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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

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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

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Bryony Lavery: ‘I don’t know a woman who hasn’t got a Me Too story – myself included.’

Bryony Lavery in rehearsals

Bryony Lavery in rehearsals

The playwright Bryony Lavery, best known for her play Frozen, which originally premiered at the Birmingham Rep in 1998 and ran on Broadway in 2004 when it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best New Play is a cool customer. Frozen is currently on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket starring Suranne Jones.

We are having a coffee at the heart of London in a Caffe Concerto. “This is my first west end show!” she says. “I don’t think of myself as a west end playwright – so that’s really exciting – but really what’s exciting is the excellence of the whole team.”

At 71, she looks gorgeous, with sparkly blue eyes and a playful spirit. Despite being busier than ever and in the middle of a tech week. “A writer doesn’t have to be around in tech but I like going and hanging around. It’s when you suddenly realise the actors disappeared because they have dressing rooms. So, actually you sit in the auditorium with the technical crew and chew the fat,” says the Yorkshire born writer.

If a west end play wasn’t enough, Lavery co-wrote Brighton Rock, a new stage adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic 1930s novel. “My job is to transfer it from one medium to another and make it excitingly dramatic.”

“I really love adapting. I find it fascinating because it teaches you stuff that helps original writing and it spins my brain around because I don’t think I’m Graham Greene or David Walliam’s The Midnight Gang (Chichester) or Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (Chester). Each has similarities that one has to address but I love it. If you are doing an original work you have to start choosing what you’re doing much earlier,” Lavery says.

Her commitment to international and regional work is remarkable. Does she enjoy writing for the regions? “I’m not a Londoner; I live in London but I came from the regions,” Lavery says.

“I don’t want theatre to be London-centric, I like doing work in the regions. I do think critics mostly judge work differently because it’s much easier to go one tube stop to the Donmar. Therefore that work gets esteemed more than the wonderful work going on in regional theatres.” She continues. “Because critics are snobs and lazy, bar a few honourable exceptions. Touring is tremendously hard work so anything that means people can walk to their theatre is great. I sound like Emily Pankhurst of regional theatre!” Lavery says, miming the act of gagging.

What does she think of Fake News? “I think I avoid the news…  But it seeps into the work in sub-textual things. I don’t think it’s my strength to write about Fake News or the current climate. I couldn’t bear to write about Brexit – I just couldn’t bear it.”

Is she still a feminist? “Feminist forever!” Bryony booms. “I’ve been one since I was born. You’d be an idiot, in my view, not to be.”

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Bryony Lavery: “Feminist forever!”

She supports the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements fighting against sexual harassment, she says, telling me, “I don’t know a woman who hasn’t got a ‘Me Too’ story – myself included. Men can have an inkling but can never fully understand that we’ve lived with this reality for so long. It’s so engrained because it requires men to give up power and nobody wants to give up power. I am watching it all with interest and hope with a lot of caution…” She peters out, lost in thought.

What does she think about music and drama falling to the lowest level in a decade as a result of the EBacc and education cuts? “When I was growing up the only theatre I saw was at Dewsbury Variety,” she recalls. “I used to get on the bus and see stuff touring at Leeds Grand. When I see work coming through NT Connections what that practice does for young people: their skill, their social acumen or their confidence. It’s a no brainer – let children learn… I’m getting incoherent with rage about it. What do I think about it? I think it stinks,” says Lavery.

She has a phenomenal sense of humour, so I ask her who would play her in a film about her life? “Here’s a story,” she says, smiling. “Jonathan Mumby and I were on holiday in Greece and in the sea playing a game called: ‘Casting The Biopic’ and we cast David Essex for his part and for me he suggested Linda Gray from the American soap Dallas… It made me laugh so much because it’s so wrong it’s right – I laughed so hard that I burst an ear drum,” she recalls.

Lavery is off to another meeting. “Next year I am trying to get a bit of a slow year,” she says, as she departs. “I have said that for the last ten years. I work quite fast but sometimes I have to say no – I say no to things that don’t excite me and I need to practice saying no a bit more.  I think I’ve gobbed on enough.”

Brighton Rock will open at York Theatre Royal from the 16 February to 3 March and then tours to Brighton, Colchester, Hull, Cheltenham, Winchester, Watford, Birmingham, Newcastle, Mold, Derby and Salford.

Frozen runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 21 February to 5 May.

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

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

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

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Wonderland Rehearsals – Photo credit Darren Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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BLOW YOUR TRUMPETS ANGELS: Guest blog by Jeremy Goldstein

Jeremy Goldstein
Henry Woolf and Jeremy Goldstein

Henry Woolf and Jeremy Goldstein Photo: Darren Black

This week I’m getting ready to take ‘Truth to Power Café’ to Yorkshire ahead of Australia and The Netherlands.  The idea for the show grew from a new play I’m working on called ‘Spider Love’  which is inspired by the political and philosophical beliefs of Harold Pinter and his Hackney Gang.  The Gang were a group of six friends who included my late father Mick Goldstein and Henry Woolf who at 87, is the last one alive. In 1955, Harold based his protagonist Len, on Mick in his one and only novel ‘The Dwarfs’, and Henry directed Harold’s first play ‘The Room’ just before ‘The Birthday Party’ opened in 1958.

Last week I went to see Ian Rickson’s West End revival of ‘The Birthday Party’   I was reminded the play is about power and occupation. Stanley is occupied by the external forces of Goldberg and McCann and we, the audience are left to ponder his plight. The last time I saw it was in the late 1980’s. I was 16 and sitting in Harold’s front room in Holland Park.    My hair was bleached blond and I was wearing my Frankie Goes to Hollywood leather jacket.  Harold had invited my father and I to lunch and we ended up watching the BBC TV production of ‘The Birthday Party’ with him in the role of Goldberg.  At the end of the video Mick burst into tears, and Harold roared with laughter as if the play was an in-joke between them.  Maybe they shared Stanley’s secret?  I will never know, but this was the only time I’d ever seen my father cry, and it was a profound and beautiful moment I will never forget.

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Ele Pavlou Photo: Sarah Hickson

Just before my father died in 2014 we were estranged and not speaking.  I tried to patch things up, but my letter arrived the day he died so he never got to read it.  I thought our relationship was forever broken, but as time went on, I discovered relationships with our loved ones, continue to evolve even in death, and these projects ‘Truth to Power Café’ and ‘Spider Love’ have become an attempt to reconcile my failed relationship with my father Mick.

In amongst Mick’s possessions I found a play he’d written in 1975.  I knew the play existed as I remember acting out all the parts as a 9-year-old-boy.  Forty years on, I was surprised to discover the play is in fact Mick’s personal response to his friendship with Harold, and what it was like for him to be written into ‘The Dwarfs’ as Len.  While I was reading the play, I visited the Harold Pinter Archive at the British Library, where for the first time I read a treasure trove of original letters between Harold, Henry and Mick. Many of the letters were written in the 1950’s, so it was through these letters, that I got to know my father as a young man for the first time.

In 2015, I arranged to meet Henry who started sending me original poetry in response to ’Spider Love’, the verse of which I’ve been able to incorporate into my own adaptation of my father’s text and which I now perform in ‘Truth to Power Café’.  I also created a part for Henry who appears in ‘Spider Love’ as himself.  We joke it’s the part he was born to play.  Last October, we staged a reading of ‘Spider Love’ to a packed British Library theatre.  The event included an on stage conversation between Pinter’s biographer Michael Bilington and Henry.  Thanks to Carl we’re able to show you the video for the first time.

When we eventually mount our production of ‘Spider Love’ we’ll be able to stage it in the shadow of the brave and courageous souls taking part in the ‘Truth to Power Café’.

This year alone we expect to engage at least a hundred participants.

Everyone taking part in the Café has five minutes to respond to this question before a live audience.

‘Who has power over you and what do you want to say to them?’

I talk about my father.

I wonder what Stanley would have said?

‘Truth to Power Café’ is a global platform for speaking truth to power in a theatrical context inspired by the philosophical beliefs of Harold Pinter and his Hackney Gang and presented in in association with Index on Censorship.  Director Jen Heyes. Photography Sarah Hickson.

Upcoming performances include Cast in Doncaster on 8th February and Theatre in the Mill in Bradford on 9th February.  This week the project launches in Australia for Festival 2018  the arts and cultural programme for Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, and in The Netherlands for Leeuwarden European Capital of Culture.

For more info and to sign up visit https://www.truthtopower.co.uk/

The Birthday Party is running at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14th April 

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Streams ahead: NT LIVE

National Theatre Live is invaluable. You could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the notion of a “broadcast theatre performance” in a cinema. Since launching, NT Live broadcasts have been seen by an audience of over 7 million people. The first season began in June 2009 with the acclaimed production of Phédre starring Helen Mirren. Recent broadcasts include Follies, Angels in America, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Hedda Gabler.

Upcoming broadcasts include Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell and Julius Caesar featuring Ben Whishaw. The National broadcast some of the best of British theatre to 2,500 venues in 60 countries around the world including over 700 hundred in the UK.

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Obviously, it’s better to be in the theatre, that goes without saying. Nevertheless, it is true that it is much better to sometimes sit in a cinema in comfort, with a drink in your hand than it is to sit in the worst seat in a theatre. Seats in some theatres are bloody terrible. There are some seats at the top level of The Barbican where you can see more of what is going on in the wings that what is happening on the stage.

It is worth remembering that not everyone has a theatre on their doorstep. In general, NT Live is the most revolutionary thing to happen to the theatre in our lifetime because theatre, which is often condemned as elitist, is now available to anyone who wants it – anywhere: If you can get to a cinema you can see the best of theatre –  at a fraction of the price.

NT Live screenings are a welcome addition to the local Odeon or Picture House for any culture vulture. But they are no alternative. That doesn’t mean it’s not amazing, it just means we need to focus on the future but not lose sight of the value of live performance.

I attended the ‘studio audience’ for the NT Live broadcast of Follies from the theatre. There were rows of seats blocked off in the stalls, with cameras flying overhead and the lighting ever so slightly adjusted for film. It was a wonderful experience and the spectacle of the production carried across to film remarkably well. 

Anyway, I put some questions to the NT Live team and they cleared up some queries that I had, which was ideal.  (You’re welcome)

What is NT Live? 

National Theatre Live started in 2009 as a way to increase access to our work for those audiences who might not have the opportunity to see it. It was initially conceived for UK audiences but the response was so positive, we started screening internationally too. We currently screen to 2500 venues in 60 countries, 700 of which are in the UK which is around 90% and the same as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Our first broadcast was Phedre with Helen Mirren which was seen by over 50,000 people. Our single biggest broadcast is Hamlet with Benendict Cumberbatch which has been seen by more than 800,000 people. Our current worldwide audience is almost 8 million

Who owns it and where are the NT Live offices?

It’s run and managed by the National Theatre and the NT Live team are based at the National Theatre building.

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof captured live at the Apollo Theatre during its West End run on February 22

Who are NT Live personnel? 

There are a dedicated number of people who work on NT Live across production, distribution, marketing and press. We work with a freelance team of operators across cameras, sound and lighting for the broadcasts themselves. The Bridge are using NT Live to broadcast Julius Caesar. The team at the Bridge are great friends of ours. Nicholas Hytner is our former director and Nick Starr former executive director here. We hope to broadcast more of their productions in the future. Working with other theatres has been part of the NT Live programme since our second year and supports us in bringing the best of British theatre to cinema audiences.

Is it a stand-alone live broadcast company?

NT Live is run and managed by the National Theatre.

Does it get public funding?

Our pilot season in 2009 was made possible by seed funding from Arts Council England and NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and subsequently through a mix of National Theatre investment and sponsorship. We also have a partnership with Sky Arts which is a year old but has been a great success in its first year and we’re looking forward to see where it will go next.

Can any theatre pay for it and use it? e.g. The Globe.

The Globe and ENO already broadcast their own shows which they organise themselves, this means working with other theatres in London We regularly work with other London theatres including the Young Vic, The Old Vic and the Donmar Warehouse as well as other West End producers. We really enjoy working with other theatres and getting to show their great productions to cinema audiences around the world.

How about a regional theatre?

We have worked with Complicite to broadcast A Disappearing Number live from Theatre Royal in Plymouth as well as Manchester International Festival to broadcast their production of Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh. We also broadcast Of Mice and Men on Broadway, broadcasting more regional theatre is something we’re keen to do more of in the future. Some find it confusing that it has the name NT Live. It both gives it prestige and seems to limit it. What particularly excited us about this concept was the fact that it was captured and broadcast live and that’s why the live is there.  

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Imelda Staunton who plays Sally Durrant and Janie Dee who plays Phyllis Rogers Stone waiting to go on stage © Ellie Kurttz

 How are cinema prices decided?

Each cinema chain decides on pricing according to their individual pricing plans.

How do Encore Screenings work?

We programme Encore screenings as a way for audiences to access our productions at more convenient times but also so we are able to give more opportunities to see our most popular broadcasts.

How are the age ratings given?

We are subject to BBFC ratings in the UK and provide the broadcasts to them for classification. They also provide guidance for our live broadcasts based on information we provide to them ahead of the broadcast taking place.

So there we have it. 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof captured live at the Apollo Theatre during its West End run on February 22, Julius Caesar live from the Bridge Theatre on March 22 and Macbeth live from the National Theatre on May 10