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Open letter: It’s time to put an end to the toxic West End PR culture.

Dear all,
Long story short, it’s time to put an end to the toxic West End PR culture.
There are times in life when you have to say, “do you know what, let’s not put up with idiocy anymore.” The Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn piece arguing that two dads are not ‘the new normal’ crossed the line. Freedom of speech isn’t a passport to spout hatred and bigotry.

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For too long PR and The Daily Mail have had a toxic relationship with ‘scoops’ being handed over to their ‘Entertainment Reporter’ Baz Bamigboye. London theatre PRs extend Baz preferential treatment — when they owe equal attention to all media.

But the more you find out about theatre, and the more you find out about the way theatre works, don’t you find yourself realising that nothing, not even Baz’s scoops, really happen by accident?

The Daily Telegraph Chief Theatre Critic, Dominic Cavendish summed it up recently with this Tweet. 

Arts journalism and arts journalists deserve better. What are we, the theatre-consuming community, to take from all this? Well we can simply say that enough is enough.

I call on the following Press Managers / Publicists to restore the Arts PR business in the interests of preserving the sense of an inclusive, free and fair press and in recognition of transparent arts journalism.

NT Press Office

RSC Press Office

The Almeida Theatre

Emma Holland PR

Target Live

Jo Allan PR

Kate Morley PR

Cornershop PR

Draper Conway

Royal Court Theatre

Kevin Wilson PR

Premier PR  

Amanda Malpass PR

I will be updating this blog in 7 days time – I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Carl Woodward 

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Streams ahead: NT LIVE

National Theatre Live

National Theatre Live is invaluable. You could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the notion of a “broadcast theatre performance” in a cinema. Since launching, NT Live broadcasts have been seen by an audience of over 7 million people. The first season began in June 2009 with the acclaimed production of Phédre starring Helen Mirren. Recent broadcasts include Follies, Angels in America, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Hedda Gabler.

Upcoming broadcasts include Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell and Julius Caesar featuring Ben Whishaw. The National broadcast some of the best of British theatre to 2,500 venues in 60 countries around the world including over 700 hundred in the UK.

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Obviously, it’s better to be in the theatre, that goes without saying. Nevertheless, it is true that it is much better to sometimes sit in a cinema in comfort, with a drink in your hand than it is to sit in the worst seat in a theatre. Seats in some theatres are bloody terrible. There are some seats at the top level of The Barbican where you can see more of what is going on in the wings that what is happening on the stage.

It is worth remembering that not everyone has a theatre on their doorstep. In general, NT Live is the most revolutionary thing to happen to the theatre in our lifetime because theatre, which is often condemned as elitist, is now available to anyone who wants it – anywhere: If you can get to a cinema you can see the best of theatre –  at a fraction of the price.

NT Live screenings are a welcome addition to the local Odeon or Picture House for any culture vulture. But they are no alternative. That doesn’t mean it’s not amazing, it just means we need to focus on the future but not lose sight of the value of live performance.

I attended the ‘studio audience’ for the NT Live broadcast of Follies from the theatre. There were rows of seats blocked off in the stalls, with cameras flying overhead and the lighting ever so slightly adjusted for film. It was a wonderful experience and the spectacle of the production carried across to film remarkably well. 

Anyway, I put some questions to the NT Live team and they cleared up some queries that I had, which was ideal.  (You’re welcome)

What is NT Live? 

National Theatre Live started in 2009 as a way to increase access to our work for those audiences who might not have the opportunity to see it. It was initially conceived for UK audiences but the response was so positive, we started screening internationally too. We currently screen to 2500 venues in 60 countries, 700 of which are in the UK which is around 90% and the same as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Our first broadcast was Phedre with Helen Mirren which was seen by over 50,000 people. Our single biggest broadcast is Hamlet with Benendict Cumberbatch which has been seen by more than 800,000 people. Our current worldwide audience is almost 8 million

Who owns it and where are the NT Live offices?

It’s run and managed by the National Theatre and the NT Live team are based at the National Theatre building.

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof captured live at the Apollo Theatre during its West End run on February 22

Who are NT Live personnel? 

There are a dedicated number of people who work on NT Live across production, distribution, marketing and press. We work with a freelance team of operators across cameras, sound and lighting for the broadcasts themselves. The Bridge are using NT Live to broadcast Julius Caesar. The team at the Bridge are great friends of ours. Nicholas Hytner is our former director and Nick Starr former executive director here. We hope to broadcast more of their productions in the future. Working with other theatres has been part of the NT Live programme since our second year and supports us in bringing the best of British theatre to cinema audiences.

Is it a stand-alone live broadcast company?

NT Live is run and managed by the National Theatre.

Does it get public funding?

Our pilot season in 2009 was made possible by seed funding from Arts Council England and NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and subsequently through a mix of National Theatre investment and sponsorship. We also have a partnership with Sky Arts which is a year old but has been a great success in its first year and we’re looking forward to see where it will go next.

Can any theatre pay for it and use it? e.g. The Globe.

The Globe and ENO already broadcast their own shows which they organise themselves, this means working with other theatres in London We regularly work with other London theatres including the Young Vic, The Old Vic and the Donmar Warehouse as well as other West End producers. We really enjoy working with other theatres and getting to show their great productions to cinema audiences around the world.

How about a regional theatre?

We have worked with Complicite to broadcast A Disappearing Number live from Theatre Royal in Plymouth as well as Manchester International Festival to broadcast their production of Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh. We also broadcast Of Mice and Men on Broadway, broadcasting more regional theatre is something we’re keen to do more of in the future. Some find it confusing that it has the name NT Live. It both gives it prestige and seems to limit it. What particularly excited us about this concept was the fact that it was captured and broadcast live and that’s why the live is there.  

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Imelda Staunton who plays Sally Durrant and Janie Dee who plays Phyllis Rogers Stone waiting to go on stage © Ellie Kurttz

 How are cinema prices decided?

Each cinema chain decides on pricing according to their individual pricing plans.

How do Encore Screenings work?

We programme Encore screenings as a way for audiences to access our productions at more convenient times but also so we are able to give more opportunities to see our most popular broadcasts.

How are the age ratings given?

We are subject to BBFC ratings in the UK and provide the broadcasts to them for classification. They also provide guidance for our live broadcasts based on information we provide to them ahead of the broadcast taking place.

So there we have it. 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof captured live at the Apollo Theatre during its West End run on February 22, Julius Caesar live from the Bridge Theatre on March 22 and Macbeth live from the National Theatre on May 10

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Critical email gaffe – will it make The Bridge wise up?

I have a unique insight of those who labour in the corners of arts journalism and in my experience, the relationship between a PR and a critic has always been built on a nonsense inside a farce, but in recent years this relationship has contorted in bizarre and unexpected new ways.

Last week Lyn Gardner’s press ticket for the new Cirque Du Solei show ‘Ovo’ was withdrawn after her one star review of a previous show. The Guardian paid £73 for a ticket and sent another critic along to get a second opinion. Madness. Nowadays, theatre criticism is on the decline: it is an artisanal industry in a technological age. 

Yesterday, news broke that the publicist for the Bridge Theatre, London run of Julius Caesar sent an email by accident, intended for directors Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr regarding press seat allocations for the opening of that show, to fifty critics and bloggers. The attachment showed how many tickets each critic had been allocated and which seats they were to be sat in. Hytner hit reply-all, so everyone saw. Writing from his iPhone: “Prominent critics should be all be in A 6-19, B 6-18 or in A or B 56-69. Under no circs use AA or B.B. tickets for important critics.”

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It’s certainly an old school way to press. Looking at the eye-wateringly lame list of invited ‘prominent’ critics and traditional publications (Catholic Herald anyone?) and the fact that this is a major press campaign for a major new production at Hytner and Starr’s 900-seat venue – their new commercial operation near to Tower Bridge – it raises a lot of questions. It’s also true that everyone involved could do with a kick up the arse.

N.B. Credit where it is due: the ticket prices, range from £15 to £65, which are reasonable by today’s standards.

Beyond the usual ebb and flow of shifting theatre allegiances, there has yet to be an instance of bloggers successfully being held in the same regard as traditional print critics, but they have increasingly found power in numbers.

It’s bad news for critic notebook sales, but social media is now at the heart, or the end, of all these exchanges. Perhaps a full-on, real-life siege is how all PR and blogger relationships should reach their conclusion. It would certainly be a strong test of commitment – on both sides.

This is worth getting one’s theatre knickers in a twist about, though, and it is important that the Bridge sit up and take note, which it has, unless the whole thing was a double bluff aimed solely at securing Julius Caesar some column inches. It has been interesting how gleefully the Bridge’s shortcomings have been reported, following the lukewarm reception of Young Marx too. It is an irresistible narrative: Sir Nick Hytner, the consummate theatrical mogul, has made a mistake.

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Every time something goes wrong in the world of theatre, mrcarlwoodward.com gets stronger. I started the website 2 years ago with a blog by asking playwright Mark Ravenhill what his favourite emoji was (‘The winky one’) and it evolved from there; but considering how notorious the site’s become at a point when mainstream criticism is more or less dead, it’s exciting to think about what might happen next.

Anyone can start a blog and diverse voices are crucial to the conversation. Traditional reviews are so often just the start of that conversation and the opportunity bloggers can offer for long-form engagement with all theatre should be celebrated, not ignored.

Until then I’m finding new ways to adapt the spirit of the site – I’ve just launched a new fortnightly theatre podcast: COMMIT NO NUISANCE with critic Mark Shenton, and I recently ‘interviewed’ the cat from Michael Grandage’s forthcoming production of Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Julius Caesar is at the Bridge, London, until 15 April. Box office: 0843-208 1846

 

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO EPISODE 1 OF COMMIT NO NUISANCE

Shows discussed: The Band, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Girl From the North Country, Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (at Brentwood Leisure Centre) Witness For The Prosecution & Pal Joey.

Theatre podcast by Mark Shenton & Carl Woodward

Commit No Nuisance

Commit No Nuisance

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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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The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, Chris Pizzey: “Have I ever committed a crime? Apart from hunting for my Christmas presents as a kid… no.”

Chris Pizzey

Mischief Theatre was founded in 2008 as an improvised theatre group on the London and Edinburgh fringes, they have grown into one of the UK’s leading theatre companies, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy for The Play That Goes Wrong, which began in front of four people above a pub. Their latest show, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is currently running in London’s West End. 

Chris Pizzey

Chris Pizzey

The company has had a meteoric rise of Mischief Theatre, with three productions being performed in the West End, one of which is due to be a highlight of the Christmas TV schedules

 It’s been a hell of a month, so, I thought it might be good to have some light relief and have a chat with cast member Chris Pizzey. Chris is an Actor, writer and a Director and he just so happens to currently be playing Officer Randall Shuck in The Comedy About A Bank Robbery.

Hi Chris, how is it all going?
Busy but good. Instead of having a day off I’ve been recording a voice over for a brand new TV show coming out next year. Sadly In not allowed to say what it is. And then today I was back on stage making people laugh.

You are part of quite a brilliant cast for The Comedy About A Bank Robbery aren’t you. 
Thank you very much you are very kind. The cast is indeed a talented bunch. As also is the whole creative and behind the scene crew. Everyone works hard to make the show run like a well oiled machine.
Do you think we care too much about what other people think nowadays? 
 Some people do. I think it’s very liberating when you reach a point in your life when you feel strong and sometimes brave enough to follow your own path. Be that at 5 or 50 Year’s old.
Do you agree with the statement that the best kind of theatre is jovial with a slight undercurrent of menace? 
 No. I think there are many different types of Theatre that strive to achieve different things. Some want to teach us, others want to open our eyes to a different view point and some just want you to escape into another world for just a few hours. All are equal in my mind and magical in their own way.
Is there one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out about this industry?
 Yes. Don’t be scared to be yourself.
Have you ever committed a crime? 
 Apart from hunting for my Christmas presents as a kid… no. 
You have done a lot of work for television including The Basil Brush Show & The Sarah Jane Adventures. Do you prefer performing for theatre or screen? 
They are such different mediums you can’t compare the two. Theatre gives you that immediate reaction that can send shivers down your spine as you listen to the audience laugh or gasp. On the screen sometimes you know after a take you’ve been apart of something special but then have to wait sometimes months to see the results. But in that time the scene can be made even better with clever editing and atmospheric music. I feel lucky to have experienced both.
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Comedy About A Bank Robbery
©Tristram Kenton

Would you say you are an ambitious person? 
Yes. Ambition I think is a wonderful thing as It drives you on even when things aren’t going your way.
Mischief Theatre is on a roll at presentwith three shows in the West End. It must feel quite good to be a part of that family. 
Yes it does. I think Mischief Theatre has a fantastic energy. It’s great to work for a company that thinks anything is achievable. 
Andrew Lloyd Webber: man, or God? 
 He’s a man but a very talented one.
Why should people come and see The Comedy About A Bank Robbery
If you want to go for a night out and genuinely laugh until your cheeks ache. Our play is for you. Don’t believe me? Come and prove me wrong.
Right you are. If you could ban anything from city centres what would it be?
Nothing comes to mind… I’m quite a tolerant kind of guy.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Thanks for your questions if you have others you can find me on Twitter @chrispizzey. 

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The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is at the Criterion, London, until November 2018. 

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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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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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UK Theatre Awards 2017: A blow by blow account

12.30pm I arrive at the Guildhall, London and head for the drinks reception in the Crypts. It’s quite posh. I have a glass of champagne and bump into theatre critic Mark Shenton. “Hello! I’m surprised you managed to fit this in between all your meetings,” he says, laughing. We have a quick gossip.

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Mark Shenton

12.45pm I mingle and bump into critics Lyn Gardner and Fiona Mountford, which is nice. “What on earth are you doing here!?,” Lyn says. I wouldn’t miss it for the world – congratulations, Mrs. I say. Bless.

12.55pm A man from Scottish Ballet asks me to take his photo around forty times – because the lighting is not flattering. I oblige. Great days.

1.00pm Everyone is having lunch. Here is the menu.

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(I was afforded a cheese roll, a banana and a Kit Kat. Beggars can’t be choosers.

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Guildhall, City of London: The Great Hall.

1.30pm The guy from Scottish Ballet appears. “I need somewhere to throw up my gum,” he says to me and the chap from UK Theatre. Words fail me. I suggest a bin around the corner.

2.00pm It’s starting. I think.

2.05pm Oh here comes Gemma Bodinetz who has won the Best Director award for artistic directorship of Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse’s new repertory season. “I’m looking forward to the whole thing now: I can get drunk,” she says. Amazing.

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Gemma Bodinetz

2.08pm “Yayyy Gemma!” Shrinking violet Sam Hodges is gate crashing my interview, which is a bit annoying. Oh well, he’s charismatic.

2.14pm Anyway, why is today so important to Gemma? “I’m absolutely thrilled…  It’s taken me 14 years to win this award. It’s a very important thing for us as an organisation,” she states.

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Samuel Hodges chatting away

2.16pm Let’s have a quick chat with Nuffield Southampton Theatres Sam Hodges then. He has just picked up the Renee Stepham Award for Best Presentation of Touring Theatre for Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. Why is today so important for him and this production, I ask. “It’s a massive deal; it was a glorious show. We’d never done anything on this scale and arguably we shouldn’t have – luckily our board backed this decision fully and this is the icing on the cake,” he says, smiling.

2.18pm I lose the thread of what’s going on and before I know it along comes actor Joseph Millson who has won Best Performance in a Play. What is it about regional theatre that is sexy? “I am hugely devoted to the supporting of local and regional theatres; it saved my life when I grew up in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “Even if it hadn’t doesn’t make you an actor – it gives young people such an independence.” He continues. “There’s something so individual and so much expression. If everyone just bought one ticket a year at their local theatre then everybody could reap the benefits.”

2.25pm I have a glass of white wine. 7/10.

2.30pm Sharon Duncan-Brewster has deservedly won Best Supporting Performance for A Streetcar Named Desire at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. “A lot of people do not venture out to do any work outside of London, so when I was asked to be in Streetcar I thought the only role I could play is the negro woman,” she says, candidly. What does this win mean to her? “Every city or town that I go perform in, there are people who look like me in the theatre and its time they saw themselves represented on stage,” she says. “I would love to see more of the amazing diverse work happening out in regional theatre coming into London,” she pauses and has a little cry. We have a hug.

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Sharon Duncan-Brewster

2.41pm I run to the toilet and bump into West End Producer Nica Burns(!) She looks fierce in a white gown- I am too scared to talk to her, which is a shame.

2.45pm Best Touring Production went to The Who’s Tommy, which was co-produced by New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich and Ramps on the Moon. The two organisations also received the award for Promotion of Diversity for their groundbreaking work in the inclusion and integration of deaf and disabled individuals. Here comes the Former Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East, Kerry Michael. What more needs to be done on the diversity front, going forward? “We need continue making inclusive show because they are so exciting – we’ve got to keep winning awards which aren’t just about inclusion but are about high-quality art,” he replies. Indeed.

3.00pm There is a break. Everyone has a chat, dessert and more wine.

3.25pm Sheffield Theatres’ production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which will open at London’s Apollo Theatre in November, wins Best Musical Production. John McCrea, who plays the eponymous role of Jamie, won the award for Best Performance in a Musical. Here come the boys.

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Everybody’s Talking About Jamie lads

3.30pm I have a quick photo with John McCrea who is wearing a rather fetching scarf indoors. ‘Trendy’.

3.34pm Personality vortex Freddie Fox appears with Playwright Sir David Hare. Hare is the recipient of the Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts from The Shakespeare Guild. We have a photo (I’m really very shy) and I collar Freddie for a chat. “Stories need to be told everywhere all over the country and the world. Not just London. It’s a chance to be heard and seen and celebrated – it clearly means an awful lot to many people,” he says.

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Freddie Fox and Sir David Hare

3.40pm I decide to have another glass of wine. ‘Lol’.

4.00pm Lyn Gardner is this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre award and so actual Emma Rice is here to introduce her. That’s pretty amazing. The whole thing feels quite exciting now.

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4.03pm “A critic being honoured by the theatre industry? John Osborne once suggested most of you are supposed to feel towards people like me the way: “a lamp-post feels about dogs.”” Gardner says, which gets a big laugh. She continues. “If you want to see theatre’s future, then get on a train.” The whole place erupts into applause. Inspirational.

4.10pm Lyn Gardner walks up to me clutching her award. I ask her how would she describe her state of mind? “Discombobulated,” she says. Why is this annual event so significant for the sector, I enquire. “Quite simply, too often regional theatre is not as celebrated as it should be. Regional theatre is a thing in itself – it is not simply a training ground or somewhere where people begin their careers until they move to London. It’s where the vast majority of the population live,” she says, emphatically. She’s got a point. Also, Surely she should get an OBE soon – Billington has one.

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Emma Rice and Lyn Gardner

4.12pm Emma Rice looks uncomfortable and our eyes meet. As someone who is moving forward with a regional company (Wise Children), why do you think regional theatre should be celebrated, I ask quickly. She smiles, enigmaticly. “At Kneehigh – we lived by the Joan Miró quote “To be universal, you also have to be local” – you find communities with stories to tell and friends that they want to tell them with. That’s integrity and that’s the real deal,” she says.

4.15pm What a day. The ceremony concludes and I go and find somewhere to eat a burger.

The end.

Find out more about UK Theatre at UKTheatre.org

UK THEATRE AWARDS 2017 WINNERS

The Renee Stepham Award For Best Presentation Of Touring Theatre

Nuffield Southampton Theatres for the world premiere touring musical production of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox

Best Show for Children and Young People

The Snow Queen, New Vic Theatre

Best Director

Gemma Bodinetz, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse new repertory season

Best Touring Production

The Who’s Tommy, New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon

Best Supporting Performance

Sharon Duncan-Brewster, A Streetcar Named Desire, Royal Exchange Theatre

Best Performance in a Play

Joseph Millson, The Rover, Royal Shakespeare Company

Best New Play

Narvik by Lizzie Nunnery

Theatre Employee Of The Year

Jane Claire, English Touring Theatre and Liz Leck, Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre Trust

Clothworkers’ Theatre Award

Derby Theatre

Best Design

Jon Bausor, The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

Achievement in Dance

Scottish Ballet for the European premiere of Crystal Pite’s striking one-act ballet Emergence

Promotion of Diversity

New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon for their groundbreaking work in the inclusion and integration of deaf and disabled individuals

Achievement in Opera

Scottish Opera, Pelléas And Mélisande

Gielgud Award

David Hare

Best Performance in a Musical

John McCrea, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Sheffield Theatres

Best Musical Production

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Sheffield Theatres

UK’s Most Welcoming Theatre 2017 with Smooth Radio

The Mill at Sonning

Achievement in Marketing/Audience Development

Scottish Ballet for its Digital Season in April 2017

Outstanding Contribution To British Theatre 2017

Lyn Gardner

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Playwright, David Eldridge interview: “There’s less procrastination when you’re a dad.”

As David Eldridge’s new play Beginning opens at the National Theatre’s Dorfman, he talks about his son, ticket prices, inspirations and success.

We meet in his office at Birkbeck University, London, where he lectures in Creative Writing. Chatting with Eldridge about his career opens up other windows on his experience. For instance: he’s a dad (“I always think about my son Bertie when I write, and he spurs me on”) For instance: despite having written landmark plays like Under The Blue Sky, Market Boy and In Basildon, he remains very grounded. (His best mate is a fireman in Essex, where he grew up). For instance: his new play Beginning was written unsolicited, but with the National Theatre in mind (“I wrote the play and then decided the NT would be a good home for it and sent it to Rufus Norris. Luckily for me he agreed”.)

His new play explores what it means to be lonely in a big city, features two actors and has no interval. “Beginning is a real actors’ piece,” says Eldridge emphatically. “The two characters in the play are on stage for the whole evening without a break. We were looking for people who didn’t just feel absolutely right in terms of the casting but who had the technical ability, personality and guts to do it. On-and-off that casting process took seven months, much of that due to director Polly Findlay’s availability, but we wanted to be absolutely sure.”

What are the particular pressures of writing for the National Theatre? “I’m not sure that applies to Beginning because it’s the first play I’ve written in ages that wasn’t a commission for a particular management,” he says. “I think opening a play in any of the major playhouses is incredibly stressful. On the Olivier stage at the National (where Market Boy was produced in 2006) just selling the 1,150 seats for every show used to give me nightmares. I think animating the larger stages at the NT is a craft in itself and both the Olivier and the Lyttleton eat story, so you need lots of narrative red meat and actors who are on the front foot.”

I wonder how he will measure success with Beginning. “I just want to feel happy that the play has gone as well as it possibly can and that audiences have got something out of it,” he states.

“It’s nice when you can see an audience laughing and crying and reflecting upon the action of a play. But it’s also very rewarding when audiences get in touch.” He references his play The Knot of the Heart, which premiered at the Almeida in 2011. “I kid you not, every day an audience member communicated with me in person, by letter, card, email or via social media to tell me how in some way their life had been touched by addiction. It was exhausting. But beautiful and humbling,” he recalls. “Everyone wants to have nice reviews for posterity and to help encourage audiences to see the show. But I’m much less neurotic about them than I was in my twenties.”

Which fellow writers inspire him, I ask? “Robert Holman has been one of the most inspiring playwrights in my writing life,” he replies, “Robert taught me how to be a playwright in many ways; but his own work, his sense of place, theatricality and commitment to the truth of his characters is always inspiring. Caryl Churchill, as Sarah Daniels says, is “our Picasso” and she seems to reinvent the wheel with every play. Her work always pushes me to try new things and to be bold. Edward Albee inspires me to fulfil John Osborne’s aspiration to give audiences “lessons in feeling”. And I learned a lot from adapting Ibsen. I think the work I did on three of his plays helped strengthen the storytelling in my own plays.”

He reckons that the economics of theatre tickets are out of line. “Theatre going has become too expensive. There’s also a part of me that’s still the slightly chip-on-shoulder, scholarship-and-assisted-place Romford kid at the posh school; who resents how much of British theatre is still occupied by privileged white middle-class men. I think the theatre has got a bit better on that score over my writing life, but it’s still a world that can be too dominated by clever posh white people and far too preoccupied with who’s in and who’s out,” he says bluntly. “It’s why I’ve always preferred to make most of my friends outside the theatre.”

We talk about the differences in writing for television. “On screen you’re cutting away to the next scene all the time and often the cut tells the story”, he explains. “On stage you’re trying to sustain the action. Too many scene changes, inelegantly done, make for a tiresome evening in the theatre. I think TV writing, like writing for a large theatre space, eats story and you really have to pique an audience’s interest the whole time. Otherwise people just switch off and look at their smartphone or change channel.”

On the bookshelf there are various framed photographs of his little boy. How has being a dad changed his writing? “You know,” he smiles. “It’s made me more uncompromising.”

But Eldridge is acutely aware of the legacy of putting pen to paper. “I always have this gut feeling that I never want him to read or see my work when he’s older and feel his dad could have done better. I push myself. Although he doesn’t live with me, we spend a lot of time together, and that means like most writers who are parents, I organise when I write accordingly and use the time much more efficiently. There’s less procrastination when you’re a dad.”

Beginning is at the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage, London, until 14 November. Box office: 020-7452 3000.

Polly Findlay and David Eldridge will take part in NT Platform on Thursday 19 Oct, 6pm.

Now you know. 

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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.