From pub backroom to the west end

Tooting’s nomadic theatre company has hit the big time, but here’s how it all started…

Back in 2011 I made a short-lived attempt to launch a hyperlocal blog focusing on the cultural life of the Balham and Tooting areas of London where I was living at the time.

Sadly, I had to wind up the blog after a couple of months, because it was always intended to be a collaborative project and no bloggers had come forward to share the load. Still, in its brief life it contained some pretty good content including coverage of the launch of Tooting Arts Club, a local theatre group formed in early 2011.

In January 2011, I interviewed the two founders of Tooting Arts Club for the blog Common People. They told me about the company and how they viewed its lack of a permanent home as an asset rather than a hindrance. Since then, they have operated in a variety of “pop-up” venues including pub backrooms and most recently, a pie and mash shop.

Tooting Arts Club Invasion

A publicity still from Invasion, Tooting Art Club’s first production.

Last week, the Guardian reported that the Tooting Arts Club’s production of Sweeney Todd is moving to the West End after the intervention of its composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. It’s a great story and one I wanted to celebrate by reposting my interview with the Tooting Arts Club’s founders Rachel Edwards and Sue Dunn at the time of their first production Invasion.

You can read the interview in the original blogpost or reproduced in full below:

Tomorrow marks the opening of the first production of theatre group Tooting Arts Club.
The latest addition to Tooting’s cultural scene was born in the Antelope over dinner. Long term Tooting residents and fans Rachel Edwards and Sue Dunn agreed that Tooting needed a theatre and decided to set one up.
The collaboration between actor Rachel and local drama teacher drama Sue brought together enough theatrical and technical talent to stage Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s play Invasion. The first production will be staged in a room above The Selkirk, but Tooting Arts Club’s longer term plan is to utilise unused space in the area for future events, as Sue explains:
“When we were talking, animated by a glass of wine, Rachel remembered that above the Antelope there used to be a boxing ring and a gym. We thought there must be lots of spaces in Tooting like that that are not being used and establishments that would be happy to have them being used in a way that would generate interest in their business.”
Rachel adds that the lack of a permanent home is not a hindrance and that they are looking at spaces that would provide an ideal setting for a particular play, including a disused church hall for the Sue Townsend play Bazaar and Rummage.
“What we think is unique about what we do is that we can exploit lots of venues in Tooting, depending on what play we do and what’s available. Strangely what we thought might hold us back turns out to be quite a novel idea.
“We might use the Selkirk again for the next production but it’s not really our objective to just find a home and get comfy. There seems to be a lot of potential and there are a lot of spaces that we have seen.”
Sue adds: “It’s site specific but it’s not our raison d’être to do site specific work. It’s about keeping it alive to what’s going on in Tooting, seeing what’s available.”
Rachel and Sue say that the group’s name is deliberately ambiguous. It means that they do not have to be tied to a single venue and allows them to organise events such as cinema nights and art exhibitions. They are hoping to collaborate with grassroots arts organisations.
“To denote a venue would be misleading,” says Rachel. “And I like the fact there is a Chelsea Arts Club.”

Common People will be talking to the director of Invasion, Jamie Harper, later this week.

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