Backstage with Holly Newton
Bristol is famous for its vibrant and diverse theatre scene, leaving both audiences and productions spoilt for choice. From The Bristol Hippodrome drawing in major musical productions like The Lion King, to The Bristol Old Vic, internationally renowned for churning out the next Oscar winner, and the Alma Theatre, Bristol’s oldest Pub Theatre.
This week, we go backstage with Holly Newton, Theatre Manager of Alma Theatre and its inhouse production company Schoolhouse to find out more about the iconic venue.
When did the Alma Theatre open and was the vision to always create a theatre and pub combination?
The theatre opened in 1997, and I’ve been here for nine years, so a bit before my time! It was curated for many years by Theatre West who held their annual new writing season here. The vision was certainly to create an events space, but it was a long procedure of slowly accruing the tech equipment and building the rigged seating before it became the fully realised space it is today.
As the oldest pub theatre in Bristol, what do you think it is about the Alma Tavern that has meant it has enjoyed such longevity?
We were the only pub theatre in Bristol for many, many years, which certainly helped to secure our position in the hearts of Bristolians. We’ve been lucky enough to have a very loyal following of companies who return time and again and audience members who will come for a visit regardless of what is showing! Being a part of the pub definitely helps as we can weather difficult times - like the past two years - more easily than some.
Can you tell us a bit about Schoolhouse Productions and what’s been like to create an in-house production company for Alma Theatre?
Schoolhouse is the Alma’s in house company. It is run by myself and Anna Friend (our Resident Director), and we set it up in 2016. It’s been a labour of love to create and is the single thing I am most proud of in my professional life. We showcase classics with a modern feel and have been incredibly fortunate to have dedicated audience members from the off! The owners of the venue (Zazus Pubs Ltd) are incredibly supportive, as are the pub staff who always up-talk the shows to customers. We’ve produced eight shows in house including A Doll’s House, Abigail’s Party and The Dumb Waiter, and relaunched the Alma’s Post-Lockdown Season with a revival of our version of Shirley Valentine.
The first performance of our first-ever production - with a full press invite! - was a baptism of fire where a shelf, crammed with bottles of soft drinks, fell off the wall mid-scene, smashing about 20 small bottles, and culminating in a pungent, sticky mess creeping its way towards the front row of the audience. Only one reviewer mentioned it, and it still makes me cry with laughter and cringe in horror!
We’re currently making big plans for late Spring this year - so watch this space!
What’s your favourite aspect of the job? And what is the most challenging?
Apart from running Schoolhouse, my favourite part of the job is finding amazing theatre shows from around the country – and sometimes the world – and then doing all I can to make sure they have a full audience. To have a company contact you from out of the blue and say that the Alma Theatre has been recommended by someone who performed here and loved the space and team, and now wants to bring their show to us, is the best feeling in the world.
The biggest challenge is continually creating online content! With the advances of social media over the past decade, you have to be on the ball with promotion at every moment, not only creating your own content but responding to others over various different platforms.
First show, last show, favourite show?
The first show I booked in was To Sleep by Matt Fox, a (very) dark comedy about suicide.
The last show in the space to round off 2021 was the magnificent Peter Clifford’s Covid Compliant Christmas Conjuring Show.
Favourite show…too hard! Either Alec Fellows-Bennett’s Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart, where I thought I would have to leave the auditorium due to laughing so much, or Steve Hennessey’s Lullaby’s of Broadmoor. This was the first show I ever saw in the Alma, before I took over the theatre, and it made me fall in love with the space. Also, our production of Abigail’s Party - fantastic actors, reviews and set, with standing ovations and so, so much laughter!
Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood?
Someone Great by LCD Soundsystem. It’s a slow start but when it kicks in, everyone is dancing!
Which artist/band/performer would you like to see perform at YTL Arena Bristol and why?
Ooh. Too many. Adam Buxton, because he’s just great. Stewart Lee…. and Prince, though that one might be a toughie!
And finally, can you share an all-time favourite song to add to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?
First Aid Kit by Emmylou.