Q&A: Steph Weller, producer, Reading Fringe

Steph Weller is an independent theatre and festival producer. She has been involved with many of the Reading arts scene’s most high-profile recent events, including the Reading Fringe Festival, the Reading on Thames festival, Magical Reading and productions by Rabble Theatre and Reading Rep. She nurtures the development of new theatre, and last year she spent 12 months as one of the Old Vic 12, developing new musical Black Power Desk. She also creates work as Working Birthday with writer/performer Natasha Sutton Williams (responsible for, among other things, Freud The Musical, also performed at Reading Fringe). Steph lives in New Town with her partner.

The Reading Fringe has gone digital as a result of Covid-19, having received public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England. It will host a wide range of events from 17th to 26th July.

What have you missed most in lockdown?
Spontaneity – being able to go for a rambling stroll and pop into a pub as the mood strikes. Meeting a friend for coffee. Deciding to sack off cooking and treating myself to a meal out. All these things are privileges, and I value them more than ever.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
There’s a fierce spirit of “just do it” – our independent scene is a great example of that. People just getting out there and doing it. And the town is richer for it. I so, so hope our independent scene survives this current crisis. 

I also have to quote my eloquent mate who says: “I kind of like that Reading’s gems aren’t flashy or obvious. As a town it makes you work at discovering its charm, in the form of the river and canal-side walks (which are seriously under-advertised), the indie food offerings, the creative arts etc. Reading is like the moody emo kid at secondary school – you need to invest time and effort in understanding it, but your effort is well rewarded and you’ll reap the benefits of the relationship for years.” 

That about nails it, I reckon.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
I’ve a dreadful memory for these kinds of things. I do remember being on holiday with my parents in Greece when I was very, very young. My dad had gone on a fishing trip and when he returned he was offered a delicacy: a freshly cracked-open sea urchin (I presume it was a delicacy – they might have just been taking the piss). It was scooped out onto a hunk of bread and looked, to my eyes, like a big gloopy veiny ball of snot. To my dad’s credit, he ate it. Despite the fact I didn’t even taste it, it was such a visceral sight that I remember it far better than anything I actually ate.

How do you think Reading’s cultural scene has changed since you first arrived here?
When I moved here in 2000 to take a job at the uni, I didn’t really expect to find much of anything in the way of culture: much like most people, I had a very narrow, not terribly positive (or accurate) view of Reading. But I quickly became aware of the strength of the visual arts and the craft scene. Back then, jelly still had a presence along the Oracle riverside with the Jelly Leg’d Chicken art gallery, and I thought it was so cool that there was this proper arty, independent gallery right in the centre of the town. 

But at heart I’m a theatre girl and, although I loved watching theatre at the likes of South Street, I wanted to get my hands dirty, so I started hunting out opportunities to get involved in and make theatre. So I came across Progress Theatre, where I spent many happy (and busy!) years, and which I credit with giving me a load of the skills I’ve needed in my professional career.

I think what’s changed is that now it just feels like there is more of everything – we have a thriving professional theatre scene creating exciting new work and providing opportunities for performers and other creatives. And of course we have more festivals than ever, covering a wide range of interests – as well as the Fringe (still a relative newcomer compared to some!), you have music at Are You Listening?, Readipop and Down at the Abbey (to name a few). And then there’s the Dance Reading Festival, the Children’s Festival, the Earth Living Festival, Waterfest, East Reading Festival, Here Comes the Sun – and more! AND that’s not including all the great food and drink festivals that tantalise us each year.

If you’d asked me five or six years ago if I thought I’d be able to sustain a professional producing career from Reading, I would have said absolutely not, I’d have to move to a Big City. But I’ve been freelance since 2014 and all my income now comes from the theatre and events industries, which is testament to the opportunities that exist (of course, I know that now is not a great time to have a career in those industries – but hey, let’s stay positive!)

What was your most embarrassing moment?
Ummm, I wet myself at Brownie camp when I was a kid. I was too scared to go into the outdoor toilets, cos they were full (and I mean full) of spiders. So what’s a girl to do..?

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Oh now – I’d say it was my first Michelin experience, back in 2011. It was at 21212 in Edinburgh, and I’d booked it as a surprise for my boyfriend at the time (I’m so nice). Everything about it was perfect: it wasn’t too frou, it was welcoming and cosy, the staff were warm and attentive, and of course the food was so delicious and so surprising. I know this is what you’d expect from any decent restaurant, but it was my first time in a Michelin one, and I was a little apprehensive as to what to expect! 

I loved it so much that I emailed them afterwards for a copy of the menu (I knew I’d forget what I had otherwise) and to remind me of the blue cheese I had, as it’s the only blue cheese I’ve ever enjoyed (Bleu d’Auvergne, if you’re asking). It also introduced me to the delights of truffle honey and to Tokaji. Both of which are found in loads of places now, but back then, to a Croydon girl, they seemed the height of decadence. It also means I’m now one of those poncy wankers who orders a dessert wine when everyone else thinks they’ve finished drinking.

The Reading Gaol project: important development for the town or costly white elephant?
I think if we could get our hands on it – and we could fund it – it would be an absolute boon. There are some brilliant creative, ambitious minds in this town and I genuinely believe that in the right hands that site could be an absolute asset in terms of cultural impact and engagement, creative industries employment, and tourism. It’s big and it’s ambitious – but Reading is totally up to the challenge.

Where will you go for your first meal out?
I was going to say how I’m chomping at the bit to get back to Namaste Momo – I credit Kamal with introducing me to food with spice and warmth that I can actually eat. But I see he’s back delivering again, hooray (serves me right for not being on Twitter much!) But in all honesty I hope that my first meal out of lockdown will be at a friend’s house – I so, so miss the simple pleasure of enjoying (someone else’s!) home-cooked grub followed by a good ol’ natter on the sofa afterwards.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Apparently I have a bad habit of going full Andrex puppy with the bog roll – not sure how I manage it, but it often just… unravels after a visit.    

The Reading Fringe Festival receives hundreds of applications every year. What’s the most weird and wonderful one you’ve seen?
I’d use the term eclectic, rather than weird! One of the roles of the Fringe – of art and culture in general I guess – is to challenge perception and encourage people to experience things they might not have had the opportunity to experience before, or have shied away from because, well, they might think it’s “weird” or not for them. 

A great example of this was a couple of years back – we were hosting the fantastic ice musician Terje Isungset from Norway. Terje creates his own instruments from blocks of ice that have been carved from icebergs, and then plays them. When you tell people about it, well, people think the whole concept sounds if not weird, then a little, umm, unusual. And when you tell them you’re hosting it at the height of summer, well, they then start to think you’re crazy. Fortunately loads of people took a punt on the weirdness, and the concert was a magical experience – ethereal, atmospheric and moving. And that’s what the Fringe is about: embrace the weird and you may discover something wonderful! 

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Oooooh – Sandi Toksvig (my hero), Mary Anning (dinosaurs!), Michaela Coel (hilarious and outrageously talented), Hollie McNish (what a way with words), Sam Neill (he’d bring the wine), and my mum. She’d have a riot.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Anything prawn cocktail flavoured: and although I love the flavour of Skips, I prefer the crunch of the McCoys Sizzling King Prawn.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Gross Pointe Blank! It’s effortless – performances, writing, direction – just an absolute joy.

What are you proudest of in your professional career to date?
I’d say last year, getting to spend a year with the Old Vic developing a new musical about the history of the British Black Power movement – we shared an hour of material back in December, and watching (and feeling) the audience respond to it was fantastic. I really miss the electric energy that comes from watching live performance in a room with other people.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
It’d have to be that Reading-born girl with the killer eyebrows – Kate Winslet!

What is your favourite smell?
That cool, fresh smell you get when you’re on the water, particularly on a river. A mix of the water, a breeze and the smell of trees and plants along the riverside. Love it. As an aside, I have a friend whose favourite smell is fish food flakes, which so boggles my mind I feel the need to tell everyone.

Tell us something people might not know about you. 
I finally passed my driving test in 2018 at the grand old age of *ahem* – so you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Where is your happy place?
Right now it’s walking along the Kennet and Thames to Sonning. It’s keeping me sane at the moment! But in general it’s nowhere specific: so long as I’m with someone who’s making me laugh – proper, belly-aching guffaws – I’m happy.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
I can’t resist a meat pie or a scotch egg. If I could buy shares in the Caversham Butcher I would – and those shares would be in scotch eggs.

Describe yourself in three words.
Optimistic; over-eager; daft.

2 thoughts on “Q&A: Steph Weller, producer, Reading Fringe

  1. carolinegratrix@yahoo.co.uk

    Oh god, I LOVE this interview, I know I say this every week but Steph is just awesome isn’t she.  Another belter, thank you! 🙂 

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