For my readers who aren’t aware of your work, who are you?
I’m Joshua Mctaggart, I’m the artistic director of the Bunker theatre, which is an off-west end venue in London Bridge. The space used to be an abandoned car park when we first got the lease, it was very much in disarray. And then in 2016 we transformed it into a 110 seater studio theatre space with a small bar. We celebrated our first birthday last October, so just over a year now.
This season we’re launching a new season and new bar, which is exciting!
One of the articles I read on you described you as the accidental artistic director, how did that happen?
I founded the Bunker with Joel Fisher (the current executive producer at the Bunker). He and I met in 2015 through the springboard program at the Young Vic, and we realized we had similar beliefs about how off-West End theatre should be run in a way that empowers artists. As so often happens in the arts, we sat around having coffee, talking about things we didn’t like about the industry and things we wanted to change. I was always very open about my dream of running a venue one day, with the aim of bringing collaborators together and forming artistic connections in a space. I think there’s something really exciting about the spaces where audiences and performers meet and where people gather, and something really important about cultural and community spaces. Joel and I had similar beliefs about how we could go about creating a space like that.
Then, about two years ago, Joel and I met with a landlord to discuss this abandoned underground car park that he was using as an ad-hoc rehearsal space. It had no health and safety sign-off, no ramp, no wheelchair access. A Southwark tcouncillor told me it was a car-crash waiting to happen, which I took as a challenge! So, I spent the next 6-8 months overseeing a building site, and we eventually got the licensing and the legals and the sign off, announced in August, and opened with a full season of work in August 2016. We launched with Skin a Cat, which I thought was a very clear statement of intent for the Bunker about what we’re interested in artistically: work from points of view that we don’t always hear from, work that challenges social taboo and gender identity, feminist stories. I think it was a real calling card for us.
Since then we’ve had some huge shows, like La Ronde, which is the first play in several years to be nominated for the Best Off-West End category of the What’s On Stage awards.
You’ve talked previously about wanting Off-West End theatre to be produced differently. What precisely did you mean by that?
Well there’s two levels, there’s the creative level and the financial level. On a creative level, it was about the event of seeing the play. All too often, when people go to a play they show up five minutes before, they see the play, and they go straight home. But I’m fascinated by spaces, and so I thought it was critical for people to really inhabit that environment. Because of the nature of the Bunker, we keep the bar open until the end of the night, and we keep the doors open so that people can go back inside. I think it’s really exciting to be able to be right next to a set and be able to have those post-show conversations.
On the financial level, I’m mostly concerned with finding models of producing off-West End theatre that ensures everyone is compensated fairly, while remaining financially viable.
“Beautiful things start, and beautiful things end, but beautiful things will start again. I’ve found that as long as you can hold on to that,
you can get through”
What is important to you in deciding what creators you want to work with?
I’m constantly impressed by the way every creative I interact with functions in their everyday life. The challenges of being freelance and of balancing work, play and creation are enormous, and I’m always very impressed by the work people are making and the strides people are taking to be heard. I think what’s really important is that there’s a story that really needs to be told, and a passion for that story. I think it’s much more important that a story have a fire behind it than that it be ‘marketable.’ So, I seek out artists that are passionate about the stories they’re telling, and that share a passion for storytelling. Sometimes you can tell, there are some people that seem to radiate with that passion.
Electra is the next show to go up at the Bunker. Greek tragedy can be quite difficult to pull off, what gave you faith in this particular production?
When someone sits down with you and says ‘I want to take the story of Electra and make it a punk rock performance with actor-musicians. Here’s this really poetic script we’ve been working on.’ It’s impossible to say no, really. Every time you embark on producing a show there’s an element of risk, and what really emboldened me with Electra was the creators behind it, both on the writing and musical side and on the producing side.
Also, they’re a Bristol-based company (DumbWise Theatre), and I think as a London venue it’s important that we don’t get stuck in the rut of only producing work from London-based companies. It’s critical that we develop those artistic relationships and nurture those connections with artists from other cities.
After Electra, you’ll be putting on Devil with the Blue Dress. What excites you about American work?
I’m excited about American practitioners, to be precise. What fascinates me about America, and why I think it’s still important for us to look at it as a country, is that America is an experiment: how free can people be while still having a structure of government in place. That’s the question that America poses, and that question leads to really fascinating culture and really fascinating politics. The UK is so very different from America, and so I think that cultural exchange is very important.
I also think it’s fascinating how this particular piece has evolved as the world shifts around it. The play was written before the 2016 election, and at that time it was very much intended to be about where the first female president came from. Then the election happened, and the play became about how Hillary Clinton lost. Now, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the many reports of sexual misconduct in Hollywood and beyond, it’s become about abuses of power by men, and the way we as a society react to those abuses.
What is your message to creators who want to work at the Bunker?
I’m amazed by how many people come and ask me to have a cup of coffee with them who don’t know about the work we do. From a purely practical perspective, if you’re going to sit down and speak with the artistic director of a venue, it would help to have a clear understanding of the ethos of that venue. I’m generally very open to talking to people, but I would say my advice is “know why you want to be at the Bunker.” why should your story be at the bunker? Who is the audience? Where is the passion for that story? And if it comes back to storytelling and a passion for telling that story, then that’s exciting. Don’t come and tell me the story you think I want you to tell, tell me the story that you want to tell. I think that applies both to the Bunker and the industry at large.
Finally, is there a piece of work that changed your worldview, personally?
There are two paintings, one in the National Gallery and one in the Tate Britain, both by Turner. One is called the Rise of Carthage and one is called the Fall of Carthage. They’re two epic, beautiful paintings, one about the arrival of Dido in Carthage and the other about the expulsion from Carthage. One time, I went to the National Gallery and looked at the Rise, then walked across the river and looked at the Fall, and then I walked back and looked at the Rise again; and that reminded me that beautiful things start, and beautiful things end, but beautiful things will start again. I’ve found that as long as you can hold on to that, you can get through, whether that applies to art, relationships, or life itself.
Massive thanks to Joshua and Tilly for their time and patience, and to @samwellswriting for all his help!