Jemima Levick talks about her first year as artistic director at the popular pub theatre A Play, A Pie, And A Pint, which is enjoying its spring season. Photographs John Young.
Complete insanity. Incredible. Fun. Madness.
Jemima Levick is telling me how her first year in post has been. A well-travelled and highly-regarded artistic director landed in the West End of Glasgow in the spring of last year, and since the start of this year she has barely been able to draw breath.
The new face in charge of the legendary A Play, A Pie and A Pint theatre at Òran Mór is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to lead such a venerable institution.
She worked with the late, founding director David MacLennan on a number of plays at the theatre several years ago, so she knew in a way what she was letting herself in for.
But this theatre really is a non-stop rollercoaster of a drama factory, knocking out performances at a staggering rate of one a week. By the time I catch up with Jemima, she is eight plays into a 20-show spring season. She seems appreciative of a sit-down and a period of relative calm.
“I have been struck by the sheer volume of work. The model we work to here is complete insanity compared to most other theatres. At Dundee Rep we would do between six and eight shows a year. At Stella Quines we did one or two shows a year.
"Did you know we are doing 32 shows a year here? I sort of knew it was going to be intense. But I think what I had, which nobody else has had actually at all, not even David, is the gift of time at the beginning of the pandemic.
"When I started, I was still working remotely. Things weren't open. We didn't reopen until September. I actually had some time to read, and see how things work and why things worked in a certain way.”
Jemima used that ‘down time’ during lockdown to think about her programme, but also to study how the very essence of the theatre at Òran Mór worked, looking at all the “boring stuff”Â, as she calls it, and “looking under the bonnet” of the behind-the-scenes process.
But it’s been an invaluable experience which has helped to iron out one or two bottlenecks and patch up the exposed points in the wider set-up.
“One very boring operational thing has been finding a new rehearsal space. Our previous place (Curves gym on Fergus Drive) just up the road was flattened and turned into flats.
"It's very funny talking to actors because it's always been incredibly peripatetic here. Generous people have lent us their flats. I remember rehearsing a show with Michael Marra, in a flat in Lansdowne Crescent.
"Our designers, meanwhile, have been in a workshop in Napierhall Street, and they just didn’t have enough room. All their stuff was sort of scattered in various storage units across Glasgow. And I just thought this can’t go on.
Thanks to a partnership with the Clutha Trust who were also looking for some storage space, the theatre now has a new facility in Maryhill which is a 15-minute walk up the road.
“It’s fantastic but it’s not ours and I would really like it to be. Now we have got a great workshop area with all their storage space. All their materials are in one place, costumes and then the rehearsal rooms are upstairs.
“So it's great and it just means that there's a real community going on all the time. There’s always two shows in rehearsals and we can speak to each other in the kitchen at lunchtime.
"And for me that's where the business actually can grow in many ways, because one of the great things about producing all the time is it means we have opportunities that we can give young people, emerging artists, emerging carpenters.”Â
On the artistic side, Jemima had suggested when she arrived at PPP that she wanted to make the programme appeal more to younger audiences.
It’s fantastic but it’s not ours and I would really like it to be. Now we have got a great workshop area with all their storage space. All their materials are in one place, costumes and then the rehearsal rooms are upstairs.
She says she has made a start, even though most of what has been programmed so far was commissioned prior to her arrival and held pending the return to normal business as the pandemic progressed.
“I think we're just starting to do that. I think, for me, getting younger audiences is about what you programme, and that takes time. And getting younger people to develop - particularly after the last two years - a culture of going to the theatre is very difficult.
“Often it's expensive, going to the theatre and, yes, you can get a £12.50 ticket, but for some students that’s a lot of money. It's about finding the best way to do it.
"We've got some relationships with the colleges. They will tend to be drama students, so they're more inclined to come anyway. But one of the plays, ‘Mooning’, is one of the very few plays that I have read and have thought: ‘this is humour for a generation below me’Â. I thought it was really funny, but I can tell that younger people thought that it was speaking to them.
“I’m sort of trying to develop it that way, and find those writers like JD Stewart. He's a kind of younger writer, and for me it's about the programming and really developing those relationships with Glasgow Uni and RCS (the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and New College Lanarkshire.”
She is also passionate about developing young directing talent. She herself was given her break after studying drama at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh by Roxana Silbert, the artistic director of Hampstead Theatre. Jemima is delighted to tell me that she has secured funding to bring in a young director Niloo-Far Khan later in the year.
“I managed to secure 12 weeks worth of funding, which is the maximum you can do. Niloo can shadow me as an artistic director, and she'll assist on three or four shows and then at the end of that, I absolutely guarantee I'll give her her own show.
"She will direct a show in the autumn and she'll start here in the next few months. And then after that, I'm going arrange an associate director fellowship just to give somebody the opportunity to director a load of work.”
I sort of knew it was going to be intense. But I think what I had, which nobody else has had actually at all, not even David, is the gift of time at the beginning of the pandemic.
There is a lot to occupy her time. When I speak to her, illness has just hit the cast of 'Daniel Getting Married', causing one show to be cancelled. When your productions only ever have a maximum of three actors because of the constraints of space and time, then one illness can affect a third of the cast. But a replacement has been found and the show will go on.
I ask if there is potential to extend the programme to Sunday lunchtime. Could that be a way of bringing in a younger crowd with more time to spare at the weekends? It's something she has thought of fleetingly. "There could be, but I think people would really hate me. The thing is this building's incredibly busy, busier than I ever imagined.
"On a busy Saturday, certainly pre-pandemic, you could have 5,000 people through this building, between Play, Pie and a Pint, the gig venue, and then a night-club later on. And that's just downstairs. Upstairs, there can be two or three weddings. And then there’s the bar and restaurant.
“We've played with it a little bit, and it’s sort of something on the edge of my mind, working Tuesday to Sunday instead - but, as I say, nobody likes working on a Sunday.
"David (MacLennan) certainly played around with it a bit in the old days with 'dinner, dram and a drama’. But I think there is something about it being a lunchtime experience. There's lots of evening theatre to be seen. Is there lots of afternoon theatre? No.”
So, how does she relax? "I really love watching TV, which sounds really boring. I’m a voracious reader, and I really love to travel, so I found the last three years really difficult. We get a break over the summer holidays and then another like Christmas. My dad lives in Germany, so I try and go and see him."
However, it's clear there's plenty to occupy her time in Glasgow, and I ask how is she finding her new home? "I love the fact that Loch Lomond is just down the road and you can soon get into greenery.
“We spend a lot of time in parks (her two children are primary school age), a lot of time in the house and lot of softplay still, unfortunately. We eat out, and everywhere we eat out in the West End it’s all fantastic.
“I discovered Ruchill Park for the first time the other day, just up from the rehearsal space. I also love this little strip along the Byres Road - it feels really cosmopolitan.
"Somebody said to me that if you move to the West End you will never go anywhere else. And I was like, I don’t think I care. And he’s right, I haven't gone anywhere else. I've not been to the south side at all.”
Needless to say our new resident artistic director is settling in well.