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Manchester International Festival 2021 / Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

On reading the words ‘Manchester International Festival’, you know you’re in for quite the experience. I mean, it’s not everyday you get the opportunity to attend a biennial international arts festival, during a pandemic, with a specific focus on original new work.

There is more free, outdoor public art than ever before and the city is alive with accessible, vibrant and exciting art. So with some degree of excitement, I made my way to Manchester last week, and here are some things I experienced.

First up, an impressive 42m (138ft) sculpture replica of Big Ben has crash landed in Piccadily Gardens. ‘Big Ben Lying Down With Books’ – the UK’s biggest participatory art spectacle in years – has been created by Argentine artist Marta Minujin and is covered in 12,000 politically-themed books. I fully immersed myself in this impressive and quirky statement on Brexit, disillusionment and democracy. Brilliant – and – free.

Marta Minujin’s sculpture is called Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books

The Arndale shopping centre, meanwhile, has been turned into a makeshift art gallery for Cephas Williams’ Portraits of Black Britain, which features giant banners showing high-achieving black Britons. Powerful stuff.

Playing to a socially distanced, masked audience may not be every singer’s dream but Arlo Parks gig at the cavernous Manchester Central was a performance of stunning tenderness.

Arlo Parks at Manchester Central

For the last six songs, Royal Northern College of Music string players joined Parks on stage to enrich the songs and add layers of heartfelt nuance. Parks – a 20-year old London singer-songwriter-poet bagged the Brit award this year for best new artist. She expresses herself with a rare lightness of touch on her remarkable debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. Pure joy.

Elsewhere, Cloud Studies at the seriously trendy Whitworth Art Gallery just out of town features clouds being considered by Forensic Architecture as toxic. This gripping exhibition explores the various ways in which the air – far from being neutral or free – is witness to a lopsided world.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the first phase of an investigation on environmental racism in an area known as ‘Cancer Alley’. In a US region heavily populated with petrochemical facilities, majority-Black communities, the descendants were historically enslaved on those very lands, today contain the most toxic air in the country.

Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies at the Whitworth Art Gallery.

MIF has also commissioned choreographer Akram Khan to produce a stylish and moving 17 minute short film. Breathless Puppets is a 17-minute animation co-created by Khan and animator, writer and director Naaman Azhari.

This brilliant animation utilises retroscope technology; basically whereby a live action is sketched over to give a constantly moving, line-drawn aesthetic. Breathless Puppets tells the story of a young man called Nicholas who wants to be a dancer, despite his family urging him to go into medicine. 

Manchester’s beautifully restored Central Library played host to ‘I Love You Too,” This project featured Eleven Manchester-based writers that collaborated with participants, putting their words to page and composing love letters that reflected and reinterpreted the individuals. Furthermore, together with the publication, the stunning domed Reading Room played host an exhibition of Wa Lehulere’s new sculpture, created especially for the space.

Conceived with the intention of creating a global love library, “I Love You Too” marked the beginning of a new series – one that’s set to become an international encyclopaedia of devotion.

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

I was delighted to snag a ticket to the raggedly charming “Bloody Elle” at the Royal Exchange. It has reopened with Lauryn Redding’s emotional, wild and honest ‘gig musical’. This gauche kitchen-sink theatre is smart in its portrayal of a queer love story. Right on.

Bryony Shanahan’s supple solo production makes the most of the in-the round setting of the main space – it feels like a epic late-night show at Roundabout at Summerhall during Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The songs are spry and melodic with a forthrightness that is refreshing.

Bloody Elle is a ‘semi autobiographical’ show that is simultaneously confessional, sprawling and occasionally indulgent.

It moves in the course of the evening from noise to quietness, from non-stop crassness to moments of musical tenderness and expressive gesture. Admittedly, it is all a bit drawn out, and could do with losing 30 minutes, but it is often a perky evening and during these Difficult Times, well worth the effort.

A very pleasant surprise. 

Manchester International Festival runs until Sunday 18 July

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical runs until 17 July

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Guest Blog – The Mono Box: “Our industry cannot and will not evolve without investment in new talent.”

The Mono Box has always prided itself on supporting freelancers creatively – providing opportunities that are lacking or less accessible in the industry. For 8 years, we have run workshops and events for actors, directors and writers as well as, more recently, designers and movement directors. Training never stops but we also prioritise the importance of community in an industry that can feel incredibly lonely and inaccessible. 

This became more crucial than ever from March 2020 as we watched our industry fall to its knees. We were forced to re-evaluate our careers and our lives, to step back and notice all the gaping problems we’d let slide for so long. Tweets, articles and blog posts were thrown around about a utopian post-pandemic vision for theatre. Promises were made that have yet to come to fruition…

photo credit Helen Murray  

We have always championed new voices and formalised this through a new writing scheme called PLAYSTART which has run for 3 successive years (2017-2019). After the events of last summer, and in response to the lack of opportunities for emerging talent during Covid-19, we got to work. We invested in 7 ethnically diverse writers from PLAYSTART, offering them what we knew was crucial in building a career: a commission, mentorship and a platform for their work. It is notoriously hard to crack that ceiling without someone paying you to do what you do best, and someone else who is several steps ahead of you career-wise providing a guiding light. Our industry cannot and will not evolve without investment in new talent. 

We were keen to not only keen to put our money where our mouth is in terms of supporting emerging creatives, but also to discover a way to adapt theatre-making to the current global restrictions and advancing marriage of theatre and film. As we were locked in our homes, theatre had to adapt and enter people’s living rooms and kitchens. Amidst the “it’s not the same” grumbles, we also quickly realised that this format was providing access to audience numbers we only dream of. 

And so RESET THE STAGE was born. A collection of 7 filmed monologues responding boldly to where we are as an industry and where we could be, if we committed to platforming – nationally and internationally – more diverse voices, bodies and stories.

In addition to the mentorship from leading playwrights including Duncan Macmillan, Alice Birch, Lucy Prebble and Theresa Ikoko, we provided the writers with actors, a theatre and a film crew to help realise their vision. All in lockdown, when the theatres were empty.

The pieces have been directed by Roberta Zuric (part of The Mono Box’s PLAYSTART 2018) and was mentored by Ned Bennett

CYNTHIA by Vivian Xie Stills ; Starring Isabella Laughland ; Directed by Roberta Zuric ; Director of Photography: Fẹ́mi Awójídé ; First Camera Assist: Stephen Ofori ; Sound Recordist: Luise Guertler ; Stills Photographer: Helen Murray ; Gaffer: TC Thomas ; Producer: Joan Iyiola & Alison Holder ; Co-Producer: Miles Sloman Reset The Stage ; Monobox ; Soho Theatre ; London, UK ; 30th March 2021 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

7 stellar actors jumped on board with all guns blazing and delivered mesmerising and incredibly nuanced performances: Shane Zaza, Ken Nwosu, Thalissa Teixeira, Danny Kirrane, Isabella Laughland, Sharon Duncan-Brewster and our own co-AD Joan Iyiola. We paired them up with one of our partner venues – Arcola, Almeida, Bush, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Soho Theatre, Southwark Playhouse, Young Vic – all who passionately committed to the project’s ethos and offered invaluable support.

The films within RESET THE STAGE have been achieved to an exceptionally high standard, by a small but mighty team. We are so excited to share them with the world and to show what can happen when new voices are given a platform to showcase their work.

The films launched on 17th June to outstanding feedback and a brilliant 4* review from WhatsOnStage lauding the project’s beautiful outcome and bold response to our industry’s perilous state. 

Screening repeated 1 to 3 July and tickets are on sale now

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British Theatre Is Facing A Covid Tragedy

July 2021. UK Theatres are in limbo. By now, of course, you know the latest facts, because you live in them. 

In no particular order, over 62% of British adults are now fully vaccinated. And 84% have had one dose.

A new production of Jersey Boys is set to begin at the Trafalgar theatre next month

But the Indian or Delta variant (which is ultra-infectious, so infectious that one person may infect up to six others) has resulted in the UK having the highest infection rate in Europe. New research suggests ‘scarily fleeting’ contact could infect, and that places with high jab rates are susceptible.

Fortunately, we now have one of the lowest death rates because of the astounding vaccine programme. Indeed, now stadiums, shopping centres and theatres have joined the “grab a jab” campaign in England in a bid to boost vaccine uptake.

However, even by late August, only 39 per cent of under-40s are set to have been fully vaccinated, opening a generational divide and zero chance of foreign summer travel should vaccine passports become a thing. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock may have resigned but his successor Sajid Javid has his hands full with an NHS struggling to cope with a vast backlog of operations, treatment and surging cases.

Either way, according to the latest official figures, more arts, entertainment and recreation businesses were still suffering last month than in any other industry.

Felicity Kendall & Sutton Foster in Anything Goes rehearsals

But the show must go on, right? Major West End shows including Anything Goes and The Lion King have started rehearsals, with more set to follow; contracts have been signed, audiences have rebooked tickets (as many as four times) and the consequences of another delay beyond July 19 are unthinkable.

The pandemic has exposed the Tory government’s insulting attitude to theatre: a mixture of apathy and hostility. Despite generating billions pre-pandemic, London theatre owners and impresarios for example, claim regularly they are now “on the brink of ruin”.

Speaking to the Telegraph, Howard Panter – owner of the second-largest operator, Trafalgar Entertainment, said the situation in the West End was “intolerable”.

In the meantime, tempers (and sanity) are fraying; Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Sonia Friedman launched legal action to force government to publish Events Research Programme pilot results.

A masked usher awaits The Mousetrap audiences

A stretch of the imagination that might have dumbfounded me pre-pandemic, but Lloyd Webber certainly seemed to be speaking from the heart when he went on LBC recently: “Public Health England officials don’t have a clue about theatre and how they’re operated. We’ve somehow been made a sacrificial lamb.”

Alas, the long awaited report – which was released promptly after a Court order – said there were “no substantial outbreaks” identified by public health teams and their surveillance systems around any of the events.

Unfortunately, it also demonstrated that the testing regime of the Events Research Programme was pointless and incompetent, meaning it clear the government is repeating their own mistakes at a colossal cost to everyone else.

But weary theatres still need insurance to safeguard against the possibility of Covid-based cancellation, however the pandemic means that the private market will not provide it. This would help thousands of freelancers return to the industry and reassure producers, venues and artists alike.


The major issue for theatres from the West End to Liverpool Everyman is that rehearsals, preparation and planning take months not weeks and often costs thousands and thousands of pounds, and the current question marks hanging around hospitality and entertainment venues are making such work impossible or loss-making. Regional theatres dependent on income from tours will lose the very shows that might help them survive.

Temperature checks outside a west end theatre

Of course, Slytherin Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden would refer to the generous £1.5bn culture recovery fund, even if the rescue funds left the actual freelance workforce – musicians, photographers, actors, artists, dancers, choreographers, designers out in the cold. In fact hundreds of cultural organisations have still not received promised funds leaving some worse off than when they applied.  

The delaying of Step Four of the road map is a final straw for many: confidence in reopening has been shattered, despite the vast sums invested in venues to restrict Covid transmission. The creative sector must now be allowed to cautiously trade their way – at full capacity – out of difficulties and contribute to our national recovery.

It is completely stupefying that we have spent 66 weeks being told to “take responsibility” and “use common sense” by a government religiously incapable of either.

Anyway, July 19 is yet another ‘not before date’ and this week came rumblings of future winter lockdowns amid warnings from scientists. So, don’t rule out another delay to the ‘cautious but irreversible’ easing of lockdown restrictions. In fact, don’t rule out restrictions being completely ditched before a murderous third wave, subsequent U-turn and more mutant strains.

Frankly I’m not sure we will ever reconcile the impact that Covid, Brexit and the ‘streaming economy’ are having on the sector in my lifetime.

Continuing to allow galleries, art centres, opera, communities, theatres and independent cinemas to wither away is an act of profound cultural vandalism.

A socially distanced audience at the London Palladium

Hell, if a whole generation of talent goes to the wall, no one wins, the whole country will be poorer for it.

Something’s got to change. Fast.

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Northern Stage artistic director Natalie Ibu interview: “I want more dialogue and less monologue.”

Natalie Ibu

Northern Stage’s newish artistic director Natalie Ibu – who took up her post in the middle of the pandemic – has impressed with her inclusive strides since taking up post in November 2020; during the second national lockdown. 

It’s true that Ibu has undeniably put the work in. But for all she has already achieved in her first year, I sense she is only just getting started. It has, in this industry, been a challenging time. Is being an artistic director in a pandemic fulfilling? “I love artists, and I love being a facilitator,” she says simply.

“I enjoy being able to say ‘yes’ and making things happen. The pandemic has certainly been challenging to my confidence. You know, there’s something about going back into a room and reminding yourself you can still do your job – I am fortunate to be able to do this in such a creative and rich region.” 

Natalie Ibu photo credit Christopher Owens

She continues: “There’s something specific about joining in a historic pandemic; I don’t yet have a memory of this building; I don’t have a memory of these audiences.” 

Ibu has also announced further plans for Housewarming, the autumn season at the theatre, which includes neighbourhood events this month, a series of performances in pop-up venues in July and August and will see the building reopen on August 25 with a Northern Stage and Unfolding Theatre co-production, co-created with kids.

Natalie will direct a new production of Jim Cartwright’s Road for her first show as artistic director of Northern Stage. It is, she says, the “dream play” for her to direct as the inaugural show for Northern Stage. 

“It’s with Road that I found my vision as a director at university,” she says with a smile. “I love the fact this play will not be contained by a proscenium arch; it is sprawling, it spills out into the interval and pre-show. Road is about the stuff that matters, it’s about protest, community, living for the weekend and dreams, all things we have been reminded of that we have missed during this period.” 

It opens in October, and will be designed by Amelia Jane Hankin, with lighting by Zoe Spurr and movement by Nadia Iftkhar.

Paines Plough’s Roundabout will also pop up in Byker during August and will present the company’s touring programme alongside community and performance work from Northern Stage.

Furthermore, Northern Stage will continue digital access to work, and will programme socially distanced performances once full capacities are permitted, restoring audience confidence delicately expanding possibilities and audiences. 

Natalie Ibu photo credit: Christopher Owens

We are talking in the week of a four-week delay to the final stage of easing lockdown restrictions in England: Andrew Lloyd Webber recently backed down over his threat to reopen his theatres without social distancing after being warned his entire staff and the audience could have been fined hundreds of pounds each.

So, would she be prepared to break the law and risk arrest for theatre? “No,” she says firmly. “One: because I dislike breaking rules and two: we’re talking about people’s health here… I love theatre but it is certainly not worth people dying over.” 

The serious challenges facing arts freelancers leave a mixed picture for the future of British theatre. Looking ahead to two years from now, how does she want the industry to be different? “So much has been lost and cannot be regained,” she says with a sigh. “I want more dialogue and less monologue.”

She is also clear about what she wants to achieve: “I want to see a more front-footed approach to theatre being essential to people’s lives and I want a better understanding of our collective civic purpose, to acknowledge our role as civic players. I want us to fight for our audiences and our place on the cultural menu,” says Ibu. 

Ibu, who was previously artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi, a company dedicated to championing black British narratives, says she hopes we collectively “realise the need for new and different leaders that engage new and different workforces and artists that are able to speak to new and different audiences.” She seems like precisely the artist she wants to be, precisely making the art she wants to make, delivering it on precisely her own terms. 

The lack of diversity in the British theatre industry is an issue on which she is vocal. “The truth is, diversity just means difference,” is how Natalie puts it. “Difference is excellence and makes the pursuit of excellence richer, right?”

“Because diversity starts at the top, I am worried about how we look after those different leaders that we brought into these institutions in recent years and how they sustain their energy during this time. I am certainly worried about the unique set of challenges ahead for new artistic directors who are different, and as we rebuild and reopen,” says Ibu. 

She pauses then adds: “I am apprehensive about whether the sector will use this opportunity that it has been given decisively and properly.” 

Tickets for shows start from £10 and go on general sale from 1 July, with pre-sale tickets available to Northern Stage members and supporters from 24 June. 

For more details and full listings visit northernstage.co.uk

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Manchester International Festival 2021 programme announced

Manchester International Festival (MIF), returns from 1-18 July with a vibrant programme of original new work from across the spectrum of visual and performing arts and music by artists from over 20 countries.

The reasonably amazing lineup includes Angélique Kidjo, Akram Khan, Arlo Parks, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Boris Charmatz, Cerys Matthews, Christine Sun Kim, Cillian Murphy, Deborah Warner, Forensic Architecture, Ibrahim Mahama, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Laure Prouvost, Marta Minujín, Lemn Sissay and Patti Smith

  • Events will take place safely in indoor and outdoor locations across Greater Manchester, including the first ever work on the construction site of The Factory, the landmark cultural space that will be MIF’s future home
  • A rich online offer will provide a window into the Festival wherever audiences are, including livestreams and work created especially for the digital realm
  • With almost all the work created in the past year, MIF21 provides a unique snapshot of these unprecedented times. Artists have reflected on ideas such as love and human connections, the way we play, division and togetherness, equality and social change, and the relationship between the urban and the rural
  • For the first time, the curation of the Festival’s talks and discussions programme has been handed over to local people, building on MIF’s work involving the community as artistic collaborators and participants in work shaped by them
  • Festival Square returns in new location Cathedral Gardens with a packed programme of food, drink and free live music, DJs and more
  • As one of the first major public events in the city, MIF21 will play a key role in the safe reopening of the city’s economy and provide employment for hundreds of freelancers and artists
  • Much of the programme will be free to attend, with more work than ever in public spaces around the city

People sitting outside in the sunshine at tables in MIF's pop-up Festival Square in Manchester

Headshot of John McGrath

John McGrath, the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of MIF.

Manchester International Festival Artistic Director & Chief Executive, John McGrath says: “MIF has always been a Festival like no other – with almost all the work being created especially for us in the months and years leading up to each Festival edition.  But who would have guessed two years ago what a changed world the artists making work for our 2021 Festival would be working in?”

“I am thrilled to be revealing the projects that we will be presenting from 1-18 July this year – a truly international programme of work made in the heat of the past year and a vibrant response to our times. Created with safety and wellbeing at the heart of everything, it is flexible to ever-changing circumstances, and boldly explores both real and digital space.

“We hope MIF21 will provide a time and place to reflect on our world now, to celebrate the differing ways we can be together, and to emphasise, despite all that has happened, the importance of our creative connections – locally and globally.”

Hop along to the MIF official website from from Thurs 20 May 2021 if you’re interested

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Red Ladder Theatre Company’s Rod Dixon: “Touring companies can entice people back into the theatre to enjoy shows with a strong local relevance.”

Homebaked

Guest blog by Rod Dixon

For fifty-three years, Red Ladder has taken real stories of struggle and transformed them into theatre shows. Our productions typically blend comedy and live music with politics and debate while avoiding polemic and finger wagging. We make plays that invite you to lean in, identify, punch the air, laugh with the stranger next to you, cry in the dark, and want to take action.

Rod Dixon, artistic director Red Ladder

Rod Dixon, artistic director Red Ladder

Homebaked – The Musical is a typical example of this. Our new show, which we are making in partnership with Liverpool’s Royal Court, is based on the true story behind the city’s famous bakery. Seeing their streets being demolished and their neighbours facing evictions from property developers and landlords, a group of local people in Anfield fought back by forming a community land trust that managed to buy the last remaining terrace and the neighbourhood bakery.

Nine years later, the community-run bakery sells high quality bread and pies with names like the Scouse Pie and The Shankly. The profits of this community-run business are being ploughed back into the community in order to refurbish a whole terrace of houses which will then be available for locals to rent at very affordable rates. This is the complete antithesis of the kinds of gentrification of an area which is happening in most major cities.

 The story behind the Homebaked bakery and Community Land Trust is incredibly inspiring; a real show of working-class resilience, pride and the power of people pulling together and refusing to bow down to bullies. It is a perfect material on which to create a new musical: the underdog rising up and using new skills to grow and thrive.

Boff Whalley and Rod Dixon, Homebaked - The Musical

Boff Whalley and Rod Dixon, Homebaked – The Musical

Written by Boff Whalley, who was a founder member of the band Chumbawamba, Homebaked – The Musical is stuffed full of catchy songs, spirited characters, and has all the promise of a Liverpudlian Made in Dagenham or Billy Elliot.

Everyone is getting cramp as we cross our fingers with the announcement of Homebaked. Like all of our colleague in the arts we’ve had a very challenging year which has included postponing two tours of new plays to theatres and our Red Ladder Local circuit of community venues.

After a whole year of stand-still in the theatre industry many theatre buildings have a back-log of projects which they have postponed. The log-jam puts pressure on everybody, but it particularly places touring companies such as ourselves in danger of being squeezed out of programmes. A close partnership between touring companies and buildings is vital if theatre is to continue to broaden its audience reach and wonderful variety of offer.

Royal Court Liverpool shares our enthusiasm for this new project; As a co-production, it is a match made in heaven. The Red Ladder audience is very similar to the regular attendees at the Royal Court, bringing in people who maybe don’t identify as typical theatre-goers, but who love a noisy, fun night out, oiled by a pint or three.

On announcing the news that we are creating Homebaked – The Musical, we received an incredible show of support. Appropriately for a show about a bakery, the tickets are selling like hot cakes. It’s proof that there is appetite for this true-life story of hard graft, hope and pies, and for theatre after this challenging year.

It will take several years to overcome the effects of the pandemic lockdown but touring companies working in partnership with building-based organisations, can entice people back into the theatre to enjoy shows with a strong local relevance.

 

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From staplers to potatoes – it’s monster producer Scott Rudin

To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on that gut instinct of right and wrong, it is a timeless classic.

By way of a recap, Broadway producer Scott Rudin is accused of assaulting employees in a devastating new Hollywood Reporter exposé.

One of the most harrowing accounts involved Rudin, 62, smashing an Apple computer monitor on an assistant’s hand. Yup.

Scott Rudin

Scott Rudin

Meanwhile, to the audible shock of those who work in theatre, Rudin is also accused of throwing a glass bowl at someone from his HR department. It missed and shattered against the wall. Thank goodness.

For context, Rudin’s theatre projects extend into Broadway reopening, with a revival of The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman.

Along with co-producers Sonia Friedman and Barry Diller, Rudin is due to bring To Kill a Mockingbird to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End in March 2022.

Admittedly, Rudin joins the long list of high profile industry figures who believe it is their right to abuse their power.

Some revelations to the story, though, have really bothered me.

Worse was to come: one of those who has spoken out is the brother of a former assistant to Rudin who tragically committed suicide. 

Just awful.

“Every day was exhausting and horrific,” a former assistant, who worked for Rudin from 2018–2019, recalled.

“Not even the way he abused me, but watching the way he abused the people around me who started to become my very close friends. You’re spending 14 hours a day with the same people, enduring the same abuse. It became this collective bond with these people.”

Bullying is a repeated pattern of abuse of power designed to dominate those perceived as inferior, as weaker. Side affects include depression, anxiety, panic attacks – it’s a major risk factor for mental health.

Also, a former assistant claims that Rudin “relished in the cruelty” and “hundreds and hundreds of people have suffered” from his behaviour.

Other details? He fired someone for having diabetes, threw potatoes at someone’s head and reportedly assaulted staff, sending colleagues to the hospital twice.

Needless to say, leading figures are betraying their status by not making a stronger stand against these shocking revelations.

Ultimately, this is not restricted or confined to Scott. This happens everywhere.

I have been through this kind of experience myself; as a child, I was assaulted, and it is one of the things that motivated me to speak out when things are not right. Unfortunately, my own career has never been short of abusers, monsters and egomaniacs.

As for the wider implications of this scandal for Broadway and beyond, it would be easy to get carried away. On the other hand, you certainly wouldn’t rule him out making some sort of return in due course.

In 2014, Page Six ran an article about Rudin: “The Man Known as Hollywood’s Biggest A-hole,”that alleged that Rudin had pushed assistants out of moving cars and fired assistants for bringing him the wrong muffin, mispronouncing names, and, at least in one instance, having to attend a funeral.

Unfortunately, Rudin is still today boosted by enablers who looked the other way or ignored these rumours, allowing accusations to remain an “open secret” for years.

In 2018, he was making history with Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill A Mocking Bird, which shattered an 118 year record by earning more than $1.5 million in one week.

For those wondering when things will die down, I spoke to a made-up theatre scientist who calculated that moment will come at the precise second that anti-Rudin coverage stops grossing more than Rudin productions in 2022.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

Like Kevin Spacey before him, it will be hard to believe the frightful bollocks about those “not knowing” spouted by rich and powerful colleagues. 

The industry silence about this alleged physical abuse and personality faults of Rudin are unforgivable, yet easily explained. They depend on him for their income. 

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Good Friday? Culture Recovery Fund – Round 2

God, I miss theatre.

Today, more than 2,700 arts organisations have been supported in the latest tranche of Culture Recovery Fund money, totalling £400 million.

Indeed, in his Budget in March, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a further £300m for the fund, which is yet to be allocated.

The government said 70% of today’s funding was being distributed outside London.  The big plus point here was that more than 1,200 organisations received support from the emergency arts funding scheme for the first time.

The funding includes £81m in loans including £4.25m to Saddler’s Wells and £7.3m to The Lowry in Salford.

I hope you have been paying attention. Because the thing about this government is that it moved with the same speed and grace rescuing the cultural sector in 2020 as that container ship which got wedged in the Suez Canal.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said thousands of organisations had had help to “survive the biggest crisis they’ve ever faced.”

He added: “Now we’re staying by their side as they prepare to welcome the public back – helping our cultural gems plan for reopening and thrive in better times ahead.”

Of course, it is still sinister that the government is forcing arts venues across the country to publicly sing its praises once again.

Slytherin Oliver Dowden at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Slytherin Oliver Dowden at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

I’m also obsessed with the fact that Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) which runs more than 30 UK venues, will receive almost £1m. 

Bizarrely, a number of organisations owned by extremely wealthy individuals will receive taxpayer handouts.

And last month five cases of fraud were discovered among Culture Recovery Fund applications that led to a number of award offers being withdrawn, a report by the National Audit Office claimed; some applicants were awarded funding “significantly in excess” of their income the previous year.

Anyway, let us not forget that theatres played an important role in communities everywhere pre-2020. More than 34 million people attend theatres in the UK each year, generating £1.28 billion in ticket revenue.

And lo. Theatres are allowed to reopen on May 17  for socially distanced performances – this will be a hugely welcome first step.

All eyes are on June 21 as set out in the UK Government’s roadmap, later this summer for all restrictions being dropped.  Let’s see.

But there is still the small issue of ongoing mutations, vaccine passports and testing. This will be key to reopening all of society.

However…

The idea of forcing people to show vaccine passports to enter theatres and concerts is likely to be counterproductive and is literally not a good idea.

Dowden said on Andrew Marr recently that more pilots would begin from the middle of April to look at things like ventilation, one-way systems and tests on how the virus spreads at indoor and outdoors.

PILOTS?!

At best, then, the success of the vaccine rollout and the better weather in the summer months will be vital factors.

The big institutions may today be safe, but the talented freelance workforce who set the stage alight are largely self-employed and have been hung out to dry.

Thanks, Oliver. Thanks for everything.

Full list of performing arts organisations given CRF money in round two

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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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Our Voice – Arts Professional


Our Voice – an autobiographical theatre project for young Traveller girls-  is the most important thing that I have have done.

Despite the restrictions that the pandemic posed, we came together to deliver this female artist-led project and look forward to when we can create live theatre from these special stories together again. 

As theatre braces itself for the challenges ahead, it is time to talk about communities that we as a sector have excluded for too long.

Bryony Kimmings

Bryony Kimmings

The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, has meaningful and long-standing relationships with local Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities. Our Voice is a programme funded by Lancaster University and is free to all who take part. It aims to engage with young GRT people and their families and highlight available learning and career opportunities for them.

Originally intended to be in-person participation activities, these lively virtual workshops have been taking place throughout the lockdowns. They utilise drama and storytelling classes to share the rich culture and distinct histories of young traveller girls, especially those with little engagement or confidence when it comes to culture….

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