Pub drama: theatre can pull in the crowds

By Fiona McLelland

- Last updated on GMT

All the bar's a stage: pub theatre can entice a wider audience to your premises
All the bar's a stage: pub theatre can entice a wider audience to your premises

Related tags Pub Theatre

Drama in your pub is not always a bad thing, particularly if you’re putting on a theatre production. Here are some pubs that have made a success of the stage business and advice that could lead you to get your act together

When Shakespeare wrote that “all the world’s a stage”, he may not have had the back room of a pub in mind. 

Yet premises around the country are increasing footfall and revenue through the medium of theatre. Some are running the pub and theatre as a single business; others bring in an outside company to run the theatre space for them. 

Drama is a crowd puller for Lisa Connor, owner of the Kings Arms pub and theatre in Salford, Manchester.

“Theatre drives our business,” she says. “You need something to bring in customers and drive drink sales. Sport is just too expensive and fans just tend to nurse one pint. Our customers will buy a pre-show drink, one at interval and another post-show.”

That’s means a lot of extra sales. Especially when you consider that 24,000 people attend performances at the pub’s three venues each year. The numbers include 4,500 in the month of July, which was traditionally a quiet time for city centre pubs before Connor co-created the Greater Manchester Fringe festival six years ago.

Anyone can hire out the 150-seat main theatre for a set fee, which includes the services of an in-house technician.

Anything goes

“I don’t tell people what they can and can’t put on,” says Connor. “We show all sorts, from plays and cabaret, to live music and stand-up comedy.”

One of the most successful shows at the Kings Arms was a play about local boxer Len Johnson. Despite defeating many of the greats in the 1920s and 1930s, he was never able to contest titles in the UK because he was black. 

“We sold out every night,” says Connor. “A lot of the crowd were young boxers, who would have thought of theatre as inaccessible. That’s what I love about pub theatre. Many people think theatre is too highbrow but stick it above a pub and they embrace it.”

For licensees who want to trial theatre before fully committing, a pop-up theatre could be the answer. That is exactly how Katzpace at Katzenjammers, London Bridge, began its life in 2016. 

Run by young, out-of-work actors in the basement of bierkeller Katzenjammers, the pop-up theatre enjoyed a string of near sell-out performances. This success persuaded the company to convert the pub’s empty storage room into a permanent space with 50 seats. 

“Katzenjammers is fantastic in letting us use the space rent-free,” says artistic director Bebe Barry. “The arrangement benefits us all. The downstairs bar would usually be closed when the theatre’s open, so we help bring in extra drinks sales.”

Specialising in new works, and new takes on existing work, Katzpace doesn’t charge an upfront fee to production companies, but shares box office takings. The venue officially opened in October 2017, with Lidless Theatre production of Pebbles by Bebe Sanders, followed by Bluebird by Simon Stephens.

“The response was terrific,” says Barry. “Most nights sold out, and the rest weren’t far off.”  

Attract a broad audience

For pubs that want to earn a reputation for putting on thought-provoking plays, there’s a real opportunity to attract a broader audience to your venue.

Controversial pub theatre creates a stir 

Two plays that got punters talking in and outside the pubs that put them on

Shopping and F**king​, by Mark Ravenhill - With its first public reading at The Finborough Theatre in 1995, the play’s black humour and sexually violent content caused quite a shock. The story follows four main characters as they buy, sell and steal anything they can, from sex and drugs to ready meals.

Sus​, by Barrie Keefe - When a black man is hauled in by the police in 1979, he thinks it’s another case of stop and search. As the play unwinds, he realises he’s suspected of murder. The gruelling portrait of injustice and institutional racism was made even more intense by the intimate setting at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre in London in 2013.

The team at ‘the Marly’ – the Marlborough Pub & Theatre – in Brighton, doesn’t just aim to stage
theatrical productions. It wants to change lives. 

“We believe in social justice and equality, and the theatre and bar can help us achieve that,” says Tarik Elmoutawakil, co-owner of the company that runs the pub and theatre.

Elmoutawakil started out working behind the bar of the LGBT pub in 2001. After seeing the pub and theatre pass through numerous hands, he spotted an opportunity to join the dots.

For almost a decade, he and his team have been putting on diverse acts and shows, promoting the bar and theatre as a “queer venue”. 

“Everything we put on makes a point and connects with the identity of the Marlborough,” says Elmoutawakil. “When queer and transgender people see themselves represented on stage, it’s empowering.” 

The Marly receives some funding, but to raise more money, the venue offers people the chance to become ‘Marly Mates’. In return for a donation, members get reduced-price tickets, happy-hour prices at the bar and other perks.

Elmoutawakil says other pubs can use theatre to tap into a larger target audience. “If you’re thinking of setting up a theatre, talk to the wider community first to find out what they want, not just your customers – theatre is a chance to bring a wider mix of customers to the pub.” 

Learning lessons

Of course, there are lessons to be learned from long-established venues. The Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar, in Highbury, north London, has been staging productions for decades. Its resident production company, Unrestricted View, took on the theatre space in 1998.

The theatre bar has a name for staging comedy and work by new writers. During the day, the space is rented out for theatre workshops, TV rehearsals and radio pilots. 

Theatre manager Mark Lyminster says the bar’s fortunes are closely tied to those of the theatre.

“This is very much a theatre bar and we work closely together to make the relationship work,” says Lyminster. “We put on two shows a day, attracting 10,000 to 15,000 people each year, including around 3,500 during the Camden Fringe Festival in August. So we help bring in customers to the pub, which would otherwise be quiet outside of [Arsenal football] match days.”

Unrestricted View rents the space to other production companies for £150 for a 7.30pm slot, £130 for 9.30pm, or £1,200 for a week. It also stages its own productions, like its recent horror film festival. 

Capitalise on success

London is an obvious location for theatre pubs, but regional players with the right approach can recreate this success outside the capital. 

David Bell, business and technical director at Upstairs At The Western at the Western Pub in Leicester, runs the city’s first pub theatre, which was established in 2012 simply by adding a few chairs to the old function room. 

Several grants later, it was fully equipped with 50 theatre seats and a 4x4m stage. In January 2017, not-for-profit social enterprise Upstairs At The Western CIC (community interest company) took over the running of the theatre at the Steamin’ Billy pub. 

The partners have a symbiotic relationship, as Bell explains: “If the pub shuts, we’re doomed. If we close, the pub would have to do a lot more events to replace the footfall we bring in.”

The theatre stages about 150 productions a year (it shuts in July and August), bringing in extra customers on quieter days for the pub. In return, the pub keeps the rent low, sells tickets, and advertises theatre events via posters and social media.

Bell has some practical tips for anyone considering opening a pub theatre. First, make sure the audience accesses performances via the pub, to avoid paying higher business rates. Put the theatre on the ground floor for good accessibility. And make sure you have the right permits, such as PRS and film licences.

Touring companies

City pubs, like those in London and Leicester, may seem like the best bet for putting on a show, but touring performance company, the Inn Crowd, confirms that pubs don’t always have to go to the effort of establishing a permanent theatre. 

Inn Crowd’s mission is to take theatre to rural Kent, East and West Sussex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire – and encourage country pubs of all shapes and sizes to get involved. 

Applause Rural Touring runs Inn Crowd in partnership with Creative Arts East. The initiative offers pubs an array of poetry and spoken work performances, along with advice about promoting shows.

“We want to reinforce pubs as being central to rural and community life, while bringing fun and interesting performances to new audiences,” explains Michelle Boakes of Applause Rural Touring.

“The beauty of Inn Crowd is that the performances require minimal space – usually a stage of just 3x3m or less,” she explains. “The shows and actors are versatile, and require little or no technical back up, so there’s very little for the pub to provide.”

Inn Crowd subsidises each performance, funded primarily by Arts Council England. It pays the cost of the artist or theatre company – usually between £350 and £750 – while the pub pays as little as £100 to Inn Crowd.

Before the project kicked off in 2016, Inn Crowd ran a tester project. Licensees reported that the live performances brought in new customers, and that takings went up 66% on average on show nights.

So if you thought that putting on a show in your pub would be too much of a song and dance, then maybe it’s time to reconsider.                 

How to attract a theatre company: advice from two venues  

“We aim to give actors and production companies a positive experience so that they want to come back. That means clean dressing rooms, practical advice – like how long a play should be for a pub audience, and how much to spend on the set – and help with promoting the show.”

Mark Lyminster, Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar


“Having been to drama school, I had a wide network of people who were keen to use the space, and news spread quickly through word of mouth. And by being at the shows and staying for a drink afterwards, I’ve met dozens of people with work to share.” 

Bebe Barry, Katzpace at Katzenjammers 


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