THE QUEEN OF THE NEW KING’S HEAD – Evening Standard
THE QUEEN OF THE NEW KING’S HEAD
By Louise Jury, Chief Arts Correspondent
Amid a hubbub so noisy it makes lip-reading a requirement, actress Celia Imrie and friends are at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre bar, exchanging reminiscences of productions past. In the theatre itself, Maureen Lipman is testing the bounce on the new bench seating. And at the centre of this excited throng of producers, actors, council dignitaries and other adoring supporters is the elfin figure of Stephanie Sinclaire Crawford, an artist and film=maker who took over as artistic director when the legendary Dan Crawford, her husband and the theatre’s founder, dies more than two years ago.
Dressed in elegant lilac velvet, the 54 year-old American looks like an arty lady who lunches as she tells this buzzing audience details of the new season – her first full programme – n the newly refurbished venue. But she is tougher than she looks,
When she was widowed in July 2005, the King’s Head was £100,000 in the red and the building – also the family home – was crumbling. The rain through the roof was notorious among audiences and actors alike. Its Arts Council grant had been axed a decade earlier.
The theatre world, long accustomed to the King’s Head’s groundbreaking premieres with new talent – Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and Ben Kingsley all had early breaks there wondered what would happen to London’s original pub theatre, an institution long before the Arcola or the Menier Chocolate Factory opened their doors.
Stephanie says she had no choice but to take charge. She felt like the heroine of Rosemary’s Baby who at the end of the film stands over the crib and eventually has to pick up the cursed infant when it cries. “There was no way I could hand the theatre over. There are ghosts in the walls from a lot of great productions over 38 years.” Besides, what could she have said to other potential managers, she asks: “Would you like to run a theatre that is massively in debt, has no grant and you’ll have no wage?”
It meant enormous upheaval. Though Crawford had suffered cancer for some time, nothing – astonishingly – had been said about the future.
“I totally refused to believe than Dan was going to die,” Stephanie says, tears threatening to break through her eyelashes even now. “I believed that if I even thought about him dying it would take something away from the fabric that was keeping him alive.”
The result was that she didn’t know where the fusebox was, let alone details of the leases and contracts held in the higgledy-piggledy offices above the bar.
“I was very, very involved in running the place – casting till 2am, doing the bar delivery, budgeting shows”, she says. “I couldn’t live here and be married to Dan and not be. But there’s a very big difference between being a second and being a first”.
Shy by disposition, she deferred to her larger-than-life husband during their 21 year marriage. Left alone and up against it, she has proved remarkably feisty.
“I just tightened up everything. I was fairly ruthless. We probably weathered some rather bad programming thinking only of solvency. I didn’t re-hire when staff left. It gradually lifted the place out of the malaise”. In addition, she organised galas every fortnight for a year, with such old friends as Jeffrey Archer, Patricia Hidge, Prunella Scales and Timothy West. And she drew on her experience in the film world to produce a funding structure than could yet transform the theatre’s fortunes.
Having written, directed and co-produced Silence Becomes You with Alicia Silverstone, she knew it was easier to raise money for several movies than one in a system of risk-spreading called slate-funding. Applying it to theatre, she has got a raft of West End producers and other wellwishers on board.
The consortium is backing a £450,000 season of shows that the theatre has developed and will present itself – the first time that has been possible in a decade. There are strong hopes of some transferring to the West End
It is, she says, a highly commercial programme of premieres, including The Black and White Ball, a thriller to the music of Noël Coward; Grand Slam, a two hader about a failed British tennis player for Wimbledon fortnight, and The Shadow Master, an adaptation of a JM Barrie play by Stephanie herself. (“I love JM Barrie. I partly moved to England because I had a fantasy of living in Highgate as Mr and Mrs Darling,” she says.)
She thinks it’s vital that the King’s Head presents it own work because the theatre – officially a charity – even with its newly improved 150 seats is just too small to make sense commercially. “If you’re just going to be a rental theatre you should get a bigger one. This is just perfect to be inventive in,” she says.
It was not the life she expected, despite a dash of bohemia in an upbringing that took her all over the States. Her mother was a painter and a great beauty and her father a lawyer and she later had a stepfather who was a small band leader who played for Frank Sinatra.
Stephanie studied art and philosophy at university but gave it all up to work as an artist – with poetry, acting, jewellery design and travel thrown in. She married her childhood sweetheart, Matthew Kastin, in her mid twenties and had their daughter Katherine, now 26. That relationship was already in trouble when she met fellow American Dan Crawford – trickily, her husband’s former stepfather – and the thunderbolt struck.
It was love at first sight. “I met him at the airport and I fell in love with him there. He was just so alive and passionate, complex, eccentric, a complete original. It was the most unbelievable thing.” Within weeks, despite the family complication, he reciprocated. “It was all rather devastating – beyond reckoning and logic. He was just my soulmate.”
She and her young daughter moved in to the rooms above the pub which she discovered Dan, who had been married three times before, was sharing with everyone from stage hands to his casts. Gradually she eased them out until it was just the family of three but life was never easy.
“I would come home and it would look as if we’d been burgled because the whole living room had been brought down as the next set,” she says. Even now, bedrooms are prone to be requisitioned for rehearsals or dressing rooms. During Peter Pan a couple of Christmases ago “there were Lost Boys falling asleep in the living room all the time”.
But she seems to have no regrets about falling for a maverick. “Perhaps as an artist I wuld have done more for myself if I hadn’t,” she admits. “I did dedicate a lot of my life to Dan. But I learned so much from him that I wouldn’t change anything for all the world. To have a great love is an amazing thing.”
His loss hit her hard. “I went upstairs and cried and cried and cried and felt very angry that he had checked out early.” He was just 62.
As we talk, sitting in the theatre that retains a homespun air despite the £50,000 revamp (mainly the removal of the old tables and chairs and the introduction of benches), the next production is already setting up with much banging and cursing.
Her launch concluded only minutes earlier. There is a sort of chaotic efficiency and I wonder whether she feels she should have taken over the business before. She does seem to have the knack. She laughs. “Dan was a madcap genius who would do anything for his art,” she says, deflecting the observation gracefully. “It’s not a compliment to myself, but I’m probably a lot more practical.”
That said, she won’t make a penny from the theatre until at least 2009, as the deal has been structured so the investors recoup even if the productions do not transfer. She will live on the pub profits though they are being eaten up by the need for more renovations in the Victorian building. “I wouldn’t mind having a wage eventually,” she admits ruefully.
But she isn’t stopping here. She has plans to raise the roof and put a second level on the theatre to increase capacity. It would cost between £400,000 and £800,000. And she would like to buy the pub lease to guaranteee Dan’s legacy long-term. “If we leave, there’s no guarantee that the next person would keep it as a theatre. I would like it to be really secure.”
The King’s Head is obviously a compulsion. Daughter Katherine tried to rebel and went off to earn a first in zoology and work in conservation. But she has found she cannot turn her back on the theatrical life. She starred in Peter Pan and will appear in The Shadow Master – and already acknowledges an historic inevitability that she will, in turn, succeed her mum in charge.
For Stephanie, the worst is finally over. She confesses that having faced her investors and the press this week, it really feels as if the King’s Head is hers, not just Dan’s – even if she is convinced that he still haunts the place. “I’m no longer carrying a torch,” she says. “Or a cross.”