Thursday, 21 July 2016

INTERVIEW - David Babani, artistic director of the Menier Chocolate Factory

DAVID Babani is the very picture of contentment - and so he should be. The artistic director of the hugely successful and popular Menier Chocolate Factory, he is also married, became a father five months ago and lives happily in Brixton Hill. Life, as they say is good.
We meet during a break from tech rehearsals for the Southwark Street theatre’s latest production, Into The Woods, a musical mash up of all those wonderful fairytales we read as children linked together by a story of a baker and his wife who long to start a family. 
With the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the book by James Lapine, it is a cleverly constructed piece, full of humour but with a cautionary message for its audience.
“It’s all going well,” David tells me as he settles down for our chat. “Into the Woods is very different and unlike any production I’ve ever seen. 
“It’s incredibly timely given the craziness in the world right now both here and abroad, especially in the second act which asks questions about identity, family, diversity and commitment. 
“It was written in the 80s but 35 years on it’s extraordinary how relevant it is to today. I think the message is so perfect for now.
“But it’s also a wonderful escape and with all the hardship and scariness of what’s going on in the world, we need some naughtiness, laughter and entertainment in our lives.”
And it’s entertainment that has been at the heart of the Menier since David established it 12 years ago with his erstwhile business partner Danielle Tarento.
Indeed he remembers clearly the day he first saw the building, a former chocolate factory, in what was at that time a less than trendy part of town, and says it was practically love at first sight.
“My first impression was that it was a half derelict building which had tremendous potential,” he says. 
“It was just bare bones but there was so much character and it was a hugely exciting prospect. 
“It’s gorgeous and beautiful and has lots of original features. There is nothing like it in London and there is no way you could have recreated something like this.
“At the time I had just enough experience to realise its potential and what it could be - not just to us but to the arts and the local community - and not enough experience from stopping myself from being an idiot and moving in. 
“I was full of the blind passion of youth,” he adds grinning. “We decided to go for it and jumped in at the deep end.”
The pair, who both saw the building independently before being introduced by a mutual friend, spent a week negotiating with the landlord before signing the deal on New Year’s Eve 2003. They moved in on January 5 and opened the doors to the first show, Julius Caesar a mere six weeks later on February 21.
And not just content with establishing a theatre, they included a restaurant as an integral part of the business which is just as popular.
“Danielle and I both had the idea of people being totally comfortable when they walked through the doors and so having a restaurant was key,” he says. 
“I’d learned from touring shows all over the world that food and drink were important companions to theatre and it added to the experience.
“Danielle ran it and did so beautifully. We have wonderful staff and the food and atmosphere are great and it’s a fantastic way to kick off your evening at the Chocolate Factory.”
Since opening, the 180-seat venue has achieved far more than most theatres. And thanks to David’s vision, ambition and determination, it has become something of a powerhouse with award winning shows, transfers to the West End and Broadway and a growing loyal audience - thus establishing itself firmly on the theatrical map. 
And they have done it all with no public funding, something David is proud of saying it allows them to have total freedom to put on the shows they want.
And rather than stick to one particular genre David has been adamant that the Menier should provide a mix and so over the years they have staged every type of show imaginable - from the classics to light hearted comedies, stand up to one-man shows, musicals to drama, thrillers to magic, and everything in between.
“Everything we do has to entertain, educate and move us,” says David insisting he’s not into labels. “It is really important to mix it up a bit and offer a varied arc of shows for the audience. 
“There are so many different types of theatre and I want to do as many as we can and as well as we can. 
“We have this incredible flexible space which is really cool and we are still finding new ways of staging our shows. It makes for an element of excitement when you walk in which you don’t get in other venues.
“It’s exciting for us as well as the audience and it means we don’t get bored. We have grown and been successful because we don’t play safe.
“We also have lovely audiences that we have built up over the years and who are very loyal - they trust us and they enable us to take a risk because they know we are offering a solid night out.”
Warm and softly spoken but with a fierce passion for not just the Menier but for theatre in general David is hugely proud of his achievements - and rightly so. 
And much like the production currently playing, the 38-year-old acknowledges his own career has been the stuff of fairytales.
Although he never wanted to be an actor he tells me that theatre “chose” him and he realised it was where he wanted to be.
He signed up for a drama degree at Bristol but he began doing productions in his spare time and it wasn’t long before he was doing more of that than his degree.
It came to a head when he was offered the job of artistic director at the Jermyn Street Theatre near Piccadilly and he decided to take a sabbatical from his degree - which he has been doing ever since.
“I was about 20 at the time and in my head I thought I’d do it for about six months,” he says. “However it ended up as an indefinite sabbatical and I’ve not looked back.
“I have been incredibly lucky as I’ve been able to work with some extraordinary people both on and off stage from whom I have learned a lot.
“I’ve made lots of mistakes of course but the good news is that I learned from some of them! That has made me a better director and producer.”
But he is adamant that it is down to his team, many of whom have been there for years, that the Menier has been the success it has.
“I couldn’t do this without them,” he insists. “It’s tough and there are long days but we all muck in together. It’s a genuine family and because of their brilliance we are able to do the work we do and I get to play with my heroes.
“And now as well as Into The Woods in this tiny 180-seat theatre and the 100,000 who come here each year, we have two shows running in the West End, one in Broadway, another one planned for the West End and one on a major UK tour. 

“It’s about getting it right but what makes us a powerhouse is the audience - they are loyal and willing to go with us wherever we go next. And that makes me very proud.”

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