My story: Sarah Berger, the first So and So

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"The club started by accident. I'd got a desk space in a delicatessen which I was sharing with a friend and I was thinking about organising something. She said what was it about? I said I was fed up with doing so-so plays by so-and-so playwrights, and she said that's what you should call it, the So and So Club" says Sa- rah Berger, and three years ago the club was founded.

It is not a walk-in club with cocktail bar and nouvelle cuisine, but a professional theatre self-help club which has, now, 1,200 members in nine countries. The club's patrons are the critic Michael Billington, the director John Caird, and the actors Jean Marsh, Ken McReddie, Stella Duffy and Frances Barber. Its members are actors, writers and directors, including Phyllis Logan, Terry Johnson, Bill Alexander, Maryam D'Abo, Desmond Barritt and Joanna David.

"I've been an actor for 35 years and when you're a pit pony hanging on to the rock face for a long time you get to a point when you're tired of complaining about the lot of actresses in particular" Sarah says. "I thought I'd do something about it, but you can't do much on your own, so why not reach out? I'd say to other actors, I'll open my contacts book, try to share opportunities and generate proactivity, will you do the same? Lots said OK.

"We started doing play readings in people's garages and so forth; one of the first was in a stained glass studio, in West Drayton I think, and a hat went round the audience and we actually got paid.

"The club started on Facebook and immediately started building momentum.

"Performers in particular feel so dis- empowered, it doesn't really matter what you've done, what you've achieved. You look at TV in this country and you'd think only five people live here, it's the same faces all the time, and that has crept into the theatre. It's a very very closed shop, despite not having a functioning union anymore. The club helps people collaborate and meet each other, make it more of a level playing field.

"I thought I'd better build a website to let people know about readings, and I was walking past Samuel French (the theatre bookshop and publishers in Fitzroy Square) and asked if I could do them there, for free. We were there for two years and did prob- ably 20 readings, all new work.

"I don't believe in people working for nothing and I had to raise money to pay the readers so I made So and So subscription-based, £30 a year, very little but enough for them to feel they have contributed and invested in it. It encourages actors to engage, and if you do a reading you get £40."

The So and So Club also presents plays of new writing, beginning at The Hope pub theatre in Islington last year with a season of four plays featuring older actors and called the HopeFull Rep season for which she got Arts Council funding. "The letter came in a large brown envelope and for three days I ignored it presuming it was a tax demand. Then I learned that large brown envelopes from the Arts Council mean you've got a grant. Small brown envelopes mean you haven't, and this year it was a small one."

Nevertheless, in September she produced the unsubsidised Ever HopeFull season at So and So's City home, 6 Frederick's Place, four plays and a musical. "Everyone was paid the Equity Fringe mini- mum, 68 performances plus two one man shows and scratch performances by young people for old people - stories of people over 40 because I'm getting very tired of having fallen off the face of the earth since I got past that age". Last year Sarah also presented the British premier of a Nora Ephron play at The Mill at Sonning, and she has recently been appointed associate producer at the New Theatre Royal Portsmouth (recently reopened after renovation) which is a coming home for her: her father was a naval officer, Peter Berger, who was seriously wounded on board HMS Amethyst during the Yangtse Incident in 1949 which was the subject of a 1957 film; he was stationed in Portsmouth while his three daughters grew up there.

For a year the So and So Club has had its base in the four storey house owned by the Mercers' Company and let for a nominal rent, a house where the young Benjamin Disraeli had worked as a solicitors' clerk before he turned his back on the law to pur- sue his first love, writing. "Sometimes, up on the top floor at night, I can hear some- one moving about" says Sarah. "I do hope it's him..." It is shared with James Roose-Evans's Frontier Theatre Productions and Sarah administers it, with its many rooms used for rehearsals, readings, performances and offices. The little theatre is on the top floor.

"The office spaces are for other artistic companies. What it has meant is we are able to provide affordable space for other artists to come and do things, a holy grail in Lon- don."

The So and So Club has ambitions to use more empty buildings in the city in which space can be used by small companies in return for supporting the club's readings and productions. "I'm planning a Women in War series, aimed for the 2016 Edinburgh Festival at Summerhall. It will be multi- media performances, from heroines to refu- gees - did you know the Suffragettes did the work of conscientious objectors when they were imprisoned? And I want to start a London Fringe Rep Company because rep is dying. I learned my business in rep, in the West End and at the RSC where I was able to watch from the wings people like Daniel Massey, Juliet Stephenson and the wonderful Emrys Hughes, and I want to make work for the young and not so young, for those who are not TV names, because people in theatre are not learning their craft any more."

www.thesoandsoartsclub.co.uk

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