Interviews with renowned British Artistic Directors

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Park Theatre, Jez Bond: “Theatres have to come up with novel ways to make money.”

Jez Bond, Artistic Director of Park Theatre, sits hunched on the sofa, twiddling his hair. In a pink hoodie and red Puma trainers, he looks younger than his thirty-nine years. His voice is soft but street-casual, but what stands out is the cheeky smile; which make you notice his sparkly eyes and his determination not to take himself too seriously.

Jez Bond – © Piers Foley Photography

In a year that’s seen him direct Ian McKellen and continue to build Park’s reputation as an exciting home for new plays and celebrated transfers, Bond is also knackered. “I haven’t slept much because I’ve got a little baby at home”, he says.

Park Theatre opened in 2013 in London’s Finsbury Park. Described as “a neighbourhood theatre with global ambition,” it offers a mixed program of new writing, classics and revivals. As well as the main auditorium (Park200), the building includes a studio theatre (Park90), a rehearsal space and a buzzing Café Bar. Is it true that the theatre is part of a housing development?

“Sure, it’s 560 luxury apartments and a little theatre in the basement…” Bond grins, “Ha! That would be nice! No; that’s fake news. Essentially, it’s the other way around. We wanted to build a theatre and discovered a building that was a former office in this incredible area. We raised the money to buy the building… and to raise the money for the theatre we spoke to Islington Council to add two storeys to the front of the building: two 1-beds and one 2-bedroom flat. That gave us a million into the pot. We have to raise £250,000 a year to keep our doors open,” he adds.

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We talk about the recent Park Theatre fundraiser starring Sir Ian McKellen. Titled Shakespeare, Tolkien, Others & You, the show offered audiences the chance to get up close with Gandalf. How was it directing a legend?

“Absolutely incredible – he’s a work-horse and the most incredibly generous man. He did ten shows in a week and after every single show he either took thirty people out to dinner or did the signings and selfies. Every single interval – he was entertaining 6-8 people with private drinks in his dressing room.” Bond beams. “He was a joy to work with.”

I ask him teasingly if it’s true that he sold McKellen-branded wine at the event. His eyes widen. “The merchandising was great. We had an excellent sponsor in the form of Tikveš wines from Macedonia, who provided 1,800 bottles of special edition McKellen-branded wine, some of which were given away as part of the experience people bought, and some of which were sold independently on the night,” he says. Amazing.

Anyone feeling snippy about Bond’s vision, or his ambition, would do well to celebrate his savvy approach. “It’s fair to say the problem with the arts is that there is not enough support. We need a quarter of a million to keep the doors open without producing a show. Theatres have to come up with novel ways to make money. The government keeps saying ‘theatres have to be more entrepreneurial’ and what people don’t realise is, it costs a lot of money to fundraise. If you look at the most successful – the Donmar, NT or the Almeida – they have between 5-10 people in their development department – that’s a salary bill of what, £300,000? The government makes things harder with Gift Aid legislation tightening – so we are able to claim only a very small proportion of Gift Aid on the Ian McKellen money.”

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Sir Ian McKellen

He is not too thrilled with the changes in legislation. “Normally you can contact someone to fundraise – now you have to know that they’ve said you’re allowed to contact them,” he explains. “If we do a fundraiser we need to know who is sitting at what table or in what seat. What we would usually do is look these people up or Google them so that we know: that’s so-and-so or she’s the chairman of that board as a conversation point.” But new privacy laws are making this impossible.

On the plus side, he says, it will stop the companies cold-calling vulnerable people selling double-glazing that they don’t need. “But on the other hand it will impede theatres and arts charities who are working with engaged people who want to be involved and just sometimes need a bit of a nudge. In order to raise the money to keep affordable theatre or give opportunities to the community you have to be a bit capitalist,” he admits. “The people who paid for drinks with McKellen offset open dress rehearsals for students, engagement with Age UK and communities from the local council estate experiencing theatre for the very first time.”

Bond’s own taste in theatre is straightforward: “I love well-made plays – ideally a linear narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. I like story; tell me a good story and I’ll stay.”

How conscious is he about equal gender representation on Park Theatre’s stages? “There are only a limited number of plays which we can afford to produce, we have conversations with guest producers and we really try and ensure diversity,” he says. “This season has ended up less female-focused in Park200 as we would have liked but we have balanced this by being more female-focused in Park90. In the next season we have some really good female led stories.”

We turn to the big show of the recently announced 2018 season, Pressure, which features his secret weapon: David Haig. “He’s the man! David has written Pressure and he is in it. It was originally at Chichester and so this is the London premiere. I read the play and said we’d love to do it. It should be great,” Bond says.

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David Haig in Pressure (Runs at Park200 from 28 Mar until 28 Apr 2018)

How does he get such an array of big-name stars to perform at Park Theatre? Is it blackmail? He laughs. “Well, there’s a lot of skeletons in a lot of closets and if you’ve got the key…. Most of the closets are located in the housing development. They’re in the basement.” He smiles sweetly. “I’m joking.” Or is he?

Park Theatre’s 2018 Season is on sale now 

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Finborough Theatre, Neil McPherson: ‘Fringe theatre is undergoing a lasting change… I don’t want it to become a rich kid’s playground.’

The Finborough Theatre has had a remarkable year; acclaimed sell-out productions, London and New York transfers, the tenth Channel 4 Playwrights Scheme Playwright in Residence Bursary, nominations for The Stage Debut Award and an Olivier Award.

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Neil McPherson

Since 1998, Neil McPherson has been artistic director of the Finborough pub theatre. It’s fair to say he knows what he’s doing on the theatre front and if you’re in the market for a chat about that then today is your lucky day.

Anyway I hopped on the phone with Neil to find out what he’s got to say for himself.

In 2018, the Finborough celebrates 150 years of the Finborough Theatre building with the FINBOROUGH150 series, an anniversary selection of the best plays from 1868. McPherson may be approaching twenty years in post but he shows no signs of losing enthusiasm. “Next year is the 150 Anniversary of our building so we are going to be doing an anniversary selection of the best plays of 1868 – our new season, for example, features one play from 1868 alongside five pieces of new writing,” he says, excitedly.

Last week, Lyn Gardner wrote about the state of play of the London fringe, saying: The days when the London fringe was a place where the penniless and the radical could find a nook of cranny, where they could thrive, have long gone. Does he agree? “Sadly, Lyn is absolutely right.  Fringe theatre – as it is now – is on the cusp of a massive change,” he says. “Almost as big as the shift of print media vs the internet. For many years in London – the number of fringe theatres stayed constant – then suddenly over the last five or six years – a dozen theatres or more popped up. And that brings its own challenges for a 50-seat venue paying market rent,” McPherson says.

He continues, “I’ve never been a subscriber to the belief that “fringe” means amateurish. I’ve always tried to take the best of the fringe – the ability to find new and exciting writers, directors, designers, actors theatre; the ability to respond to events quickly; and to be radical and controversial; and marry that with the best of the commercial theatre’s values – a respect for training, and high production values, for example,” he says.

“It’s got to be good – just because it’s a fringe theatre doesn’t mean it can’t be world class.”

We talk about the renewed discussion of masculinity in crisis and the constant developments around sexual harassment. “I think the best thing we can do is shut up, listen – with humility – and do and be better. It’s time for a big change. And, it goes hand in hand with bullying which also needs to be addressed,” says McPherson emphatically.

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What steps has he taken to ensure that he is doing all that he can within the organisation? “Just this very last week we’ve altered our production manual we give to companies’ clear guidance. We also have the Royal Court code of conduct on display in working areas. The awareness is all, and, as my favourite teacher at drama school used to say “N.T.T.” which stands for “Nobody’s That Talented,” he says, laughing.

Earlier this year McPherson was nominated for an Olivier Award for his play Is It Easy to be dead – a play is about a remarkable WWI poet, Charles Hamilton Sorley. The play received solid reviews and transferred to Trafalgar Studios. McPherson is realistic about the sustainability. “In terms of critical acclaim and commercial sales – we could transfer 1 in 3 of our shows; however, we only transfer 1 in 7. And perhaps not always the most deserving ones. I always go back to the Noel Coward quote “Just do what you like and believe in and just hope to God other people like it too,” he says.

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Alexander Knox in It Is Easy To Be Dead. Photo: Scott Rylander.

McPherson is deeply aware of the importance of seeking out diverse voices and not being dependent on playwriting competitions. “I’ve judged some playwriting competitions in the past and personally I think it’s best to just do the new writing development work I’m doing anyway and then put on the plays when they are ready,” he says.

“I’m not altogether convinced by decision by committee, and I think quite often with competitions, we know something has to win and so we pick one that is the least bad,” he tells me, before adding, “They can be a good thing and an important thing but it should only be part of it the process, not the whole process for getting new voices discovered.”

What are the biggest challenges for the Finborough in 2017? “The Equity low pay – no pay campaign is hugely important, and we’re doing all we can to do our part. But nothing happens in a vacuum, and the campaign does have serious knock-on effects which in the long run may mean a lot less opportunities for actors and creatives,” says McPherson, adding that 9 out of 12 Finborough main shows paid at least Equity Fringe Agreement minimum this year.

“It’s slow progress, but we’re not being lazy,” he says. “The people now putting on shows are coming from a much more moneyed background than, say, five years ago. But, as an example, one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with – a female working class director/producer – she should be having a really successful career now but she’s more or less had to give up because she can’t work in the current climate as she is terrified of being sued if she was to do another fringe show.”

Is there anything that he’d like to add, I ask. “Fringe theatre is undergoing a massive and lasting change and I don’t know where it’s going to go yet, and we’re confronting those new challenges on a daily basis. I don’t want it to become a rich kid’s playground,” McPherson replies.

The Finborough’s 2018 season is now on sale 

 

Coverage of the above interview in The Stage

Coverage of the above interview in The Stage

 

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Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin: “Men in positions of power certainly have to be conscious of the privilege their gender gives them.”

Headlong artistic director Jeremy Herrin slopes into our meeting at the Southbank Canteen looking like a man who has just popped to the shops. I ask if he can tell me what is in the bag. “No,” he says drolly.

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Jeremy Herrin

“It’s for a particular project that I can’t talk about… So, like the great journalist that you are -you’ve ferreted out the story and I can’t talk about it. I just can’t.”

Never mind.

This has been another ripe year for Herrin; a west end transfer of James Graham’s This House and a collaboration with the Michael Grandage Company for Labour of Love. A Broadway transfer & UK Tour of People, Places & Things. He also directed Jack Thorne’s Junkyard at Bristol Old Vic and The House They Grew Up In, at Chichester.

We talk about Sarah Lancashire pulling out of the world premiere of Labour of Love on doctor’s advice – during rehearsals.  “When you consider the terrifying challenge of losing Sarah to illness, then you could say we really landed on our feet to get the magic Tamsin Greig,” he says.

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Martin Freeman & Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love

“I am really delighted with how it’s all worked out. The commercial pressure when producing in the West End is enormous. Actors fall away because of certain problems but Labour of Love is very much an ensemble and a great company, so we survived. Tamsin & Martin are on stage at all times. You could argue that Jean is the emotional heart of the story so it was challenging to lose Sarah but we overcame it.”

Earlier this summer, DC Moore’s play Common was critically mauled and opened to terrible reviews at the National’s Olivier theatre. I ask how he feels about the show, a few months on.

What I felt about Common at the end of an undoubtedly challenging experience was that it was worth a go; it simply didn’t come together as a show,” he explains. “That was obvious as soon as we put it in front of audience. I’m sure it would have been less exposed in another space. It’s easier to learn a lot on the ones that don’t entirely work. If it had happened earlier in my career then it may have upset me more.” Does critical seal of approval still matter?

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Ann Marie-Duff in Common

“I’ve directed shows that haven’t worked and yet have got really good reviews – I’ve directed shows that have worked but have got really bad reviews and I’ve directed shows that haven’t worked that got bad reviews,” says Herrin.

“Just because a show gets bad reviews doesn’t mean it’s a bad show. We’re in hock with the critical community; we’ve made a deal, which is we get free publicity but we dance the dance and we gamble that they will like the shows well enough to shout about them. Common, in that way sort of fell through the gap… The advice to pass on, if there is any, is to be absolutely certain about where you get your validation from.” 

He continues: “I’m very clear about my relationship with my work, I know better than anyone how successful it is or not. Well before press night, I’d already worked out that Common wasn’t hitting the target. There is that phrase: ‘success has many fathers, failure is an orphan’ that’s so true,” he says.

He is, though, very clear about his craft: “Directing is finding a language of performance – finding a bridge between an audience and a dramatic work. Allowing that synthesis to create something completely new,” he says.

“Sometimes the most invisible bit of directing is the most important. Beginning by David Eldridge is brilliantly directed – I loved it. Apart from a couple of sound cues – I couldn’t see Polly’s (Findlay) hand in it. Obviously, a design process had taken place and really detailed character work but I wasn’t aware of any direction – that is sometimes the best sort of directing.” 

Jeremy inherited Headlong from Rupert Goold, now artistic director of the Almeida. Coincidentally, two of James Grahams plays (Labour of Love & Ink) are playing on St Martin’s Lane – directed by both men. Herrin is a bit older than Goold, I ask if they have a competitive relationship. “Are we friends? We’re really friendly,” he says.

“I’m not really close to him and we don’t get in touch much, just every now and again. I have a lot of respect for him. I don’t feel like I’m competitive with him because I feel like what we do is very different.”  

“I have to admit that when I watched Ink I thought about what my production of it would be like because James is a writer that I was lucky enough to get hold of first. I just did This House, so Ink is like a little brother or sister to This House,” he decides.

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This House

Headlong has no venue (it is based in a small office in Waterloo) but partners with theatres around the country and internationally working with regional venues, and brings exciting new plays to cities all around the country. “The first thing you realise when you run a touring company is how wide the economic gap is between London and the regions,” he says.

“In London there seems to be plenty of people with plenty of money willing to spend it on plays. In the regions it can be more challenging, even with enlightened policies and subsidised ticket prices. What’s initially galling, and ultimately inspiring is the fact that people go to the theatre at all. My feeling is that when they do, the work needs to be of the highest possible quality and as meaningful as we can make it. That’s where Headlong comes in. It’s our mission to provide that.”

What are the biggest challenges of leading a touring company in the current climate? “When we tour shows we are basically spending our subsidy. It’s a question of how much we are going to lose. So, PPT on the UK Tour is doing really well – creatively, it does what I want it to do – which is that it makes an argument for what the medium of theatre is –  but that costs a fortune because it’s an ambitious and technically daring show,” he says.

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There are moments in our conversation where he loses me completely. It is almost as if he talks the way he makes theatre happen – inspired, dynamic, associative and extremely concise. But he also has a rare ability to return to ground and answer questions unflinchingly.

When asked about the bullying and sexual harassment crisis engulfing the industry, he responds directly. “Headlong were very pleased to sign up to the joint statement, which says there can be no place for sexual harassment in the world of theatre,” he says.

“It’s true to say that there is an inherent systemic sexism in our society, and internationally, and of course that is going to filter down and become an expression of male power in every industry. Our industry happens to be theatre, male power has been expressing itself like that forever. Collectively the people (women and men) that feel that they have been victimised by this imbalance now have negotiated a safe space in which they can call it out.”

We talk about Weinstein, Spacey and names that have come up. “It will probably be a bit turbulent for a while as stories come out and these voices are heard,” says Herrin. 

“Men in positions of power certainly have to be conscious of the privilege their gender gives them and it’s appropriate for them to consider their behaviour and audit their past. Any human being has a certain amount of unpicking to do, to think about relationships and consider what those relationships were based on, and how power plays into it.”

It must be hard to choose one thing that he is most proud of, so I ask what production he would most like to revisit. This House and PPT are the most visible ones, but two from the last year that were excellent shows that haven’t yet exhausted their full potential are Junkyard and The House They Grew Up In – I feel like I have unfinished business with those shows,” he says, smiling.

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Junkyard

The House They Grew Up In did something remarkably potent and political to that audience. There was something significant happening in that space – it really infuriated them to start with and as it went on it was really cathartic and ultimately transcendent. The audience battled with feeling for those two difficult characters and eventually Deborah’s writing seduced them and they fell in love with the characters and it was a joyous and hilarious and uplifting occasion. And Junkyard was pure pleasure: a great young cast and an evening of politics, jokes and charm. It’s a huge hit waiting for the right home.”

People Places Things is at Liverpool Playhouse and then Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 November  

Labour of Love is at the Noël Coward theatre, London, until 2 December. Box office: 0844-482 5141.

 

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ATC’s Ramin Gray: “The search for who is the Weinstein of British theatre is an honourable search.”

“I’ve put in for the Dreamgirls day lottery and I have a very high regard for musicals,” declares Ramin Gray, Artistic Director of Actors Touring Company

In the month of Actors Touring Company’s fourtieth Anniversary, I thought it might be nice to shine a light on one of theatre’s most interesting characters, aka Ramin Gray. A man who’s not afraid to talk openly and honestly about real issues – Regional Theatre, Spacey, taste or Trump– while also knocking out cosmopolitan theatre.

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“The single most inspirational piece of theatre, for me, is A Chorus Line,” he tells me. “which is a model for how to make theatre. The aesthetics and politics of that show are exemplary. There’s good and bad theatre and ultimately, it’s about taste.”

We are two minutes into our conversation in the crow’s nest of an office at the top of a flight of narrow stairs, behind the Royal Society of Arts, off Trafalgar Square.

Gray goes on to explain his theatre frustrations. “Something I find a bit depressing is that I go to the theatre and it’s generally of a rather good standard across the board… But frustratingly, it’s also become a ‘product’ and that’s a bit bloody annoying.”

“I’m so privileged,” he says about his Arts Council Funding. “I have taken that responsibility very seriously. I do understand that it’s a lot of money, but it’s a tiny amount compared to other companies.”

With such diverse and exciting work out on the road, I ask if it is fair to say that ATC do not mess about. “We get £207,000 from ACE every year,” he says, “we have to pay the salaries of four people, run the office and make our shows. The productions don’t make money. When you tour – you don’t make money. But, in the way the public have the right to free health care, they have the right to experience and engage with quality theatre wherever they are in this country. If you’re outside London it will feel like money down the drain, but that’s why we are here, to spread the love. Our USP is, I think, going off-piste, pursuing obscure and some might say elitist or you could say excellent, mainly international writers.”

Currently, Gray and Actors Touring Company  have 5 productions on the road, from Plymouth to Scarborough and their international tour dates for 2017 include Helsinki, Barcelona, Dublin, New York, San Francisco and Hong Kong. This month sees the company celebrate their 40th anniversary making international and contemporary work.

Where would he like to see ATC in another forty years? “I remember when Eat opened up next to Pret A Manger and I thought that they were insane, but they both seem to have flourished,” he says, grinning. “I think it’s a shame that there isn’t another company doing international work on the scale that we are. Not just to challenge us, but to give people more of this fare. If the same people are scrabbling over new writing – the best thing would be if there was another company of a similar stature, doing work in a similar area of the repertoire.”

At the recent UK Theatre Awards, Lyn Gardner commented: “If you want to see the future of British Theatre then get on a train.” What does Gray think about the current state of play in regional theatre? “London is still so dominant, politically, culturally, financially, in so many ways. If you’re in Manchester, for a week even, you can go ‘there’s three things I wanna do’ and you can do them all. Whereas London is inexhaustible. And I think that’s why people in London rarely think about leaving to search out new things. I worked at Liverpool Playhouse for five years but my relationship with regional theatre is now very different as we always co-produce and tour. Standards are generally good but I tell you, a type of theatre that does not exist anymore – the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in the 1980s – That. Was. A. Theatre. Radical aesthetic, off-the-wall programming, I don’t think there’s anyone doing anything as distinctive or different and I don’t see why that can’t still happen.”

Ramin is busier than ever. Later this month his storming production of David Greig’s version of Aeschylus’ tale of escape from forced marriage and exile: The Suppliant Women arrives at the Young Vic. “The Suppliant Women is sung and moved throughout, we wouldn’t have shows like Dreamgirls without it,” he says.

I compliment the scope of ATC’s collaborators: Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, Royal Exchange Manchester, Young Vic, Orange Tree, Theatre de la Manufacture, Schauspielhaus Vienna, Bragenteatret, Unicorn Theatre and more. Gray’s perspective on diversity is unusual:

“Speaking as someone who doesn’t have a drop of Anglo Saxon blood in me, I think that the English are *on the whole* a remarkably tolerant, gentle and self-critical bunch,” he says still smiling. “You’re expecting me to say – I’m absolutely shocked at diversity levels: actually, we are doing a pretty good job. Of course, we have to make absolutely sure that there are no barriers to people participating and we have to make sure people are being invited to see our work. I grew up in the seventies and experienced a lot of racism, I got beaten up, called pakki and gay and I am none of those things…. I do think the world has absolutely changed for the better.”

He continues: “Do I feel I should be doing more? No. Do I think we should be doing less? No. I think we are doing a great job. I want to find new ways to excite people so they engage with the work.”

Is he shocked by the current abuses of power tsunami that is tearing through the industry ? “We are seeing that this is everywhere: Houses of Parliament, bankers, football, Harvey Weinstein and Spacey. It is about power and I think the reason it’s all kicked off could be to do with Donald Trump – the guy was elected President and he’s made a mockery of politics… Our faith has been rattled,” he says, linking the industry that enabled such behaviour to the wider society that voted for a self-confessed crotch-grabbing president.

“Not to excuse him in any way, but Weinstein became the lightning conductor. All the stuff that was in the ether around Trump coalesced in this thunder clap and now it’s rippled out and the ground is shaking everywhere.”

Does he think this is just the tip of the iceberg? “I think the search for who is the Weinstein of British theatre is an honourable search and some names have come up. More may come up. It is a terribly traumatic process and it’s right that we are examining it and bringing stuff to light.”

Who is his go-to collaborator? “David Lan,” he says -instantly. “I’ve done three plays with him. I really adore that man; I think he is an absolutely wonderful human being. He is an incredible combination of cunning, generosity and peerless intelligence.”

Gray explains his thoughts on the current climate for theatre makers. “I think there’s a fantastic energy around. I think it’s a powerful environment in which to be making work. But I’m also concerned that work is becoming blunt. Where is the nuance? Where is the subtlety? Stuff is not black and white. If theatre has value, it is precisely to explore complexity, the grey zone if you like.” Gray says with conviction.

And with that, via a gentle handshake and a recommendation that he go and see An American in Paris“Take care!”, We say goodbye.

The Suppliant Women is at Young Vic, London until 25 November. 

For more information about Actors Touring Company 

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Playground Theatre, Peter Tate Interview: “Established and emerging artists will always be free to come here and try out new ideas.”

Back in 2001 Playground Theatre, London was founded as a space for artists to explore creative ideas, without being a fully-fledged venue. After restoration, with a budget of £270,000, the Playground Theatre is opening as a venue with a seating capacity of up to 200 with a flexible stage. This new dynamic theatre is in Ladbroke Grove and just ten minutes from Latimer Road tube station and it was recently announced that the Playground has been nominated for Peter Brook/Royal Court Theatre Support Award 2017.

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Peter Tate in rehearsals.

Peter Tate, who originally found the space, is co-director alongside Anthony Biggs, former artistic director of the Jermyn Street Theatre. The Playground’s premiere production, Picasso, stars Tate. He has had an extensive career as both an actor and businessman. Previously seen regularly at the National Theatre in leading roles whilst, at the same time, running successful commercial businesses.

The softly spoken 66-year-old explains that everything is on track. “Rehearsals are going well – one never wants to say too much at this stage,” he says. “It’s coming together really well. We are currently in technical rehearsals – it’s fine –  the actresses are great. Fingers crossed.”

What are the biggest trials of realising this ambitious venture? “The biggest challenge – and it is completely self-imposed: opening a new venue and this production at *about* the same time,” he says, laughing. “The fit out of the theatre has converged with the opening of the venue. Whilst rehearsing for Picasso I have been involved in helping to create the theatre at the same time. So, it is all hands-on deck!”

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As an industry, it is a miserable time and it seems potent that the inaugural production focusses on the life of Pablo Picasso, arguably the greatest artist of the 20th century but one who has been characterised as a misogynist. Tate is all too aware of the timing whilst working with a female heavy cast. “We have this Harvey Weinstein thing coming out of the closet and of course Picasso had a reputation for that kind behaviour… We are not sanitising what it is but we are very conscious that the situation is happening. Some of the material is challenging but the cast and creative team are all committed and responsive.”

He is, though, justly proud of what he has achieved. “Although we had a lot of success with the projects we developed here, there were many projects that were worthy of going into the public arena were left on the shop floor,” he says, “so now we can get that work off the ground and in front of audiences.”

How is The Playground different from other off-west end spaces? “We are very artist driven – we are not producer driven. I really want this place to be a home for artists to come here to use the space and knock an idea around. We take a fairly unique place in the London scene; an unconditional approach to collaborating. The reason for this theatre really is to create a place without pre-judgement and nowhere really has this ethos.”

The Playground will seek no charitable or government funding: investors paid for the building and initial production costs, but from now on it is meant to run on its revenues. Tate has a firm handle on proceedings. “Obviously now there is a huge amount of money going out now,” he admits, “there are five potential income streams’ and one of the aims is to be absolutely self-sufficient. We have a vibrant café bar, ticket sales, space rentals, one-off events that we are pushing and we will eventually have classical music concerts and a cinema.”

What sets this venture apart is the inclusive and ambitious plans for artist development, theatrical experiment and how deeply it’s plans are rooted in the local community. “I’d love the word to be out there that we are establishing this as a home for artists,” says Tate.

“There is a sense of home here. I’d like to say established and emerging artists will always be free to come and try out new ideas here.”

Picasso runs at The Playground from 5 November to 25 November, with previews from 1 November.

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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.