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Time to Act photographer Simon Annand: “This country’s main strength is culture.”

The cast of Hairspray, Shaftesbury Theatre, 2009

Theatre photographer Simon Annand has been capturing actors backstage for almost forty years. His latest book, Time to Act, is a collection of 234 portrait photographs, taken over the last 10 years, of some of the world’s greatest performers.

All the emotions from the theatre are captured within these pages and remind us what we have all been missing.

Annand’s point of view remains constant, his camera capturing the slightest shifts in mood and expression from dressing room to dressing room.

Speaking on Zoom from his home Annand tells me where the idea for Time To Act came from. “This book is out there to support artists and to encourage people to remember what it was like, and what we hope it will continue to be like again in the future,” he says.

Cate Blanchett, The Present, Ethel Barrymore theater, New York, 2017

He is chatty and philosophical company, some of these photos make up a virtual exhibition. This will be re-hung to show a changing selection of photographs from the collection together with a commentary on the images.

“I have three strands of my work, one is production photography, one is dressing room stuff and the other is headshots,” he says.

“The headshots are very different as they are a tool to give the actor to get the attention of casting directors, which reflect the allowance of key scenes and good scripts. So, they have to have the authority in their face to tell the story.”

With Time to Act, Annand explores the fascinating notion of vulnerability. An intimate and meditative, but never intrusive series of portraits of stars backstage.

“Each actor has their own unique way of spending time before curtain-up. It varies from inhabiting the character at all times, to the opposite, holding the fictional character back and releasing it at the last minute before entering the stage.”

A deceptively simple photobook that comprises of over 200 performers, Annand’s portraits have a sense of suspended time, as if the subtext of the subjects remain somehow elusive despite the deep fascination, he feels for them.

James Earl Jones, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Novello Theatre, 2010

“I’m not trying to catch them out. A photographer only finds what he or she is looking for,” Annand explains.

One close-up snap in Time to Act sees James Earl Jones before taking to the stage in the 2010 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Novello Theatre.

“I walked into that dressing room and that is what he was doing. He has size 16 feet, so when I came through the door, all I saw was those feet and he was flat out with a big fat cigar between his teeth and he said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t tell my doctor.”

In another close-up picture, David Suchet checks the mirror as he prepares to mesmerise audiences as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Vaudeville Theatre in 2015.

“You know, it was a bold and brave choice for David to go from Poirot to Lady Bracknell,” he says, smiling.

David Suchet, The Importance of Being Earnest, Vaudeville Theatre, 2015

“That role was completely on his level. The photo really conveys him in his own terms; it is his agenda – I waited until he had his makeup and costume almost complete but he’s still in the dressing room so there’s still this unique element of him being David Suchet.”

“I suppose I am looking for the relationship that performers have with themselves, and their fictional characters,” Annand says.

Theatres from Shetland to the West End closed in March to slow the spread of Covid-19 with no date set for when venues can fully reopen as England continues to endure a second national lockdown.

“This country’s main strength is culture,” he says, exasperated.

Simon Annand, (credit: Snežana Popović)

“The problem is that the government is not sufficiently helping the thousands and thousands of freelance workers that our precious creative culture depends on,” says Annand, who is making a donation from the sale of every book in the UK to The Theatre Artists Fund.

What does he feel makes a great photograph? “It goes back to being strong and open – what I’m trying to avoid is fancy lenses or a fancy composition. A good photograph allows the viewer to hang their own story onto it.”

Time to Act is out now and the Time to Act: a virtual exhibition will run until Christmas. 

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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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Death of a Salesman, Sharon D Clarke: “There is space for us to tell the stories that we want to tell – not just the stories we feel we have to tell.”

Sharon D. Clarke
Sharon D. Clarke hasn’t changed. That is, admittedly, something of a loaded statement. Obviously, she has changed. This year cemented her as UK theatre’s biggest superstar. Whether it is musical or play she always delivers the goods.

Earlier this year, Sharon received acclaim for her Linda Loman in Marianne Elliott’s and Miranda Cromwell’s sell-out revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. This Loman family is black, which casts their drudgery in pre-civil rights American in a whole different light. She stars alongside Wendell Pierce as husband Willy Loman.

Her CV is prolific on stage and screen; with appearances on Doctor Who and Holby City as well as stints in The Lion King (as Rafiki) and We Will Rock You (originating the role of Killer Queen). Furthermore, in 2014 she won an Olivier Award for James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at the National Theatre. In 2017 she picked up an MBE.

And earlier this year, she won one of the most coveted Oliviers: Best Actress in a Musical for playing the lead in the glorious revival of Tony Kushner’s civil rights musical Caroline, or Change – first at Chichester, Hampstead and then in the West End. She also found time to star in Blues in the Night at Kiln Theatre.

Sharon D Clarke, Blues in the Night –photo by Matt Humphrey

Sharon D Clarke, Blues in the Night –photo by Matt Humphrey

We are talking on the phone, Sharon is in her dressing room at the Piccadily Theatre, London where she is embarking on a 10-week run. The first question I ask, though, is a reference to her recent appearance in Elton John biopic Rocketman:

What were you like as a child, Sharon? She bursts out laughing. “As a child?” Clarke says slowly. “Chatty. I was a very sociable child. My school report actually said: ‘would do better if talked less.’ I was the child that other people came to with their problems; I was the girl in the loos telling the other girls that they were actually having a period. Problem solver, outspoken and lively.”

Clarke brings bluesy, fragile heartbreak to her Linda. How would she describe the character? “Linda’s all-consuming love for her husband is her biggest weakness and her biggest strength. From a woman’s point of view, she’s dealing with three very immature men: Willy and her two sons Biff and Happy. She’s also fighting to keep her family together.”

“These are the types of roles that I would have never had been seen for historically”, she insists. “To be able to get inside this play; a seminal piece of American literature, is a privilege. The way I see it is that Lynda is the glue within the family, her drive is supporting her husband because he’s not able to support himself emotionally and her concern for him keeps her going. She’s terrified for him every time he leaves the house. But I would say that she’s a very strong, ferociously loyal and loving wife and mother,” Clarke says.

Death of a Salesman in the West End Rehearsals - Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Death of a Salesman in the West End Rehearsals – Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

I ask what question people ask her most when she talks about this Death of a Salesman, produced by Elliott & Harper, Cindy Tolan and The Young Vic. “I would say nearly everyone asks me what difference does it make through the eyes of an African American family? How does it change the show? In answer to that question, it absolutely heightens and deepens the words,” she explains. “There are more things that leap out of Miller’s text that make more sense. For example when Willy demands his bit on the side to go back into the bathroom because it would have been illegal for a black man to have an affair with a white woman, Or when you’re boss who is calling you kid it takes on a different connotation – it is all representative of the glass ceiling – you look at this Loman family and from the outside they would have been doing well as they have a mortgage, a car and Willy has a job. But it would never go further as the world was never ready for that at that time.”

Death of a Salesman in the West End Rehearsals - Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Death of a Salesman in the West End Rehearsals – Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

I ask Sharon what it was like having two directors. Clarke considers this for a moment. “I wasn’t sure at first. But I found it to be a treat and a dream,” she begins. “Marianne and Miranda work on different aspects of the show and actually that works really well. For them, it’s not a new collaboration and they already have history (both worked closely on last year’s gender-swapped Company) and a unique shorthand. Sometimes they’ll finish each other’s sentences. As an actor you know that you are in safe hands with those women.”

We talk about theatre-making as a constant quest. Has Salesman taken her further along the path she needed to go? “I think every show does that. There is a whole new generation seeing this production, which is vital. It’s about finding more in your craft and discovering something that stretched you and challenges you so that you’re not jaded, or bitter and twisted,” Clarke says.

Caroline, Or Change has announced it will transfer to Broadway next year, with Clarke reprising her role. I ask her if she is excited to be making her Broadway debut. “Of course, I am,” she gasps. “Wow, that is such a wonderful opportunity and such a joy. I’m going with a show and it will be my fourth time doing it. So, it doesn’t necessarily allow me to be as nervous as I could have been,” she explains. “But I’m under this woman’s skin. I feel that I know Caroline and can do the character and that story complete justice.”

Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, or Change

Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, or Change

“What is especially exciting is Tony Kushner’s actual maid, whom Caroline is based on, is still alive and she might be able to come to see the show. That is giving me goose bumps right now just talking about it.”

Clarke is aware how rare it is for a black woman, like herself to be in a position of power in the industry, and she is determined to use her influence to tell stories that might not otherwise be heard. “I’ve been very lucky,” she says. “For me, as a performer it’s vital that we hold a mirror up to society and continue to tell these stories and there is space for us to tell the stories that we want to tell – not the stories we feel we have to tell.”

With that, it’s time for Sharon to clear off and perform for a sold-out audience at the Piccadilly. Before she goes, I ask how she stays positive in a turbulent world. “Let’s live the best lives that we can live,” Sharon decides. “Since the EU Referendum, with the ongoing uncertainty with Brexit, and especially what’s happening across the pond with the other guy…” she continues, “mankind needs to wake up. We seem to have forgotten that we’re all here sharing this planet.”

Death of a Salesman Trailer

Death of a Salesman is at the Piccadilly Theatre, London until 4 January 2020 

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British theatre’s most influential person – Architect Steve Tompkins: “We have to think in terms of maximising theatrical affect while minimising resource and energy use, in construction. All bets are off otherwise – so how do theatres show the way?”

Steve Tompkins

The prolific architect was named most influential person in British theatre but the world is in the grip of a climate emergency – and he says we all have to act.

Whenever there’s an announcement about an exciting UK Theatre building being built, redeveloped or revamped – whether it is the £45 million renovation of Grade I listed Theatre Royal Drury Lane , a pop-up community theatre in Manchester or a new commercial London venue with flexible auditorium-  it’s a fair bet that architect Steve Tompkins and his team are involved.

In the past two decades or so, Haworth Tompkins  has been responsible a number of high-profile theatre building projects including the Royal Court, the Young Vic, the Bush, and Chichester Festival Theatre. Tompkins celebrated work has also included the recent £13m rescue of Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall, which was partially destroyed in a fire, and the 2,135m £25 million refurbishment of Bristol Old Vic, one of Europe’s oldest theatres.

Bristol Old Vic Front of House

Bristol Old Vic Front of House

When I meet Tompkins, 59, he had just flown back from America.

“Well,” he begins, “I got back from the States 24 hours ago, so I am in a slightly heightened state, 100% Jet-lagged. We have a new job there, the first project in our studio that involves some flying, so we’re working out how to approach that.”

“There are two dozen projects on the book at any one time in the studio, ranging from a 1600 seat lyric house to a demountable 200 seat auditorium which can be carried from location to location – by the audience,” Tompkins tells me.

Steve Tompkins

Steve Tompkins

Earlier this year, Tompkins was named the most influential person in British Theatre, in the annual 100-strong power list, published by The Stage. Tompkins, who placed 23rd in last year’s edition, came in above prolific figures including producer Sonia Friedman and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Where was he when he got the news? “I was in the Lake District for New Year and I was running on the hills and got home to this email with a full-page mugshot,” recalls Tompkins.

And it felt like a huge thing? “I suppose it is a huge thing if you want it to be a huge thing,” he says, finding a sigh and a smile. “Last year was good with Vicky (Featherstone) – saying we are going to situate you in this spot because it allows us to talk about something arguably more interesting than the usual suspects producing fantastic shows – as they always have and they always will. I think it is interesting to adjust the levers – so that the odd outlier can come through on the rails. Choosing me, representing Haworth Tompkins, meant we can talk about the importance of theatre hardware.  I got many lovely messages from friends who are theatre designers and makers saying – fantastic – this feels like it is on behalf of all of us.”

He adds: “We’ve been trying to emphasise collective authorship, so in that sense  the personalisation of the Stage thing was a setback but this is on behalf of the whole organisation and the studio gets good acknowledgement and profile.”

Reflecting on the studio’s journey and the collective endeavour, Tompkins says: “I started the studio with my partner Graham Haworth – we did all the early thinking about what the studio should be about  –  then Roger Watts (Tompkins’ long term collaborator and now co-director)  and I took the theatre thinking forward and now we have a team of two dozen people in the performance design group– all of whom are really knowledgeable, technically far more knowledgeable than I am – and who are now building their own client relationships and running their own teams. It is high time that it is seen as not just me because it never was about just me.”

Tompkins’ first major theatre project was the transformation of the Royal Court in London. Even more remarkable considering his background was in social housing. His first theatre job, though, amuses him. “We got the job in 1995 and it opened in 2000. In 1995 we were a couple of early 30’s gobshites who had never done a theatre,” he laughs drily.

“We introduced ourselves to Iain Macintosh at Theatre Projects; a great theatre guru and hugely knowledgeable– one of the first books about theatre that I read was Iain’s Architecture Actor and Audience. It is the perfect introduction to the field. Again, it is symptomatic of the state the world was in in 1995 – the lottery was starting up – at that time Iain could envisage suggesting an inexperienced architect for the shortlist as a wild card to see what happened. Today that would be seens as too risky, meaning younger practices get less of an opportunity to break through.”

The 59-year-old smiles at the memory. “We were interviewed on stage at the Royal Court and I guess we were just enthusiastic because we got the gig.”

Liverpool Everyman

Liverpool Everyman

Fast forward a decade, Tompkins had won the 2014 Stirling prize for the innovative £27m redesign of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse – his first theatre built from scratch. Director Gemma Bodinetz believes it is Tompkins’ love of theatre-making that makes him so unique. “Steve and his team are wonderful because they understand the art form, how it works and they love theatre; they understand magic,” says Bodinetz, who runs the Everyman.

“We were his first all-purpose new build; a complete new build and when you walked into it you felt that it was completely loved. He has a fantastic way of creating democratic theatrical spaces with pure soul and that is what theatre is truly about. Because of an erratic funding landscape – we worked together for 10 years on this Capital project and every so often the process would have to stop.”

“A lesser man and architect would have dropped us,” she says. “Months at a time the project was frozen. We kept moving the design forward even when we were in this wobbly place – he and his team gave us his complete backing and unwavering belief. When I stopped working with Steve and his team it felt like a bereavement. He is so much more than an architect.”

Recently, though, Liverpool Everyman crashed out of Arts Council England (ACE)’s National Portfolio for the 2018-22 period, after a disastrous but acclaimed experiment with a repertory company of actors that pushed it into serious financial trouble. Increasingly theatres are running to stand still. Government cuts and those by local authorities mean that many regional theatre’s futures are at risk. “I have watched a brilliant director like Gemma do impeccable work with real courage and creative vision,” says Tompkins.

Years of austerity cuts and the national state of Brexit uncertainty make it particularly hard for arts organisations to take risks. Does he think that Capital projects are vital to secure regional theatre’s past for its long-term future? “It’s a really complex question.” He considers it carefully. “The situations are all so different, aren’t they? Liverpool Everyman is a building which has garnered a lot of public praise and yet still, still it is really difficult for her and her team to generate financial steerage,” he says. “All the recent travails that Gemma and her team have gone through, you think, God, what more can you do, actually. Her commitment to Liverpool is unimpeachable, and so if somebody like her is struggling to find the sweet spot, then it suggests to me that something is fundamentally broken in the funding system.”

“I do not know what the long-term answer is but it helps to have a building to that is on your side in terms of theatrical possibility, running costs and capacity to supplement revenue income.”

Battersea Arts Centre Grand Hall 3D model

Battersea Arts Centre Grand Hall 3D model

On the subject of saying no to prospective collaborations, “It’s not hard,” he says quickly. “It’s about self-protection and respect for your team. You have to take a hard line on what your capacity is at any given time. In a way it is a self-fulfilling issue, and we have occasionally got it wrong – in both directions. After the Royal Court, we had no work for a year because naively we had put all our creative capital into getting the thing open.”

“Brexit is going to be disruptive,” he adds, voice trailing off.

Of the many challenges facing society in 2019, the first and most overarching is the one so essential to the future of civilisation itself: the climate emergency . We touch on politics, but you can glean his beliefs from his Twitter feed: pro-European, and climate-change activist.  “The international – the debate around the climate and bio-diversity emergencies are taking a huge amount of my headspace – we have to be the exemplars,” he says, and he looks genuinely pensive. “All bets are off otherwise – so how do theatres show the way?”

Haworth Tompkins principle aim is to make buildings they design accessible to everyone. “The listed status of many theatre buildings means that many are still trying to get around the problem of providing adequate access to disabled theatregoers,” he says.

Theatre Royal Drury Lane Designs

Theatre Royal Drury Lane Designs

Certainly, relaxed performances are offered at many theatres – these aim to provide performances for those in the autistic spectrum and those with sensory and communication disorders. But progress is slow with many physically disabled audiences still miss out. “A lot of theatre hides behind the fact it is working it of historic spaces and if it doesn’t affect the bottom line it feels like it is not a priority,” he adds, quickly. “It is absolutely true and less the case in publicly subsidised buildings – we need to get off our asses and get on with it – none of it is that difficult  – even at Drury Lane we have managed to make that accessible on all levels – most of those barriers are easy to take down if it’s made a priority and the proper resources get committed.”

Would he say that success fundamentally depends on client relationships? “Absolutely,” he nods. “All projects completely rely on the strength of the relationship between architect and client,” Tompkins says. “Nick Starr has been an incredibly important person in our studio’s creative life – not just, because we have done so many projects together –now The Bridge and the next one for the London Theatre Company. Roger has the same thing – you have a telepathy and common set of references, which means you, can move very quickly.”

The Bridge Theatre, foyer London

The Bridge Theatre foyer,  London

Starr’s affection and admiration for Tompkins is mutual. “Steve is a genius. Truly. I can feel his respect for Dennis Lasdun – it is very distinguished architecture – the quality of materials, the scale,” says Nick Starr who ran the National Theatre for 12 years, collaborated with Haworth Tompkins on London’s Bridge Theatre and is currently working with Haworth Tompkins to open a new 600-seat venue in King’s Cross in 2021.

“Steve can draw in three dimensions upside down,” reveals Starr. “So, when we were looking at a future project – and he is sat opposite you – Steve can take a point and expand. And then you realise he’s drawing it so that they are the right way up for you – so that’s quite interesting – the hand-eye paper co-ordination allows those early discussions in which the problem solving and creativity is right in front of you.”

Architect Denys Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre – one of London’s best-known and most contentious Brutalist buildings – is a layered concrete landscape that Prince Charles once described as being like “a nuclear power station.”  I ask Tompkins why he thinks the National’s architecture is so divisive. “The more we got to know the detail of the National the more awe and respect we had for the designers,” he says. “Of course, the building is flawed in so many ways – it’s also kind of magnificent –and it will continue to be magnificent. It had a really difficult birth- it opened to austerity and a loss of nerve around modernism and the classical as opposed to the picturesque.”

National Theatre

National Theatre

Asked about the controversial National Theatre’s ‘no laptop’ foyer policy during peak times, Steve’s answer is: “I think there is a logic in asking people to vacate the foyers before shows. In one sense, you think its public funding and a democratic space I have a perfect right to be here,” he says reasonably.

“I can also understand from the point of an organisation that the publicly funded mission is to host 3 shows and make sure the audiences are having a good time for the price of their ticket,” he continues. “If it’s impossible to get a seat then that can’t be right either – in defence of the National – and I’m not their spokesperson – I think its joyful for them to have the foyers full of people doing their thing and hanging out – it’s the same “problem” that the Young Vic foyer has  – you come to the show and there’s already 300 passers by having a ball in there – if you try to make a foyer that people will find convivial then you can’t complain when people find it convivial – I guess there is a civilised conversation to have there– I think it will find its balance – I’m an optimist.”

The narrowing of the state school curriculum, squeezing out arts subjects in favour of the more traditional and academic is also a threat to culture for all. For example, young people living in the country’s most deprived areas, and those with lower than average attainment levels, are the most likely to miss out on studying creative subjects. “It is about opportunity,” he says decisively. “Culture is under threat in so many ways and the government’s lack of concentration on arts education is another symptom of a wider malaise. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience and participate in the performing arts early in their lives and its not happening.”

“In a way the lack of concentration on arts education is yet another symptom of that more general and tendency – the only thing that will motivate the government – it is about opportunities it and a start in life that you may not have,” he says, shaking his head.

An artist’s impression of the Theatr Clwyd redevelopmen

An artist’s impression of the Theatr Clwyd redevelopmen

Anyway, as if Tompkins and his team aren’t busy enough currently the studio is working on a 180-seat pop-up theatre for Manchester Royal Exchange’s community outreach work has been announced, complete with canvas roof and cardboard seats. The mobile space will tour disadvantaged areas of Greater Manchester and will be “very low carbon and super-lightweight”. Hayworth Tompkins and Theatr Clwyd has also just begun an extensive public consultation on their multi-million-pound redevelopment designed by Haworth Tompkins which will see the 43-year-old north Wales venue future-proofed.

“Theatre Clwyd will be interesting,” Tompkins says, “there is a fantastic artistic team with Tamara (Harvey) and Liam (Evans-Ford) making all sorts of waves and leading the way; brave as you like. There is a strong sense of continuity at Clwyd both in term of affection for this friendly giant of a building and in terms of a buy-in for what that team is doing.”

“We like to think of us as having accompanied a building for a few years of its life, either from birth or later on. The building will be there after us, as will the organisation.  So, I do think architects can have a false idea of their capacity to stop time – we like to think that when we leave the building it will be complete and all will be frozen at that moment. You can acquire more modesty if you imagine yourself entering the life of the building and working with it –working with it and leave it in a healthier state than when you found it. Our approach entirely is instinctive and collegiate and democratic – that’s where we feel our power is.”

Most significantly, the devastating impacts of global climate change and the part he plays, of all the wide-ranging topics that we discuss is one we keep returning to. Tompkins is instinctively conscientious. “We need to work out what our most positive cause of action is,” he says. “That is the overarching project of this studio and should be of anybody’s work. Architects actually do have clear possibility of affecting positive change; construction accounts for nearly 40% of energy-based carbon we produce.”

Steve Tompkins and Carl

Steve Tompkins and Carl

We really covered a lot. So much that the office ceiling could have fallen in and we wouldn’t have noticed. It is clear that business as usual is not an option and in the context of social cohesion and the nature of modern society – Tompkins and his team are working through theatre towards something – impressionistic – and bigger than theatre itself.

And there is no doubting his purpose. “If we – as makers – can devise in-roads into the climate emergency that then we can have a direct effect and we don’t need to feel helpless.”

 

 

 

 

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Justin Audibert & Rachel Bagshaw on Aesop’s Fables at Unicorn Theatre: ‘Working in theatre for young audiences is a total privilege and helps to make you a better artist’.

Justin Audibert

Justin Audibert

Unicorn Theatre are known for collaborating with the boldest experimental theatre-makers with work for young audiences, and this new spin on Aesop’s Fables is no exception. Each session will include a handful of stories, retold for the 21st century.

There are two shows for children aged 4-7 that include plays by E V Crowe and Annie Siddons) and aged 8-12 (that includes plays by Chris Thorpe and Somalia Seaton); both are directed by Justin Audibert and Rachel Bagshaw.

I caught up with them during rehearsals and had a chat about what audiences can expect, why Aesop is timeless and other things.

Hello! You’ve been busy working with some top-notch writers on reimagined Aesop’s Fables – in what ways have these commissions surprised you?
What has been really delightful about working on these short plays has been the sheer variety and playfulness of theatrical form and content that we have had to tackle. Every single one of the 8 plays has thrown up a different set of challenges for us, our creative team and the actors. These range from staging a ten minute musical in Frankie and the Crow, to replicating a naturalistic rehearsal room and then anarchically busting free of the Fourth Wall in The Wolf and the Shepherd, to the theatrical practicalities of exploding a ‘frog’ in To Be An Ox, or eating several giant slices of cake in Ant and Hop. Every single piece has thrown us a curve ball or two and solving these has been a joy.

With so many digital distractions why do you think storytelling is still one of our favourite things?
The urge to sit communally and listen to someone spinning an entertaining yarn emerged at the same time as the first humans made fire. It is inherent in our cultural DNA. The particular quality of concentration and the suspension of disbelief theatre requires, is unique because it is such an active and participatory experience. We relish seeing our fellow humans perform as something bigger and more exciting than real life.

What are the main differences between directing shows for the different age groups?
What has emerged as we have sat through previews is that there is a sense of unvarnished wonder amongst the 4-7 year olds and they readily enter into the adventures whereas the 8-12 year olds have much more of a questioning nature and are really keen to challenge the actors and the ideas in the plays.

Can you give me an example of something that felt like it was out of your control during Aesop’s Fables rehearsals?
Our set, without wanting to give too many spoilers, is very ambitious and the actors really use every part of it. In rehearsals it was difficult to imagine how some plays would be staged because of the practical limitations of not having the set in the rehearsal room. We were making guesses on how we would do things. Once we were in tech we had to adjust lots of what we had originally conceived. Thankfully Lily Arnold the designer, our stage management and crew and the cast have all been really adaptable and flexible and willing to alter things through tech and preview.

With changes to the curriculum and the arts and humanities in our state schools – how important are access to theatre and culture for young people?
If the aim of school is to produce happy, informed and engaged citizens then giving them the experience of theatre and culture more generally is one of the best ways a government can spend money. Theatre is a medium to explore what it means to be a human, theatre encourages us to question conventional wisdom – Aesop’s Fables being a prime example, and the theatre is a place where we can truly grapple with complex and sometimes conflicting emotions. All of this is vital to a rich and rewarding life.

Why do you think Aesop’s Fables are still so popular?
Aesop’s Fables have maintained their popularity for thousands of years because they have a certain wry, scepticism in them that leave them open to multiple interpretations. Through the ages people have taken different views on what Aesop was getting at and this is precisely what has kept them alive rather than becoming petrified in time and also why we wanted to re-imagine some of them for a contemporary audience.

Many artists find true creativity to be hard work and reward-free; have you ever felt that in your career(s)?
It’s true to say that artists do not often get the financial reward that they deserve for what they do, but then the same is just as true for nurses, teachers, carers and many other professions but the act of being creative is incredibly rewarding in itself and that feeling of really using art to express something about how you feel about the world never loses its thrill.

What is the most important lesson Aesop has taught you?
That no moral is absolute in nature, that if you just butt heads over something rather than seek a compromise you will probably just both fall off a log into the abyss, and that you should ALWAYS eat your cake!

Why are some areas of theatre valued over others, particularly theatre for young audiences?
Adults, like crows, are often attracted to what is shiny not what actually has inherent value. Famous people are shiny. Lots of them also have plenty of value but that has nothing to do with their fame and everything to do with their talent and humanity, it’s just that all too often that isn’t recognised. Fortunately young people are often excellent at spotting the real from the fake and so working in theatre for young audiences is a total privilege and helps to make you a better artist.

Aesop’s Fables runs (Ages 4-7) 16 Jul- 4 Aug & (Ages 8-12) runs  21 Jun – 3 Aug at Unicorn Theatre, London

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Rachel Tucker: ‘Come From Away will soothe your soul and lift your heart.’

‘My favourite start to my working day and I’m only allowed one of them – is a triple shot americano,’ grins Rachel Tucker.

I follow her lead and order one for myself at the Pret on Shaftesbury Avenue – just off Cambridge Circus where we meet.

It’s a joy interviewing Tucker; a unique combination of quirkiness and elegance.

She found fame on the BBC tv talent series I’d Do Anything ten years ago and has since starred in The Last Ship alongside Sting, blown our minds as Elphaba in Wicked, in London and on Broadway, released solo albums and more.

Now Tucker is starring in Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s folksy musical Come From Away. She believes that the core of the story is ‘looking out for one another, doing what is right’ and ‘like a medicine for the soul.’ The show tells the tale of 7,000 stranded air passengers amid the chaos of 9/11 and the tiny town in Newfoundland that took them in.

In a 12-strong ensemble, Tucker plays Beverley Bass – the first female captain for American Airlines. Through slick staging and manoeuvring the show recreates a plane full of passengers using limited props; including a rubber cod, a mop and rearranged chairs. Come From Away’s greatest triumph is to set complex lyrics drawn from tragic circumstances to a show about the citizens of Gander during 9/11, where all domestic flights were grounded across the US following a terrorist attack.

The show opened in January in Dublin ahead of its West End transfer and is in great shape. ‘They knew what they were doing – they knew the process in Dublin was the start of the maturity point of the show,’ she says. ‘Dublin was so helpful to find the groove and learn the moves. It takes time to embed it in our body and our minds and souls. It’s taken me 3 months to learn how to sing ‘Me and The Sky’ like that! Our rehearsal process was very intense – we had to get the chair choreography into our brains – at first, we didn’t feel very artistic doing it. But there is a method to the madness – and they’d been through it a few times before in previous productions. The pressure was immense, though.’

It makes sense, then, that Come from Away recently received nine nominations for the 2019 Olivier awards, and Tucker has been nominated in the best actress in a supporting role in a musical category. Up against her, in a ridiculously strong category, are Patti LuPone for Company; Ruthie Ann Miles for The King and I; and the six ‘queens’ for their turn as Henry VIII’s wives.

Where was she when she found out? ‘Do you know what?’ she says. ‘I was in my bed, at home alone and watching Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes Netflix series on my laptop and my phone went berserk,’ Tucker smiles.

‘Honestly, Carl, just receiving this nomination, I feel like I’ve accomplished something that I’ve always dreamed about. This – for where I’m at in my life, in my career and alongside my ambitions – I could cry now thinking about it.’

We discuss the recent controversy surrounding Seyi Omooba, the performer who said that homosexuality was not ‘right’ in a Facebook post and is no longer part of the upcoming Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome’s production of The Color Purple.

‘Oh dear’, Tucker begins.

‘If you have strong opinions that might offend other people – keep them to yourself,’ she says. ‘Go home and tell your mum or your church. It’s up to you if you have those beliefs and you choose to do a job that represents the exact opposite. I’m really not sure how you reconcile that morally… Especially in this climate – it’s a tricky playing field and in the arts, which is a place that presents itself as inclusive and liberal. It’s really unfortunate that this has happened.’

At one point, we talk about west end ticket prices. ‘When I look out to the audience every night it is a sea of white Caucasian, middle class human beings. I wish I could change it,’ she begins. ‘It upsets me that it is always a sea of white faces and that it’s not shifted any further, especially for our show,’ Tucker affirms.

She doesn’t mind being asked about the challenges of childcare and being a working parent. This topic is nothing new yet the attitudes toward parenting are slowly changing. ‘Listen, I don’t love people getting on their high horse – the young woman who does my hair at the Phoenix Theatre is thinking about starting a family – or when to- and often asks me how I managed and manage it,’ she says. ‘It’s hard. But if my experience can help somebody then that’s amazing. Therefore, talking about childcare, for me, is essential. My husband in fact, does more of the childcare – so personally it isn’t restricted to being a woman thing.’

So, what could theatre do to support parents and carers? ‘Childcare is not cheap,’ she says. ‘But what if there was something like West End Day Care during the two show days and Equity paid half and we paid half? A scheme to help men and women to mind their kids so that we can do our shows. I’d love that to happen!’

Who inspires her? ‘Shoshana Bean,’ she replies. ‘She is incredible – I listen to her album on the way in and out of work every day. Her passion for the industry and for giving back is so incredible. Plus, she’s generous. Shoshana really is a one-woman band and I admire that. Someone who went from a regular Broadway performer to establishing herself as a household name. She is the biggest inspiration right this second to me,’ she smiles.

Tucker hopes that we all get behind Come From Away. She adores the show, adding that she believes that she has ‘the privilege of telling this story night after night – a true story – I know how much of an inspiration this story is to so many and what this means to our audiences –I hold that very close to my heart. I love it.’

She ends by reiterating that this new musical really is for everyone. ‘I promise that Come From Away will soothe your soul and lift your heart. It is a reminder that there is still goodness and kindness within us all.’

‘You will leave with a full heart and you will want to speak to your neighbour and you will want to be a better person,’ Tucker insists.

What a woman.

Come From Away is at Phoenix theatre, London, until March 2020.

#WeAllComeFromAway

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Bill Deamer: ‘We are not doing a carbon copy; that was that production of Follies and this is a new production of Follies.’

Follies

Choreographer Bill Deamer enters the room. ‘Hello!’ he says cheerily.

Bill Deamer is one of Britain’s leading song and dance men for theatre, film and TV. Last year he bagged himself an Olivier nomination for Best Theatre Choreographer for Follies

Now Dominic Cooke’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s masterpiece, is back at the National Theatre. We are talking in the interview room backstage at the National Theatre and Deamer has just been giving notes to the cast of Follies. ‘We now have to let them take the show and run with it,’ he says.

The 2019 Follies Company with Bill Deamer

The 2019 Follies Company with Bill Deamer

It’s tricky, Deamer explains, to reimagine a critically acclaimed musical for the Olivier stage with new cast members in just over a month, yet they have cleared that obstacle with breath-taking ease. ‘We’ve only had four weeks rehearsal whereas we had 9 originally. What you can’t do when you recast is assume the energy is going to be the same.’

It’s not only the cast that has changed since the 2017 production, however. The ensemble brings glorious new touches to the big number choreography; particularly the Mirror Mirror number, in which Dawn Hope leads the cast through a show-stopping musical theatre extravaganza.

FOLLIES 2.0

FOLLIES 2.0

Rehearsals must have been full-on? ‘To learn and create and become the Follies company in four weeks was a tall order, Deamer says. ‘The actors are different, we are not doing a carbon copy; that was that production of Follies and this is a new production of Follies. We’ve looked at certain concepts and developed them even more. The ghosts and how they are in contact with and interact with their older selves have all been developed.’

‘There’s a moment at the beginning of the show, during the Overture and all of a sudden the ghosts realise that they are back and they all gesture to the front,’ he continues. ‘There’s so much power in it, it gives me Gooseflesh talking about it.’

During a recent preview an audience member took a photograph of Joanna Riding performing as her voice cracked during the last lines of Losing My Mind. Follies’ Associate Director, Josh Seymour tweeted his dismay.

He winces when I mention it. ‘Good job Imelda wasn’t there!’ he says. ‘I can’t believe that during one of the most sensitive parts of the show somebody actually pulls a camera out to take a photograph – with a flash on. It’s absurd. Why do people do it? It’s so rude – it is disrespectful to the actors and it disrespectful to the audience.’

Should they have been ejected? ‘Yes.’ Deamer says bemused.

Were they? ‘No. It was such a subtle part of the show it would have disturbed things more to chuck them out,’ he says.

‘I think we all talk about audience etiquette and audience behaviour but it is not made clear enough – when you are recording for TV you hand your phones in. Maybe that is the way to go? I just don’t know.’

We discuss the mythical Follies 2018 Cast Recording that has just finally been released. ‘I’ve heard all of the various productions of Follies that have been recorded and they all have their merits. I think the quality of all of the vocals are quite extraordinary – Stephen Sondheim’s music and Jonathan Tunick’s arrangement just come to life.’

Alexander Hanson and Joanna Riding credit: Johan-Persson

Alexander Hanson and Joanna Riding credit: Johan-Persson

Does he have a favourite? ‘I have to say that Too Many Mornings breaks my heart; the woodwind, the obo – that wonderful sound. There is something in it that just moves me completely. Hearing Phillip (Quast) and Imelda (Staunton) sing it together is quite extraordinary,’ Deamer says.

The ghosts of those former cast certainly loom over the return of Follies; there are some big tap-shoes to fill. Now though, replacing Staunton as Sally is Joanna Riding and Alexander Hanson takes on the role of Ben. ‘Joanna and Alex are so completely different from their predecessors,’ Deamer says.

‘Jo is so different from Imelda – you couldn’t say that one is better than another; they are completely different. Alex brings such pathos to Ben. I have my amazing memories of working with Imelda and Phillip and now I have my memories of working with Jo and Alex.’

Dawn Hope Stella and the company National Theatre credit: Johan Persson

Dawn Hope Stella and the company National Theatre credit: Johan Persson

‘They are quite wonderful because Dominic and I have worked hard with them and it is all based as it was originally: the director, the designer, the choreographer and the music, we all work as one. So, we had that strength in the rehearsal room.’

Deamer has been a consistently working choreographer for over twenty-five years. His first Olivier nomination was for the critically acclaimed production of The Boy Friend that opened at Regents Park Open Air Theatre in 2006. He has beavered away across theatre, film and television winning an Olivier Award as Best Choreographer in 2013 for Top Hat, as a musical theatre and Charleston specialist for Strictly Come Dancing.

Bill Deamer and Carl Woodward

Bill Deamer and Carl Woodward

He never stops.

The last thing Deamer wants is to be thought of as, he stresses, a one-style  choreographer. ‘People assume I just do the old-fashioned stuff- which drives me insane. Actually, it is not old fashioned, it is classic. I’ve got Saturday Night Fever out on tour at the moment. I have a production of Evita that’s toured for 11 years around Europe out on the road.’

‘I’m a fully trained dancer and a musical theatre choreographer,’ he shrugs. ‘I trained in classical dance and ballet and jazz and indeed if anyone knows my work on TV with Strictly. For me, pigeonholing any artist is just nonsense.’

Dominic Cooke (Director) and Bill Deamer (Choreographer) in rehearsal for Follies at

Dominic Cooke (Director) and Bill Deamer (Choreographer) in rehearsal for Follies 

What advice does he have for aspiring choreographers? ‘The first thing that I say to any performer is: learn your craft. Get your technique – without that you will not survive. Too many dancers are jack of all trades and master of none and quite simply, it isn’t going to work.’

Our time has come to an end and it’s time for Bill to go.

‘I’m very luck to do what I do – I have worked for it and I’ve learnt my trade. It is wonderful to work with such brilliantly diverse people and create theatre – it feels like such a privilege to be able to work on the various projects that I do; when it doesn’t, I won’t do it,’ he concludes. The words are spoken without a hint of mawkishness, only sincerity. It is all he knows.

Follies is at the Oliver, London until 11 May.

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Slung Low’s Alan Lane: ‘These are incredibly challenging times… if we are not careful, we will end up managing our own decline.’

Alan Lane

Alan Lane

‘I am the worst yoga person in the world – I’m terrible at it,’ announces Alan Lane.

(FYI Lane is currently participating in a 30-day yoga challenge).

Lane is the artistic director of the brilliant Leeds theatre company Slung Low, you might know him from his dismantling of all-comers and bearing of emotions on social media – often tongue in cheek.

Long story short, Slung Low’s signature style is spectacle: large scale, site specific & off-the-wall. They make work look as easy as breathing. It isn’t, of course.

We are talking at the end of a long day that has involved Lane stripping asbestos at Slung Low’s new home: The Holbeck Social Club.

Holbeck / Slung Low Sign

Holbeck / Slung Low

How would he describe the atmosphere of working in a social club? ‘Firstly, very comfortable, – that is mainly the nature of being in a Working Men’s club – equally if we’re open as a bar you an easily end up having a 3-hour meeting about which ales to serve. But we know this community, we’ve been a part of this community for nearly a decade now,’ Lane says.

‘We get it wrong sometimes, of course. But in occupying the club we ensured that we met with all the active members – these things take time and care. It’s the same with our shows, we see people working hard to make it work it is a huge team effort. So, we are really open about how hard this is.’

Slung Low recently unveiled a thrilling new programme of Pay What You Decide cultural classes for their second term, which starts next month and offers an array of cultural activities including Woodwork, podcasting, T’ai Chi and Mental Health First Aid.

‘When we had the idea for ‘Pay What You Decide’ classes some people thought we were mad,’ he says. ‘The first term was really successful with a decent take up and people were genuinely enthusiastic about the opportunities. It just worked.  It’s well exciting.’

The timing is significant. Figures reveal that children living in the most deprived areas are the most likely to lose their option to study arts subjects when the EBacc becomes compulsory.  What this means for a whole generation is grim, if you’re a young person. Slung Low are embedded in and speak directly with their community.

Critical success and an innovative approach to arts participation have seen Lane included in the annual 100-strong power list recently published by the Stage.

So different is the company’s innovative approach, I wonder how much it matters to someone like Lane. As in, he is responsible for a double decker bus that has been converted into a classroom and his idea of success doesn’t necessarily adhere to the typical structures of glory.

I congratulate Lane and ask him what it means to him.

‘Number 43! What it is, is useful to my mum and our neighbours here,’ Lane says, with a knowing laugh.

‘But seriously it is very welcome to receive coverage and recognition across the industry for work that is happening outside of London. These lists are, of course, problematic in the sense that they are always likely to exclude certain people and groups no matter how hard the creators try but it is really lovely to be included’.

There’s something wildly open about Lane, from the sincerity in his voice  to the tongue in cheek Tweeting about Michael Ball and Hull Trains. He has a fervour that you perhaps call wildly disconcerting: a certain vulnerability, too.

Anyway, as things get bigger, career-wise, does he still feel like he is in control?

He umms for a second.

‘We spend a lot of time on everything that we do,’ Lane explains. ‘We are incredibly productive and it is a big engine and team with brilliant people all across the organisation. We’ve worked really hard to be never surrendering and we are steering our own fate. How you do what you do is as important as what you do.’

Does he think the industry rewards a certain type of personality?

Lane begins. ‘I think it rewards serious types of leadership – we’re comfortable with certain types of leaders, less comfortable with those who want to question more fundamental elements of the theatre industry, not just what is on stage – it’s a bit more sophisticated now – especially the changing identity of artistic directors across prominent London theatres which is really positive. These are incredibly challenging times, though, and if we are not careful, we will end up managing our own decline.’

Recently the company produced the epic award-winning Flood by James Phillips as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017. I ask him to tell me about that experience; geographically as well as being afforded substantial subsidy. ‘Hull is genuinely an amazing and magical place,’ Lane says, emphatically.

Man in Orange trousers - Flood

Man in Orange trousers – Flood

He continues. ‘On a personal and company level it was glorious. The investment and resources that a lot of companies never get – half a million people witnessed it – it was a rare thing. Some of that is to do with financial support, but a lot of that is to do with charismatic thoughtful courageous leadership. We were lucky with Martin Green as head of Hull 17. And we’ve been fortunate elsewhere to work for similarly inspiring leaders; Daniel Evans, Kully Thiarai, Erica Whyman. There are huge swathes of northern England that are forgotten, both culturally & politically, which is a scandal’.

As funding is wiped out on a local and national level, so too are the people trying to make it work. For Lane, it is a case of desperate times. ‘The system we have currently requires areas of the country to be abandoned and reduced to next to nothing,” he says, as exasperated as he gets. ‘We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the government is wrong to say that work is a route out of poverty, it isn’t for everyone; the age of austerity is a political choice. [The North East is forgotten by national government; it hasn’t even got a motorway]

What, I ask, is the most challenging aspect of making this kind of work? ‘Hard to achieve impact,’ he continues, ‘I’m 40 and it is still so vital to keep that personal artistic ambition driving on too– (a number of our principles it definitely like limited resources is what we’ve always wanted to do) Much of the freedom of the club is the community nature of it – real people using the space. The cultural sector is getting less ambitious, in terms of scale and I would say that we are making less…’

Team Slung Low- credit Joseph Priestley

Team Slung Low- credit Joseph Priestley

‘But we have so much ambition, I remember discussing an idea for a show with someone at The Barbican that involved a Land Rover charging across the stage…. It wasn’t possible to do it there. It can’t be done on stage and it needs the space and time that we’ve found in the north. The work we make might not be to everyone’s taste but it is purposely designed to fly in the face of the mundane. We make work for audiences outside of conventional theatre spaces; we are a gang,’ Lane says, with a knowing laugh.

He says he hopes he has explained himself well. I just appreciate his honesty.

 

Nancy Medina: “There is something emotionally sad about the arts world not embracing more representative stories, because it would be a lot less rich without them.”

It is 2.30pm and today is all about Brookyn born director Nancy Medina. “I am thinking: what am I doing here? How did this happen?” she declares, laughing.

We are talking at Shakespeare’s Globe ahead of an industry reception where Medina will be presented with the Royal Theatrical Support Trust Sir Peter Hall Director Award. “A few years ago I co-directed a scene for The Sam Wanamaker Festival and I shared a photo online with the caption: ‘From the South Side to the South Bank – this Brooklyn girl has come far,” she beams.

Is she nervous? “I feel really positive and I’m very grateful, this is all very surreal,” says Medina. Her breakthrough into mid-scale regional touring theatre directing is a real cause for celebration. She is a director of colour, a parent and a woman in her thirties.

Nancy Medina in rehearsals)

Nancy Medina in rehearsals

In 2017 Nancy won the Genesis Future Director Award at the Young Vic, she has spent fifteen years on “the fringe of NY and UK”. She has lived in the UK for 10 years and says that making her mark as a director, has been, at times, an “up-hill battle”. She explains, “I was new in the theatrical landscape and it took time to find where I fit in to that. I was trying to figure out how the stories I find most meaningful can also be meaningful to audiences here,” she says.

On the subject of diversity she prefers the word “representative,” she says that she does see progress but thinks it is slow. “One of the things that we as artists struggle with is that we are trying to make meaningful work but we don’t often get that larger space for wider audiences to see it,” says Medina.

“Most stories I love tend to be universal. If you want to increase audiences and establish new audiences then you have to start showing people themselves on stage. If you want to inspire more representation across the board, you must allow space for that.”

Sir Trevor Nunn, Nancy Medina, RTST Chair Geoffrey Cass and Mark Hawes

Sir Trevor Nunn, Nancy Medina, RTST Chair Geoffrey Cass and Mark Hawes

I ask if she has ever compared her career to any of her peers. “I try not to compare myself to others, I do sympathise with directors that feel stuck. I myself have often felt that way. You have to come back to exactly why you do what you do – and the reason I do what I do is because the stories that I put on stage are everyday people – because their lives matter and because my life matters.”

How did she stay positive when she hit brick walls? “I would say: don’t worry about all that and keep going. If I don’t fit into this scene maybe the scene will fit in with me. Keep choosing the right text and collaborators, it has to be the right project for you,” Medina reasons.

We discuss further inequalities within theatre, such as gender and race and what is programmed, the size of that space and where it is produced. She says: “There is that word ‘risk’ that gets thrown around quite a lot, but there is something scary and emotionally sad about the arts world not embracing more representative stories because it would be a lot less rich without them.”

On that point, Nancy adds that it is a unique opportunity to premiere August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize nominated Two Trains Running for Royal and Derngate and English Touring Theatre. The play is set in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and explores changing perspectives on race. The production will tour to theatres across the UK.

 Two Trains Running – a co-production for Royal and Derngate and English Touring Theatre will run in 2019.

Sheila Atim interview: ‘The government could do with empowering people to get in the driving seat, particularly those who otherwise wouldn’t get the chance.’

In April, Olivier Award winning Actor Sheila Atim said that she wanted to see more women ‘who look like her’ winning Olivier awards. Atim also warned that the industry should not “get complacent” about diversity, saying there is “always work to do”.

Atim is positive about developments but also direct about the pressing importance of diversity on and off stage. “I’m seeing a lot more of friends getting great roles and I’m seeing a lot more of my non-white friends in stronger positions to create work,” says Atim, 27.

Sheila Atim at Olivier Awards 2018

We talk about representation, in all its forms, on and off stage. “Representation is the perfect word,” she agrees. “It is not just the representation on stage. The reality is until you get to the top level you are the last person – as the actor – to come on board a project. In terms of how the shots are called and before we get to the casting process, we need to look at shifting the culture of that group,” Atim says.

“There is definitely a momentum building to take control of our own careers, you can look at it as progress,” she says. “Ultimately, I think it is important that those people are in that space and are aware of the disparities. They have a responsibility to create a channel and have a position where they can genuinely call some shots. If I reach that point, I’m not going to sit there by myself. I will try and do that to make sure I facilitate others – you can’t just talk about it – every forward motion has equal and opposite reaction.”

In 2017 Atim starred as Marianne in Conor McPherson’s stunning Bob Dylan musical Girl From The North Country, taking Dylan’s music and giving it a new spin. This year she took home the best actress in a supporting role in a musical Olivier Award for her exquisite performance.

Arinze Kene, Sheila Atim in Girl From The North Country, 2017

She brightens when I ask what that whirlwind was like. I tell her that she owes me an apology for breaking my heart. “I can’t overstate how special that job was and to be able to share it with the people that we shared it with,” she says, cheerfully. “It was like a weird dream that was happening to us all. It felt like one of those moments where I’d say – everything about this is right –everyone gets it – this is it. That is why when people tell me they enjoyed it so much, I still feel moved,” she adds.

We discuss patronage; those privileged few in positions of power who control appointments and decisions. She says: ‘We have to allow people to stand on their own two feet and make sure that everyone’s voices are being heard – this is a larger conversation to do with allyship; you have to allow us to take the steering wheel – otherwise we will remain in a position where we are at someone else’s mercy.”

Now she is starring in an independent film – as shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian in a modern screen adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night by Shanty Productions – an independent film production company, co-founded by Rakie Ayola and Adam Smethurst. The play has been adapted for the screen to reflect multicultural Britain today.

Does she see the 400-year-old play as a comedy? “It is a comedy but when I was filming my sections – I was not experiencing comedy,” she exclaims.

Sheila Atim in Shanty Productions Twelfth Night

“There is humour in the conceit of Viola and Sebastian being twins and people thinking that they’re dead, however, the distress they are feeling is very real: Viola thinks her brother is dead and assumes an image of her brother and is worried about her currency of being a woman – that is a really sad story! She has someone who has fallen in love with her but is trying to facilitate a relationship – similarly for Sebastian. It was interesting playing both those characters and seeing the film and being reminded that it is a funny film – it was a great experience. Truly. Around the time we filmed it there had been a lot in the media around the refugee crisis – which this does give nods to. Even now, it feels timely.”

Atim is no stranger to Shakespeare – in 2016 she performed in Phyllida Lloyd‘s acclaimed all-female Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar. Recently she starred in Othello as Emilia, alongside Mark Rylance, at Shakespeare’s Globe. Does she see herself doing more of the Bard’s work in the future? “I do want to do more,” she says. “However, I feel interspersing Shakespeare with other stuff is great because then it gives me a chance to not get cynical and get back to it,”.

Sheila Atim in Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar

“If I stayed in that classical world for too long, though, I wouldn’t be able to marry the good things that come with dealing a piece of work that is 400 years old,” says Atim.

“I don’t believe in loading every production with a concept. I do believe that when you go into a project you have to be very clear about what it is your trying to explore. I think for it to really be worth it – otherwise there is no point in putting on these plays –when I want to be in a Shakespeare play I’m trying to provoke something.”

Atim has been particularly vocal about the importance of a creative curriculum in our state schools. She highlighted this recently when she visited her old school, The Coopers’ Company and Coborn School to speak about the importance of Drama. When I ask her thoughts on new research published that found almost a third of children did not realise that Shakespeare was a playwright and half of secondary pupils have not been to the theatre with school, she says: “I’ll tell you why I find that alarming – not because I think everyone should know who Shakespeare is for any ideological reason. What confuses me about those figures are that Shakespeare is everywhere. There are modern adaptations, films, revivals and we have two fantastic theatres that are dedicated to his work: The RSC and The Globe,”.

“I understand the strain that schools are under – my own school was nearly forced to cut it’s A level drama and music courses because of funding cuts. The message from our current government is one that feels that the arts are a luxury. But art is all around us –the design of a book cover, galleries, music -you can’t escape it. You can try and dress it up and make it for a certain group of people but that is not the case. I find that really worrying because the cultural experience opens up so much for people,” says Atim.

I ask Sheila if there’s anything she’d like to add? “Oh, that’s a good question.”

She thinks for a moment.

“I know that Brexit is coming up but the arts could do with more money, more investment” she says frankly. “The government could do with empowering people to get in the driving seat, particularly those who otherwise wouldn’t get the chance– they can be there and they deserve to be there – charity is great – but we need to allow people to build their own agency. It cannot be forever the case that the arts are waiting for handouts.”

Twelfth Night by Shanty Productions is available to download and watch now on Amazon