of New Bridge, in the heart that is Alphabetti Theatre.