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courtesy of the Bunker Theatre

Spotlight on: The Bunker

15 May 2018 Suzanne Frost

It has been 18 months since Joshua McTaggart and co-founder Joel Fisher got the lease on the derelict space at London Bridge and against many odds, the Bunker is thriving. The upcoming summer season will see a shift with Joel Fisher leaving and Joshua McTaggart leading the Bunker as Artistic Director and CEO. He is 26 years old but has a fearless entrepreneurial spirit that is inspiring. “Southwark council told me it is never going to work and I thought that sounds like a challenge. And I like a challenge.”

He has made the shift from being a creative person to a business owner with all the responsibilities that come with it: fund raising, licensing, health and safety, fire evacuations. “I have another hat to wear now, I’m an artist and I care about art, but I also am liable and responsible and I have employees and a community to serve.”

The Bunker 2017 - Box Office (courtesy of Bunker Theatre)

Joshua is from Bristol and studied at Harvard before becoming a freelance director. Did he always want to own a venue? “I find buildings and space and architecture really interesting. I found myself often in a room looking at pillars and layout and positions. In Bristol, there is this abandoned old postal office and from my teenage years I dreamed of turning that into a multi purpose art centre. When I left university I had this idea for something called ‘The abandoned project’, which would take abandoned buildings and transform them into spaces for cultural use. I then went into freelance directing and forgot all about this concept for a while. It was only when I was half way through building the Bunker that I realised I’m doing what I wanted to do!” The Bunker feels special, intimate yet open and airy. Seats on three sides mean they play almost in the round and have two galleries that can be used performatively. The underground locations mean no London noise makes it down or up, so there is no trouble with their neighbours the Mernier Chocolate Factory. The Bunker is also completely wheelchair accessible, the bar is open before and after the show for plenty of post show conversations. ‘Woke’ might be a horribly trendy word, but with its young millennial entrepreneur at the wheel, the Bunker is a place thriving for moral integrity, from its recycling bins to accessibility, diversity and programming.


McTaggart sees the Bunker as a welcoming, approachable and ambitious space for London’s new voices. They opened in 2016 with Skin a Cat by Isley Lynn’s, which Joshua programmed straight from a run at Vaults Festival. “The moment we got the lease in late February I knew Skin a Cat has to be our opening show. And to this day, financially and ticket wise it remains our bestseller. It holds a real place in people’s hearts and I think it really defined us as a venue. Isley had that play turned down by so many venues; we were a new off-West End venue giving it a 4 week run and it did us proud. That was when I realised that taking risks creatively, if you believe in it and commit to it, is rewarded.”

Was he ever scared of bringing a new venue into London’s uber-saturated Theatre landscape? “If I knew what I was going to get myself into, I couldn’t do it again. I don’t know how I did it. There were numerous times where I felt we needed to pull out, we are going to run it to the ground financially, physically, emotionally. The thing that pulled me back every time was this venue is going to champion some of the new voices of London, and I am doing it for them.”

Skin a Cat, photo: David Monteith-Hodge

McTaggart will work towards directing one show in the spring and one in the autumn season but really his next project is “fixing the toilet and cleaning the bar and raising some more money and negotiating next years rep”, he laughs. “As an artistic director your job is to put on the best work and to facilitate people and empower people. I get real joy out of meetings with directors who are at an early stage in their career and giving them the support to take the step up and do a show at the Bunker, which I think is hugely inspiring.”
 
The spring season’s Devil With The Blue Dress - Kevin Armento’s play revisiting the Monika Lewinsky scandal - is now one of the Bunker’s top 3 selling shows. It got a range of responses from critics and audiences and shows that McTaggart had an impeccable nose for timing with his programming. “I programmed the play after the election but pre #MeToo, so timing was disgustingly relevant. With Stormy Daniels it became even more relevant. I’m really proud not just of directing but programming this play and I’m proud of the spring season as a body of four shows, a united season of work since we opened. That’s what we were building towards last year and we’ve done it!”

 Devil With The Blue Dress. Photo: Helen Murray

The upcoming summer season will be a little different. “We are doing a summer school for 16 – 21 year olds. The rest of the summer is about companies. We had a free 4 week period and we thought we could give it to one company to do a residency or we could maximise that to get as many exciting emerging companies in, support them, mentor them, guide them and make it financially viable for them.” This is how the brand new “Breaking Out” festival was born. Six emerging companies get two days a week, 8 shows across 4 weeks. They each get a preview, a press night and they get to share the marketing burden with other companies. “This is the first time we tried it. We had almost 50 applications, shortlisted 18 companies and did back to back 20 minute interviews. It was exhilarating and filled me with hope for this industry. We picked six companies that we believe fit into the space, do challenging work, but also work that we could sell.”
 
The season will close with George Jacques’ Breathe.George was 17 when he emailed me to put a play on at the Bunker and I thought he might not be ready just yet but we met for a coffee. He had already raised £8000, found an abandoned tunnel, rented it out, constructed a stage, and hired the whole team. He sold out 4 nights with his play! It was beautiful and powerful and he is one of the most exciting theatre makers I have ever met. The Bunker is about giving young companies a chance, and I’ve never met anyone so financially and creatively ambitious at a young age.” McTaggart obviously recognised a fellow entrepreneur and gave Jacques the closing slot of the summer season.

 Breathe (Breaking Out - The Bunker) courtesy of Richard Carroll
 
For the future, McTaggart wants to work more on engaging with the local community. He is planning concession tickets for locals and events like local specific previews. Breaking Out is a start, with the Bunker also planning to take part in the Better Bankside Get Together in recognition of MP Jo Cox’s death. “Southwark is buzzing culturally, with the Mernier, the Flatiron, the new Bridge Theatre, but there is still so much space. This is a really cool part of London and I am excited to be here now in my early 20s as a business, as an artist and as a resident and see can I make a mark here.”

 Joshua McTaggart - courtesy of Simon Paris

“I was very young when I got the lease for the Bunker. I was inexperienced, but I was also brave and hardworking and ambitious enough to make it work. I dug my heels in, and here we are now, running not a huge money-spinner but a financially stable business which employs 4 full-time members of staff. In our first year we had over 55 productions with over 12,000 people through the door and 400 artists, actors and directors collaborating.  Hopefully this year we will build on that. I think 2018 is our year. 2016 was setting up, 2017 was finding our feet and 2018 is the year to really fly and I think we are starting to fly!”
 
The Bunker is at 53a Southwark Street, London, SE1 1RU
 
 
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