It's called the Cockpit, but did we need the ejector-seat?

Why is Soho Theatre Company, one of our leading producers of new writing, being evicted? David Benedict reports
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The Independent Culture
"Soho Theatre Company dignifies our portfolio of clients. I'd be really sorry if they were to leave the borough. They are very serious contributors to the dramaturgical scene." In these days of diminishing funds, you might expect a local authority to be rubbing its hands in glee at the departure of one of its clients, but Westminster's Roger Bramble is livid. The company is none too happy either.

As its artistic director, Abigail Morris, explains, the company's record is impeccable. "Our box-office income has doubled every year, we received more nominations than any other company in the London Fringe Awards, and Kindertransport is transferring to the West End." Since moving into the then moribund Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone in 1992, STC has managed the building on behalf of its owners, Westminster College, who used the company to validate their BTEC performing arts course. Soho Theatre Company has lived there rent-free but in return contributed £80,000 to refurbishment costs, taught on the courses and worked with students. Most of the initiative behind collaborating with the students came from the company, not the college.

Yet sharing the space has been difficult. Seven months ago the college issued notice for the company to quit. At the time, the college claimed it was seeking to renegotiate. Now, they have written outlining the termination of the contract in July.

The company has played it very cautiously so far, but now the gloves are off. "We bent over backwards to accommodate them and put in hours of teaching time, because we really want their courses to work," Morris says. "To have it all thrown back in our faces feels so disrespectful. In the end, I don't care about the personal side, but I do care about what it means to those students, to all the writers we're working with, and to the huge audiences we have built up." When the company moved to the Cockpit, they were receiving 300 scripts a year. It is now 1500 and rising. Every script receives a fully detailed report, and any writer who shows promise is taken into the unrivalled workshop scheme which, as with Diane Samuels's Kindertransport, can lead to full production. STC also runs the prestigious Verity Bargate Award.

Bryan Rynn, the chair of the college's board of governors, rejected a proposal drawn up with the support of the college vice-principal which halted the process for a year while funding a feasibility study to redevelop the site to the mutual advantage of both parties. Rynn regards the company's presence on the supposedly industry-led BTEC course as just "the gilding on the lily". Unless he can be persuaded to change his mind, this local theatre with a national profile will be homeless.

n The `Independent' reviewer Tom Morris has been made artistic director of BAC, London

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