Interviews with renowned British Artistic Directors

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Park Theatre’s Jez Bond: “Many freelancers have tragically left our industry and there is a lot of hard work ahead.”

Park theatre artistic director Jez Bond is busy looking at revisions of his business plan. “We have some formulating to do with our smaller space, Park90, that might enable us to bring in work that we may have previously turned down,” he says. “Historically there have been a lot of shows that we missed out on because they couldn’t have necessarily afforded to rent the space,” he continues. “So, we are trying to find out if there are new models that can crack that issue.”

Jez Bond

Park Theatre not only presents off west end theatre in the heart of London’s Finsbury Park, but is a creative community hub and has been a significant part of the redevelopment of the area. As a small charity with no regular government or Arts Council funding, the pandemic led to a devastating loss of income.

Fortunately, Park Theatre was awarded £250,000 as part of the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) to help face the challenges.

I have interviewed Bond before in 2017– he is not shy. He’s funny, opinionated and happy to talk about anything.

We are talking on the telephone in the week that Chancellor Rishi Sunak outlined his latest Budget. Measures include a £300 million addition to the Culture Recovery Fund and £150 million fund to help communities take ownership of theatres, pubs and sports clubs at risk of closure.

“We’re grateful for the actions of the Chancellor but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that it’s all rosy: many freelancers have tragically left our industry and there is a lot of hard work ahead,” says Bond.

What, I ask, are his thoughts on the explosion of digital productions? He pauses. ‘I’ve been very clear and up front that I have no passion for digital,” Bond says. “It is a means to end – but it’s not something that I have a particular passion for. Broadening the reach is a good thing but let’s not pretend that there is a new exciting way – let’s not pretend that that is theatre, we want to get back to live theatre.”

What has kept him going throughout the pandemic? “We thought we’d be dead in the water at some point,” he says.

“My drive was to say that we have 40-50 staff and we cannot let these people go during the pandemic. At a time when there was and is no prospect of getting another job. It is our duty to ensure that we protect those livelihoods. When we engaged with our donors and wider community it was evident how much Park Theatre means to everybody. It meant far too much to just let it all go. Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in.”

Park Theatre

Park Theatre

How would he describe his approach through the scenario planning, shifting sands and executive decisions? “I have erred on the side of rational caution, sensibility and logic: Reading the data and following what’s going on in other countries rather than doing what people think or want you want to say. Even recently, with the Prime Minister’s roadmap: I don’t see June being a realistic date for performances to take place at full capacity.”

Every year, it seems, the debate rages on casting well-known names from TV or film to generate ticket sales. With ticket prices looking set to stay high, and severely reduced public subsidy, there is surely an increased commercial imperative to cast stars.

Bond’s ability to knock out commercial hits is extraordinary – David Haig’s Pressure, The Boys in The Band starring Mark Gatiss, for example – he’s frank about how he feels about them. “It’s a vital part of what we do – being able to take a play and give it an extended commercial life aids us both financially and reputationally. I’m very proud of the work we’ve presented.”

According to Bond commercially successful shows rely on star power. “There has to be an understanding of why those decisions are made,” he says. “Theatres do not choose celebrities because they are mates with them. They do so because they sell tickets. If we do a new play by an unknown writer and an unknown cast, it could fly and it could get great reviews. However, if you cast Damian Lewis or Miriam Margolyes you ensure that you have a selling point and you know that you can take that significant financial risk.”

“If we were subsidised to take risk, then it wouldn’t matter. Let’s put it very clearly: it is about survival.”

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Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris: “We have to seize whatever freedom we can find amid all of this confusion and terror.”

Tom Morris
Tom Morris

Tom Morris

“Sometimes I feel like I am married to this building,” Tom Morris says, laughing.

Behind him in shot is the beautiful, slightly darkened auditorium of the Bristol Old Vic: the oldest continuously working theatre in the English speaking world.

Morris gleams out of my screen over Zoom, bright in all senses. He is determined to ensure that the Bristol theatre, where he has been artistic director for more than a decade, survives these dark times.

“There are all sorts of possibilities. It is my job to do whatever I can to help extraordinary artists share their work with the public. Last week as part of a Bristol Ferment commission in the Courtyard space, we projected Saikat Ahamed’s epic poem onto the theatre wall. It seemed to catch the mood.”

Emma Rice’s musical Romantics Anonymous was originally set for an 11 week US tour, but, because of Covid-19 is being performed in Bristol Old Vic’s empty auditorium and streamed to theatres across the UK and internationally as part of an innovative ‘digital tour’.

It has been six months since any actor trod the boards of the theatre but finally the curtains are ready to go up: A sold out one-off socially distanced performance of Rice’s musical is scheduled for this Sunday.

“This week’s live streaming of Romantics Anonymous is a freestanding, astounding and pioneering event dreamed up by the wild imagations of our associate company Wise Children,” Morris says.

Romantics Anonymous

 “And for us, it’s a brilliant kick start to rebuilding our relationship with our audiences as we prepare an Autumn season which has to play to two audiences at once; some live in the theatre; others live at home, watching on line and getting as much as we can deliver of the thrill of being there.”

The performing arts has been one of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic, with thousands of jobs already lost and unions warning of a “tsunami” to come. Morris, like many other regional theatre executives is awaiting the outcome of their recent submission to the cultural rescue fund courtesy of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

“Theatre buildings are pieces of technology that have evolved to do two very different things simultaneously: on the one hand, a theatre is apiece of kit that holds a sacred relationship which connects with ritual in the way Peter Brook and others have described; on the other, it is a piece of technology which puts walls around a performance space in order to gather box office income.   Theatres have always needed to have a foot in business reality and a heart of wild inspiration both at the same time.”

For most theatres, opening to reduced audiences only brings bigger financial problems. The government has indicated that a decision if or when to allow full audiences will not be taken before November.

Dress Rehearsal for Romantics Anonymous

“It has been such a long time coming through austerity and all provincial theatres have had to operate within the margins of viability for some time now.  But right now, I’m absolutely determined that we can find a way through the business side of things.”

“However hard it is, there is something exciting in working out how we can rebuild our creative economy,” says Morris.

“Part of our plan has been a slow rebuild, and that might be interrupted at any time and we may have to stop. But but as we set off on the journey, I am excited by the current radicalism on display from artists and audiences. The challenge is to rebuild something that maintains the business resilience we have learned through austerity with the vision for a fairer, more inclusive and more representative theatre articulated in the best bits of the Arts Council’s plan Let’s Create.”

I bring up Cameron Mackintosh who claimed that more government support should be made available for the large-scale west end theatres and that this would be more beneficial for the sector’s recovery rather than rescuing organisations that are struggling. Any comment?

“Ha Ha,” he replies, adding Mackintosh, could have submitted an application for a huge loan from the recent £1.5bn culture support package fund. “I really hope he did,” says Morris, smiling

“We all know about the terrible impact of missing the freelance workforce out of the Cultural Recovery Fund.  And I am still hopeful that something can be done to remedy that.  But in other respects, such as the provision of loans for commercial organisations alongside grants for others, structure of the fund is very clever.”

Which brings us to the role of large institutions in a Covid-19 era. What, I ask, would a reimagined funding system that prioritised communities instead of large institutions look like? “I think that the building vs people argument is nonsense – predictable nonsense,” he says.  “It’s absolutely clear that you need both.”

 “There just isn’t enough resource within the sector to create radical change by a redistribution of existing resources,” says Morris.

David Jubb, former artistic director of Battersea Art Centre touched on this in a series of blogs over lockdown  which are truly inspiring and would create a fantastic template for a regional theatre to try, ideally under Jubb’s leadership.  But  I do not think that they form the basis of a viable national policy which risks dismantling the infrastructure which has worked so hard and offered so much economically as well as socially over the last ten years.

“The best way to achieve some of those aims is to use the infrastructure and resources,” he says. “To learn from communities surrounding buildings, in a meaningful way. Especially if we want a talent pipeline and a sense of any substantial  progressions.”

Any final thoughts? 

He pauses.

 “Look.  As of now, we don’t even know whether we can stay half-open until Christmas” he says.

“Never mind whether we will be here in order to rebuild in the new year.  And the consequences of that uncertainty for our staff, our artists, and our audiences are really severe: just as they are for many many parts of the economy.”

He continues. “But as creative leader, however difficult it is, our job is clear:  We have to seize whatever freedom we can find amid all of this confusion and terror, and use it to imagine a better world.”

Romantics Anonymous runs online from Tues 22 – Sat 26 Sep

 

 

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Guest Blog — Oily Cart’s Ellie Griffiths: ‘Shielding should not affect anyone’s right to creativity, their right to connection & their right to play.‘

Young people with complex disabilities feel huge anxiety about being excluded when theatres eventually reopen, as many may have to continue shielding until there is a Covid-19 vaccine.
Artistic director of disablity-led theatre company Oily Cart Ellie Griffiths writes about their creative inclusive sessions designed to be explored at home or school.

Looking Forward to a Better Theatre

Oily Cart works with some of the most creative, resilient and dynamic artists and audiences in the country, that society disables.

During the pandemic, we have watched many of these individuals have their equal rights quietly dismantled, and become more invisible. Rather than waiting for a vaccine, or venues to reopen, we made the decision to take our shows online, onto streets and into homes, as part of an uncancellable programme.

The first,Doorstep Jamboree’, features a travelling Balkan band who pop up across London to perform through windows and on the doorsteps of families who are still shielding.

This is as much a protest as a show we feel passionately that shielding should not affect anyone’s right to creativity, their right to connection and their right to play.

This is of course being carried out against the backdrop of an arts sector that is still reeling from “the biggest threat to the UK’s cultural infrastructure in a generation”. With mass redundancies, reduced funding and venue closures, for many creatives there is simply nonormal’ left to return to.

Freelance workers have been hit particularly hard, especiallythose who are not well established – often directly due tobarriers faced through ethnicity, gender or disability.

A recently published study of theatre’s freelance workers concluded that D/deaf and disabled arts workers have suffered disproportionately during the Covid-19 crisis – more than 40% said they were likely to leave the industry.

Now, as lockdown eases, many disabled artists are left feeling ‘expendable’ as new projects emerge without those who are still shielding.

The government’s decision to withdraw support from individuals who are shielding from the 1st of August has caused further anxiety and confusion in the disabled community, with many feeling they are being asked to pick between their lives and their livelihood.

If we do not all take action, this will be an immense step backwards in the hard-won progress made towards diversifying the arts sector over the last 20 years.

Ellie Griffiths artistic director of Oily Cart

This colossal shift, has however created an unprecedentedopportunity to change the old structures that were not working for everyone. It is now the responsibility of every gate-keeper of the arts to assist in rebuilding a new normal that enables everyone to access culture meaningfully as artists and audiences.

In the new (more inclusive) normal, we understand as an industry that no one size fits all. Each touring show will have both an online and physical format of equal quality. Collaborations and rehearsals can happen flexibly and remotely whenever needed without it being seen as a substitute for the real thing.

We won’t assume everyone has access technology and internet – so pioneering digital works will be followed by low-fi analogue projects that involve packages sent to homes and poems told over the phone as audience members are gently guided though new performance formats.

The work will attend to the wellbeing of creators and audience, respecting each adult, child, disabled and non-disabled individual, as a sensory being, (not just a pair of eyes and ears to be transmitted to). Companies will seek to find intimacy and connection with their audiences in new ways, keeping the essence and integrity of the piece, whilst not being bound to the irrelevant specifics of a theatre culture that no longer exists.

Performances will be more person-centred, acknowledging the audience as a group of diverse individuals who may engage with their material in a variety of different ways, that hold equal value.

And theatre will be better for it. It will be infinitely better.

Ellie Griffiths

Artistic Director

#WeShallNotBeRemoved

#LeftInLockdown

#Freelancermaketheatrework

 

 

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The Royal Shakespeare Company’s, Erica Whyman: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were talking about the ideas that our distinguished and emerging women have?’

I am sat in Gregory Doran’s office at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s HQ on International Women’s Day and have just presented Erica Whyman OBE with a single sunflower to mark the occassion.

“You are the second man to wish me a Happy International Women’s Day,” Whyman grins then resets. “Actually, that feels new to me. There are new desires to make lasting progress but in the raw and complex aftermath of the Me Too movement, it is not as easy as it sounds,” she says.

Erica Whyman headshot_2018_Photo by Ellie Kurttz _c_ RSC_209883

Erica Whyman OBE

Erica is deputy artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company; she has been at Stratford five years now and has achieved some remarkable things. Whyman too has long spoken out about inequality, particularly in theatre. With a new generation and real conversations taking place. How, I ask, does she feel about International Women’s Day today? “I had some discomforts with it,” she recalls. “But in the last decade I think moments to illuminate what our thinking is about gender are not bad things.”

She is a working mum in a high-pressure leadership role. What advice does she have for others wondering how to juggle this responsibility? “I’d say don’t feel oppressed if you don’t want to have children and don’t feel oppressed if you do. If it means that you can’t work in a way that some of your peers work – that’s ok. Let’s change the culture together,” says Whyman. 

Who, I ask, were her inspirations growing up? “I have retrospective ones like Joan Littlewood or Katie Mitchell. People who carved space for me to exist,” she explains. Yet, with hindsight, it was Whyman’s mother and her “rogue views” that helped her find her place in the world. “Because what she did was argue with me,” she declares. “She argued with me for thirty years and that taught me how to argue. It made me think very hard about a whole variety of issues. She was quite out there; she didn’t think there should be female doctors, for example. But she was incredibly powerful and passionate as a person. She was herself. So, the combination of spending a lot of my childhood being embarrassed and confused by my mother was an indirect but vital source of inspiration. In a geeky way it was books, I did get excited by Virginia Woolf,” says Whyman.

The critically acclaimed production of the RSC production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu has been on a UK tour and just opened at Hackney Empire. Whyman is thrilled with the response. “Paapa is an amazing Hamlet and he is surrounded by a genuinely extraordinary cast,” she says. “There is a kind of physical explosive energy to both the production and Paapa’s performance. It’s a fantastic way to see the play in a whole new light.” 

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Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet.

We are talking the week of the Olivier Award nominations and the RSC have been overlooked – for the second year running. Does it bruise? “Yes, it does bruise us…” she says cautiously. “I spent eight years in Newcastle Upon Tyne, before that I worked in Notting Hill and in Southwark – before Southwark was sexy. I have spent my life in places that the centre of the establishment likes to think are peripheral: European theatre, theatre made in the North, theatre made by women etc. So, I am probably a little more sanguine; I expect the RSC to be overlooked. Will we survive it? I should say so.”

The RSC have chosen female directors for all plays in the summer 2018 season. Whyman says that this was not a deliberate move. What would a more equal future for women look like? “Polly Findlay, who I’m working closely with at the moment on Macbeth, puts it better than I can. She says: ‘I’d really like to be talking about our ideas.’ Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were talking about the ideas that our distinguished and emerging women have?”

Erica is in the middle of rehearsals for the upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet. “I couldn’t be more excited by it,” she says quickly. “It’s a much better play than I thought it was, it keeps revealing itself to me to be truly great. It portrays Romeo and Juliet as widely equal in a world that doesn’t expect that. Both the depths of emotion he is capable of and the types of courage that she is capable of are surprising. My cast is properly diverse and I am thrilled by that because it doesn’t feel like boxes on a piece of paper. When Beth Cordingly, playing Escalus, walks on stage and says “What, ho! You men, you beasts,’ to stop the fighting it rings with contemporary resonance and a sense of male violence.”

Audience development is key to the future. What does she think of the current conversations around arts coverage? “We need to get critics out of London,” she says. “Perhaps we are in a transition from what we think our established audience is: as a newspaper, as a theatre or indeed politics,” she says. “We have this idea of an audience who are middle aged and I think we’re wrong about them, because I’m middle aged and they are wrong about me,” says Whyman.

Shakespeare is one of the only compulsory cultural figures left on the curriculum. Whyman acknowledges the challenges that this presents her peers. She is definitely alarmed at the current state of affairs. In my lifetime of two or three different forms of Conservative…” She quickly corrects herself to say that that is not the right word. “Wealth creation governments, that have had an absolute logic to them: create the wealth and enable it to be distributed. Well, they have failed.” 

“I recognise the realities of life, I watch the news. It feels like we are in a crisis.” She takes a little pause. “It’s about being able to say who we are effectively and working in a way together, that is greater than the sum of its parts.” 

We have been talking for almost an hour and our time together is nearly up. Is there anything that she’d like to add? “It is easy to be bleak about the state of the world and I am bleak about the state of the world,” she continues, more resilient than sad. “But my greatest privilege is that I see how lively and intelligent and rich that a generation of theatre-makers instincts are about audiences and not just about art. It is also an exciting time because I think people’s blood is up.”

She is smiling as she says that and I believe every word.  

 

Hamlet runs at Hackney Empire until 31 March 2018 

Macbeth runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from 20 March to September 2018

Romeo and Juliet runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from 21 April 2018 and will be broadcast live to cinemas on the 18th July 2018, with a UK tour planned in 2019.

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Chickenshed’s Lou Stein: ‘There is a world of actors who are not given opportunities because of perceived disability and we have to continue to open doors because they have so much to offer.’

Don’t know his face? You’ll certainly know the fruits of his labour. Lou Stein, the American director, founded the Gate, Notting Hill in 1979, ran Watford Palace theatre and is now the artistic director of Chickenshed – the inclusive theatre company based in north London.

He is the ultimate unsung hero.

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Lou Stein

Chickenshed are in the middle of a vibrant Spring season. The varied programme of work addresses the issues of man-made climate change, protest and an exciting reimagining of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He is also responsible for 70 full-time staff. Artistic directors face more scrutiny than ever, does he feel the pressure? “As Artistic Director there is a great deal of harnessing and managing the energy of this wonderful company,” he says, smiling.

Stein’s artistic vision is a society that enables everyone to flourish and Chickenshed’s mission is to create high quality theatre that celebrates diversity and inspires positivity and change. What are the biggest challenges in 2018? “I think the biggest challenge for Chickenshed is certainly the social and political atmosphere at the moment,” he explains. “Charities are coming under a certain scrutiny but with Brexit, Trump and cuts to local authority funding, there is less money coming in to all charities and that is a real challenge. One of the things I’m interested in doing is making things sustainable and continuing our important role as an inclusive company with strong social aims.”

Born in Brooklyn, Lou moved here in the late 70’s. What on earth does he think of Trump?  “I feel so distant from American politics now,” he replies, dropping his tone, speaking more slowly. “Part of my reason for moving to Britain in the late 70’s was partly political and I didn’t like what was going on in my country at that time. I certainly look at it’s leadership now with disbelief as I think a lot of people do – I don’t think we are in an irreversible downturn – however there is a lot of damage being done.”

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Lou in rehearsals

Chickenshed is effectively a theatre as well as a higher education college. What does he think about English schools cutting the number of pupils taking subjects such as dance and fine art after the introduction of the EBacc? “What is going on is devastating,” he replies. “It’s a time bomb in a lot of ways. Firstly, the role that music, theatre and art plays in the development of individual’s confidence is undervalue by the educational authorities. My son – who enjoys music and arts- may never have the opportunities, except through Chickenshed, that other students have.  There will be a huge drop out of talent without access to a creative curriculum. I think all theatre is political and that the education of theatre in schools is highly political and very important,” says Stein.

What does he think of Chichester Festival Theatre’s aim for a 50:50 gender balance in their 2018 acting company? “I feel like we at Chickenshed are way ahead of the curve because of our inclusive practices,” he says.  “If I take the monolog season: eight plays and seven of them feature female voices and characters. What’s more four of them are directed by women and six out of seven of the plays are written by women. I get worried about subscribing to quotas because it is important that decision makers genuinely believe in the issue of inequality, not because they are made to believe in it.”

Stein believes, too, that the shift in arts journalism; the slicing of word counts and the new wave of theatre bloggers, is a positive thing. “I think that it is not necessarily a bad thing that the newspaper critic is becoming less dominant,” he says. “Now you get a fresher collection of voices. Throughout your career what tends to happen is that there will be critics who like what you do, champion you and there are some that don’t. There are a lot of new voices online and as a director I’ve found that very liberating,” says Stein.

He is sanguine about the future. “I’d like us to open our eyes to those people from the disability world,” he says. “It is time for the theatre world to fully embrace the opportunity to widen their understanding of what diversity means,” he says.  “There is a world of actors who are not given opportunities because of perceived disability and we have to continue to open doors because they have so much to offer.”

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest  runs at Chicken Shed, Studio Theatre 17 Apr – 12 May. Box Office: 020 8292 9222

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Nuffield Southampton Theatre’s Sam Hodges: ‘I want to take work to London but I don’t want to compromise our artistic identity.’

Sam Hodges
Sam Hodges in Rehearsals

Sam Hodges in Rehearsals

NST, Nuffield Southampton Theatres new venue is situated in the heart of the city and has a 450-seat main house alongside a 133-seat studio. The inaugural production at NST City is the world première of the Howard Brenton play The Shadow Factory, which is set in 1940 during the Battle of Britain. The production features state of the art technology and video projections by the Tony Award-winning 59 Productions. Exciting times.

Samuel Hodges is the creative and executive Director of NST Theatres. How would he describe the past few months? “It turned out to be a quadruple unknown,” he says. “This is a brand-new piece theatre in a brand-new building, there is also the community chorus amongst the state of the art technology – so we went into the process with so many variables. I’m really pleased with how it has come together – Howard has said it is his love letter to Southampton, the birthplace of the Spitfire aircraft.”

So, how is he dealing with the pressure of launching a brand-new venue? “Right now, there is a genuine sense of anticipation around the opening of this building, which has surprised all of us and exceeded all of our hopes. There is a genuine buzz of curiosity and investment. What’s interesting is not only the number of people but the distance they are travelling. In terms of our ability to be more accessible and more visible and be more open to people across the county,” says Hodges.

The Shadow Factory

The Shadow Factory

By contrast, Hodges is deeply aware of the gamble and pressure of getting a show like The Shadow Factory off the ground, not to mention the involvement of a community chorus. Making theatre with local amateur participants doesn’t diminish the art but gives it new purpose. “It has been glorious and exciting,” he says.

“I’m not going to lie, we were given the building far too late and were given the keys just before we started rehearsing the show. As a director you aren’t always sure of the tone of you work, because you are so close to it. I tend to enjoy design and movement. All previews are a time of balancing things. I do feel like we are doing justice to the story,” says Hodges.

His 2018 season, contains some inspiring projects, including co-productions with Theatr Clwyd and English Touring Theatre, while Hodges directs a workshop musical adaptation of cult film Son of Rambow. “It is an ode to the 1980’s – it’s a sort of modern day Oliver Twist,” he says. “It’s a musical I’ve been working on for three years with songwriter Miranda Cooper. It is a Nuffield Southampton Theatres workshop production in association with The Other Palace, London. Essentially an opportunity to workshop for 3 weeks and have public fairings along the way– it might get off book and be fully realised– it’s about getting feedback and having the space to develop it.”

This is the passion that drives Sam. Is he inspired by successes of other regional theatres like Bristol Old Vic? (which currently has two home-grown shows in town The Grinning Man and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.) “Our audience is incredibly diverse; in terms of age and background and embracing new ideas: they are up for it,” he says. “I want to take work to London but I don’t want to compromise our artistic identity. The reason for taking work into London, generally, is about developing the theatre and the cities brand on a national level – the reason I suppose I’m going slowly in that direction is that I want to make sure that by the time we get there is it isn’t by doing a celebrity-led version of the Important of Being Earnest. I do think Bristol are doing excellent work – it’s about work that lifts a theatre and lifts a city,” says Hodges

 

We talk about the writer/director relationship. I refer to the recent Twitter thread that I started ‘playwrights being told off.’ Does he think playwrights are bullied in the rehearsal room? “No. But I do feel that they can be a very odd and powerless situation for a writer. The sort of unspoken rule of a rehearsal room is that it is the directors room. Howard is an absolute joy: a combination of sage and calm and mischievous. I’d say it is about negotiation. You do worry the writer hates what you are doing – more often they are listening to the rhythm of their own words. I’ll come out of a preview but he’ll just say: ‘That word – needs to go…’ We’ve disagreed on quite a few things but that’s part of the process.”

The Shadow Factory stars Anita Dobson (aka Angie, of EastEnders) wife of rock guitarist Brian May as leading lady. How was it sitting next to a living legend in for the first preview? “Extremely surreal,” he says, laughing. “It’s a different level of legend isn’t it? He was pretty laid back and I think he enjoyed himself. He definitely gave Anita feedback – you always know when your actors have had their other halves in. Brian was the first person to buy a drink from our bar, which was pretty special.”

Craig David was recently announced as a patron of NST, a role that will see him championing the theatre’s work. Why him? “Craig David is Southampton born and bred,” he says when I bring this up. “We are trying to build a local network of support. We are expanding our programme of theatre to include music, amongst other things, within artistic the programme out patrons are figureheads but ideally, they are individuals through which younger audiences can come through the doors and share an affinity with. I must admit I did get a load of text messages after the announcement: Craig David – exclamation mark, exclamation mark, heart emoji. Craig joins our other patron Harriet Walter, I’ve always been a huge fan of Harriett’s and she lives just outside of the city,” says Hodges.

There is a still a challenge ahead, though, as he says “It’s not always about saying what you want – it’s about delivering what we said we would. One of our main focuses and priorities has been putting together a team that works for what we want to achieve. Which I think we have done. I feel immensely proud of all of our staff.”

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE TRAILER OF THE SHADOW FACTORY

The Shadow Factory runs at the NST City, Southampton from 16 February to 3 March.

Box Office 023 8067 1771

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Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse, Adam Penford: ‘Gender balance is fascinating.’

Nottingham Playhouse’s new artistic director – he started full time last November–  Adam Penford likes his colourful socks. What socks is he wearing today? “Purple pink and yellow; not unlike my Christmas socks,” he laughs.

But where did he purchase those festive socks on display in a recent rehearsal photo? “They were from Marks and Spencer’s,” he laughs louder.

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Wonderland Rehearsals – Photo credit Darren Bell

We are talking ahead of the first run through of Nottingham-born playwright Beth Steel’s 2014 play, Wonderland. Her dad worked at Welbeck Colliery as a miner. It is a story set in the pits in 1983 during Thatcher’s government. “The lads are ready to get on stage,” he says. “It’s a complicated show… There are over thirty scenes. We are rehearsing in the former Barton’s Bus Garage because the set is so epic we couldn’t find a space big enough in the city centre to accommodate us,” Penford says.

Which makes Wonderland all the more welcome. It is representing the vital modern history of the local community on stage with compassion. His first show at Nottingham Playhouse includes actor Chris Ashby who previously played the lead The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and was cast through the Playhouse open auditions. “It was something that we consciously set out to do when casting the play,” Penford says. “I’m fortunate to have such a brilliant all-male ensemble, they have a real camaraderie on stage and off stage. Just over half of the cast are from the local region; two are from the North East, and Joshua Glenister who was a member of Nottingham Playhouse Youth Theatre. Most of the company have truly personal connections to the coal mine.”

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Adam is a modest fellow. I ask him how he is getting on in his new role. “It’s interesting: there is no school,” he explains. “There are obviously a lot of similarities to being a freelance theatre director that come with the job, but it isn’t the same. You take comfort from the fact that previous artistic directors have all had to learn on the job. There is a massive support network of artistic directors that ring each other up for advice or guidance – not many people know about – that’s been really useful.”

What are his key priorities going forward? “Audience development, in terms of numbers and diversifying audiences,” he adds. “I’m hoping by programming work by artists like Mufaro Makubika a play set during the 1958 race riots in Nottingham in a historically working-class area of inner city Nottingham and set against the race riots will engage new and hard to reach audiences.”

In the era of Time’s Up and #MeToo, which strives for better treatment for all, especially women, Penford is aiming for a 50/50 gender split. “Gender balance is fascinating,” he begins. “It is something that I am certainly very sensitive to and aware of when I begin programming. We will be doing gender-blind casting for the next show that I’m directing; Holes which is a stage adaptation of Louis Sachar’s novel and I am delighted that we have Kindertransport by Diane Samuels and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker which boast a fully integrated cast and creative team of disabled and non-disabled practitioners and is a co-production with Ramps on the Moon. So, it feels like a varied season featuring inclusive work by three female playwrights in my first season.”

How will he cater to his audience’s wide-ranging tastes? “You can’t please everybody. I knew that I wanted to do a musical in my first season,” Penford says. Regional theatre is facing colossal local authority cuts which make it harder to take artistic risks. But Penford isn’t going to let that limit his ambitions. “We hadn’t produced a lead produced a musical at Nottingham Playhouse for 18 years, I knew it needed to be a well-known title. We are a 750-seater venue and that it is a substantial amount of tickets to sell.”

“The fact that Sweet Charity has a female protagonist was appealing to me. It felt natural to offer Bill Buckhurst – the genius behind the pie and mash shop Sweeney Todd the opportunity to direct. I’m also really excited that Alistair David will choreograph and we are about to announce further casting for the role of Charity soon.”

Who is playing Charity? “I can’t say,” he says, laughing.

Come on give me a scoop, I say. “Ok… She is amazing,” he says.

Wonderland runs from Friday 9 February 2018 through to Saturday 24 February 2018.

 

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

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

Jez Bond – © Piers Foley Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sir Ian McKellen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Park Theatre’s 2018 Season is on sale now 

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

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

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Neil McPherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Finborough’s 2018 season is now on sale 

 

Coverage of the above interview in The Stage

Coverage of the above interview in The Stage

 

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

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

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Jeremy Herrin

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

Never mind.

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

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

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Martin Freeman & Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love

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

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

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

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Ann Marie-Duff in Common

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Junkyard

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

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

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