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.
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.”
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.