Prior to the 2018 season launch Nottingham Playhouse Artistic Director Adam Penford chats with East Midlands Theatre writer Phil Lowe about his directorial influences and his forthcoming 2018 season.
PL: Hi Adam, good to meet you. I was interested in reading that you had your directorial breakthrough whilst doing a theatre directing course at the National Theatre. I was wondering what that course was and how Nick Hynter influenced you.
AP: Yeah, the course at the National Theatre is called the National Theatre Director’s Course. They run it every year and its invite only. When I did it I think there were twelve people on the course. They try to get a mix of people but, effectively what they’re doing is seeing what work you’ve maybe been assistant director on. Then they go out to watch your work. I’m talking about theatre work which is usually unpaid work on the fringe, at that stage. I got chosen because I’d done some assistant director roles and a couple of shows at the Finborough Theatre.
Then its a three week course where you do all kinds of stuff from producing to marketing and working with writers. You meet a lot of directors on the course who are great to learn from. And so, it was from there that I got asked to be staff director -which is what they call it at The National- and I was staff director with Marianne Elliott on Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings. After that Nick Hytner asked if I would like to be his staff director on One Man Two Guvnors which, at the time, we didn’t know that it was going to be such a hit.. It was an adaptation of Goldini’s A Servant of Two Masters. (Laughs). I remember thinking ‘Well, you know, it might be alright – could be a bit dusty’. As we now know, it turned into the very popular and award winning One Man Two Guvnors by Richard Bean and I was associated with that show for years afterwards. I think we had seven different productions or casts in London, on tour, on Broadway and around the world so it was a real education, I guess.
PL: You’ve worked on some other Alan Ayckbourn shows including A Small Family Business haven’t you? That was at The National Theatre as well. I was reading how the space on stage was quite a difficult space to get your head around plotting this complex play. Mr Ayckbourn can be very precise in terms of his locations. I understand that the structure was very compartmentalised and once you understood that you could then consider how the set design definitely aided the actors with their timing etc.
AP: Yeah, that’s right Phil. A Small Family Business is set inside a house and it was written specifically for the Olivier auditorium at The National Theatre. What was amazing about it was that you start by going ‘ OK we don’t want the same production set design that every production of this play has had – so let’s consider putting the bathroom there and the kitchen there.’ What you very quickly work out is that Ayckbourn has worked out all the mechanics so finely that it just messes up the choreography of his play if you place rooms other than where he has dictated. It’s something special about Alan’s brain when he sits at his desk and works all these mechanics out for you. Its amazing really.
A Small Family Business is interesting because what Alan does so beautifully is domestic detail. When you, as director and cast, are in the rehearsal room you’ve crafted the piece, with this good cast and you get beautifully nuanced characters within the relationships. However, when you get into the Olivier you have the practical realisation that in projecting those characters to the back of the auditorium, you’re gonna have to turn the dial up otherwise some of them will get lost.
PL: Make it bigger you mean?
AP: Yeah. And that is always a wrestle with his work in big theatres I think. His work really sells when it is in the round and intimate like at Scarborough. It was an amazing experience though and Alan came down and worked with us on it.
PL: Regarding , Peter Hall’s Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle (Oberon Book) by Hall, Peter (2000) Paperback
Adam. You claim that his famous theatre diaries inspired you to want to become a theatre director.
AP: I picked them up, just by chance, when I was twenty-one and I had just graduated from drama school. I found them really inspiring. He was writing at the same time he was running The National so it was a very different period of time to now and mostly in the 1970s. There was the ‘three day week’ and all the industrial action that was happening back then plus the building on The South Bank was brand new. Some thought the design to be controversial. There was a lot of snobbery about this new national treasure. Sir Peter Hall was overseeing all that and also directing. The diaries were inspiring because of the big artistic successes that Peter was having but, on the flip side, I was reading about the AD challenges through Sir Peter’s perspective.
A lot of being a director and in particular, an artistic director, is people management as well as being an artist. I guess that scared me slightly. I was daunted by it – but it did intrigue me. It was only after reading those diaries that I started to think ‘maybe’ in the future I’d be interested in becoming an artistic director myself one day rather than just remaining a freelance theatre director.
PL: Just going back to Ayckbourn for a second. I know your 2018 season is all planned out now but would you ever consider doing another Ayckbourn at Nottingham Playhouse in the future?
AP: Absolutely. He’s one of the modern greats, isn’t he? Actors love playing his roles. Audiences love watching his plays. The choice is whether you go for a lesser known Ayckbourn, because there are so many titles to choose from. He is so prolific. Or do you decide to go for one of the hits? I remember seeing a co-production with Salisbury Theatre here at Nottingham Playhouse a few years ago now. It was his play Joking Apart and it is set on bonfire night. They had a rocket shoot across the stage at the beginning. Not sure how they did it technically but it was a great effect.
PL: Coming to the present and to the future in your fresh role as Artistic Director at Nottingham Playhouse. How do you feel you may balance the core Playhouse audience with a younger, more diverse audience that may be drawn to the Playhouse due to your programming?
AP: That’s a really good question. I mean theatre in general has to diversify, not just the Nottingham Playhouse. In many theatres the audiences are getting older. There are a few ways to do this. One is about the work you put on the stage, obviously. Not just the play titles but the writers you are working with, the actors that you employ and the creative teams. We have to make sure that they are truly representative of the community that we are here to serve. If you put the work on the stage the hope is that we will, in turn, diversify the audience.
So next year, for example, we are doing Shebeen which is a new play by Mufaro Makubika. What is really good is, that this is his first main stage play! Not just here – but in his writing career to date. So, that’s part of our responsibility – the taking of a writer, particularly a local writer, and helping them make that transition from a hundred seat studio to a seven hundred and fifty seat main house auditorium. And Shebeen is set amongst the Caribbean community in St Ann’s Nottingham in the 1950s. The hope is that it will create a diverse audience. Also, Shebeen is a great play. It is funny and it is moving and very human so it should appeal just as much to our regular audiences.
The Neville Studio at Nottingham Playhouse is also a place where we can experiment a little more and take a few more risks with the kind of work we put on; the subject matters we are tackling and the artists we are engaging with. These may bring in a younger audience. Then there is the participation work that we do like the free Shine youth theatres over at Bulwell and such. These sessions really engage with our local communities. It’s not always about the work you are doing. It’s about how the Nottingham Playhouse building operates organically and how it works for and with the community.
PL: And perhaps about how those communities reference Nottingham Playhouse and see it as a welcoming place to attend or work in partnership with?
AP: Precisely. With Wonderland, which is our first play of the season, this is a play set during the miners’ strike and about socio-economic diversity and a real human story of Nottinghamshire miners. It is a spirited and uplifting play written by the daughter of a Nottinghamshire miner – Beth Steel.
PL: The 2018 programming of Diane Samuels’ play Kindertransport interested me because I was involved as a language coach on the German language spoken in the play. This was some years ago at The Lace Market Theatre. I was really chuffed that a lecturer from Nottingham University came to see the show and said that the actress playing Eva spoke the German really well. So, from this shy ‘I don’t speak languages’ young actress called Kaiti I gently coached her to deliver the German text authentically on stage to a high degree. Looking back that was something for both of us to be proud of.
AP: That’s amazing isn’t it? That’s what theatre can do. It can, as with a performer like her, instil confidence and open doors – give you a window out onto different experiences.
PL: Last question Adam, and thanks for your time today. How did you arrive at the structure for the Nottingham Playhouse 2018 season?
AP: You are welcome Phil. My introduction to theatre was coming to Nottingham Playhouse as a child. That was the annual pantomime. When I was a teenager I came to watch lots of shows. Looking back I am aware now of the wide variety of the wonderful theatre work that I got to see. What I watched challenged my teenage perceptions of things happening in the world and artistically engaged me and widened my horizons. So as Artistic Director I wanted to provide something that was varied so that there would be something for everybody. Also Phil, if an audience member came to watch every play in the season they would feel that they’ve seen a real wide variety of genres and theatre work.
So, for example, next year we are doing a family show; we are doing a musical; we are doing a regional premiere of a new play and a modern classic – The Madness of George lll by Alan Bennett. We are exploring a wide variety of themes and issues I guess. That was part of it. I wanted the new 2018 programme to be entertaining and challenging and I wanted it to be of a really high standard. I want the work that we are doing at Nottingham Playhouse to have a really high profile both within the city and the region but nationally too in order to attract a lot of attention to Nottingham. That is part of the reason we are announcing a whole year’s season in one go which Nottingham Playhouse hasn’t done for a while. What that allows us to do is to tell the whole story, if you like, to really set out a broad artistic vision. So in short; develop Nottingham Playhouse’s high profile artistically both locally and nationally; and be doing work that the City of Nottingham can be proud of. I guess we already are but we definitely want to continue to keep Nottingham Playhouse on the map as a fantastic hub of creativity.
Interview by Phil Lowe with Adam Penford – new Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse.
Many thanks to Nottingham Playhouse for the opportunity and congratulations on the latest award.