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

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

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

Sheila Atim at Olivier Awards 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheila Atim in Shanty Productions Twelfth Night

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

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

Sheila Atim in Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar

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

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

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

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

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

She thinks for a moment.

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

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

An American in Paris’ Leanne Cope: ‘You may be surprised that you do, in fact, like ballet.’

Leanne Cope
Leanne Cope

Leanne Cope

Leanne Cope created the role of Lise Dassin (Christopher Wheeldon’s award-winning An American in Paris) for Théâtre du Châtelet and on Broadway. A major North American tour continues now and a new production will open in Tokyo in January 2019.

An American in Paris is being beamed into cinemas worldwide on May 16 and so I thought it would be good to talk to Leanne, a couple of days after the Olivier Awards, about the impending cinema release.

Here’s how the chat went…

Hi Leanne, how are you?

I’m very well thank you.

Being the ruthless ‘journalist’ that I am, I DM’d your former co-star Ashley Day asking him for help to terrorise you and he replied: “Oh you can’t! She’s the loveliest, kindest, delicate, talented, understated, beautiful women alive.” That’s nice isn’t it.

Ha! I remember when I first met Ashley at An American in Paris audition, I happened to be in London. I recall him walking in the room and him being the most handsome man that I had ever seen; we did the Liza scene together and I turned to the audition panel and asked: ‘Can he dance?’ they said yes and I said: I don’t think we should see anyone else today. A couple of weeks later I got the message that he was to be my Jerry Mulligan and we went to dinner at Joe Allen’s in New York. We were there for five hours. It is nice to do that before you step in the rehearsal room; with Robbie, I didn’t know him at all but we spent months in a rehearsal room. I knew with Ashley that it would be wham-bam-thank you, mam and straight into show mode; I learnt so much from Ashley Day. He’s truly amazing.

Ashley Day and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris

Ashley Day and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris

An American in Paris will be screening in cinemas around the world this month to tens of millions of people. How did you feel about the process of filming the show for film?

It was nerve wracking, if I’m honest. When I was in the Royal Ballet we did do live cinema relays. But what was nice about this process was knowing that we had three takes. We also had two pick-up shot days where they could do close-ups on stage. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work but it all came together. The film is beautiful and they have captured the dance so well. I think that’s down to the genius of our director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. I was worried about how the scenery would look on film but when you see the glorious design by the Olivier Award winning 59 Productions, it almost looks like we are walking through Paris. I attended a screening recently with the cast and creatives. Seriously, I watched a lot of it through my own fingers – like when you watch a horror movie – however they’ve done a brilliant job and I am very proud of it.

Were there any major alterations in the filming of the show for film?

The blueprint of the show pretty much stayed the same. Christopher changed minimal things; he gets bored very quickly. So, every time he would come to the show he would make minor changes. It was nice for him to address all those little details niggling away I guess. The biggest adjustment for myself and Robbie Fairchild and to learn so much from them during the filming. It was a remarkable process.

Robbie Fairchild and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris

Robbie Fairchild and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris

Great! What are you up to at the moment?

I’m taking a bit of a rest, doing eight shows a week of An American in Paris was quite gruelling on the body. I’ve had a couple of auditions and I have some meetings coming up. I’m hoping to stay in the musical theatre world. I did 12 years at Royal Ballet too. An American in Paris kept me employed for nearly four years, which was ideal. I am excited about the future.

Why do you think people should come and see An American in Paris in cinemas then?

If you have a love for Gershwin’s music, classical ballet or breath-taking design then this is the show for you. There is so much in there at such a high standard. I’d come along anyway because you may be surprised that you do, in fact, like ballet. That’s what we found so amazing on the journey with this show; it’s a new interpretation and if you love the movie or the show in town then this is also a worthy companion.

Who or what are your musical influences?

John Travolta in Grease! I think I saw Saturday Night Fever and Grease way too young – things like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing made me want to be a dancer. The first musical I saw was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat at the London Palladium made me want to do musicals. I didn’t see a ballet until I got older.

An American in Paris is quite prescient in its representation of a gloomy Europe and a world in chaos. It feels fresh. Do you agree?

I think that theatre should always reflect what is going on in the world. Now has huge parallels to what was going on during World War 2. The fact we can rebuild ourselves, that cities can regenerate themselves to blossoming and into a city of light again. Each of these characters going through the effects of war, love and loss. Lise losing her parents, Milo Davenport trying to bring culture back to Paris. If we dressed ourselves in modern costume and changed the city this could have been written now. I don’t think it has a time span in it. What she learns from them and what they learn from her changes them all and for the better. It is a story of love and hope. I mean, what more can you want from a movie musical?

Is there anything that you’d like to add?

I went to the Olivier Awards recently and I personally feel that dance is not represented very well at all. It is not seen as equal to acting and singing and the fact that Clare Halse was not nominated for her performance in 42nd Street or similarly Robbie Fairchild for An American in Paris, them not being nominated is a crime. Perhaps they could create a different category. Triple threat, maybe?  Not many people can do what Robbie did in An American in Paris. It doesn’t have to be a male or female category, someone who can do all those things in a show and to that standard, should be recognised and celebrated. That’s all.

Tickets for An American in Paris are on sale at AnAmericanInParisCinema.com.

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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.

Erica Whyman headshot_2018_Photo by Ellie Kurttz _c_ RSC_209883

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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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.

Lou-Stein-700x455[1]

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

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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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Critical email gaffe – will it make The Bridge wise up?

I have a unique insight of those who labour in the corners of arts journalism and in my experience, the relationship between a PR and a critic has always been built on a nonsense inside a farce, but in recent years this relationship has contorted in bizarre and unexpected new ways.

Last week Lyn Gardner’s press ticket for the new Cirque Du Solei show ‘Ovo’ was withdrawn after her one star review of a previous show. The Guardian paid £73 for a ticket and sent another critic along to get a second opinion. Madness. Nowadays, theatre criticism is on the decline: it is an artisanal industry in a technological age. 

Yesterday, news broke that the publicist for the Bridge Theatre, London run of Julius Caesar sent an email by accident, intended for directors Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr regarding press seat allocations for the opening of that show, to fifty critics and bloggers. The attachment showed how many tickets each critic had been allocated and which seats they were to be sat in. Hytner hit reply-all, so everyone saw. Writing from his iPhone: “Prominent critics should be all be in A 6-19, B 6-18 or in A or B 56-69. Under no circs use AA or B.B. tickets for important critics.”

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It’s certainly an old school way to press. Looking at the eye-wateringly lame list of invited ‘prominent’ critics and traditional publications (Catholic Herald anyone?) and the fact that this is a major press campaign for a major new production at Hytner and Starr’s 900-seat venue – their new commercial operation near to Tower Bridge – it raises a lot of questions. It’s also true that everyone involved could do with a kick up the arse.

N.B. Credit where it is due: the ticket prices, range from £15 to £65, which are reasonable by today’s standards.

Beyond the usual ebb and flow of shifting theatre allegiances, there has yet to be an instance of bloggers successfully being held in the same regard as traditional print critics, but they have increasingly found power in numbers.

It’s bad news for critic notebook sales, but social media is now at the heart, or the end, of all these exchanges. Perhaps a full-on, real-life siege is how all PR and blogger relationships should reach their conclusion. It would certainly be a strong test of commitment – on both sides.

This is worth getting one’s theatre knickers in a twist about, though, and it is important that the Bridge sit up and take note, which it has, unless the whole thing was a double bluff aimed solely at securing Julius Caesar some column inches. It has been interesting how gleefully the Bridge’s shortcomings have been reported, following the lukewarm reception of Young Marx too. It is an irresistible narrative: Sir Nick Hytner, the consummate theatrical mogul, has made a mistake.

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Every time something goes wrong in the world of theatre, mrcarlwoodward.com gets stronger. I started the website 2 years ago with a blog by asking playwright Mark Ravenhill what his favourite emoji was (‘The winky one’) and it evolved from there; but considering how notorious the site’s become at a point when mainstream criticism is more or less dead, it’s exciting to think about what might happen next.

Anyone can start a blog and diverse voices are crucial to the conversation. Traditional reviews are so often just the start of that conversation and the opportunity bloggers can offer for long-form engagement with all theatre should be celebrated, not ignored.

Until then I’m finding new ways to adapt the spirit of the site – I’ve just launched a new fortnightly theatre podcast: COMMIT NO NUISANCE with critic Mark Shenton, and I recently ‘interviewed’ the cat from Michael Grandage’s forthcoming production of Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Julius Caesar is at the Bridge, London, until 15 April. Box office: 0843-208 1846

 

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO EPISODE 1 OF COMMIT NO NUISANCE

Shows discussed: The Band, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Girl From the North Country, Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (at Brentwood Leisure Centre) Witness For The Prosecution & Pal Joey.

Theatre podcast by Mark Shenton & Carl Woodward

Commit No Nuisance

Commit No Nuisance