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Salisbury Playhouse’s boss Gareth Machin: ‘There is a desire to demonstrate that the city is open for business, that it’s moving on & that it doesn’t want to be defined by what’s happened here.’

Gareth Machin is the artistic director of Salisbury Playhouse in Wiltshire. He is also the director and writer of Moonfleet, a new British musical based on the well-loved novel by J Meade Faulkner. Set amongst the cliffs and caves of 18th century Dorset and is the story of a young man’s search for adventure and fulfilment. Haunted by the ghost of the marauding pirate Blackbeard, Moonfleet is a village of intrigue and drama where shadowy smugglers lurk. “Writing musicals is clearly very complicated because so many elements come into play,” he explains. “Also, generally they are very expensive to produce. Russell (Hepplewhite) and I have been working on it for an awfully long time and there have been a lot of challenges to adapt it for the stage.”

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Gareth Machin

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During rehearsals for Moonfleet an international espionage drama has played out in the narrow lanes and shopping precincts of the small cathedral city, after the recent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. It must have been unsettling; how would he describe the mood of the city? “It has been a challenging few weeks and there has been a lot of uncertainty,” he says. “But there has also been incredible resilience and we have been able to continue the work that we are doing here. Our audiences have remained very loyal, for which we are very grateful. There is a mood in the city that although this isn’t over by any stretch of the imagination, there is a desire to keep demonstrating that the city is open for business, that it’s moving on and that it doesn’t want to be defined by what’s happened here.”

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The cordon around the bench in Salisbury where the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, collapsed.

Following a successful bid for joint national portfolio funding from Arts Council England (ACE) the merger of the three arts organisations in the same postcode: Salisbury Playhouse, Salisbury Arts Centre and Salisbury International Arts Festival have collectively become ‘Wiltshire Creative’, and will commission, develop and produce cross-artform. What does this mean for the identity of the three – very different – organisations? “It’s a huge opportunity for the arts in Salisbury,” he says. “With public funding inevitably being very challenging, it is an incredible vote of confidence from the Arts Council, in the quality of the artistic offer, in what is a relatively small city like Salisbury. The level of investment that had been going to three organisations has been retained and consolidated in one large pan-arts organisation. It feels like we now have a more sustainable model, in terms of finance. But it also means artistically we will be a far more resilient company, artistically in so far as we will be working across different art forms, commissioning artists across different art forms. We will create a much more coherent and straightforward offer for Salisbury and the wider region.”

Unsurprisingly, at the 2011 census the population of the civil parish was 95.73% white. To his credit, he doesn’t subscribe to 50/50 gender quotas; when it comes to selling tickets, choosing suitable artists must continue to matter more than gender? “Sometimes the most obvious ways of defining diversity are not necessarily the most interesting way to define diversity, in a city like Salisbury,” he says simply. “But we want the broadest representation of voices and people within this organisation that is genuinely reflecting our wider community. We will never get this absolutely right because it will be a continual process. I think the fact that it is so high up the agenda now is incredibly useful.”

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On the subject of the ongoing revelations of abuses of power and sexual harassment within the industry he muses: “We have had to look at the procedures and processes that we have in place, so that if ever a situation arose here, we are confident that our systems are robust enough to be able to properly deal with a situation should it ever arise. It has been a very useful opportunity for us to review and have that conversation with our wider staff.”

What, I ask, are the qualities that make a good artistic director? “That’s the hardest question you’ve asked,” he says. A pause. “It’s not that far away from what qualities you need in a rehearsal room. You need to be comfortable bringing people in who are a lot cleverer than you, know a lot more than you and be comfortable with managing them and their ideas and be able to listen and be able to respond. Your job ultimately is to bring the best out of other people and to shape a lot of people’s different ideas and shape them into something that is coherent and strong. That’s what you do in a rehearsal room and that is how you are running a building.  In terms of vision and ego it is a balance because you have got to have a bit but if you have too much, it’s a problem.”

More than most, Machin is aware that his theatre can’t live on past glories. “I think there are a lot of lazy preconceptions about Salisbury audiences,” he says defiantly. “One of the great joys being here as long as I have, is that the audience still consistently surprise me at what they are up for. When I started here, the idea of doing new plays on the main stage was pretty scary. Whereas actually Barney Norris’s Echo’s End or Worst Wedding Ever, which we did a couple of years ago, are two of the best-selling shows in the time that I have been here. That in itself is hugely encouraging; we are allowed to swear on the main stage and people don’t walk out,” Machin says, smiling.

“With Moonfleet, I feel like we are developing a piece that we are all very proud of and we want to tell everybody that it is happening.”

Moonfleet runs at Salisbury Playhouse from Thursday 19 April to Saturday 5 May. The production is supported by Salisbury Playhouse’s Commissioning Circle.

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So I went along to the launch of Company

On reading the phrase ‘An invitation to the official launch of Elliott & Harper’s revival of Company at Joe Allen with director Marianne Elliott & cast members Rosalie Craig, Broadway legend Patti LuPone and Bake Off’s Mel Giedroyctogether in one sentence you know you’re in for quite a treat.

I mean, it’s not every day you get the opportunity to join 87 other strangers over breakfast with ‘critically acclaimed’ musical theatre people and Mel, is it?

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Photo by John Nguyen

So, with some degree of excitement I made my way to Jo Allen, and here are some things I noted.

To kick things off, David Benedict, Sondheim’s official biographer hosted an alright discussion with Rosalie Craig who will play the re-gendered lead role of Bobbi, Patti LuPone plays Joanne & Mel Giedroyc takes on the role of Sarah. All four ladies were on top form. Somebody’s phone went off during this bit and LuPone criticised Uma Thurman for her questionable turn in The Parisian Woman on Broadway.

The launch included an exclusive first performance of Being Alive by Rosalie Craig. And what she did was great. Slick, cool and laid-back, As well as the song being amazing on its own merits, Being Alive (aka one of the 1000 greatest songs of all time) sounded bloody good live from a female perspective and the crowd reacted quite positively to it, i.e. they clapped like loons.

Modern technology permitted me to catch the moment with a twitter vid (is that what we call it?) and I’ve placed it below these words. I even put on a shiny filter to create an ‘intimate’ feel. You’re welcome.

The next thing I knew, I found myself with various members of the press at a round table interview with Marianne Elliott and Mel Giedroyc. I took the opportunity to ask them how they feel about Stephen Sondheim originally stating that, with Company, he wanted a show “where the audience would sit for two hours screaming their heads off with laughter, and then go home and not be able to sleep.”

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Ladies Who Launch etc —  L to R LuPone, Craig, Elliott & Giedroyc. 

“Oh God… It is a very funny piece. But I suppose ultimately it is a serious subject,” Elliott says. “Look at the news recently about the pay gap between genders that revealed men are paid more than women, which is unbelievable. The reason for it is that women are not in managerial positions; they are staying at home, they are looking after kids or thinking about going part-time or starting a family. I know a lot of women in that situation – I was in a similar situation myself. It is a very serious issue for women in their mid-30’s because they probably know that if they want to have a family then the clock is ticking.”

What does Mel think? “I love the idea of an audience laughing a lot throughout a show. But I don’t like the idea of them not sleeping – they must laugh and then sleep,” Giedroyc says simply. “But not in the theatre! They must laugh until they are so tired that they go home and then they sleep.” Righty ho.

Company is shaping up to be one of the theatrical highlights of 2018. Well done all.

There were various pastries and refreshments and that was that.

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Company will run at the Gielgud Theatre from September 26 to December 22.

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Olivier Awards 2018: A blow-by-blow account

It may not have seemed like it, but 2017 was actually a record year for London’s theatre industry with 246 productions, 15,000,000 million tickets sold, 99 new plays, 13 new musicals and 45 dance and opera productions.

Thanks to a combination of blazing new musicals (An American in Paris, Girl From The North Country & Hamilton) and outstanding new plays (Ink, Killology & The Revlon Girl) it’s a great time for British theatre.

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The Olivier Awards were broadcast live from The Royal Albert Hall on Magic FM, which was quite funny because the unsuspecting public heard the host Catherine Tate, swear multiple times. It didn’t go well. The ‘highlights’ were broadcast into a condensed 90-minute slot on ITV1 at 10.20pm. Tate was the host who promised us a safe pair of hands but delivered us nothing really.

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Catherine Tate

Most of Tate’s presenting carried a frisson of shambles – it was also incredibly clumsy, with an ill-judged quip about the Time’s Up movement and a joke about sexual harassment. She forgot to wear her Time’s Up badge too. Hm.

Unsurprisingly, the ratings averaged just under 600,000 TV viewers (down 40% on the 1 million people who tuned in in 2017 when the ceremony was scheduled in the prime-time slot between 8-9pm.) This does need sorting out; broadcast the ceremony live and hire a decent host.  Cheers!

Anyway, hip hop musical Hamilton opened the show and swept the board, winning seven of the thirteen awards it was nominated for, including best actor in a musical, best new musical and outstanding achievement in music. The Ferryman duly won best new play, best director for Sam Mendes and best actress for Laura Donnelly. The National Theatre clinched five trophies including best musical revival for Follies and best revival for Angels in America.

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The cast of Hamilton

Bryan Cranston won best actor for his role in Network (Andrew Garfield was robbed). Denise Gough won best actress for her sublime performance in Angels in America. James Graham won the award for best new comedy for Labour of Love, which was good news.

More amazingly still is the fact that the Bob Dylan musical Girl From The North Country (which felt like mastery on stage) won two awards. Sheila Atim (best supporting actress in a musical) and Shirley Henderson (best actress in a musical).

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Girl From The North County’s Sheila Atim

There were two rather lovely, but similar, tap performances from the cast of Young Frankenstein and 42nd Street in the first half. Lots of glitz and glitter too.

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The cast of Young Frankenstein

The fiasco, however, was the In Memoriam segment, where Michael Sheen introduced the segment, thanking those included “and many others who aren’t… for your contribution to our stages.” Unfortunately, they left out Sir Peter Hall. Which was pretty stupid but what can you do. Hall was the creator of the Royal Shakespeare Company and built up the National Theatre and died in September last year.

I lost the thread of what was going on and before I knew it American musical theatre legend Chita Rivera popped up, marking the 60th anniversary of the London opening of West Side Story. She seemed happy to be there so that was good.

“We are hugely sorry for the oversight of leaving Sir Peter Hall out of our In Memoriam,” said the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) in a statement this morning. Good grief.

David Lan was awarded a special award in recognition of his work leading the Young Vic for the past 18 years, before retiring earlier this year. He gave a rousing and genuinely political speech. It felt like the show should probably have just ended there. It didn’t though.

There was then a special performance celebrating 50 years of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, featuring Jason Donovan, Linzi Hateley and Lee Mead. The anti-climax of a performance had just enough star quality to hide the song’s distinct lack of brilliance.

You (the audience) have been amazing. I have been adequate for my price range,” said Tate closing the ceremony. Indeed.

Actually, theatre is often at its best when it takes you by surprise and other than Tracie Bennett (her victory lap performance of I’m Still Here is worth watching on ITV Player) not winning anything for her performance in Follies, this year had a pungent whiff of inevitable to it all. Shame really.

FULL LIST FOR THE OLIVIER AWARDS 2018 WITH MASTERCARD

AMERICAN AIRLINES BEST NEW PLAY

The Ferryman at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court Theatre and Gielgud Theatre

BEST NEW COMEDY

Labour Of Love at Noël Coward Theatre

BEST NEW DANCE PRODUCTION

Flight Pattern by Crystal Pite for The Royal Ballet at Royal Opera House

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN DANCE

Francesca Velicu for her performance in English National Ballet’s production of Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre Du Printemps at Sadler’s Wells

BEST ENTERTAINMENT AND FAMILY

Dick Whittington at London Palladium

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Vicki Mortimer for Follies at National Theatre – Olivier

DELTA LIVE AWARD FOR BEST SOUND DESIGN

Nevin Steinberg for Hamilton at Victoria Palace Theatre

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Bertie Carvel for Ink at Almeida Theatre and Duke of York’s Theatre

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Denise Gough for Angels In America at National Theatre – Lyttelton

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN AFFILIATE THEATRE

Killology at Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre, a co-production with Sherman Theatre Cardiff

BLUE-I THEATRE TECHNOLOGY AWARD FOR BEST SET DESIGN

Bob Crowley and 59 Productions for An American In Paris at Dominion Theatre

WHITE LIGHT AWARD FOR BEST LIGHTING DESIGN

Howell Binkley for Hamilton at Victoria Palace Theatre

BEST ACTOR

Bryan Cranston for Network at National Theatre – Lyttelton

BEST ACTRESS

Laura Donnelly for The Ferryman at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court Theatre and Gielgud Theatre

BEST DIRECTOR

Sam Mendes for The Ferryman at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court Theatre and Gielgud Theatre

BEST NEW OPERA PRODUCTION

Semiramide at Royal Opera House

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN OPERA

Joyce DiDonato and Daniela Barcellona for their performances in Semiramide at Royal Opera House

BEST REVIVAL

Angels In America at National Theatre – Lyttelton

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN MUSIC

Hamilton – Composer-Lyricist: Lin-Manuel Miranda; Orchestrator: Alex Lacamoire at Victoria Palace Theatre

BEST THEATRE CHOREOGRAPHER

Andy Blankenbuehler for Hamilton at Victoria Palace Theatre

MAGIC RADIO BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Follies at National Theatre – Olivier

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL

Michael Jibson for Hamilton at Victoria Palace Theatre

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL

Sheila Atim for Girl From The North Country at The Old Vic and the Noël Coward Theatre

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Shirley Henderson for Girl From The North Country at The Old Vic and the Noël Coward Theatre

BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

Giles Terera for Hamilton at Victoria Palace Theatre

MASTERCARD BEST NEW MUSICAL

Hamilton at Victoria Palace Theatre

SPECIAL AWARD

David Lan

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Europe’s Theatres in Crisis as Venues Face Going Dark

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#SAVESTAGELIGHTING

As the theatrical landmark event of the year, the Olivier Awards approach us this weekend, a sinister cloud looms in the not too distant future.

In a nutshell this cloud comes in the form of proposed EU legislation which would ban the sale of almost all stage lighting units.

On the face of it, this may seem like somewhat of a trivial issue but when you examine the consequences of such a move, it is evident that this would cause cultural devastation across the continent.

Every size of venue will feel the impact of this, from local village halls, right the way up to the leading stadiums and arenas.

It will be immediate and overwhelming.

The shows we have all come to know and love would close as a result of this. War Horse, Curious Incident, Hamilton, Wicked, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, The Mousetrap, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the list is endless: they would all be lost within a matter of months.

If we can’t have shows there is little use for venues, and so many of the continent’s finest venues and producing houses would face unavoidable closure.

If there are no venues, there are fewer shows, meaning that there are fewer jobs for actors, musicians, directors, designers, technicians, scenic artists, carpenters, ushers, bar staff, agents, critics, admin staff, accountants, cleaners, security… you see where I’m going with this?

The list doesn’t just stop at theatre shows: Glastonbury, Electric Picnic, Oxegen, Sziget, Tommorrowland would all be brought to their knees. As well as all of the individual tours of the leading music artists in Europe.

Put simply, to our knowledge there are no forms of live performance reliant on stage lighting that are currently capable of surviving with this legislation in place.

In response to this, the Association of Lighting Designers (ALD) has launched the #SaveStageLighting campaign to protect the future of venues and theatres across Europe against the devastating effect of the EU’s proposed Eco-design Working Plan 2016-2019.

The #SaveStageLighting Campaign must demonstrate to the EU Energy Directorate, the widest possible cultural opposition to these proposals. Performances rely on theatrical lighting; it is the glue that binds every aspect of a performance together. Theatre lighting relies on having the right tools available to create just the right effect at just the right moment.

A successful outcome to the #SaveStageLighting campaign is essential to secure exemption for stage lighting from these proposals. The consequences of failure would be catastrophic to the entertainment industry and European culture.

What does the Eco-design Working Plan 2016-2019 entail?

The Eco-design Working Plan 2016-2019 proposes that after September 2020, only lighting fixtures that meet a certain level of energy efficiency will be allowed to be sold within the EU. In effect, they want to bring all stage lighting units under the same regulations that govern industrial and domestic lighting. The efficiency level that has been set is now so high that there are currently almost no products capable of achieving it, nor will there be within the given timescale.

What will the real impact of the plan be on European theatre?

At the first level, the impact is crippling in a financial sense. To replace stage lighting fixtures alone with new EU-approved sources would mean buying an entirely new rig of LED lighting units which is costly in itself. However, the requirement for venues would be full replacement of the building’s lighting infrastructure, including dimmers, cabling and control consoles as well as fixtures. To budget for and implement within two years will prove difficult for larger venues. For smaller venues it will be ruinous, and they will literally go dark.

More troubling still, however, is that currently very few theatrical-quality LED lighting fixtures come close to matching the beauty, subtlety, richness and poetry of tungsten light sources. The indication from LED manufacturers is that no new fixtures of this type will be able to meet these new regulations, even by 2020. The reality at the moment is that as units become irreplaceable, the entire repertoire of work reliant on those products will close until suitable replacement instruments are designed and manufactured.

With recent studies showing that stage lighting typically accounts for less than 5% of a theatre’s total energy consumption, focusing forced expenditure on the other 95% of a theatre’s energy consumption, where much greater energy savings are possible, surely makes greater economic sense.

We are appealing for your support. Follow us online at @SaveLighting on Twitter and @SaveStageLighting on Facebook. From there you’ll easily be able to find our petition, links to your MEPs and ways to contact the EU directly.

Lets do everything we can to #SaveStageLighting!
Robbie Butler
Lighting Designer and #SaveStageLighting campaign coordinator.

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Our creative curriculum isn’t going down without a fight: The Big Arts & Education Debate

The English Baccalaureate (EBbacc) in its current form is depriving the next generation of creative talent. Since 2010 there has been a 28% drop in the number of children taking creative GCSEs, with a similar drop in the number of creative arts teachers being trained. The Government’s ambition is to see 90% of GCSE pupils choosing the EBacc subject combination by 2025. Alarming, eh?

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The EBacc leaves no room for creative, technical and artistic subjects. The structural problems of this ‘performance measure’ are causing the arts to be eroded in our school curriculums. Currently, the EBacc – which measures schools’ performances – does not include arts subjects. Anyone with their head screwed on will recognise that the Department for Education is at the mercy of a Conservative government in headlong pursuit of Brexit and with no great sympathy or appreciation of the cultural sector.

It’s probably worth mentioning that during 2015-2016 (before the EU referendum) the creative industries grew at twice the rate of the wider economy, according to the department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Economic Estimates for 2016. This information also reveals that the creative industries make up 5.3% of the UK economy. Arguments that the sector as a whole continues to thrive – despite funding cuts – fall on deaf ears.

But a creative education is a valuable phenomenon, socially, politically as well as aesthetically. The arts offer young people certain experiences that other subjects cannot give, for it is a democracy which functions on a transformative level, despite, or maybe because of its poverty. Whether many of our young people swim or flounder as chaos swirls and globalised multinationals determine everyone’s lifestyle will depend on our humanity today. We have to act now.

On Friday 20 April I will be hosting The Big Arts & Education Debate alongside Birmingham Rep’s Associate Director, Steve Ball. This symposium will take place on the Rep’s main stage and will provide a space to discuss the challenges facing our education system that is increasingly individualistic in its narrow vocational thrust rather than being nourishing and inclusive.

Taking part in The Big Arts & Education Debate is playwright James Graham; Indhu Rubasingham, Artistic Director of Tricycle Theatre; Cassie Chadderton, Head of UK Theatre; Ammo Talwar, CEO of Punch Records; Christine Quinn, West Midlands Regional Schools Commissioner; Pauline Tambling CBE, CEO of Creative & Cultural Skills and Tim Boyes CEO of Birmingham Education Partnership.

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James Graham

The rise of initiatives such as Bacc For The Future and the London Theatre Consortium’s Creative Learning Symposium are shining a light on the current crisis, with 200 organisations and 30,000 individuals determined to bring about change. To deprive state educated children the opportunities to pursue a career in the arts is nothing short of perverse. Diversity is a big priority, but this should include class too.

The Big Arts and Education Debate is a prophetic and practical opportunity to come together to address this very serious situation. We very much look forward to seeing what recommendations and solutions that we can achieve together next month.

The Big Arts and Education Debate takes place at Birmingham Repertory Theatre on Friday 20 April, 2 – 5pm.

Tickets £10 / £5 concessions are available from birmingham-rep.co.uk / 0121 236 4455.

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The Gate, Ellen McDougall: ‘There is an unconscious bias in the way that we categorise people and often that is invisibly prejudiced.’

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Ellen McDougal

Ellen has just come from rehearsals for the world premiere of Effigies of Wickedness, a project that she is directing, in collaboration with English National Opera. The cabaret includes a number of songs banned by the Nazis in the ’30s. During the Nazi reign, the Weimar cabaret performed the songs as a celebration of difference but were later exiled. What can audiences expect from this unlikely collaboration? “For me success will be opportunity to bring together different worlds: opera, there’s also the cabaret scene in London that some of the artists we are working with are really connected with. When the music was first written it came out of a very strong queer community from Weimar, Berlin. What I don’t want it to be is a chocolate box all escape to the 1930’s. That said, the satire and wit in the music is incredibly joyous,” says McDougall.

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Effigies for Wickedness 

For most of our time together, McDougall, artistic director of the Gate, Notting Hill looks me right in the eye and gives long, careful answers. Where does she get her confidence? “I don’t know… I don’t know that I’ve got loads of confidence,” she says.

” remember writing Purni Morell an email after I left the studio at the Unicorn, where I was director in residence very early on in my career. She’d sent me to Vienna to see shows. I wrote her this email saying: ‘having you believe in me helped me to believe in myself’. I think that is definitely one example of where confidence can be found. By being backed by somebody that you truly admire.”

I ask Ellen whether her gender has ever held her back professionally. “It’s impossible to answer that question as I’m not the person giving me opportunities, I guess,” she says thoughtfully. “But I would say that I haven’t always been very front-footed as a director. I think there is sometimes a structure in theatre where directors are expected to be loud, confident and demanding; in terms of getting pitches listened to or getting people’s attention and that’s never been something I’m comfortable doing or doing very well. I think those structures are founded on patriarchal patterns but the idea that that favours men is probably true,” she says.

McDougall is leading the way in a renaissance in fringe and pub theatre that is often a stomping ground for radical emerging artists. But with conversations currently raging around fair pay on the fringe, does she think that the fringe model is broken? “There are big important questions about diversity, about who is getting the chance to make work and then there is a conversation about who is privileged enough to be able to afford to work for free,” she explains. “The thing of treating artists badly and expecting too much of them and putting demands on them in structures that exclude anyone on low income; the subsidised sector is as much to blame, I would say, probably across the board. We need to be interrogating those structures more rigorously and thinking about the way we talk to artists and we need to be including them in those conversations. That’s a more useful debate to be having, I think.”

What is her best quality? “I like to think that I’m collaborative and that I’m good at listening,” she says. “I’m definitely rigorous, borderline perfectionist. I like to think that I am imaginative. I went to an artist talk in the summer as part of the Shubbak Festival and the panel were female artists from the Arab world and one of them said that she hadn’t noticed initially but she’d suddenly realised that her work was often described in the terms that you would use to describe settings on a washing machine – such as delicate or soft. But that idea that somehow the way her work was being viewed was gendered. The serious thing that she was pointing out was that there is an unconscious bias that goes on in the way we categorise people and often that is invisibly prejudiced,” says McDougall.

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Ellen McDougall 

In 2011 Ellen received an Olivier Award nomination for her first show, Ivan and The Dogs. What, I ask, does she think of the 2018 nominations? “I think that the idea that there is a best is weird,” she says with a smile. “The idea that art can be quantified and compared is really weird. When I went to the Olivier’s in 2011, I was nearly sick everywhere because I was so nervous. I mean, they announced the category my show was nominated in after a performance by Barry Manilow. Sean Holmes’ production of Blasted won and he spoke about Sarah Kane and what she might have made of it all after the reception that show had when it first opened. Having said that, getting people excited about all forms of theatre is really brilliant, and it definitely does that.”

At this point, we discuss climate change, rising CO2 levels, melting of ice caps and the wildlife TV series Blue Planet. It is a subject that is very close to McDougall’s heart. “The context of making theatre in the knowledge of climate change: how the way we make stuff, the stories we tell. The structures need to change in order to account for that. I feel like it is something that should be on the agenda all the time – it often gets dropped off because it requires deep thought and a willingness to experiment. But we’ve got to talk about it and think about it because it relates to everything. To me, it underpins so much of what is happening in the world. Brexit, the swing to the right… And somewhere I think the knowledge that we all have that climate change is happening and it is fucking terrifying is in conversation with all that.”

Pia Laborde Noguez 2 Trust, Gate Theatre.

Trust, Gate Theatre. Photo credit: Ikin Yum 

She’s not finished. “I’m proud that Trust had a set that was largely recyclable or reusable and some of the things that weren’t recyclable or reusable are things they have recycled from a previous show at the Gate. There is an economy that is starting to happen within what we are doing in our season that means we are trying to lower the impact of our footprint with the shows and that is something we will continue to do and interrogate. I think there is something incredibly exciting about empowering artists to think about how the things they make are made.”

Effigies for Wickedness (Songs banned by the Nazis) runs 03 May to 02 June.

Box Office 020 7229 0706

 

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

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

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

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Erica Whyman OBE

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

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

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

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

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Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hamlet runs at Hackney Empire until 31 March 2018 

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

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

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The Olivier Awards 2018: who should win, and who will win

Olivier-Awards

The shortlist this year is pretty shocking in the main (where is The Grinning Man in Best New Musical?!?) but from the nominees I’ve been given I have picked our deserving winners, and I’ve also taken a guess at who might actually win.

‘FYI’ Hamilton has become the most nominated production in Olivier Awards history with 13 nominations, which is not surprising. 

OLIVIER AWARDS 2018 WITH MASTERCARD

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Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical

Shortlist: Michael Jibson for Hamilton, Ross Noble for Young Frankenstein, Jason Pennycooke for HamiltonCleve September for Hamilton

Who I want to win: Ross Noble – hero. 

Who I think will win: Michael Jibson

Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical

Shortlist: Sheila Atim for Girl From The North Country, Tracie Bennett for Follies

Rachel John for HamiltonLesley Joseph for Young Frankenstein

Who I want to win: Lesley Joseph can do one.Tracie Bennett’s effortless mastery of the whole ‘singing some good songs quite well’ ‘thing’ in a supporting role is unbeatable. 

Best New Musical

Shortlist: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Follies, Girl From The North Country & Hamilton 

Who I want to win: Choosing between all these shows is like choosing your favourite child – if I had a gun to my head I would pick Follies.

Who I think will win: Hamilton, obvs.

Best Entertainment and Family

Shortlist: David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny, Derren Brown: Underground at Playhouse Theatre, Dick Whittington & Five Guys Named Moe. 

Who I want to win: As much as I admired Cameron Mackintosh’s pop-up Spiegeltent and I’d quite like to go to the pub with Derren Brown – I simply love Dick. So it’s the triumphant Dick Whittington at the London Palladium, for me. Who I think will win: Dick Whittington 

Best Theatre Choreographer 

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Shortlist: Andy Blankenbuehler for HamiltonBill Deamer for FolliesKate Prince for Everybody’s Talking About JamieRandy Skinner for 42nd Street, Christopher Wheeldon for An American In Paris

Who I want to win: Well we’re spoiled for choice here. I’d say Bill Deamer for Follies: world class choreography. 

Who I think will win: Bill Deamer for Follies 

 Magic Radio Best Musical Revival

Shortlist: 42nd Street, Follies & On The Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Who I want to win: Only three nominees here which seems a bit rude. Follies is the best of the lot, though, isn’t it? Who I think will win: I’m predicting a surprise win for On The Town and if something else happens on the night I’ll simply come back and edit this post.

 Best Actor in a Musical

Shortlist: Ciarán Hinds for Girl From The North Country, John McCrea for Everybody’s Talking About JamieGiles Terera for Hamilton & Jamael Westman for Hamilton. Who I want to win: Tough one but going with my gut; Giles Terera Who I think will win: Giles Terera. 

Best Actress in a Musical

Shortlist: Janie Dee for FolliesShirley Henderson for Girl From The North CountryImelda Staunton for Follies & Josie Walker for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. 

Who I want to win: Imelda! Come on you buggers, show some respect to Britain’s greatest musical theatre chanteuse. Who I think will win: Basically if Imelda wins for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf then Janie Dee will get it, and if she doesn’t then Imelda will win etc.

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Follies

Best Revival

Shortlist: Angels In America at National Theatre, Hamlet at Almeida Theatre, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? & Witness For The Prosecution at London County Hall

Who I want to win: Angels in America has made its mark on a global level with a Broadway run in full swing. It is also a masterpiece. Who I think will win: Follies. 

Best New Comedy

Shortlist: Dry Powder (Hampstead Theatre), Labour Of LoveMischief Movie Night, &The Miser. 

Who I want to win: In a normal world James Graham’s buoyant Labour of Love will walk this, but we don’t really live in a normal world. Who I think will win: Mischief Movie Night 

Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre

Shortlist: The B*easts at Bush Theatre, Killology the Royal Court, The Red Lion at Trafalgar Studios 2 & The Revlon Girl at Park Theatre

Who I want to win: In terms of the show that I’d happily sit through again this’ll have to be The B*easts. Who I think will win: I predict a smash and grab win from The Revlon Girl. 

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The Revlon Girl

White Light Award for Best Lighting Design

Shortlist: Howell Binkley for HamiltonPaule Constable for Angels In America, Paule Constable for Follies & Jan Versweyveld for Network. 

Who I want to win:  Paule Constable. No contest. Who I think will win: Paule Constable for Follies. 

Best Sound Design

Shortlist: Tom Gibbons for HamletGareth Owen for Bat Out Of Hell The MusicalEric Sleichim for NetworkNevin Steinberg for Hamilton

Who I want to win: I’ll be happy with anyone except Bat Out Of Hell. Anyone.  Who I think will win: Tom Gibbons for Hamlet. Revolutionary! 

Best Costume Design

Shortlist: Hugh Durrant for Dick Whittington at London Palladium, Roger Kirk for 42nd Street, Vicki Mortimer for Follies & Paul Tazewell for Hamilton. 

Who I want to win: Vicki Mortimer. Who I think will win: Vicky Mortimer (by a country mile)

 Blue-i Theatre Technology Award for Best Set Design

Shortlist: Bunny Christie for InkBob Crowley and 59 Productions for An American In Paris, Rob Howell for The Ferryman & Vicki Mortimer for Follies. 

Who I want to win: Bob Crowley is a genius and 59 Productions have established themselves as a unique force of nature. Who I think will win: Vicky Mortimer for Follies.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Shortlist: Bertie Carvel for InkJohn Hodgkinson for The FerrymanJames McArdle for Angels In America & Peter Polycarpou for Oslo

Who I want to win: Bertie Carvel. Who I think will win: Bertie Carvel.  

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Shortlist: Bríd Brennan for The Ferryman, Denise Gough for Angels In America, Dearbhla Molloy for The Ferryman & Imogen Poots for Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? 

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Denise Gough in Angels in America

Who I want to win: As much as I like Imogen Poots (and that ‘muchness’ is somewhere in the region of ‘not much at all really’), I’d have to go for Gough here. Denise Gough. Who I think will win: Denise Gough.

Best Actor

Shortlist: Paddy Considine for The FerrymanBryan Cranston for NetworkAndrew Garfield for Angels In AmericaAndrew Scott for Hamlet

Who I want to win: Andrew Scott’s Hamlet was one for the ages. La Scott 100%. Who I think will win:  Andrew Garfield will win, presumably. 

 Best Actress

Shortlist: Laura Donnelly for The Ferryman, Lesley Manville for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Audra McDonald for Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill & Imelda Staunton for Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

Who I want to win: The best shortlist of the lot. Imelda Staunton to win. Who I think will win: Imelda Staunton. 

Best Director 

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The Ferrymam

Shortlist: Who I think will win:  Dominic Cooke for FolliesMarianne Elliott for Angels In AmericaRupert Goold for Ink & Thomas Kail for Hamilton & Sam Mendes for The Ferryman. 

Who I want to win: Marianne Elliott. Who I think will win: Sam Mendes. 

 Virgin Atlantic Best New Play

Shortlist: The Ferryman, Ink, Network & Oslo. 

Who I want to win: I’d say in any other year Ink would and would win this. Who I think will win: The Ferryman. 

Mastercard Best New Musical

Shortlist:  An American In Paris, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Girl From The North Country, Hamilton & Young Frankenstein. 

Who I want to win: Girl From The North Country. Who I think will win: Hamilton. 

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is that.

Bookmark this page and come back on the night of the Olivier’s to see how I did, but be quick because I’m definitely going to come back and change all my predictions so that it looks like I knew what I was talking about.

And if you’re an artist and you don’t win, don’t worry – the awards are overrated and will look ridiculous on your mantelpiece. 

 

 

 

 

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

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

He is the ultimate unsung hero.

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Lou Stein

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

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

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

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Lou in rehearsals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Hodges
Sam Hodges in Rehearsals

Sam Hodges in Rehearsals

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

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

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

The Shadow Factory

The Shadow Factory

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE TRAILER OF THE SHADOW FACTORY

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

Box Office 023 8067 1771