Interviews with renowned British Artistic Directors

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A chat under a bridge with Howard Brenton and Sam Hodges

The Shadow Factory is set in the autumn of 1940 during the Battle of Britain and is about the devastation reigned on Southampton, the home of the Spitfire. The play is written by theatre giant Howard Brenton and directed by the ambitious director Samuel Hodges.

The NST City is part of Studio 144, a new £28m venue in Southampton’s city centre. The building will include a 450 seat main house and a 135 seat studio, as well as screening facilities, rehearsal and workshop spaces.

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Howard Brenton and Samuel Hodges (obvs)

I went along to a have a chat with director of NST Samuel Hodges and playwright Howard Brenton on  a ramp in Southampton under the Itchen Bridge for the launch of the play.

Here is what we discussed.

Me: Hello! Are you both happy with how today has gone? 

Sam: I think it’s terrific – this is the perfect place for it. It’s beautiful and historic. It feels exiting; It’s suddenly got real.

Howard: It’s amazing to see this ramp we are standing on, they built sea planes in the 20’s and 30’s here and they rolled off this ramp.

Me: How would you describe your state of mind, Mr Hodges?

Sam: My state of mind is one of cautious excitement – I think it’s always that way with any new play at this point where you’re between a final draft and beginning of rehearsals and it’s all starting to shape up. On the other hand, we are desperate to get into this new building and start playing. I suppose there are quite a few unknowns: to go into a brand-new theatre and make a piece of brand new theatre is double unknown.

Howard: Well it’s great standing on this spot – I remember in the beginning I said yes to writing this play in a pub not far from here… Now we are standing on the actual site with the thing written and we are all ready to go.

Me: Is that how you get all your commissions, Sam? In the pub?

Sam: Yes. Absolutely.

Me: How would you describe The Shadow Factory in a nutshell?

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Sam: It’s a story about the community, it’s a story about the city and it’s a story that they will not have heard. I think as a theatre experience what they will get is something very unusual. Something with lots of design ,with projection, with flying bits ,with big community chorus, with movement and with music. I would hope it feel like something almost immersive.

Howard: I hope they will be entertained. This is a story of local people, a story that is not widely known, as Sam says. Shadow Factory is about people who did something extraordinary. It’s not to be sentimental about it because this is a very, very tough time. A lot of people thought they were going to lose the war. Nevertheless, they achieved this; 6 weeks from the factory being bombed – planes were being made in bits in the back streets. So, if people could do that 70 years ago, if we have to face a crisis in this country, and God knows we may well. What can we do? It can surprise us what we could do. I’d like people to take that thought out of the theatre.

Me: Is there anything that either of you would like to add?

Sam: Um. No. That’s’ fine.

The Shadow Factory runs at the NST City, Southampton from 16 February to 2 March.

 

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Omnibus Theatre, Clapham. Marie McCarthy: ‘Our work is to offer alternative views, offer inspiration, empower people to change and facilitate that change.’

Marie McCarthy

In some ways, Omnibus Theatre is just what you’d want from a converted Victorian Library on Clapham Common.

Other aspects of this 90 seat theatre you’d definitely want to see a show in are more surprising, and the property’s proximity to one of London’s busiest tube stations, just 2 minutes away from an extraordinary amount of hustle, bustle and footfall, seems somewhat at odds with this rather modest arts organisation (that receives no public funding).

This is a remarkable community arts organisation that aims to inspire audiences of all ages to learn new skills and discover their own creativity.

MarieOutsideOmnibus

Marie McCarthy outside Omnibus Theatre, Clapham.

Omnibus’ Artistic Director, Marie McCarthy, is giving me a tour of the building and telling me all about the vision. “Being a fan of architecture, I was very interested by the fact that it’s previous use was as a library and essentially a found space,” she says.

“Throughout the last four years, I have been discovering how flexible the space is. Performances occur in stairwells, dressing rooms, back corridors, the bar as well as the theatre. The artistic programme is inspired by the legacy of the library so the work we make includes Classics reimagined for a contemporary audience, adaptations, spoken word, storytelling across multiple platforms.”

Access and inclusion are the key both to her work and her ethos, which marks her out as a conscientious artistic director. “There are three festivals a year: Perception Festival in the Autumn for unheard voices, LGBTQ+ in February and then in May, we have a festival of story-makers. We have 8 associate artists and from a variety of disciplines including a poet, writers, directors and cross art form theatre makers.”

The Perception Festival kicks off in October and contains a dynamic programme of 14 events including a festival launch night. Highlights include Scandal and Gallows new staging of Nickolai Gogols The Overcoat, I Walk in Your Words, headphone verbatim theatre by Kristine Landon-Smith And A Cracked Plaster Spy, a new play by Futures Theatre. “We have been developing the Perception Festival for the last three years exploring how we view the world and how the world views us,” she explains.

“This year is the biggest and most well-defined festival that we have done to date. We’re looking at difference, moving from one tribe to another – It’s about looking at the journey from the place of feeling different and not accepted and what that journey entails.”

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Part of the job of being a really good AD is to know that you have brought what you can to an organisation and knowing when to step aside. On the topic of moving on, what will the organisation look like after 7 years, I ask. “Physically the building would look different. In the four years that I have been in post – I understand how the building works but also how it could be working more effectively by moving the café /bar to the front of the building and developing a second performance space,” she says.

“I would hope that after 7 years we are in a position to make more work and that relationships with regional companies are more developed, that core funding is in place. We receive project funding but no core funding as yet and I want to support more creative learning and participatory work. I believe Artistic Directors are guardians of buildings and I think it is important to have a sense of when it’s time to hand over. If those ideas aren’t fresh and the hunger to make a difference isn’t there then it’s time to move on.”

Another significant achievement, says McCarthy, was winning the Royal Court Theatre Support Award, which offers a year of the venue’s expertise. “We were delighted to have won the Peter Brook Empty Space award last November and our relationship with The Royal Court has been instrumental in helping us to raise our profile and communicate our identity more effectively.”

How does she balance the books with risk taking? “My reference point is the building. What work fits, how can we push a boundary, find a new slant. What do our audiences want? How can I listen more effectively, watch more acutely,” she says.

We are 6 years into a Tory arts policy and talking during the week that the barmy narrative of British politics seems to be taken straight from a Carry On film. What are her thoughts on May’s Britain, I ask. “We had a young person participating in a workshop playing the game Fruit Salad – he said “If you are disappointed with your life – jump in the centre.” He was 8 years old. This is a real problem, it is about a lack of hope.”

“It feels to me that our work is to offer alternative views, offer inspiration, empower people to change and facilitate that change,” she says.

PERCEPTION FESTIVAL 2017 – A festival about going against the tide runs Wed 4- 28 Oct

Box Office: Tel: 020 7498 4699

 

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Behold: Paines Plough 

Paines Plough are one of theatre’s secret weapons. The touring new writing company has  and are continuing their extremely brilliant partnership with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and the Gate Theatre in fostering talent by staging Hush by Alison Carr.

For the past three years, they have supported emerging writers has penned a short play for the graduating class of the college which is then staged in Cardiff and London for a short run. Previous playwrights who have taken part in the partnership with Paines Plough, RWCMD and Gate Theatre are Elinor Cook and Brad Birch who are both debuting full length new plays at Paines Plough Roundabout later this year.

I caught up with Hush writer Alison Carr and Paines Plough’s Artistic Director James Grieve to chat about new writing, the amazing new season, mainstream criticism and more.

Basically, it’s a really good chat.

Alison Carr

Alison Carr

Hi Alison, Paines Plough have a solid reputation for nurturing young theatre talent – how does it feel to be part of that?
It’s great. I first worked with Paines Plough about seven years ago when I took part in Come To Where I’m From at Live Theatre in Newcastle. I met James and George; I really liked the company and what they were doing. I wanted to be part of it. We’ve kept in touch and when I got the call to write their co-commission with RWCMD I was thrilled. And a bit daunted. A cast of eight, you say?! But they’ve been really supportive and encouraging throughout the process and I’m really proud of the play and excited for people to see it.

Last year you completed The Traverse Fifty – a 6-month attachment with Monkeywood Theatre. How helpful was that experience?
They’re actually two separate things. The Traverse Fifty was a year-long attachment with the Traverse that I was part of in 2013. It was incredible; I’d definitely say one of the most important experiences of my writing career so far. I was actually on the verge of packing-in writing when I entered to be part of it – it was a real make or break moment. The attachment with Manchester’s Monkeywood Theatre a couple of years ago was an opportunity to be supported over a 6-month draft process, culminating in a development day and a reading. It’s always good to have structure and support when you’re writing – I need deadlines and pressure – and then the chance to hear the play read by actors, work with a director, it’s all invaluable with a new work.

What is your play ‘Hush’ about?
There’s a question. There are three strands to the story – a young woman who comes back to the town she grew up in and left under a cloud, her former best friend who has stayed in the town and tried to live a good life, and a young man who waits in limbo for the return of his missing brother. So, broadly speaking, it’s about coming home, leaving vs staying, guilt, identity and loss. There are some jokes in there too, though.

CLICK HERE TO BUY YOUR TICKETS FOR HUSH  (Cardiff)
CLICK HERE TO BUY YOUR TICKETS FOR HUSH  (London)

Are there any writing tips that you live by?
It’s not exactly a pithy quote, but ‘just get on with it’ would be the main one. The amount of time I waste on worrying and procrastination, whereas when I just sit down and do something I feel so much better. Also, small achievable goals are key and time off is allowed.

JAMES GRIEVE

James Grieve

James Grieve

Congratulations on the wonderful Paines Plough season. What are you most excited about?
All of it. But particularly our Roundabout tour because I get to direct three outstanding new plays by Brad Birch, Elinor Cook and Sarah McDonald-Hughes with an ensemble of actors and go on tour in our beautiful pop-up theatre to lots of great places around the UK. We built Roundabout to give people amazing theatre experiences in places where there isn’t usually any theatre and it’s one of the things I’m most passionate about doing.

CHECKOUT MORE DETAILS – ROUNDABOUT 2017

Paines Plough doesn’t just develop exciting new writing but also cultivate directors and mentor them in producing bigger work. Why is that important to the company?
Great new plays need directors who understand and genuinely love playwrights and possess the particular skills and sensitivity needed to deliver a world premiere production of a new play. Developing directors with those skills and forging relationships between directors and playwrights is very important to us. John Tiffany first worked with Gregory Burke, Enda Walsh and Jack Thorne at PP and those lasting relationships went on to make BLACK WATCH, ONCE and HARRY POTTER. Our former Artistic Directors now run The Royal Court and Birmingham Rep. Our Associate Companies are run by the leading Artistic Directors of the future. New talent is following in the footsteps of Ian Rickson and Katie Mitchell as PP assistant directors. Developing great new writing directors is essential to PP now and vital to the entire theatre industry in the future.

You are continuing your partnership with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and the Gate Theatre in nurturing young talent. What makes this partnership so special?
The NEW season is the visionary brainchild of RWCMD’s head of acting Dave Bond. With the college we co-commission and co-produce a new play written for and performed by the graduating actors as the final show of their training. It’s a fantastic challenge for playwrights to write big cast, ensemble plays with equally weighted roles. It’s a wonderful opportunity for a playwright and director to develop a relationship. It’s an incredible, unique opportunity for the student actors to bridge training and professional life by originating roles in a world premiere by an outstanding contemporary playwright, working with a professional director and performing in both Cardiff and London. It’s a completely brilliant project. And the plays sometimes go on to have a professional life – Ali McDowell’s POMONA and our own Luke Norris’ GROWTH began life as NEW productions.

With the Guardian cutting the extremely brilliant Lyn Gardner’s theatre blog – the big question is: will all mainstream critics end up on Theatre’s rocks, being eaten by crabs?
No, Lyn is far too vital to be marginalised. She will continue to be an essential read wherever she posts her reviews and analysis. I’m sad at the loss of the Guardian blog, but I’m equally excited by the emergence of new platforms and publications and the vitality of theatre writing and criticism online.

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Director Abigail Graham on Death of A Salesman, Molly Sweeney, Love Actually, Mike Leigh and more

Abigail Graham is a freelance theatre director and artistic director of OpenWorks Theatre. Her work includes Black Sheep, DEBRIS and Molly Sweeney.

Abigail is currently right in the middle of rehearsals for Death of a Salesman at the Royal & Derngate. The production runs in Northampton from 8 to 29 April 2017, before touring to Cambridge, Bath, Malvern, Exeter, Canterbury, Portsmouth, Edinburgh and Truro. Graham’s production is the first independent tour from the Royal & Derngate. No pressure.

 

Abigail with Mike Leigh

Hi ya! Royal and Derngate is quite a good theatre isn’t it?
Yes. The team are wonderful, a really  creative, supportive atmosphere.

 

What was the last new play you saw and left thinking – ‘bloody hell!’?
Castorf’s version of The Brothers Karamasow at the Volksbuehne in Berlin. It was epic.

Why should we come along to see your Death of A Salesman?
Firstly, it’s an extraordinary play, and we’ve got a brilliant team of actors and creatives; all of whom are working to open this classic up to a new generation of theatre goers.
It’s also a mind bending, time bending play – like being sucked into a whirlpool; Miller takes us into Willy Loman’s head and that opens up exciting staging possibilities as you leave objective reality and enter a more subjective world.  The creative team and I have enjoyed meeting that challenge and we hope the audience will enjoy coming on that journey with us – being sucked into the whirlpool too if you like. The cast are incredible – at the end of week two I’m pleased to say they’re all being really brave. So all being well, audiences will be in for a really good night out.
Crucially, Miller wrote it to ‘put a timebomb under the bullshit of American capitalism’…and considering the current political climate, it feels like a good time to be having that conversation.

Molly Sweeney was a quite successful wasn’t it. Do you have fond memories of that time?
Yes – having Brian Friel as a pen pal was really humbling. I miss him.

Death of A Salesman

Your production is the first independent tour from the Royal & Derngate. Nervous?
Not really, I’m looking forward to the play meeting audiences from all over the country. With a play as political as this one, I reckon it will be really interesting to see how people from opposite ends of the UK respond to it.

What’s your No 1 piece of Directing advice?
Keep learning.

Death of a Salesman is a classic text full of broken and misplaced dreams. Is it a metaphor for life?
I hope not.

Are you looking forward to Love Actually for Comic Relief?
(Let’s hope the hot French guy is in it thought.) Will Emma Thompson be re-enacting my favourite bit? You know the bit I mean….

Does Tim Piggot Smith have any dressing room demands?
I.e cayenne pepper, and rose-scented candles, rooms must maintain a constant temperature of 68 to 75 degrees etc etc. Not as far as I’m aware….

Can you tell us a bit about OpenWorks Theatre company?
Sure – I set up OpenWorks in 2013 as I believe you can only change who goes to the theatre if you change who makes it. On a very basic level, we are working to create a holistic relationship between art, outreach and audience development. It started out with each member of the creative team having a paid mentee who was in rehearsals afternoon a week, they then act as ambassadors for the show amongst their peers; giving word of mouth only discount codes to members of their community who haven’t been to their local theatre independently before.
It’s now evolved; our current commission, a new play by Caroline Bird, was inspired by a Looked After Young Person who was a trainee on our last production. I can’t say too much, but we were chatting about zombies and it all came from there. Following an exploratory week with him and his peers, Caroline has gone away to write the play, and we hope to return to the group and workshop it with them and some actors, and then when we go into production to keep them as trainees who will act as ambassadors for the work.

Mike Leigh is your hero, isn’t he?
I love his work. I saw All or Nothing in the cinema when I was at university; I had never seen acting like it. I guess he’s one of my heroes because he just keeps doing his thing his way, making the work he wants to make the way he wants to make it. He came to see Molly Sweeney at The Print Room. We ended up chatting for about an hour after the show.

Is there anything you’d like to add, Abigail?
Nope. Have a lovely week.

Death of a Salesman will run at the Royal & Derngate from 8 to 29 April 2017.

 

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Artistic Director, The Bike Shed Exeter, David Lockwood: “I would like audiences to gain a deeper understanding of the world around them through the performances they see. And I would like those who take part to feel empowered to change the world.”

David Lockwood
David Lockwood

David Lockwood. © Ben Borley

David Lockwood is the artistic director of the independent Bike Shed theatre in Exeter. The 60-seat is often described as Exeter’s ‘hidden gem’.
The Bike Shed Theatre want to convert the former Exeter Maritime Museum into an open space with a 250-seat theatre, an arts market, and a large creative space open to the wider public, amongst other things.
This summer, for sixteen weeks, the old maritime museum will be filled with theatre, visual art, live music, comedy, cocktails, ice-cream and, er, mini golf course. Lockwood is urging the people of Exeter to get behind their Crowdfunder for ‘The Boat Shed’.
A Crowdfunder we can all get behind, ladies and gentlmen.
Anyway I had a chat with David to see what he’s got to say for himself.

Hello David! How would you sum up 2017 so far, in five words?
An exercise in spinning plates.

What are you most excited about in 2017? 
My son speaking. And swimming with him in the outdoor pool in Exeter.
Work-wise, I’m excited about people coming into the new building and having the same open-jawed expression I had when I first walked round.

The Boat Shed Crowdfunder launch went quite well, didn’t it?
Seemed to. People really want it to happen, which is good, because it’d be a waste of time if they didn’t.

CLICK HERE TO  SUPPORT THE BOAT SHED CROWDFUNDER

What are the biggest misconceptions of Exeter as a city?
Possibly that it’s posher than it is. I think that’s to do with the University (which is quite posh). But there are huge areas of deprivation, a massive homelessness and street-attached community and lack of opportunity. We’re strongly divided here – remain and leave, town and gown, rural and urban. And, of course, those who engage with subsidised culture and those who don’t.

Recently the North Devon Theatres’ Trust was placed into administration, meaning both the Queens in Barnstaple and the Landmark in Ilfracombe closed with. What are the knock on implications of local authority cuts for the cultural ecology of Devon?
Wow, how long have you got? Worth separating Exeter from Devon here. The former is one of the largest spenders per capita on culture (though it is only a district authority). The latter has supported the library service to become a mutual, but has cut its fairly small arts budget. The knock on implications for the ecology, in the long term, will be to make organisations more entrepreneurial. It’s a great shame that funders are often so slow to respond to innovation (both at a local and national level), that it takes cutting funds to enable new things to grow.
I’ve upset people by saying this before but, in my opinion, the worst that can happen is that the cuts preserve existing organisations but with a reduced grant. Then you have organisations limping on, with no originality, unable to generate new revenue and serving a dwindling community. As a sector, I think we need to respond by being a bit braver, otherwise decisions will be made for us, either by organisations going bust (as in North Devon) or people in Whitehall making decisions for us. This would be a shameful abandonment of responsibility.
I could go on.

What are your aspirations and ambitions for the artistic work at The Boat Shed?
I’ve been talking a lot about trade. Exeter has been an international trading city since before the Romans arrived. When wool was sexy, it was the third wealthiest city in the UK. Two hundred years ago, due to the Napoleonic Wars and the lack of coal in Devon, industry moved northwards and Exeter began to look in on itself rather than outwards (with notable exceptions, like the University).
I would like the Boat Shed to be a catalyst for the city to look out again. I believe globalisation is a wonderful thing but only if we nurture the skill and craft of local people.
So, our theatre will have half its work from within a 30-mile radius. The other half will be from anywhere else in the world.
I would like audiences to gain a deeper understanding of the world around them through the performances they see. And I would like those who take part to feel empowered to change the world.

How do you balance risk taking with sure-fire crowd pleasing work? 
I never programme sure-fire crowd pleasing work. We’ve James Acaster in our theatre next week, but then he performed in the Bike Shed five years ago when he hadn’t been on telly. I do consider whether we’ll sell tickets, but I’m guided by my own tastes. That’s the luxury of having few seats, perhaps.

There is often a lot of talk about rebalancing funding regionally and moving away from a London-centric set up. How much longer can we continue to ignore such an imbalance? 
Massively loaded question…. A long time. It’s just not high enough a priority for enough people to get cross about.
If you believe that the arts are a human right, as most in the arts sector do, it is morally unacceptable to have such an imbalance. Imagine if you could always get better healthcare or a better education if you lived in London.
I’d have hoped Brexit may have made a difference – it strikes me there were clear parallels between those areas that voted to leave and the amount of funding they received from Arts Council England – but no one seems to have taken responsibility for the failure to share the brilliance of what we make outside our silos.

The Boat Shed.

The Boat Shed. Image credit Patrick Cullum

Crowdfunding is an excellent way of galvanising interest and investment isn’t it? I love your Donate £500.00 and have “Unlimited ice-cream – all the ice-cream you can eat, all Summer” reward. Amazing.
Still up for grabs if you want it.

[ Click on the image on the right to donate and get your unlimited ice-cream all Summer]

Which theatre companies would you rate at the moment? 

I’m very excited about what In Bed With My Brother will make. They’re an Exeter company with originality, inquisitiveness and a great work ethic – they have a very bright future.
The Wardrobe Ensemble excite me hugely. They’re so enjoyable to watch and have so much creativity.
Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari are two of my favourite people in the world. They’ve been making a piece inspired by workshops with children in Exeter and North Devon which I can’t wait to see.
Chris Harrison (once of Rhum and Clay) is making solo work which I think could be quite interesting. He’s very watchable on stage and has a dark imagination.
And I saw a great piece by Bella Heesom in Edinburgh last Summer – My World Has Exploded A Little Bit. We’re bringing that to Exeter and supporting her next piece on female sexuality.

Anything that you’d like to add, David? 
Come to Exeter. It has so much potential and it needs creative people to unlock this.

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Puppetry Director Matthew Forbes: “Babe, The Sheep Pig has original songs, it’s funny, will make you laugh and cry, you’ll get completely immersed in the story and you’ll find yourself shouting out and joining in.”

Matthew Forbes
Matthew Forbes

Matthew Forbes

Matthew Forbes is the Puppetry Director on Babe, The Sheep-Pig. He chats about how he got into puppetry, and how the animals of Hogget’s Farm are brought to life in this new stage production.

How did you get into puppetry directing?
I trained as an Actor at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, specialising in Collaborative and Devised Theatre. This still had all of the elements of a classical actors training, but with a focus on more contemporary styles of theatre. Inspired by companies such as Complicite, DV8, Punchdrunk and Blind Summit, the course gave me a huge insight into a more visual approach to theatre making. I think this training helped me secure a place in the National Theatre’s smash hit; War Horse. I performed in London’s West End for three years, totalling over 1000 performances. Bringing those puppets to life every day was a huge learning curve and gave me an incredible practical puppetry training, very much learning on the job. After leaving the performing company, I was asked by the National Theatre to join the creative team for the show, and was given the responsibility of looking after the puppetry on touring and international productions of the show… the rest they say, is history.

You have spent a huge part of your career working on War Horse. What do you think is special about the puppetry in the show?
The horses in War Horse are arguably some of the most famous puppets in the world. Joey is the star and he’s been all over the world, met more celebrities, heads of state and members of the Royal family than some of the biggest Hollywood stars. The puppetry in the show tells an incredible story and it’s all thanks to Handspring Puppet Company, the South African team who created and built the puppets. During rehearsals we get the performers to think like horses- I think that’s what makes them so special- the puppets look so life-like without moving them, the difficult job is to make sure that they think and respond like horses. As a nation we have a huge infinity with animals and so can spot when the puppet is being truthful and horse-like. People’s eyes are always drawn to the horses and so even the smallest ear flick, breath, or tail swish brings life and makes us believe they are alive.

What types of puppetry can we expect in Babe, The Sheep-Pig? Which characters are brought to life using puppets?
The puppets in Babe are fantastic! They’ve been beautifully designing by Max Humphries and Dik Downey; Max has been working with Cirque du Soleil and we’ve worked closely together on several shows before. The performers do an incredible job of bringing a farmyard of puppets to life. Each life-size puppet is wonderfully unique and requires a different amount of puppeteers to bring them to life. Babe, our Hero, is a fully articulated puppet; he blinks, walks, talks and even wiggles his snout! He totally steals the hearts of our audience, he’s adorable and brought to life by the entire company. Oliver Grant is the core puppeteer of Babe, he is responsible for the characterisation and voice of our piglet, but he works closely with a revolving team of supporting puppeteers who all provide so much detailed work. That pink pig really comes to life before your eyes! Babe is joined on the farm by Ma; an adorable older sheep, three cheeky Puppies, a cunning Cat, a very opinionated Cockerel, three daft Ducks and a scary Worrier Dog- who Babe bravely stands up to! Our incredibly talented cast of actors, musicians, and puppeteers bring all of the puppets in the show to life; singing, dancing and telling Babe’s story.

How do you go about training actors to work with puppets? What are the challenges?
Puppetry is a very ego-less and selfless style of performance. As an actor on stage you normally want people to look at you, but when you’re puppeteering you don’t want them to look at you- you want them to look at the object in your hands. One of the biggest challenges is to therefore get our puppeteers to disappear. We don’t hide them behind a screen, they’re always visible, but the attention and focus they give to the puppet directs the audiences eye to the puppets, so the puppeteer in effect vanishes in to the background, and we watch the puppet. This can take a long time to master, but our wonderful cast make it look easy. Some of the puppets in Babe require two or three puppeteers to bring them to life. Getting actors to work as a team to bring a single character to life can sometimes be a challenge- the last thing you want is the head going in the opposite direction to the tail!

Why should families come and see Babe, The Sheep-Pig?
The show is truly magical, the puppets are beautiful and the cast are incredibly talented! Watching Babe struggle and overcome the challenges that are thrown his way is really inspiring. Our little pig has big dreams; he wants to be a sheep-dog! He’s told he can’t be, but he perceivers, keeps trying and doesn’t give up. That is an important morale that we should all remember; when we put our minds to it and try, we can do anything! Children and adults will be sat on the edge of their seats, following Babe’s journey, willing him on to succeed. The show has original songs and music, it’s funny, will make you laugh and cry, you’ll get completely immersed in the story and you’ll find yourself shouting out and joining in. Everyone is welcome at the Hogget’s farm and you can’t help but leave with a smile!

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Interview – Director Abbey Wright on leading a 50-strong community company, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, Director led productions and more.

Abbey Wright – Director.

Would you be interested in interviewing the director Abbey Wright ?” they said.

“Yes that would be very nice,” I said.

The director in question is Abbey Wright who is currently in technical rehearsals for a new adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes Of Wrath.
Wright was Resident Assistant Director at the Donmar Warehouse for 18 months from 2008-09, during which time she worked with such notable directors as Michael Grandage, Alan Rickman, Jeremy Herrin, Peter Gill, Sean Holmes, Jamie Lloyd and John Tiffany.
(‘FYI’ Abbey is currently Associate Director at the Nuffield.)
Oh and The Grapes of Wrath opens at the Nuffield Southampton Theatres Campus next week with opening night on 14 March and runs until 25 March. The production then tours each of the co-producing venues throughout 2017, apparently.
So, what is it all about, how is it working with a 50-strong community company and what are her thoughts on Director led productions? Well…

*Q&A*

Hi Abbey! How are The Grapes of Wrath rehearsals going?
Hi Carl! I am loving this project. It’s a wonderful company, a great team and an awe-inspiring piece to be working on.

How did you get into this Directing lark?
I directed a youth theatre first in Worcestershire where I am from. Then I trained as an actor. Then assisted at the Donmar and the National Theatre. Then just started to put plays on that interested me and kept going.

Steinbeck isn’t for wimps. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ could make for a heavy night out, what can audiences expect from your production?
Yes, well, I can’t pretend it is light. But you can expect a moving story which speaks deeply to our world today; great ensemble acting from a top company; fantastic live music composed by Matt Regan; a contemporary or perhaps I should say mythic treatment of the story; a community company and brilliant design from Laura Hopkins and Nigel Edwards. Steinbeck is exploring a migration, dispossession and fragmentation but he is also making the case for love, family, connection, and the nurturing of the human spirit.

Would you agree that one of the biggest themes of the play is the way that solidarity, not politics or religion, see us through dark times?
Yes, sort of. I think that Steinbeck has the idea that there is ‘one big soul that everybody is a part of’. I think that idea works on lots of levels; spiritually, politically, socially. It is the unification of those levels that makes the politics of the play becomes ‘holy’ which is one of the great strengths and beauties of The Grapes of Wrath.

How have you integrated The Grapes of Wrath 50-strong community company made of up local residents (That sounds fun) into the production?
That’s a good question because we have just spent the day doing that! Mainly they will play the people who are staying at the 3 camps the Joads travel through in the second half. And it’s very exciting having that number of people onstage.

What are your thoughts on Director led theatre productions?
I don’t tend to categorise theatre shows in that way – more that I might see something and like it whether it was a ‘high-concept piece’ or a really simple piece. I guess I’m interested in something feeling live and I tend to be interested in theatre that explores fantasy? or the surreal? But that’s just a personal thing.

How important is it for Theatre’s to manage a balance between revivals and new work?
I think it’s important because it’s great to see as wide a range of stuff as possible.

Why are women still underrepresented at every level of the industry– and what needs to change?
Well, I think there are more women who are working as directors now. I am aware of a fair few. I think that men were in charge of things for thousands of years and women weren’t and that takes a long time to change culturally and psychologically. And that maybe we are still more comfortable with men in charge in some ways because it conforms to something traditional and we have to think twice before putting a woman in charge. Also, I think that we maybe just struggle with seeing people in charge who don’t exhibit traditional qualities of leadership. I hope and feel this is changing and am excited to see what this does.

Do you believe that honesty is always the best policy?
Yes. I mean, no.

Is there anything that you’d like to add?
All done.

Tickets are available from the Box Office 023 8067 1771 or online at nstheatres.co.uk

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James Seager: Les Enfants Terribles’ Producer on Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the LET Awards and more

James Seager
James Seager

James Seager

James Seager and Oliver Lansley are the masterminds behind Les Enfants Terribles. Their previous work includes multi-award-winning, international stage shows, including Dinner at the Twits, Alice’s Adventures Underground and The Vaudevillains. James Seager is Les Enfants Terribles’ Producer.

Last week I had a phone chat with Seager. We talked about the origins of their partnership. He says, “We met fifteen years ago, working on a Shakespeare play – As You Like It – and we are truly great friends. We direct together and have similar tastes,” he laughs. “We come up with ideas and 95% of the time it works, usually we are on the same page.”

Seager and Lansley recently announced the winners of the annual LET Awards. Nominees took part in a showcase at Greenwich Theatre. “It’s been pretty magic. The standard was the highest we have ever seen. We had over one hundred applicants – of which we shortlisted ten companies. All of them were brilliant and it was a very difficult decision to choose one winner.” 

Two winners were selected, Rendered Retina and BoonDog Theatre. Both will receive a performance slot at the Pleasance as part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe, £1000 cash as well as mentoring. “Rendered Retina are young, fresh and enthusiastic,” he says. “We could tell that they have a passion and genuine love for theatre. A lot of the decision was down to mine and Olly’s instinct; we felt that they could really benefit from our mentorship. What Rendered Retina did was inventive, slick and clever. Their work showed a great deal of potential for development. Both companies stood out.”

The Rendered Retina boys: Tom Mangan, Jordan Choi and Alex Mangan are upbeat about their recent win, “We are so honoured to have been offered this opportunity! The LET Awards gave us the chance to meet some incredibly talented artists and performers, and for that we are very grateful. We are excited to receive mentoring from LET, as well as the chance to showcase our work at the Edinburgh Fringe,” says Choi.

The winners of the LET Award 2017. Oliver Lansley, James Seager, (Tom Mangan, Jordan Choi, Alex Mangan - Rendered Retina Theatre Company) and Matthew Dwyer. Credit Anthony Hollis.jpg

The winners of the LET Award 2017. Oliver Lansley, James Seager, (Tom Mangan, Jordan Choi, Alex Mangan – Rendered Retina Theatre Company) and Matthew Dwyer. Credit Anthony Hollis

It’s behind Les Enfants Terribles’ love of facilitating opportunities for emerging talent, particularly the LET Awards, where their work shines. “This is the sixth year we’ve done this and there are two main ways in which we help. One is creatively; direction, storytelling and writing. Secondly: on a productivity level, we find that new company’s want more help with finance and accommodation. I.e. the nitty gritty and boring things involved in taking a show to Edinburgh. We have fifteen years under our belts of taking work to Edinburgh Fringe, so we are in a position to guide them. It’s quite expensive! Time slots, venue hire, accommodation, flyers, PR etc – it all adds up,” cautions Seager.
Les Enfant Terribles are providing an invaluable service for emerging talent.  It’s brilliant. Really very brilliant indeed. They have just announced The Stepladder Award, which is designed to support developing fringe theatre companies making original work. The emphasis of the award is on supporting a company to mount a professional tour of their Edinburgh Festival Fringe show and building their company profile and structure from the roots.

Taking a show to Edinburgh Fringe is no mean-feat. Balancing ambition with breaking even is nearly impossible, other benefits of appearing at Edinburgh are infinite. “The experience – its intense putting on a show and taking it to Edinburgh – it is a huge learning-curve,” says James. “It’s important to be there meeting new people, raising your profile and showcasing work where all the important people working in this industry are in one place. “

If the output of dynamic work is anything to go by, 2017 will see Les Enfants Terribles progress on to even more innovative projects. “As well as the Step Ladder programme, our sister company Les Petits Theatre Company have the stage adaptation of David Walliams’ ‘The First Hippo on the Moon’ out on a U.K Tour. ‘Alice Adventures Underground’ is back at The Vaults from April. We also have a brilliant outdoor show doing the Festival circuit over the summer and a really exciting show opening in London in October.” He pauses: “So, watch this space.”

ALICE’S ADVENTURE UNDERGROUND OPENS AT THE VAULTS ON 25 APRIL 2017

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Tim Webb MBE: “We recently submitted our NPO application the period 2018-22… If we don’t get the level of support that we are getting now – it may be curtains.”

Tim Webb
Pictures of Sheep

‘In A Pickle’

Theatre company Oily Cart are busier than ever before creating exceptional work for everyone.

For 35 years, they have created more than 80 original shows, which have toured the UK as well as internationally. They are currently working on projects in the Russia, Japan and the USA.

“People with intellectual or physical disabilities are individuals who rarely have a voice,” says Tim Webb, who co-founded Oily Cart with designer Claire de Loon and musician and composer Max Reinhardt. “Their profile is very low and there are problems in giving them a voice of their own.”

Oily Cart have always placed the needs of their audience at the centre of their work. “Because of who our audiences are, we have to be very practical, and that means breaking the process of theatre making down to explore the elements and then reassembling them in a way that will really aid that audience.”

Webb explains the creative vision: “We ration time between audiences. Our work divides into two halves: young people and family shows like ‘In A Pickle’ – which was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company is a fully immersive theatre experience for children aged 3-5, their families and friends that involves creatives and audiences with disabilities.” That show has just finished a successful UK Tour and in April and May it will be heading out to the USA – taking in Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center, New York. This is the first time these two organisations have collaborated on a programme for young people and their families.

Tim Webb

Tim Webb MBE

Theatre productions can be tricky for those with special needs. A growing number of companies are adapting their work to meet the needs of their diverse audiences. And about time too. “Wonderfully, I think relaxed performances have come to be accepted quite quickly, it’s important to make any show as accessible as you can. Many of the young people we work with have multiple and profound learning disabilities. For example, one of the key features of Oily Cart are that we work close up, often 1-2-1 – with deaf and blind individuals adapting to the complex needs of the individual. We aim to find new ways of telling stories by asking ourselves early on – what will interest our audience?” Webb says.

It was, says Webb, essential that Relaxed Performances become commonplace. “We’re talking about a cultural shift, to make West End shows accessible for all is a very valuable and important thing to do.” All this has allowed a fresh audience to the theatre, but it has also empowered new families to attend and participate. “You have to use images that will be picked up and you make the most of what you have. We employ uncluttered methods of storytelling that focus on the sensory; smell, touch and having things to handle. We are unique in the way we create a kinaesthetic performance space.”

Together with the national charity Sense, Oily Cart will enter unchartered territories with their first ever touring production for children and young people who are deafblind. The sights, sounds and smells of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem – Kubla Khan – are to be re-imagined into a brand new and unique immersive production in August 2017.

There are many writers, actors, and directors who would not be doing what they do now without Oily Cart. They have National Portfolio status with annual funding to the tune of approximately £286,000. Like many others, they face standstill funding or worse, a cut in real-terms. Tim is frank about the implications of a funding reduction. “Arts Council England have encouraged us to diversify funding streams. Actually, we have a diverse basket of funding; ticket sales, support of a few major trusts and foundations and we are supported by individuals too.” Webb says.

“We recently submitted our NPO application the period 2018-22… If we don’t get the level of support that we are getting now – it may be curtains.”

 

 

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Conrad Lynch: “This season we are championing female mid-career artists and the more senior creatives who still have much to offer.”

Conrad Lynch
Conrad Lynch

Conrad Lynch © www.stevenbarber.com

Conrad Lynch has just come from his first season launch in his new position and he’s on a bit of a high. “The reaction from friends, family, audiences and volunteers has been wonderful,” explains Lynch. “We had almost a full house for the season launch; it’s lovely when you get such a positive reaction.”

Lynch is the new Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Theatre by the Lake in Keswick (TBTL) – Cumbria’s only ACE funded producing theatre – which recently launched its vibrant 2017 season – marking the theatre’s daring move to being a producer-led venue for the first time. Bursting with World Premieres, Regional Premieres, new collaborations and new writing – this exciting and ambitious programme aims to surprise and delight audiences whilst highlight Lynch’s desires to offer fresh, innovative and unforgettable theatre for all. This excellent season includes Co-productions with Royal Exchange Theatre, English Touring Theatre, Shared Experience and Jermyn Street Theatre.

Success and Challenges of 2016

Thinking back, he reflects on the successes and challenges of 2016 “It was an extraordinary year for our region, following the severe weather where communities in Cumbria were flooded again – some for the third time in less than a month – following torrential rain and high winds, a certain Dunkirk spirit really came through”- He adopts his best brooding artistic director tone – “With the current global political landscape who knows what is around the corner; part of our job is to entertain and make people forget any worries that they have.”

Arts organisations’ role in making work accessible

Arts organisations have a vital role to play when it comes to making work that is accessible for all. It seems many we are finally waking up to the point that inclusivity, not ticking boxes, can revitalise output and result in more meaningful community engagement. It is very obvious that creative organisations can’t afford not to do these things if they want to stick around. “Diversity is a really broad topic and it’s about different things in different places,” He elaborates. “We need to not only reflect the make-up of the UK on our stages and the artists we work with but look at soci-economic challenges particularly those affecting rural areas, age and gender – this season we are championing female mid-career artists and the more senior creatives who still have much to offer.”

Lets not reinforce the idea that regional theatre doesn’t cut the mustard like London theatre does…

Budget cuts, rising travel costs –make it tough for audiences to get to work in remote areas but let’s not reinforce the idea that regional theatre doesn’t cut the mustard like London theatre does. Not only is Theatre by the Lake situated in the most tranquil spot of Derwent Water, but the artistic programme, and 2017 season is a fine example of a theatre being very cunningly matched to a particular geography and context. Lynch is very clear in his hopes and ambition for the organisation. “We want to make sure we continue to punch above our weight as a producing venue and we want to shout about our work,” He explains. “Going forward, I am very mindful of not working with my mates; it’s really very important to hear fresh voices and work in partnership. We have to provide value for money for the public subsidy that we receive.”

I for one can’t wait to pay Theatre by the Lake a visit, later this year.