The Marlowe Theatre plays a crucial role in Canterbury’s culture. With different shows playing every week, I wanted to know more about the way the venue functions. Cat Buffe, Pioneering Canterbury Project producer, and Paula Gillespie, Chief Operating Officer, discuss their experience working at the Marlowe, as well as the history and team of the theatre.
Timea Koppandi: Could you tell me about the history of the Marlowe?
Paula Gillespie: The Marlowe theatre exists in the Friars and is the third Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. Initially, there was a repertory theatre, which was an arts council funded venue on a different site. It closed at the end of the 1960s. The Marlowe that we are in now is on the site of the second Marlowe theatre, which was a converted cinema that was largely knocked down in 2008. The current theatre opened in 2011. It went from the repertory theatre to the second theatre, which was very much a presenting theatre. It presented shows that were touring around the country. It didn’t have a studio theatre, it didn’t have an LLP or any participation activity.
The current theatre does an awful lot more than presenting theatre in all its forms. We have a presenting programme at the Marlowe Theatre and the studio theatre. We have activity at the Kit, including performances.
The Marlowe Theatre that opened in the ‘80s, it was a local authority theatre, they built it and opened it, but then by the early 2000s we realized it just wasn’t the right scale for us, it didn’t have enough seats to be able to attract the best shows. It was a converted cinema so on practical terms the building wasn’t brilliant; it didn’t have proper disability access laws. It was on the verge of falling. It needed a huge amount of investment if it was going to survive so we deemed it was better to knock it down and start again.
TK: This is a very old town, but the Marlowe Theatre’s architecture is modern. How come it didn’t follow its architectural trend?
PG: It was a very deliberate act on their part to have something that was going to be very bold and iconic; something that was going to make a difference in the city architecturally. However, I don’t think anybody wanted to look like they were running scared around a pseudo-neoclassical theatre, and Canterbury is a city where everything is original. The architect has been really careful. If you look at the skyline of the city from a distance, the Cathedral dominates it. If you look at the theatre, there’s a colonnade around the front. The height of the colonnade mirrors the height of some of the buildings around us. In actuality, the building architecturally sits well in the city environment. Unless you’re up high on the hills that are going out of the city, you can’t see the theatre unless you turn into one of the streets that it sits on. Walking up the high street you can’t see it, so you don’t have that sense of incongruity.
TK: The Marlowe Theatre has the Marlowe Studio as well. How come there are two distinct types of performance spaces in one theatre?
PG: It’s just a different scale of performance. The Marlowe studio has 160 seats and the main house has 1,200 seats, so they do two very different things. When the studio was conceived, the thought was it would be somewhere where we could do small scale work, but it would also be somewhere where our youth theatre could be at home. We could use it as a production workshop space. The reality is that if you want to use the theatre as a performance space, you can’t do anything else in there because you can’t fit things around. If we have a week of performances, then our youth theatre would have to find somewhere else to go for the week. We realised very quickly that we’d have to find another home for all the other activities. Some of our best drama is in the studio, and it’s very hard to find drama on the scale of the main stage, and there is some great drama around on a smaller scale.
TK: What is the history of the Kit?
PG: We knew that we needed somewhere to house our creative companies – our youth theatre, our two writer groups, the access company, the dance company, adult acting companies. Around 250 people come to the Kit each week to classes and rehearsals, and we needed a place that they could call home.
This was the Canterbury Heritage Museum; it was failing as a museum. While the attendances at the other museums were going up, the Heritage was going down, and it was pay-to-enter. We started talking to them about whether this was a building that we might be interested in working in.
This is the most inspiring place to be. There’s so much history here and it’s such a beautiful building. The location’s fantastic for us. Some of the spaces are beautiful. We were interested in this space, mostly because of its location.
We’re an organisation that works with contemporary art and artists and we were focused on the city. Because the council built the theatre, it is absolutely in our DNA to be interested in the impact of the city.
Cat Buffe: Our element of this East Kent project is Marlowe in Canterbury. I’m part of the Marlowe in Canterbury team producing that side of things. The project was initially devised with the theatre and the council. There were lots of different elements thrown into the mix. It left us with quite a wide palette, so we’ve tried to hone that in, finding a narrative to streamline a more coherent story on the building.
One element of Pioneering Canterbury was to have a small exhibition in one of the spaces. We hold onto that part of the building for the people who knew it as a museum. One of the big themes was writers. This was before I joined the project, but the focus fell on three world-famous writers who had come from or lived in Canterbury or Kent. We chose Christopher Marlowe, our big poster boy, and Aphra Behn. A lot of people know about her nowadays, but she was unknown for a while and now she is resurfacing. Then we have Joseph Conrad as well. We took pillars of literary history – from different periods of history – and made them the focus of our exhibition.
While I came on board, the job was to try and filter through all the stuff we had and all the ideas that had been bubbling around and create a focused exhibition that visitors could comfortably make their way around and understand. We selected some objects from the collection and placed them in central positions throughout the exhibition as focal points. But then, we’ve also created immersive, interactive theatre. When you visit the Kit, you feel like you’re transported into the world of these literary figures.
The other activities we have are an escape room. It is centred around the historic building, Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury, but differently from what has been done before. It’s a theatrical take on storytelling, but Marlowe had never done an escape room before. That’s been running for just over a year now. We’ve had over 400 games being played by a few thousand people. That’s been lovely.
We also developed schools’ programs alongside the work that the Marlowe already does with its associated schools. We’ve put together a series of workshops that both domestic schools and language schools can book. They can choose from a palette of workshops and can create their own experience to a certain extent.
TK: Could you tell me a bit more about the team that is involved in the whole Marlowe theatre?
PG: In total, we have, around 230 staff working for us and they work across several departments. We have an artistic planning team, which consists of programmers and producers; and we have a learning participation team, who looks after our creative classes and our schools’ program. As part of our marketing, there’s a team that deals with press and PR, and social media. There’s a development team that looks after our friend’s membership scheme which has about 6,500 thousand members. We do trust and foundation fundraising within that team and look after individual donors and our business relationships sit in that team.
We have a box office team, a big technical production team. We have our front-of-house team. We also have a housekeeping team and the Pioneering Canterbury team. We have a growing finance administration team. We have trainees, which is another thing that should be of interest to students. We’ve got work experience placements across the organisation, who come in across the year. There are also designers as well-graphic designers. In short, we have a huge team.
TK: What is your favourite part of the Marlowe?
CB: It’s such an energetic and dynamic environment to be in a theatre. Just being in these spaces and being here in the Kit is lovely. I love spending time there. Equally, just hanging out in the office space and being surrounded by a buzzy office environment with people doing things, and hearing about all of the activities that are going on in the Kit, that’s the most exciting bit for me.
PG: I think what’s important is to remind yourself why you do this. There are so many times when we remember why we work in the theatre. Being in the auditorium in this pantomime for our schools when the performances are on, it’s just incredible!
Transcription by Aqdas Fatima. This article can be found on InQuire's website: https://www.inquiremedia.co.uk/single-post/2019/11/29/Discovering-the-Spaces-of-The-Marlowe-Theatre; and it is also part of the IQ Magazine: https://issuu.com/inquiremediagroup/docs/iq_winter_2019.
Written by Tímea Koppándi.