Coffee Break: Alex Knott  

You’re a bit of theatrical polymath. How did it all start? I did local panto, school plays and so on and then trained on the BA Acting course at Italia Conti from 2013 to 2016. The approach there is very collaborative and it fired my imagination. I started writing in the first year and we formed our own companies in the second year. There was an emphasis on avoiding dependence on other people or waiting for the phone to ring. For me that meant my company Boxless Physical Theatre, which I co-founded with Zoë Grain, a contemporary at college. Seven years later we’re still going. Zoë was a dancer before drama school, so she’s a terrific movement director and choreographer.

What was the first show? Loop. The idea was Zoë’s and I wrote it. It’s about how three generations are influenced by music of each other’s eras. We took it to Edinburgh, then opened at Theatre N16 in 2017 and toured it. Since then we’ve done two shows a year.

And how did you pay the bills after graduation? I worked in the box office at Theatre N16 and became associate director there. Then I went to the Lion and Unicorn in Kilburn as senior duty manager. 

And now I suspect you’re the youngest venue runner in London? I may well be! One of the youngest anyway. I’m 25 and artistic director at the Old Red Lion in Islington. Like every AD the venue has ever had, I’m changing the way things are done there. We each build on what our predecessor has done by taking a different direction. My mission is to devise some festival programming and I’m trying to make it more affordable.

The Old Red Lion’s signboard has long fascinated me. Why is it a dog? Good question! It’s a picture of Rolo who belonged to a previous owner, Damien Devine. The sign was changed in 2008 after she stopped a man who, apparently, broke into the pub. She died in retirement in Essex in 2011.

What’s in the pipeline at the Old Red Lion? A Christmas show which I’m writing. It’s a one-man piece and it’s a new inversion of A Christmas Carol. Told from the point of view of Bob Cratchit we get to hear what he really thinks. Perhaps he isn’t quite as passively put upon as he sometimes seems. Inwardly he’s seething. That will be towards the end of December – I hope. 

And Boxless Theatre is presenting Private Peaceful? Yes. All socially distanced with no sharing of props or instruments, As you know, Private Peaceful is based on a novel by Michael Morporgo, adapted by Simon Reade. Simon has done several versions including a monologue and an ensemble one. Ours is the first professional production of it as a two-hander and it’s the first time that one of the two characters is played by a women. I’m really pleased about that – and so is Michael, because it helps to focus on the suffering of women in war. It isn’t all about men.

What about the ending? Yes. Michael is thrilled about that too and so am I. Simon Reade changed the original ending. This time Michael’s ending is restored. No spoilers but bear in mind the characters are siblings. They are both called Private Peaceful. It’s all about the art of misdirecting so that you can spring surprise. It’s running at the Garrick in London for two weeks this month after four performances at Bristol Old Vic. And if that’s successful we’d like to tour it.

So what next in your career? Well of course I shall carry on making theatre and ringing changes while I’m in the midst of it. Then there’s programming. The Old Red Lion is a great start but in time I’d like to run a larger building – one with resources. It would be wonderful to be able to put something back. I’d like to be able to offer director residency opportunities, for example, to help people get a foot through the door.

Do you think theatre directing is still too “elitist” and “white”? I think it can feel that way – and I come from a white, middle class background myself, so I’ve had lots of advantages – but the mood and atmosphere seems to be changing. There’s an increasing sense of the need to learn from the bottom up and to value it. I try to see things from other people’s point of view. No bubbles of elitism on my watch.