In conversation with: Zoe Robinson – Polka Theatre

11th July 2019

We’re currently on site at our year-long project with Polka Theatre, a £3.9m remodelling and extension which will give the theatre the extra capacity and facilities it needs to continue serving the local community and staging fantastic productions. We sat down with Theatre Producer Zoe Robinson to discuss the theatre’s history and how this exciting development will help achieve its goals for the future.

1. How does Polka Theatre serve the community and why are local theatres important?

Polka Theatre opened its doors in 1979 with the Queen Mum cutting the ribbon – this means we will be celebrating our 40th anniversary this year …where has the time gone?! It continues to be one of the few theatres in the UK dedicated exclusively to children. We produce inspiring, relevant theatre productions for 0-12yrs and their families. Alongside the shows our learning and participation team create a range of opportunities for all children, regardless of age, ability, culture or background, to engage in the arts through a regular programme of holiday workshops, term-time groups, after-show events, free storytelling and workshops that take Polka into the community. 

Our relationship with local schools is also vital. School audiences visiting the theatre can benefit from online free resource packs and show-related workshops. As part of our 40th anniversary celebrations we made a show to visit local schools, ‘Property of Polka’, which gave the whole school audience a snapshot of Polka’s history using props, set pieces and puppets found when clearing out the building in preparation for the build. 

Lyn Gardner, when writing for the Guardian described Polka as “A local and a national treasure”. And this remains super important to us. We are first and foremost a local theatre, loved by the people of Wimbledon and South London but also the wider community. We enjoy an international reputation, known throughout the world as a pioneer of theatre for children, consistently setting the standard and raising audience’s expectations.

Local theatres are fundamental for offering creative experiences and fueling a sense of discovery on peoples’ doorstep. It crucially means transport costs are lessened widening the audiences who are able to attend. At Polka we also see our place as a local theatre as being symbiotic with the community around us. We want to react to the issues that our audiences see as pressing, significant and offering entertaining productions by speaking and collaborating directly with them. 

I joined Polka in 2016 and work closely with Artistic Director, Pete Glanville (who was appointed in 2013). Since Peter’s appointment Polka has seen ambitious productions such as Minotaur and Operation Magic Carpet, as well as exciting collaborations such as Dot, Squiggle and Rest with the Royal Opera House. 

In 2016 – my first year! – Polka launched its first biennial Festival of Childhood, bringing together theatre-makers, artists and the world’s leading childhood neuroscientists, engineers and digitalists. Brainwaves in 2016 and Techtopia in 2018  presented an extraordinary programme of performances, presentations, talks, screenings and interactive workshops about how children and young people’s brains work and the latter about the impact of technology on children. These Festivals were extraordinary as they spoke directly to the local community, asking questions and creating conversations. 

Today, Polka Theatre continues to lead the way in producing innovative, high-quality and often daring theatre that remains relevant to a new generation of young audiences. The heart of our work is rooted at our Wimbledon home, which has now seen over 3,500,000 visitors in the 40  years since we opened our doors.

2. What are your goals for the redevelopment?

The overall aim for the redevelopment is to ensure that Polka continues to be a thriving and vibrant space for our audiences and participants for the next 40yrs and onwards. 

Highlights of the rebuild include: 

  • An extended Adventure Theatre with increased capacity for Early Years audiences – a huge and vital audience for us. 
  • A centralised Creative Learning space offering an expanded programme of play-based activities – putting children at the centre of our building 
  • New multi-sensory garden
  • Our first onsite rehearsal studio – meaning we can save on offsite rehearsal spaces and again have the creativity pumping in our building onsite
  • New toilet and baby change facilities
  • Designated buggy park
  • A newly expanded destination cafe
  • Improved outdoor play area
  • Redesigned indoor play area
  • Significantly improved accessibility
  • Broader range of hire spaces

3. What made you appoint ITC to deliver the project?

We ran a competitive tender process for the project and were impressed with ITC’s professionalism and problem solving approach. Building a theatre can be a complicated and detailed job, budgets and timelines are always tight, and ITC’s approach gave us confidence in their ability to work with us to deliver a great project.

4. What’s in the future for Polka Theatre after doors re-open?

My grandparents lived in Wimbledon and actually remember when the space first opened. I visited the theatre with them and felt so lucky to go to theatre as a child. Perhaps it was in those experiences that gave me the bug that meant I couldn’t work in any other world!  In my professional life, when speaking to all sorts of creatives from directors to designers, I found I wasn’t the only one who had a first theatre experience at Polka. For me, it is imperative we continue to offer these experiences for future theatre makers but also sparking imagination in children with whatever they aim to do in their futures. 

In our current world of uncertainty we want to ensure we offer relevant experiences that don’t shy away from asking big questions and putting young people in the centre of everything we do. They will be living in the world we leave behind! 

As a team we are having lots of big conversations at the moment about what we want our new Polka to be. As Polka holds such a special place in so many people’s minds and hearts and we are conscious to hold on to those memories and experiences whilst also building a space that recognises the constant development of technology and needs of a family audience. We will be offering the same excellent theatre but also with our new spaces be able to offer lots more activities. 

We are currently working on a co production with Complicite, ‘I’ll Take you To Mrs Cole’ which is set in the 1980s with an original ska soundtrack, visual storytelling and exquisite original animation. It’s a funny and anarchic show for children and a nostalgic trip for adults. The show will head to the Edinburgh Festival this year and we’re aiming for it to have a London premiere at the newly built Polka. 

I’m working on another festival that once again will take over the whole of Polka. This time on Gender! We realise that gender stereotypes strike early and primary school children already have a sense of what they’re able or allowed to do based on their gender.  I’m having a great time talking to lots of different artists and companies looking at how the jigsaw of this festival might work. 

I’m currently sitting in a rehearsal room listening to songs for a new musical written by Barb Jungr and Peter Glanville (We’re all Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake) an exciting feminist tale for children aged 6yrs+, a story of dreamers and risk-takers. It draws on inspirational female figures from history including Bessie Colman, (the first African American pilot), palaeontologist Mary Anning, Frida Kahlo, JK Rowling and astronaut Valentina Tereschkova. 

We’ll be aiming to produce both completely new work, like the musical above and adaptations of known stories. Our learning and participation team will be utilising our new spaces for lots of new activities. 

The next year for Polka is both daunting, with the unknown, and such an awesome opportunity for us to reimagine what a children’s theatre could look like.  And the team are so excited to discuss every possibility for Polka….and continue to ask what can Polka’s future look like to ensure it inspires generations to come?