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The Dancing Club, Caroline Jester: ‘Work that inspires me is a diversity of work.’

The Dancing Club is a new play for community owned spaces, school and village halls, libraries, arts centres and theatres. Produced by Pippa Frith and written and directed by Caroline Jester, The Dancing Club is based around the remarkable and inspirational true story of Kidderminster legends Frank and Wynn Freeman and their selfless drive to get a town dancing.

I caught up with writer and director Caroline Jester recently. Here is what we discussed.

Hi Caroline! Can you tell me a bit about The Dancing Club and what led you to this project?

Most of my career to date has been developing work in cities but coming from a town where there is little provision for the arts I have always had a fascination with how to explore these towns in connection with the arts. Towns that have an industrial heritage, so distinct from villages and cities, where the main industry has died out and they are often forgotten in terms of arts provisions. I use playwriting as a tool in many ways in my practice as well as to develop plays for the stage and I wanted to see if a verbatim approach could facilitate audience development in these towns. Verbatim is often used as a response to an event so this was an experiment as I wasn’t reacting against an event but trying to create the event. I thought back to my childhood and remembered the dancing school I went to for six years and started from there. I discovered this had run for over fifty years and started as a ballroom dancing school but became a space where youth culture exploded across the generations, including being a place where the likes of Marc Bolan and Fleetwood Mac played gigs in the room above a butcher’s shop.

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Sounds interesting. How did you go about collecting the testimony and information?

I interviewed over 100 residents of the town aged 25 – 90 and over 150 people came to readings of early drafts, so an audience was developing. Steve Elias had his BBC series ‘Our Dancing Town’ on at the same time where he was connecting generations through dance in Yorkshire towns so we connected and he is now the choreographer on the show that is about to tour.

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As well as The Dancing Club being out on tour you have a new book out: ‘Fifty Playwrights on Their Craft. Tell me more about that, it sounds like a huge project.

I interviewed 25 – my US collaborator, Caridad Svich interviewed the other 25 – very much a UK US collaboration – the premise of it was to think about an intergenerational conversation. So, it is a book of interviews with writers of different generations but writers from different perspectives on their craft and what that means to them as playwrights. A key aim was to ensure 50/50 male-female –Artists in the US seem to have a much greater appreciation or knowledge of predecessors and practitioners.

What did you think about the recent Rita, Sue and Bob Too debacle around ‘working class voices’ being censored at the Royal Court

I didn’t seen this production but I did hear that one of the arguments to reinstate the production was because if it wasn’t shown then it would be one less ‘working class’ voice on our stages. I think we have to be careful when we use the term ‘working class voices’ because to be working class does not mean you are part of a homogeneous group of people. No one ‘working class’ voice will be the same and I feel we should steer clear of the use of the word ‘authentic’ in these discussions as well. From what I know about Andrea Dunbar then she could be categorised as being working class based on economic status and having lived on a council estate but there have been others, there are others and there will be others who also have a similar biography so can’t we look beyond this and have a conversation solely about the work instead? A bigger question is whether there will be any social housing rather than any ‘working class voices’.

What inspires you as a theatre-maker?

Work that inspires me is a diversity of work and I hope I am inspired and open enough to contradict my own beliefs in what is good and challenging work, and this is something that constantly changes.

The Dancing Club opens at Kidderminster College and then tours to Shropshire, Bewdley, Malvern, Bromsgrove, Smethwick, Wolverhampton, Worester & Cumbria.

For more information: https://www.thedancingclub.co.uk/

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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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Interview with the cat from ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’

Michael Grandage will direct The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh.

The PR campaign kicked off this week with bold artwork, which features Aidan Turner in a vest – holding a cat. The star of the show is undoubtedly the unassuming cat whose bloody paws hint at the pitch-black comedy within McDonagh’s play.

I caught up with cat earlier this week to find out how his involvement came about.

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Hello cat! How are you?

Fine, thank you.

How did you come to be on the The Lieutenant of Inishmore publicity material?

Right place, right time! I was on a night out with friends at The Ivy Club and after a few drinks I needed to pee, so went to the bathroom and bumped into Cameron Mackintosh who said he was looking for a cat for his latest venture with Michael Grandage. The rest is history. I couldn’t believe it when I got the call saying I was going to be part of the production.

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Aidan Turner

Why do actors pose like Aidan Turner has in your recent publicity shot? Is it because their talent isn’t apparent?

Ha! I think it comes from all those years of rejection. When one becomes a household name such as Aidan their ego can become inflated. I tend to keep myself to myself most of the time… I don’t think Aidan even realised I was a huge Poldark fan but he was very humble. I hope he keeps his shirt on during rehearsals.

Did you have any concerns about appearing in your winter coat?

I may be a bit chunkier than the average feline but I’m proud of how I look. And when you consider what I might have been wearing instead — a pair of boots for instance — I think it’s turned out fine.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is arriving after *another* James Graham play. Have you seen Quiz?

I saw QUIZ at Chichester… I think it’s a good play. I guess after the huge success of Labour of Love, James is in a really different place to where he was before — Ink was such a sophisticated play too, though, know what I mean? It pushed Graham to the theatre a-list and Quiz feels a bit like *another* crossover into the mainstream. I guess James’ profile and the momentum of his amazing 2017 will make it a massive hit anyway, but I’m kind of glad this is the last James Graham play on St. Martin’s Lane for a while. I’d really like to see an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in there. Perhaps Aspects of Love?

The full, all-Irish cast of The Lieutenant of Inishmore was announced earlier this week. Press night should be a laugh.

Yes, my agent called to tell me the news; I think it is a real top-notch cast. I am quite nervous at the prospect of starring in Aidan Turner’s West End debut.

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Aidan Turner and cat

Will you have stunt-double puppets for the gorier elements of the play?

No. I do all my own stunts.

So, what do you make of Aidan Turner swapping Poldark for a serious play?

I think it’s great. I don’t know him very well — that photo was the first time we met, and he didn’t say much to me — think he’s a great talent. Can you imagine the calibre of the projects and collaborators he’s been offered post-Poldark?

When you say he didn’t say much to you, what do you mean?

Well he didn’t say anything to me to be honest. He just stroked me occasionally.

Maybe he has allergies.

What are your plans for the rest of 2018?

Well Nick Hytner has been in touch, I might do a few adverts. But while I’ve enjoyed my brush with fame I think I’ll just keep a low profile. I’ll probably travel a bit.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore  runs at the Noël Coward Theatre from 4 July until 8 September with previews from 23 June.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO EPISODE 1 OF COMMIT NO NUISANCE a new theatre podcast by Mark Shenton and Carl Woodward

Shows discussed in Episode 1: 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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Shows that will be worth seeing in 2018

People often ask me for show recommendations. So, I’ve put together a list of a couple of shows that I reckon will be worth seeing in 2018. (You’re welcome)

The Here and This and Now

Glenn Waldron’s new darkly comic play – first seen at Theatre Royal Plymouth – is a murky look at company away-days and the pharmaceuticals business. Oh and antibiotic resistance. Plenty of food for thought in these medicated times.

10 Jan to 10 Feb, Southwark Playhouse. http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/the-here-and-this-and-now/

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Frozen

The detail of the writing and the emotional truth within this modern classic will knock anyone for six. Bryony Lavery’s remarkable play explores every parent’s worst nightmare; the disappearance of a child. Suranne Jones makes a welcome return to the stage and will be directed by Jonathan Munby. Amazing.

Feb 9-May 5, Theatre Royal Haymarket. frozentheplay.com

Girls&Boys

The world premiere of Dennis Kelly’s monologue stars Cary Mulligan and tells the story of a woman who meets her future husband in a queue, apparently. The play tracks the progress and ultimate breakdown of their relationship. Lyndsey Turner is the director and Es Devlin the designer. The show recently extended by a week due to overwhelming popularity – blag, borrow or steal a ticket.

February 8 – March 17, Royal Court. royalcourttheatre.com

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Girl From The North Country

Girl From The North Country

Following its sell out run at The Old Vic, Girl from the North Country has transferred to the West End for a 12 week run and many of the multi-talented cast return with several new additions. Conor McPherson weaves magic with Bob Dylan songs and reinvents them blissfully. Don’t miss this one, folks.

Runs until 24 Mar, Noël Coward Theatre. www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/tickets/girl-from-the-north-country/

Strictly Ballroom

West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production, directed by Drew McOnie is based on the 1992 Baz Luhrmann film, with music and lyrics from Luhrmann and Catherine Martin and a book from Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. Exciting, eh?

Mar 16 – Saturday Jul 21, Piccadilly Theatre. https://www.piccadillytheatre.org/strictly-ballroom-the-musical/

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Strictly Ballroom The Musical

Nightfall

Barney Norris’s new play opens at London’s Bridge Theatre, the new 900-seat venue founded by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr. Norris has described Nightfall as being “about grief and the way that grief drowns life”. Should be good.

28 April to 26 May, the Bridge Theatre. bridgetheatre.co.uk

Quiz

Fingers on buzzers, James Graham is back in town. Quiz is about Major Charles Ingram, the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? contestant accused of cheating by getting his mates in the audience to endorse his answers by a code of coughs. I saw Daniel Evans’ acute production at Chichester and look forward to seeing it reworked. Top notch stuff.

10 April to 16 June, Noël Coward Theatre. https://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/tickets/quiz/

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The Rink

The Rink

This classy Kander and Ebb Musical tells the tale of an Italian housewife Anna, who runs a roller skating rink. Rather interestingly, this is the first production to be staged in London in 20 years. Anyway, The Rink will be directed by Adam Lenson, with choreography from Fabian Aloise, which is exciting.

29 May to 29 Jun, Southwark Playhouse. southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/the-rink/

The end.

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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.
Comedy About A Bank Robbery

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.

Jeremy Herrin

Jeremy Herrin

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

Never mind.

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

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

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Martin Freeman & Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love

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

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

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

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Ann Marie-Duff in Common

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Junkyard

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about Actors Touring Company