By Alexander Stevenson
Do you know the Drill Hall? I’m ashamed to say that as a relatively recent mover to Fitzrovia I didn’t. Yet in many ways it epitomises all that is good about the area. Soldiers, Nijinksy, lesbian and gay campaigners and stars of Radio 4 have all crossed paths there. And by the way it also puts on a lot of good plays.
I had gone there to meet Julie Parker, the energetic and enthusiastic Chief Executive and Artistic Director. She has been there since the late 1970s and led the ongoing development of the Drill Hall. These days two theatres, a bar and six rehearsal rooms all jostle for attention. As she showed me round we were able to peer in at different rehearsals. In one room, Deafinitely Theatre, a professional deaf-led theatre company were going through their paces. In a couple of others were some youth theatre groups. Generally there was a buzz.
Back in 1881 the Drill Hall was built to be, well, a drill hall for the Bloomsbury Rifles, a local volunteer force. Supposedly the intricately carved statues on the front are of the craftsmen who built it and members of these reserve forces who used it. Over time, the artists gradually took it over from the soldiers (without using force) and occasionally former soldiers have been known to pop in to reminisce. In the early 1900s Diaghilev’s famous Ballet Russes rehearsed there with Nijinsky and it became known as a good albeit occasional artistic venue.
In the late 1970s the seeds were sown for what the Drill Hall has now become. ‘It was in the days of the ism,’ says Parker, ‘feminism, communism, etc and there was a vibrant and varied London Arts scene’. So they decided to set up a theatre company that focused on gay and lesbian productions. They were given a grant by Camden Council who have been staunch supporters ever since.
As well as producing plays with gay and lesbian themes and promoting gay and lesbian talent, the Drill Hall also became a natural focal point for campaigns. It was at the Drill Hall, says Parker, that the gay rights group Stonewall started, and Drill Hall also played a leading role in the campaign to have Section 28 repealed.
Although Drill Hall still has a focus on gay and lesbian work – it is the only theatre group in London which has this focus – it now has a much broader theatre programme. It also manages a variety of other activities: it runs a drop-in service for under fives on Mondays, does an enormous amount of work with schools and youth theatre groups and hosts recordings for radio shows. These have included: the News Quiz, the Now Show, and That Mitchell and Webb sound.
For us local residents the theatre offers free or cheap tickets and the opportunity to use the meeting spaces it has at very low or no cost. It is also keen to recruit local people as volunteers to help them run front of house at their shows.
As for the future, like all arts organisations they face challenges. Their major public funder Camden Council is facing huge cuts and, according to Parker ‘has to make some hideous and grisly decisions’.
But Parker feels better placed than many to weather the storm given the reputation they have built up over the years. More positively, in the near future she is obviously very excited about some of the upcoming shows. She particularly recommends Julia Pascal’s new cabaret show ‘I expect the royal wedding to get some attention from Julia’, as well as the one man show from ‘the unbelievably talented Ty Jeffries.’ Now that I know about the Drill Hall I can’t wait.
Sure Start drop-ins for under-5s Mondays 10.30am-4.30pm at the Drill Hall drillhall.co.uk/children