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Mike Shepherd, Kneehigh: “I used to walk over the Millennium Bridge full of hope and now it is with a knot in my stomach.”

Mike Shepherd
Mike Shepherd

Mike Shepherd

Mike Shepherd, Artistic Director of Kneehigh Theatre Company has had a remarkable career as a director, performer and as founder of Kneehigh.

We are talking on the same day that Emma Rice, former Artistic director and long-time friend and collaborator with Shepherd penned a spirited open letter to the incoming Globe artistic director. Rice offered candid insight into the politics behind the scenes of the organisation. It is, by all accounts, a fascinating thing. When offering up advice from the perspective of her time in post, she reveals, “I have learnt, never again, to allow myself to be excluded from the rooms where decisions are made” she continues, “…as important and beloved as the Globe is to me, the board did not love and respect me back.”

So, what does Mike think about it all? “The thing that is a huge shame is that Emma created a brilliant and vibrant artistic community at the Globe and that hasn’t been valued at all,” he pauses. “I used to walk over the Millennium Bridge full of hope and now it is with a knot in my stomach.”. He continues: “Essentially after head-hunting her and taking her away from Cornwall they discarded her – it is a dreadful situation.” Their mutual respect and affection will last long after Rice leaves the Globe. Indeed, he is very clear that they will work together in the future and that Emma will always be a part of the Kneehigh family.

His dynamism is, he confesses, the result of finding his artistic feet during a genuinely political time. “Look, I’m so old, I’m from a generation where we genuinely thought we could change the world; that Bob Dylan era. I was never a hippy, though I’m contemplating becoming one. An effective hippy.” Shepherd laughs when I tell him that I wish it was two years ago and ask his thoughts on our Prime minister’s surprise announcement of a Snap Election outside No 10, saying she has delivered stability after the Brexit referendum result. “It’s pretty desperate isn’t it,” he says bluntly. “I was horrified that we voted Brexit. I spent some time recently touring around a very troubled America… On one hand, we have to keep fighting and on the other you want to turn your back in disgust.”

Before coming to the bigger issue – the global refugee crisis and how to make a difference, when it comes to making work that is relevant to audience members’ lives and concerns, Kneehigh are in a league of their own. “Our latest show 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips ends with the Martin Luther King, Jr quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” At the end of the show we asked audiences to buy a lucky button, make a wish for a better, safer world. We raised over $50,000 for organisations helping refugees in Europe and Syria.”

Shepherd has been steering Kneehigh since Rice left two years ago, continuing the political and socially sensitive work with gusto. How has he been getting on working closely with Charles Hazlewood and Carl Grose? “Well, Charles is an extraordinary man, he comes up with the most brilliant projects, he has an amazing creative energy. Carl came up through the company; he was originally our apprentice,” he says. “Those two really chime and are absolutely best friends. I should also mention our close links with choreographer Etta Murfitt and our magnificent lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth. That is a very strong creative team that is fuelling our work and continuing the Kneehigh journey,” he adds.

Lyn Gardner recently wrote an article about the Harry Potter and The Cursed Child’s success in making theatre universally appealing and how our strongest culture triumphs are only conceivable because of the subsidised arts sector.  “How wonderful that Steven Hoggett and John Tiffany are artists that have come from subsidised theatre backgrounds. Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is an exemplar of mainstream theatre attracting a whole new generation of theatre audiences, many of whom will be attending theatre for the first time,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest challenges for me always; it’s hard earned – we don’t just dip from one good idea to another, we want to make a difference and engage with diverse and new audiences.”

Next month Kneehigh will take up residence at Brighton Theatre Royal as part of the Brighton Festival with a restaging of the critically acclaimed Tristan and Yseult; Emma Rice’s acclaimed staging of the Cornish legend that catapulted Kneehigh onto the national stage. “Yes, I’ll be doing Tristan and Yseult for the last time,” he pauses. “As King Mark I say ‘We don’t look inland there’s not much point. No, outward, outward lies the way!’. Looking ahead, we are also thrilled to be working with Keziah Serreau who will be assistant director on the Tin Drum in collaboration with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and West Yorkshire Playhouse. We will also be looking into a new Kneehigh show based on Marie Curie, currently titled ‘Radioactive (Love and fall out)’”.

He ends on at note of upbeat positivity about the next generation of artists and the future. “I’d just like to encourage organisations to pull together and to collaborate– there needs to be a spirit of hope. Theatre is there to provoke, challenge and entertain.”

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Guest Blog: Charley Williams: “I wrote the songs during my illness as self-therapy, little did I know that they would one day be turned into a musical and for a live audience!”

Behind the scenes - When Strawberries are not enough

Charley Williams is someone who has recovered from anorexia after over a decade of struggle and treatment and has used her experiences to explore the impact this has on Hannah, the protagonist of her play and her family and friends. The play When STRAWBERRIES are not enough is powerful, insightful and ultimately uplifting, with great songs too!

Together with her father Simon Williams, a retired head teacher and now educational consultant, they framed the basic plot for a play with songs.  After a chance meeting with the director Wesley Henderson Roe and a year of rewriting, character development and more songs, the plot took the shape of a musical.

The play When Strawberries Are Not Enough opens at Hampton Hill Theatre from 25-29 April. You can book your tickets HERE 

Charley Williams with her daughter

Charley Williams has done a guest blog in which she has talked about her connection with art, music, theatre, the healing and therapeutic power of theatre, how working on Strawberries helped her discover herself. Over to Charley.

Love of theatre, art , music and more 
I am drawn to any art form which explores emotion around human relationships whether that be theatre, sculpture (which I studied), film or music. Unfortunately my struggles with anorexia meant that I missed out on some of the theatre I’d have loved to have seen, although I’ve still watched some very inspiring productions. One example include the opera La Boheme at Soho Theatre which moved me immensely. Mostly, however, I turned towards artists and music which was to hand, to find solace, and in the process I was subconsciously fine tuning my ear to recognise a good melody and poetic lyrics, which later provided fertile ground when writing my own tunes.
Power of theatre and its ability to heal
I believe in the power of theatre to deal with all sorts of taboo issues. In the writing of Strawberries I have experienced a huge learning curve about the art form and about the person that I am. Song and script writing has changed me as a person, it’s helped me fully recognise abilities that I didn’t know I had and helped me become mentally stronger. I wrote the songs during my illness as self-therapy, little did I know that they would one day be turned into a musical and for a live audience!
When Strawberries are not enough

When Strawberries are not enough. Click on the image to book your tickets now!

Musical theatre -the right medium and genre for taking people on Hannah’s journey 
I believe that singing and acting together in the genre of musical theatre is a powerful medium for taking people on Hannah’s journey (based loosely on my own experiences). With a great atmosphere in the theatre we are hoping the audience will be taken on an exhilarating journey of emotions with a deeper understanding of anorexia too.
Role musical theatre can play in tackling complex and darker issues 
Avenue Q challenged people’s expectations about the kinds of topics presented in musical theatre and it is now beginning to be considered an appropriate genre for tackling complex and darker issues. Strawberries will hopefully be one of these success stories. And it must be said here that there are many comic moments in Strawberries, written to highlight some of the absurdities that can be seen as treatment for mental health issues. Since my play tackles other mental health conditions as well as anorexia my desire is that the overall message of hope may be grasped by people struggling.
 
Not without my father…
The partnership between myself and my father who co-wrote the script has been both challenging and cathartic. We have had our creative differences, but the bond we formed throughout  my illness has remained unspoilt; we’re now closer than ever.
My father was always a supportive figure during my illness and he always kept the candle of hope burning when I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from him.
Life Motto
My motto for life? Well as a loose answer my raison d’etre is all about love and human connection. Family, friends, and more recently the biggest spark in my life is my daughter. In times of both joy and suffering the most important thing is to have people you love around you. This is at the heart of our  musical. Thank you for reading and we hope to see you there!
REHEARSAL IMAGES GALLERY

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Guest blog by Nathan Markiewicz: “In order to write a play, the author must face his own “trolls in heart and soul,” without self-consciousness, and in All Our Children, Stephen Unwin has certainly done so.”

Nathan Markiewicz
Nathan Markiewicz

Nathan Markiewicz

I have been lucky enough to call Stephen Unwin my friend for the last few years. Since we met we’ve worked together in numerous contexts: professional and academic theatre, large workshops and intimate rehearsals, we’ve even sat alone together in cafés clacking away at our laptops, sharing ideas and provocations—but we’ve never done anything quite like All Our Children. Over the years I’ve become close to the Unwin children too, sometimes I even feel like a member of the extended family. The play is dedicated to Stephen’s son Joey, who has learning disabilities not unlike those discussed in the play, and I have lately witnessed the intersection of two sides of Stephen’s world: theatre and disability rights.

Stephen Unwin

Stephen Unwin

Everyone knows that a playwright is a creative artist and a director is an interpretive artist, but what about when they are one in the same? While Henrik Ibsen was writing Ghosts, one of his most personal and intimate plays, he famously described the process in a letter to a friend: “To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgement of oneself.” The sentiment makes for a rosy soundbite, but the reality of dragging one’s subconscious out of the guts and onto the page isn’t quite so romantic. The flurry of transatlantic emails that Stephen and I exchanged while he was writing the final drafts of All Our Children never included anything as nearly as poetic as that—after all every problem in the theatre is a practical one. Our correspondence, and my observations during the first week of rehearsal, have led me to reformulate Ibsen’s dictum: To write is to wrestle with the trolls inside, but to direct one’s own writing is to truly sit in judgement of oneself.

Click on the image to book your tickets for All Our Children

The grim subject of All Our Children is T4, the Nazi program of exterminating the disabled, but the play isn’t really about that, any more than Ghosts is about sexually transmitted disease. As a young student of the humanities, I found the great question of Twentieth Century history impossible to answer: how one of the most progressive societies in the world managed to commit such atrocities. It was only an academic consideration anyway, wasn’t it? In recent years, that question doesn’t seem so hypothetical. After all, I come from the nation which brought you the iPhone and the Tomahawk Missile, the smallpox vaccine and crack cocaine, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Contradictions everywhere.

It is this kind of cognitive dissonance which takes center stage in All Our Children. The play is a study of the emotional toll that such transgressions take on the perpetrators. It is not so much a history piece as a personal drama which asks us to consider our own complicity in the sins of our society. Nearly every day in rehearsal there is a moment when I wonder, “What would I have done?” A question which inevitably leads me to ask, “What am I doing now?”

In order to write a play, the author must face his own “trolls in heart and soul,” without self-consciousness, and in All Our Children, Stephen Unwin has certainly done so. As rehearsals progress, I see him “sit in judgement,” each day learning more about himself—the true pursuit of an artist. All Our Children is not only a play, it is also a love letter from the author to his son, Joey, and indeed to all our children.

All Our Children plays at Jermyn Street Theatre from Wed, 26th April – Sat, 3rd June. Book your tickets HERE 

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Barney Norris: ‘It’s so precious and such a privilege, to live in a culture where we can expect things of people, and hold them to account, and we must advocate that wherever we’re afforded an opportunity to do so.’

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Oberon Books’ James Hogan : “If you’ve been doing this job for thirty years, you’ve seen everything. Flapping doesn’t get you anywhere.”

James Hogan
James Hogan

James Hogan

James Hogan is one of UK theatre’s most captivating—and articulate—independent publishers. His company, Oberon Books, publishes many of today’s hottest contemporary playwrights, as well as a prolific library of works by and about some of the greatest theatre practitioners in history. Hogan is the people’s publisher: widely respected, but unassuming.

We meet at The Ivy Club in London. Hogan is already in the restaurant when I get there – seated in his favourite booth. The restaurant is relaxed and spacious, the furnishings a mix of leather and velvet. He greets me warmly and we talk candidly about the industry, the challenges of publishing in the twenty-first century and more.

Skim his company’s back-catalogue and you find one landmark publication after another; over 1,700 hundred plays and counting. So how did it all begin? “It was back in 1984 – I was part of a play-reading group at Riverside Studios, and it occurred to me that there were very few publishing outlets for young writers,” he explains. “So, I started one. And ever since, it’s been a mixture of love and business… though always the idea was to say yes, not no”.

Oberon Books

Oberon Books

Oberon went on to become one of the UK’s most exciting independent publishing houses specialising in drama and the performing arts. “I started it alone, publishing mainly lesser-known writers at small theatres and theatres in the regions,” he says. “I went outside of London and luckily a lot of writers working in the regions then came into London and we already had them on our list. We did a lot of work with the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre, I even published a play that premiered in Westcliffe-on-Sea,” he smiles.

Hogan had an altogether different early career. “I began work, at the age of nineteen, in the Foreign Office. I was security-vetted. So, I had to come out and say I was gay. This was pre ’64 and homosexual acts were illegal, because there had been a lot of spies in the news and gay, single men were targeted by the security services,” he tells me. “I was invited – if you want to call it that – to appear before a security panel. The first question, as I barely sat down, was: “Are you homosexual?” I said yes. I was living with a man and in a relationship. It wasn’t an easy time. Soon after, I decided it would be much more comfortable to get out of the Foreign Office and go to another department, so I went to the Department of Trade. It was important to come out because they obviously already knew. So, if I denied it I would have been a security risk – blackmailable. They weren’t out to persecute me – they wanted to know if I was hiding my true identity. That’s all. I didn’t suffer any repercussions.”

I tell him that he strikes me as unflappable. Hogan rolls his eyes. “I’m certainly flappable if someone comes up and kicks my dog Lily; I’d be pretty flappable then and probably throw stones,” he says. “But if you’ve been doing this job for thirty years, you’ve seen everything. Flapping doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Nonetheless, his ardour is apparent when we talk about modern approaches to publishing, getting current work seen and protecting writers’ interests from “unscrupulous” and “nouveau” publishers who demand more rights than they need: “Don’t give online-only publishers exclusive rights to your play. There’s no need to at that level. Generally, publishers only need a LICENCE to publish,” he points out. “The copyright stays with the author ALWAYS. Give yourself a get-out. You may need it. Bigger publishers who offer the full range of sales and promotion support naturally expect an exclusive LICENCE but not copyright. Get an agent if you can, or at least a copy of a typical industry-standard publishing Agreement.”

What you sense in Hogan is an outstanding publisher speaking up for his clients, past, present and future. He gives every writer exactly the attention they need, and Oberon is driven by the tangible, on-the-ground concerns of its authors. He wouldn’t have it any other way, but he also has an eye to the changes ahead.

“I have slowed down because I’m 73. I’m doing the business thing of arranging management succession. The company has to be secure as it goes forward. Eventually I am going to die and somebody else will be running Oberon,” he pauses. “What happens if I fall off my perch? I’ve got to think of the writers. They have to stay as safe and secure with the same prospect and service without any interruption.”

Significantly for Hogan, two plays by the late Edward Albee open in the West End this spring. James Macdonald’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre and The Goat, directed by Ian Rickson at the Theatre Royal Haymarket are the first revivals of Albee’s landmark plays since his death last September.

“I met Edward Albee through Will Eno (whose play “Wakey Wakey” has just opened in New York and received fantastic reviews in the New York Times)”, he says. “I’m sure that Albee agreed to meet me because I publish Will, but I also published a biography of Albee by Mel Gussow. I found Albee absolutely enchanting and I had lunch with him a couple of times in London. We had things to chat about; he was diabetic and I’m diabetic so we talked about which kinds of chocolate we can eat. I’d never imagined that he was the chatty type. But more importantly he gave me some important information about how he writes. He said that he rehearses the play in his mind, every line, from beginning to end, before he writes anything down. He clearly had very rational and clear views of the world. There were no illusions, with Albee they don’t exist.”

And the fact that a new generation are flocking to the West End to see these plays is wonderful to him. Hogan is passionate about the necessity of theatregoing.

“It sounds banal but go and see theatre that you enjoy, just keep going, don’t turn away from the theatre because it will continue forever,” says Hogan.  “In most cases, it tells the truth and that’s what unscrupulous politicians are afraid of and always have been. The theatre has always been seen by politicians as a dangerous place so let it go on being a dangerous place. It can’t be a dangerous place if you don’t go to it.”

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Save Lyn Gardner’s Top Tickets and 150 blogs a year dedicated to U.K. Theatre 

Lyn Gardner
Lyn Gardner

Lyn Gardner

You may have seen this morning the terrible news that Lyn Gardner’s incredible and important blogs (150+ a year) dedicated to theatre have been cut from April 1 by the powers that be at The Guardian. What. A. Fiasco.
Here are two things we can all do right now:
Email 
Editor-in-chief, Guardian News and Media
[email protected]AND Arts Editor [email protected]
 Email below >>
 Dear Kath and Liese,
The absence of this important blog will have implications on regional & touring Theatre. This blog stimulates positive conversation & its absence will have a detrimental effect on provincial work.

Lyn’s ‘What To See’ or Theatre Tips have become a staple for audiences all over the country. The Guardian Stage must reinstate this and understand the aspects of this weekly blog that are of lasting value.

 All best,
 [your name, obvs]
 (BUT, I reckon would require hundreds of emails to get it changed. Do it now.)
 Tweet 
[email protected]
@LieseSpencer
 Use the hashtag >> #SaveLynsBlog
 We can all show individual support by subscribing or donating to The Guardian (whatever the amount). We can also suggest to the editor that it would be useful to be able contribute specifically to sections, such as the arts, currently suffering the most cutbacks in terms of coverage.
UPDATE  ( on 15 Mar 2017)
The wonderful folk at Exeunt have started an online petition. Well done all!
You can sign here >> https://t.co/2fhDWwQgc3
Let’s do our best to reverse this appalling and frankly idiotic decision, folks. It’s worth a shot!
Cheers!
Carl -x- 🙂
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Guest blog: Ray Rackham: “Going Beyond the Rainbow”

Ray Rackham
Ray Rackham

Ray Rackham

Picture it, 25th December, nineteen-eighty-something. Whilst the rest of my family were either falling asleep in front of the television, or arguing over a rather heated game of Trivial Pursuit; the pre-pubescent, spoilt, incredibly precocious younger version of me was watching my increasingly frustrated father attempt get my Christmas present to work; a portable colour television. They were all the rage in nineteen-eighty-something, and I was the only child on Middleton Street who had one.

After what seemed like an eternity; white noise was replaced by a distant sound of strings, and the television static faded to a grainy, almost sepia hue. I was devastated. I wanted full on “Goonies” inspired, He-Man and She-Ra technicolour. What I had was a young girl, wandering around a barn yard, in black-and-white (my tastes were not as developed to differentiate the sepia), singing about all the world being a hopeless jumble. Christmas was, for me at least, ruined.

But then, I heard the now incredibly familiar Over the Rainbow, with its bold, opening leap straight up an octave from Middle C, juxtaposed with darker, underlying chords to offset the apparent schmaltz of the melody, and I was hooked.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby”.

Transfixed with that Christmas day memory, I continued through my childhood, and very much into adulthood, looking for that technicolour fantasy land, “where troubles melt like lemon drops”. I believe I found it, in the many school plays, attempts at amateur dramatics, and every time I got up to sing a song (or, as my grandmother would say, “do a turn”). My very own technicolour was to come from Fresnel lanterns, home-made star cloths and smoke machines. From the theatre!

Fast forward to two-thousand-and-something. I had just recently closed my production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins at the Pleasance Theatre, and had just accepted the position as Artistic Director of the soon to be formed London Theatre Workshop. I was also trying my luck at being a burgeoning librettist lyricist (a passion that resulted in my contribution to the musical Apartment 40C), and translating a 1980s film to stage (a passion that resulted in very little!). One might safely say that I had found the place where happy little bluebirds fly, and it was in the professional theatre. Having been invited to a very ‘Sloaney’ dinner party, where I was being my usual self, dominating the cocktail conversation (like a cross between Woody Allen, Liberace and James Corden), I found myself lucky enough to be sat next to an elderly producer who had worked on the movie “I Could Go on Singing”.

Judy! By Ray Rackham

“Of course, it was Judy’s last movie”

“Judy who?”

“Are you kidding me?”

This wonderfully caustic and acerbic lady then proceeded to teach me, chapter and verse, everything and anything a self-respecting theatre geek should know about the late, great, Judy Garland.

“Oh, you mean Liza Minnelli’s mum!”

She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the evening.

But what she did do was instil an absolute hunger to find out more about this deeply troubled, yet gorgeously triumphant human being, who was taken tragically too soon just around the corner from where I had been dining. On my way home, I rather coincidentally stumbled across the mews house on Cadogan Lane, where over forty years earlier Judy had died. And by coincidence I meant that I had jumped in a cab and had asked the driver to take me there. Even in the romanticised setting of the glow of a London street lamp, and my possibly having had one too many cherry brandies at dinner, it was clear that the tiny mews house had seen better days. The paintwork on the door was peeling off, I remember some brown tape had been placed across an upstairs window, and a solitary Christmas bauble could be seen from another, even though it was the middle of April. Overall, the place seemed to exist in a world of faded glamour. Forgotten and unloved. The garage door was covered in hardboard, as if there was some kind of building work going on behind it. Maybe the new owners were restoring it to its former glory? Maybe there has been a break-in? The overall shabbiness of the building lead me to believe that the former was implausible, and the latter inevitable.

I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Where was the blue plaque? Where were the garlands of flowers, or cards of heartfelt tribute? Where was the love? I may have been forty or more years late to the memorial, but where were the fans? I’d never felt sadder for someone I didn’t know, and never more so alone. As I started to leave, a faint glimmer of light caught my eye, reflecting from the shine of the London street lamp. It came from the temporary hardboard garage door. On second glance, I realised that scrawled on the door, in purple glitter pen, were the words “if happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why can’t I?”

Upon further inspection, it became clear that every inch of hardboard had a comment scrawled across in.

“We love you Judy”

“JG – always in my heart”

“I still believe in the rainbow”

Immediately, I started to think of my own place in the world, my love of the theatre; the fantasy, technicolour world where you can forget your troubles and get happy. I believe in that world; and a huge part of the Judy Garland narrative, however you dress it, represents that. It was at that moment that I began to see Judy not a person whose sole legacy to the entertainment industry was of trouble, heartache and pain; but of skill, talent and determination, and most importantly of love.

So what if in her later years she cracked on that ambitious leap straight up the octave from Middle C in her signature song? Were the countless tales of pills and liquor all that was actually interesting about this incredibly beguiling woman? Why do we, almost a part of our DNA, like to wallow in the pain, when there remains so much to celebrate? It was at that moment I decided to write a play about Judy. I had for many months been working on a piece about stardom, and by the time I had got home that night the two ideas had morphed into one.

And now, that same show opens at The Arts Theatre in London’s West End, on May 16th, 2017. Having been workshopped and produced at the London Theatre Workshop in December 2015, where I am still, very proudly, Artistic Director; and then at Southwark Playhouse in 2016; it makes me very happy to say that in 2017 Judy Garland is back in town, with three actresses playing her, at the same time, a stone’s throw away from the Talk of the Town; where the actual Judy played her last London gig. I certainly never expected my show to go from 60 seats to the West End in eighteen months. Some might say it’s a bit like a Mickey and Judy film. Sometimes little bluebirds do fly.

I hope to see you there.

Oh, and the Liza Minnelli gag found its way into the first draft, and has been there ever since.

PS: Cadogan House that Ray mentions in the article has since been torn down.

FIVE WEEK WEST END SEASON SUMMER 2017
Venue: Arts Theatre,
6-7 Great Newport St, London WC2H 7JB
Dates: Tues, 16 th May to Sat, 17 th June 2017
Time: 7.30pm (Thurs & Sat Matinees – 2.30pm)
(extra Matinees Tues 6 th & 13 th June)
Box Office: 020 7836 8463
Online: artstheatrewestend.co.uk

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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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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.”