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.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.”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