“Everybody’s queer living room!”
From a gay men’s space with darkened windows to a notoriously feminist dyke bar, The Marlborough Pub & Theatre is a venue that’s worn many a fierce hat in its time. A penchant for subverting gender norms, inclusivity, and a raucous programme ranging the arts throughout the year, this pub evolves with the world around it, servicing the portions of society that require a place to call their own. Perhaps you’ve made the most of their free pool table, or popped in for a vegan meal, seen a show that made you wonder what you just saw – whatever you’ve experienced there, you’ll know that no two visits are ever the same.
Tarik Elmoutawakil and Ema Boswood, two of the core four that make the Marly such a special venue, bring me up to speed as to how the pub has transformed into the multi-arts venue it is today. “I’ve been here for 15 years, I started working here when I came to university at Sussex in 2001,” Tarik explains. There was a frightening chance a few years back of the theatre closing due to a lack of innovation. “I decided to take over the theatre with no theatre background… I had a vision and knew I had to make it happen, though I didn’t quite know how. I soon met David Sheppeard, who has a background in the theatre industry, and our two minds combined kept us going well for a while.”
Each member of the team adds a new flavour to the cultural melting pot. “Whenever we get new staff it helps the Marly work, it shifts it up a gear and we’re able to do so much more,” Tarik says. Since the days of Tarik and David going it alone, they’ve had Creative Producer Abby Butcher and Programme Coordinator Ema join the team. With a flat hierarchy, Abby, David and Tarik now each carry the title of Creative Producer at the Marlborough, working together to program different seasons, keeping the shows diverse and rather unexpected.
Ema explains that the main goal is to ensure their shows will make audiences think, change their perceptions of others and life itself. “We love when people in the pub, who might not necessarily know what they’re letting themselves in for, come upstairs to the theatre and see something absolutely outrageous, radical, queer and messy, and not what they thought theatre was in the first place. A lot of people say they’ve found an interest or passion they didn’t know they had.” Those with a more traditional view of theatre tend to have that construct broken down. Tarik says:
“Theatre’s an institution, people often go in the same way as they approach going to a museum: they’re going to look at dead things. I love that the Marly isn’t like that; as soon as you come in the building there’s light and it’s all happening.”
While limited in what can be achieved in terms of making the building more accessible, this may well be the most open the Marlborough has ever been. Taking their theatre shows seriously, the team also ensure each and every customer can consider this pub a safe space. They’ve recently been donated a T Loop machine for those with hearing impairments, and encourage anyone with any accessibility needs to get in touch and they’ll do their best to accommodate them. Accessibility is at the forefront of everything the Marlborough team do. Tarik contemplates his words, then tells me, “something I really like about the Marly is none of us going around pretending to be perfect. We’ve learnt over the years about that, as a result of programming, like cultural appropriation. We’re human beings who have a desire to grow, change and develop.”
The team are known for their sensitivity around trans people’s experiences, and that of queer people of colour. This is something Tarik in particular is very passionate about. “If people experience micro-aggressions, we don’t accept that. We’ll ask people, if they keep misgendering someone, to leave. We’re keeping a safe space and it’s important for us to stamp that out.” He continues, “as a person of colour myself, I’d like to do similar work to make sure queer people of colour also recognise this as a place where they can talk to staff about micro-aggressions they might have experienced. I’m going to be working with some other members of the bar staff to come up with some policies that we can then wear on our sleeves, like our commitment to decolonising the scene.”
The sense of community you’ll feel when visiting is unparalleled by any other venue I’ve been to; inclusivity is at the core of the team and venue’s mission objective. “We’ve tried to unify the building and excavate its queer political side, which has been at the root of the Marlborough for such a long time,” Tarik says, showing that their ethos runs throughout everything they do. Ema chimes in, telling me about their recent scheme to engage customers and staff even more: “We have our membership scheme called Marly Mates, and it’s something we’re really proud of. It’s very much based on love. There are loads of benefits like discount tickets to shows, discount drinks in the bar – which is really good because you make back the investment really quickly! Also invitations to our annual members’ party, which was amazing this year.”
Speaking with such impassioned staff it’s heartbreaking to hear the struggles of an arts venue in a time of austerity. Cuts left, right and centre are making things increasingly difficult. While some may be disheartened, there’s a special kind of strength that the Marlborough team possess. Ema sums it up perfectly: “I think it’s important to keep that anger and rebellion that comes with the LGBTQ+ movement, and the history of this building, but to channel it into the right places and make the Marlborough a welcoming space for everyone.”