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South Bermondsey: How The Pen Theatre provides a low-risk stage for performers

The Penarth Centre venue boasts 40 seats and is ideal for developing work or testing material

The Pen Theatre boasts a 40-seat auditorium and is available for hire

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There’s probably a half-baked line about The Pen being mightier than the Royal Court, where the latter is just about phonetically similar to “sword”.

But this isn’t the place.

This article should have gone through an editing process to knock it into shape and that sort of thing would almost certainly be left on the cutting room floor. 

But that’s also the point – I mention it here, because that kind of editing and development is one of the activities The Pen Theatre facilitates. 

“My background is in performance,” said MJ Ashton, the venue’s founder and director.

“I went to Rose Bruford College a few years ago, then started my own company – The Völvas – which was a feminist performance ensemble. 

“I toured that project for four or five years on the fringe circuits and played at various festivals and London theatres, so I experienced a lot of what was available for an emerging company.

“I’ve always felt strongly about theatres being accessible to artists and thought I’d love to run my own theatre so I could draw on my experiences and offer really cheap hire rates to performers.”

With her project having naturally reached its end and the pandemic closing the industry, that thought became more than an idea one day over a coffee with her partner, Jack Carvosso. 

The artist and photographer was looking at expanding his picture framing business, taking on a larger space at the Penarth Centre in South Bermondsey’s Penarth Street. 

A large unit had recently been vacated by a church and he was sure a third of it would do for his activities.

A similar space could be used by his friends’ business – artist-led publisher and bookbinder Folium – but what to do with the spare footage? 

“That was when MJ thought about creating a theatre,” said Jack, who has become the venue’s associate director.

“In that one meeting, we drew everything out on a napkin, then proposed it to the landlord and he loved the idea.

“The unit hadn’t been well maintained by the previous tenants, so we patched everything up, put in brand new wiring and started the journey to where we are now.

 “For me, it’s picture framing during the day and then, in the evenings, I help MJ with the theatre.”

Launched in January 2022, The Pen has hosted hundreds of shows over its first two years – offering performers a vital space to stage their first productions, hone works-in-progress, give fully realised pieces an outing or just experiment with an audience.

Jack Carvosso and MJ Ashton of The Pen Theatre

The venue has a maximum of 40 seats and provides box office facilities, technical equipment, a dressing room and green room, marketing support and front-of-house and bar staff.

Artists who want to put on shows apply to the venue, then go ahead if their proposal is accepted.

“We’re very inclusive,” said MJ. “We accept a lot of people’s applications – we invite them to come in.

“Some theatres ask for hundreds of pounds per night, but we run at cost and charge £56.50 per show.

“Then we offer a 70%-30% split on ticket sales in favour of the artist.

“This makes it affordable for artists to come in with new writing.

“It’s a low-risk space that allows them to perform – a platform that’s between a rehearsal space and a bigger theatre, where they can test their work.

“This can be good for getting reviewers in – it’s an opportunity for people to build a bit of a reputation before they start applying for larger venues. 

“We also offer free tech and dress rehearsals to keep costs really low because we know a lot of people don’t have much money.”

With the Edinburgh Fringe dominating the calendar, The Pen has carved out a role as an ideal test bed for shows before artists take them north to the proving ground of Scotland.

“We had about 65 shows over two months,” said MJ.

“The stress level was very high, but putting on shows at The Pen allowed them to try out their material before going up.

“The festival has really become the epicentre of our year – in August we quieten down, but then in September and October, we run a Fresh Off The Fringe season for acts that want to perform at a London venue after it has finished.”

With rehearsal space at the London Performance Studios in the same building, there’s a sense that The Pen is very much an integral cog in a larger machine of creativity and performance.

It’s a role both MJ and Jack clearly relish.

The Pen Theatre is located at the Penarth Centre in South Bermondsey’s Penarth Street

“When I was a performer, I thought I’d like my own space to put on anything I wanted,” said MJ.

“But now I have that, I’ve realised what I really enjoy is helping other people to develop their own stuff. 

“I’d feel a bit silly putting on my own shows – it would have been a bit egotistical to build this whole thing for myself.

“Perhaps I am surprised just how much I enjoy watching other artists develop, but I am rooting for everyone. It’s opened my eyes a bit to see what people can do. 

“We really want to create a warm comfortable environment for them and the audience so everyone can enjoy it.”

Jack added: “We watch every single show and I love it. The variety we see is just incredible. 

“Some are better than others, but it’s a great atmosphere here. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the performers and the audience having a good time.”

The Pen’s stage offers a growing pipeline of productions, with works for stage rubbing up alongside comics performing stand-up and even cabaret and scratch nights.

For MJ and Jack, having established the venue with no backing as a going concern, the next step will be to explore ways to grow and develop The Pen.

“At the moment we’re in a comfortable place,” said MJ. “We’ve made a profit and people are getting to know us.

“The next stage is for us to try and find some funding so we can hire people to work as programmers and manage the space. 

“We’d like to have a bigger team and to become a theatre that supports writers, directors and the production of shows.”

Jack added: “But to do this, we need funding. We want to pay people appropriately – we don’t want them working for free.”

The Pen Theatre is located about 20 minutes’ walk from Surrey Quays DLR, or 10 minutes from South Bermondsey station.

Find out more about what’s on at The Pen Theatre here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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