Celebrate the play: West End panel discussion (1)
7th May 2008
STATE OF PLAY (1/2)
Guardian critic Michael Billington considers plays today, with a panel of industry insiders: Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough, producer Sonia Friedman, director and writer Peter Gill, director Edward Hall and playwright Roy Williams. Part of Society of London Theatre’s Celebrate the Play initiative, marking SOLT’s 100th anniversary. Recorded at the Royal Court.
The stars will only do 10 or 12 weeks now. It doesn’t take a lot to work out that you have to be pretty much a sell-out to just break even.
STATE OF PLAY
Guardian critic Michael Billington considers the state of the play, with a panel of industry insiders: Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough, producer Sonia Friedman, director and writer Peter Gill, director Edward Hall and playwright Roy Williams. Part of Society of London Theatre’s Celebrate the Play initiative, marking SOLT’s 100th anniversary. Recorded at the Royal Court.
Recording Date: 7 May 2008
Transcribed by Keyboard Freedom. © theatreVOICE.
Michael Billington: As you can see at a glance, we have the most fantastically experienced panel to discuss the state of the drama, everyone on this stage has a vested interest in drama. I think introductions are hardly needed, but I’m still going to do it very briefly anyway in my best David Dimbleby mode. On the extreme right, geographically speaking only, is Sonia Freidman who has just come back, this morning I think, from a visit to Broadway where she was supervising her production of Boeing Boeing, as big a success there, you told me, as in London, and on Friday this week your opening Polly Stenham’s That Face at the Duke of York‘s, a play which of course originated here. On my immediate right is Ed Hall who’s also got a revival of The Deep Blue Sea which formally opens, I think, on Tuesday, does it not?
Ed Hall: Yes, yes.
Michael Billington: And it’s previewing already. And of course Ed runs his own hugely successful Propeller Company. On my left immediately is Michael Attenborough who is currently director of the Almeida Theatre where he lately did a superb revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. On his left is Peter Gill who knows this stage inside out and backwards and every nook and cranny of this theatre, a vast experienced writer/director whose production of his play Small Change is currently at the Donmar Warehouse. And on the extreme left, and I make no comment on that, is Roy Williams whose numerous plays include Days of Significance with the RSC, Sing Your Heart Out For The Lads at The National and of course three plays, I think, at this great theatre, The Royal Court, including Lift Off and Fallout, which I believe is being filmed, am I correct?
Roy Williams: Yes, it’s going to be out the end of June.
Michael Billington: Good. So that’s the panel, the subject is drama, we shall talk probably for about 40 minutes and then invite questions from the audience. And I think since we’ve got little time, let’s cut straight to the chase and ask the fundamental question – with over twenty-five musicals in the West End, a minimum of twenty-five musicals in the West End at any given time, usually more than that, twenty-eight/twenty-nine, is the straight play an endangered species as a commercial proposition? Sonia, it seems logical to ask you that first.
Sonia Friedman: I’ve been asked this question for years. No, is the answer. The bigger problem is how producers can go about producing commercial plays. There are always going to be plays out there that we want to produce, there are always going to be new ones we want to transfer. That’s not the problem, it’s how our whole economic culture has changed and how actors’ commitment to work in theatre has changed. And that, I mean I’ve talked about this a lot, and it’s not getting any better.
Michael Billington: What are the obstacles to actors committing to plays?
Sonia Friedman: Well the, if you look back to 50/60 years ago, you know, we had great theatre stars and they weren’t in competition with film and television, a theatre star worked in theatre for six months, a year, they would commit to that play, audiences would follow those actors and as a result, you know, a No Man’s Land would happen or, you know, new Coward’s work was produced and it always had stars in it. Now there are so many barriers in the way – what is a star actor, what would their training be, are they actually capable to perform eight times a week in terms of their theatre training.?.. But what audiences, and I’m as responsible as anybody for raising that bar as to what an audience is expecting now from a star. They are, of course we’re generalising here in the commercial theatre, but the stars will only do 10/12 weeks if you’re lucky. I mean I know every single production I try to produce now, even if they’re not a household name, twelve weeks, fourteen weeks, that’s it, they will not commit beyond that. And the economics of putting a play on are, you know, we can’t put a play on now for less than, if you’re starting it in the West End, less than 300-350,000 pounds, and running costs in between 50/60,000 a week. It doesn’t take a lot to analyse and work out that you have to be pretty much a sell out over those twelve weeks to just break even or to have a little profit at the other end. So that’s our problem, not the play, but how we producers respond to what audiences will and won’t come to and how we adjust.
Michael Billington: Picking up on that, Ed, I think you’ve worked at a subsidised theatre, you’re about to open a play in the commercial sector, you broadly agree with that, does it come down first and foremost to getting your star?
Edward Hall: Yes, I mean ten years ago I was often asked by producers what play would you like to do, I have a list of work that I was interested in and of course who was in it would have a great bearing on what I could and couldn’t do. And sometimes it was the actor, sometimes it was the play, now it is, I agree completely, with the star, in the commercial sector i.e. in the West End, you know, where you have no subsidy, it is absolutely the actor now. So I will sit and think about, you know, who is it I want to work with, who I can somehow talk to in order to get to the West End with a play. And personally, you know, and my current production is the sort of case in point and certainly work with Propeller, I’ve moved away from the West End as a director and gone out more regionally where there is less of that pressure and Deep Blue Sea was a regional tour. That’s all it was set up to be and became a rather circuitous route and have ended up, you know, through lots of lucky breaks with theatres being available and, you know, performances coming good, of going in to the Vaudeville. And that particular instance was, that was the play, that wasn’t designed in my mind to go in to the West End, you know, it was a play I wanted to do for a long, long time. So if I’m honest about it, you know, if I designed that production for the West End I probably wouldn’t have done the production I done.
Michael Billington: Really?
Edward Hall: No, no.
Michael Billington: Well I assume we should judge that next week, I suppose. Michael, I mean does the same argument apply to yourself working now anyway – and you have done for a long time – in the subsidised sector, do you too have to think also of star casting to make a project work?
Michael Attenborough: No, is the quick answer, that the economics that Sonia has just quickly given in a thumbnail sketch is very, very different to us. In fact it was interesting, when I took over the Almeida six years ago and had supper Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid, that the one regret they expressed about their time was that they felt they’d almost been too star-led and that they were feeling, they were slightly regretting it. I stress slightly, but they felt, I think, that it was getting a bit like who’s on next rather than what’s on next. And I have never, certainly in my time at the Almeida gone for an actor because they were a bigger name than the next name on the list, I’ve gone for the actors that are right for the part. But the economics, and you have to stress this, the economics are completely different. Also it begs a question as to who’s a star because the definition of a star to some people in the West End would be quite different to somebody at the Almeida. I mean we open a show next week with the leading roles played by Helen McCrory and Paul Hilton, now are they stars? Who knows, who’s to say, but at the Almeida they are stars because they’re wonderful actors, leading actors with a tremendous theatrical track record. So it’s quite different criteria, and they certainly weren’t cast because of their box office draw, that absolutely wasn’t the case.
Michael Billington: Sonia said a moment ago she doesn’t think the play itself is an endangered commercial species, the circumstances are not propitious but that was your fundamental argument. I just want to broaden this debate, Peter, and ask you whether you think there is anything in the culture at the moment, apart from economics, that is anti the play, anti text?
Peter Gill: I think the, yes, I do, I think the Arts Council recently have either consciously or unconsciously proposed a fissure in the theatre that doesn’t exist and shouldn’t exist between the notions of text and non-text based theatre, and that unquestionably part of their programme. And there’s a sort of New Labour concept of trying to find soft points of access, which if ever you run a community arts centre as I have, you’re very happy to think of one, but they won’t always produce quality for the community. So the elephant or whatever it was called…
Michael Billington: The Sultan’s Elephant.
Peter Gill: Is a beautiful thing but is it an essentially, it’s a different thing from doing a play, it’s a lack of understanding of Variety. And I think they have proposed a fissure where there isn’t one, and the theatre is a marvellous protean thing in which people can do all kinds of things, paradoxically at the same time they have cut the grant of the People Show which is a genuinely non-text base unlike most of the “text based” theatres where you can’t move for yards and yards of badly written text. So there is a fissure being made, an unhealthy one.
Michael Billington: So you’re saying it’s an artificial split then that we make or they make…
Peter Gill: Not any of us. How could you, I mean Keith Johnstone’s work here was, what was it, what was Bill Bryden’s work, what is it, what was Bill Gaskill’s production of The Shogo what was it, I mean what are they talking about? I mean I brought all the non-text based European and American companies to Riverside, if you remember, Kantor who was the Polish sort of follower of Gordon Craig, I suppose, or Japanese company or the Puppet Theatre were amazing people. So what’s this us and then business going on?
Michael Billington: But I agree it’s an artificial split but at the same time I sense something around us in the air, in the culture that is suspicious of text. Someone said the other day, and I think in Prompt magazine that, I mean he was speaking ironically but he said the play as such is now as old-fashioned as the 19th Century crinoline. Roy, can I ask you, I mean you’re a man who writes texts, do you feel this threat to your profession as a playwright?
Roy Williams: Personally, well no. I mean I’m just one of those kinds of writers, one of those people who’ve just got a very thick skin and I just say OK, well whatever is debated out there. I’m just in my home with my computer, writing the best play, the best text that I possibly do, I like to think other playwrights are doing the same, I don’t think they’re too concerned or should be. They just want to, their main worry is OK, is this play going to get produced, am I going to pay the rent?
Michael Billington: But I mean it seems to me we’re in an era where devised theatre obviously is extremely fashionable at the moment, isn’t it, that kind of site-specific theatre, the Masque of The Red Death, a tremendous show, you know…?
Roy Williams: It’s not to me, I mean it’s an observation that I’ve noticed over the last couple of years, there does seem to be more work of that style and other writers that I know of, if they, they do seem to be doing more, I don’t know, adaptations, if that’s what you’re getting at.
Michael Billington: Yes.
Roy Williams: More, they seem to be doing more of that rather than their own original work. That’s an observation I’ve noticed, I mean it’s not of huge concern to me, it’s not a huge worry because I’ve, you know, I’ve got work, I’ve got work to do and so have my other sort of colleagues, playwrights, but that is something that I have noticed. And on face value I don’t have a problem with it because, you know, at the end of the day I want to come to the theatre and I want to see good work, whether it’s text, whether it’s devised, whether it’s an adaptation, whether it’s a musical, you know, I want to have a good night out like everybody else. But in terms of text, I don’t want, you know, I don’t want that to suffer, I don’t want that to go down because I think, you know, it’s all about the text and all about the written works.
Michael Billington: Right. Michael?
Michael Attenborough: Can I borrow Peter’s word fissure, because I really strongly agree with what he was saying and I’ve lived, you just said politely ‘experienced’ as opposed to ‘old’ on this particular panel, but I’ve lived long enough in the theatre to know that , people have tried to split us again and again and again. And I remember when I first started the enemies were the national companies. The National Theatre, under the Tories ‘The National Theatre’s getting much too much money, if it gave away half its grant everything in the theatre would be solved.’ And it’s that terrible sort of, and certainly under the Tory’s divide and rule policy which was just appalling, and I think there’s just, if you fast forward the tape to now, now it’s musicals and straight plays. Most musicals occupy theatres you wouldn’t want to do a straight play in anyway. Not in your right mind. And they are suffering many, many things. I mean Sonia’s absolutely right, not only do you have to ask questions as to whether a star is capable of doing a straight play, it’s very clear as to whether the supposed created stars by these nauseating programmes on television are capable of singing for eight performances a week, and clearly they can’t, they’re off within a few weeks. So there’s a quality there for them, but I don’t think it’s either/or and that’s where I really agree with Peter – a rich theatre culture is one where, I’m passionate about language and I think that’s actually what you’re talking about slightly more than plays because how do we define what a play is. And I hope we would not, I hope we would, we’d almost have a limitless definition of it which would encompass the companies that Peter’s talking about. I’m passionate about language because I believe that we understand ourselves through language, we think in language, if we impoverish language we impoverish ourselves. And the theatre has a really specific role to play there.
Michael Billington: Can I just pick up something you said a moment ago? You said most of the theatres in the West End, you know, that have musicals in them would not be suitable anyway for straight plays. And obviously no one can imagine The Caretaker in The Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Michael Attenborough: No.
Michael Billington: But I would say a lot of theatres that once were ideal for straight plays are increasingly becoming musical houses. Sonia Friedman: Yes, they are, I mean…
Michael Billington: I mean The Duchess is one that springs instantly to mind.
Sonia Friedman: Well The Duchess, The New Ambassadors, sorry, The Ambassadors.
Michael Billington: I said most, not all.
Sonia Friedman: No, but there are two or three really beautiful smaller playhouses that have gone and so producers like me who want to produce new work, perhaps delicate, fragile new work, for example I’m about to open, as you say, That Face in a theatre which arguably is slightly too big. You know, a 650 seater, I really think it should be in a 400 seater so it’s more protected and less exposed. You know, a lot of the work we’ve been doing has been to make sure it doesn’t feel exposed in a larger playhouse. You know, you should, the question is should I transfer a play from [Royal Court] Upstairs to the West End? I responded to it, I liked it, I wanted to do it, I want to be sure we do it in the best possible way. But there are, I mean I think in terms of, you know, what’s the future for the playhouse and for the plays, one of the things that theatre owners have been talking about for a long while and I hope at some stage it will happen, which is to rethink several of the spaces so that work can transfer from the Almeida more comfortably, there are smaller spaces…
Michael Billington: You mean divide theatres up into a la The Whitehall into The Trafalgar?
Sonia Friedman: Yes, we need more like that, but then we also need to rethink  … part of it a way of actually financially managing these so that there’s different deals, so there’s in-house arrangements, because they are too expensive to run as West End houses, yet actors, the transfer. I mean I was in discussion with a management recently about a transfer of a play, but they didn’t want to go to a theatre that’s, you know, not a West End house that comes with all the, you know, the SOLT and West End potential for nominations and everything. So there are, there is a lack of the smaller playhouses, definitely.
Michael Billington: I mean Broadway of course has already started that to a degree, hasn’t it?
Sonia Friedman: I’m changing the subject slightly but it is still relevant, having just come back from opening a play on Broadway. We’re talking about celebrating the play, that’s the title. My little brother got off the plane to come and join me in New York, and he got in to a taxi and he chatted to the taxi driver, and the taxi said what are you seeing? I’m going to go to Broadway, my sister’s opening a show. What show? Boeing-Boeing. The cab driver had heard of it, it had only been running a week. Got to the hotel, the concierge had heard of it, the person checking him in had heard of it, the cops know about it. But no, it’s nothing to do with the arts. What happened, I mean I’m by no means advocating a system like Broadway but there is a difference, which is when a play opens on Broadway it is an event, it is celebrated, it is noticed. And that’s, you know, there are reasons for that, because there are far fewer plays opening in any one seasons of course. But I come back to London and I’m opening a play on Friday, nobody would know, even though we’ve spent the same amount of money, you know, relative of marketing and PR and everything. And I’m debating in my head whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
Michael Billington: It’s because Manhattan is a small theatre village, isn’t it, basically?
Sonia Friedman: Yes, I suppose so.
Michael Billington: Ian McKellen once said that opening a new show on Broadway is like opening a pantomime in Bolton, you know, everybody knows all about it, the local critic comes to review it, you know, it’s a very small world in a curious way.
Sonia Friedman: Yes, but it’s still a commercial world and for a producer, you can still make, you know, a big impact there and…
Michael Billington: Fair enough.
Sonia Friedman: And thousands and thousands of people come to see your work. Whereas it’s much, much harder in this city, in this environment because we have so much going on, which is very exciting, but it’s much, much harder to stand out from the crowd here. You have to be a real, real event and a real hit here to standout and to actually have a chance of simply recouping. And…
Edward Hall: And that’s a good thing, isn’t it, I mean in a way because we have a lot of product on offer. I mean a couple of years ago I went to see Tintin at 10:15 on a Friday morning in the Barbican and it was absolutely brilliant piece in the theatre. And I walked out about lunchtime feeling, you know, this kind of work is going on all over this city and in a way that I sort of…
Sonia Friedman: We transferred that…
Edward Hall: Yes, I know, I know…
Sonia Friedman: And lost all our money.
Edward Hall: And lost all your money. So it did very well at the Barbican but not on tour.
Michael Billington: Can I again widen the discussion because I mean we begun to identify a few problems and you mentioned one of the most fundamental ones in your very first answer, you know, the inability or the reluctance or whatever for the refusal of stars to make any commitments. Can I widen it though to talk about possible solutions to whatever the problems are? And one thing that strikes me, Roy, is that dramatists, I mean we’re rich in dramatists ar the moment, but is it fair to say that not many dramatists write plays that offer leading roles to attract star actors? We live in a very democratic culture which is admirable in different ways but compared to the 1950s, say the Osborne, the Pinter generation or Rattigan before that, do modern dramatists write star parts?
Roy Williams: Well on the evidence I know, no. But I think more, I know I do sometimes, I know a lot of playwrights say we’ve done this and say write star parts for stars or however you want to define a star, but for actors that we really admire and respect who are not stars. I’ve done that, I know Simon Stephens did it for his play Harper Regan at The National, in the programme he said he wrote that for Lesley Sharpe who’s a brilliant actress and a fantastic performer. And if she doesn’t get an Olivier nomination next year I’m never going to the theatre again. But is she a wholesale play? No.
Michael Billington: But that’s a good point because I suspect that play will have a very long life, you know, up and down the country and probably abroad as well because it contains exactly that, doesn’t it, a fantastic part for, you know, a female actor.
Roy Williams: Yes. But I mean, but speaking for myself, I’m not too worried about that because, because when you start thinking about oh how, you know, I’ve got to write this for this star actress it’s, it would worry me if a playwright did that because I would feel they were slightly compromising the work that they’re doing. And I don’t think they should worry too much about that, I think whoever theatre they’re writing for, ideally they should have a brilliant casting director that’ll get bloody good access to do their bloody good play and do well. And then hopefully that actor in the play will become a star.
Michael Billington: Right. Peter, you’ve always made democratic plays, haven’t you, of yourself?
Peter Gill: They’ve always got huge parts in them however, but they’re often not star parts, the leading parts of the men in my plays tend to be slightly unsympathetic in the real sense of the word. But there’s a mystery about what is a star and what is a name, isn’t there? And because they’re dazzling, watchable persons who often don’t go in to a name that we would all know, and Lesley Sharpe is dazzling in this play. But, and I think that was interesting about The [Royal] Court Theatre at one time here in England where the money was taken from the government on the principle that the cult of star casting was not part of the game. That didn’t mean to say stars could not be employed, the stage was full of stars and created millions of stars. Not millions, but a great many. And there’s a difference there between whether or not, what anti-star casting was only about was the wrong person in the wrong part, because stars often have a very narrow range of attraction which is why they’re stars which doesn’t always make them right for all the parts. And then talking about this, so there would often be plays which had to be where a star was required because of a certain fragility in the play, where a certain kind of potent personality… those plays, you know that were written about depressed drunk men that talk for hours on the stage and you needed Leo McKern or whoever to warm it through. It’s a question of what makes a star, what makes a name. I mean Edith Evans was the greatest actor that I ever saw, was not a particularly great star, you know.
Michael Billington: Yes, I mean Roy’s point that a dramatist doesn’t, I assume, sit down and say ‘I am now going to write a great Stoppard.’ But on the other hand it was the collision at The Royal Court particularly I would say in the 1950s between say Osborne and Arden to give an obvious example, that produced a buzz and an excitement.
Peter Gill: I was thinking about what you were saying, as Osborne and Coward are rare really in a way for writing hum-dinger star kind of parts, and Harold Pinter doesn’t really, in a way, write the same kind of stuff at the one man turn.
Michael Billington: No. Well actually since we’re talking about stars and this seems to be a key to the problem at the moment, doesn’t it, about, you know, provided the play particularly commercial, what is a star then today, how does one define it?
Sonia Friedman: Well I mean I think there are very, very few theatre stars left, I think we can all agree that people who have grown up in the theatre and have become household names or whatever you want to call it as a result of their work in the theatre. Obviously we’ve still got the generation of Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, I mean even Maggie Smith can’t pack them out now, you know, because I think audiences are, are more discerning about what they want to see their actors in, their stars. But the younger generation, you know, the generation below that actually, I actually can’t answer what that is. We know, I would know from a list of actors who would sell-out based on, but it would be based on their film career more than their, you know, Daniel Craig every producer would want to work with. Now every producer would want to work with Daniel Craig two years ago for different reasons to now. Now he’s not only good but he would be utterly bankable, but there are very few actors who have merged both theatre and film in that way. A lot of stars, as we would call them now, obviously Ralph Fiennes is one, you’d be taking a big risk, as in they may have only done theatre when they were at drama school or once or twice before they get, you know, taken on something. Peter Gill: But you know, it was always like that, Michael, you know, the kind of thing, the fantasy that it always worked, they usually even in the old days were, in the 50s and 60s were American like Ingrid Bergman, Olivier made a terrible failure in the West End in a play, remember…
Michael Billington: Semi-Detached?
Peter Gill: Yes.
Michael Billington: Yes. It was miscast basically.
Peter Gill: There are hardly any, there hardly ever were, that’s why in the old West End they were, they were even then packed, you had to have two names and a supporting actress that the public knew. It’s just that television now plays such a big story in the difference between a name and a star.
Sonia Friedman: I mean I think, and anybody who knows how I work knows I’m attached to a theatre group, but I think the theatre owners have to take a big responsibility here as well for how producers can produce in the future. I know that when I’m talking to theatre owners, not just inside my group but outside, always the first question is who’s in it, not what is it, it’s who’s in it, because, you know, they’re taking a risk too and that they’re one step removed from the project that you are creating. And it’s very hard to convince a theatre owner to take a piece of drama just because it’s good, they need that, you know, unique selling point.
Michael Billington: This is exactly what we’re talking about and this, but what we’re saying, I think, is that this has intensified in recent years. It was always partly true, we’re saying well it’s much more, it’s much more obvious now.
Sonia Friedman: It feels that way, because I think the economics are getting tougher and tougher.
Edward Hall: I mean now to put a newcomer on the stage you have to sort of, because you’re on television, or film, and make them a star before you could put them in the play, which seems to be, it’s sort of goes with it. To me a star is somebody who can walk on stage, hold the play and give me as a director choice over how the play should feel, not, you know, how do I make the scene work, how do I make the play work. But actually the stars I’ve worked with, like Ken Branagh, do that. They walk on stage and they give you choice, and they are experienced, they have huge technical ability and enormous work rate. And I would agree with Sonia on this point, that quite often I’m asked to seriously consider actors who couldn’t reach beyond the fourth row but they are names. And it is a tricky problem because I’m not sure where the next generation of young actors like Rory Kenear are going to come from en masse, because we as directors, you know, we don’t like to spend large parts of our day trying to teach actors how to act when we can’t really do it, you know, because we can’t tell them to do, you know, that their art, we can only help release their innate talent. So, and I think that to me is a star, someone who can hold a play like that. And we’ve been talking very much about the star in terms of who sells tickets, and that of course I suppose is wrapped up to ticket prices and economic pressure.
Michael Billington: Right, we’ll come on to it, but you just touched on the other thing there about manufacturing stars, the artificial process of creating stars and we know perfectly what you’re talking about, you know, the TV industry that does this. Which leads on to the whole question of how much do you think the broadcast media are to blame for the vulnerability, let’s say, of the straight play? I other words, I mean was Kevin Spacey right, does the BBC fail to reflect what is happening in the theatre and does it fail to even encourage its own popular drama?
Peter Gill: Yes, that’s the sort of, but there is for all fine art a sort of traison des clercs, there has been for my generation and yours onwards really about, about the cultural realism etc. I mean the only shock about that is that I, in a puritanical way I don’t see how they can justify backing Cameron and Andrew Lloyd-Webber and not anybody else. But that’s a simple thing, I don’t see how the BBC charter gets away with it.
Michael Billington: But they do get away with it.
Peter Gill: But they are, in famous to television, they’re very good at developing actors, you know, I mean it’s not just, you know they have a, there’s a lot of, it’s just that they’re often in series or in soaps, but it’s not that they’re lazy. I think film is much less courageous about, the television and the theatre in this country are very good at picking up or often developing actors before, and you know, I think it’s not fair. There may not be enough drama on television, which is part of what you’re talking about, that’s certainly true.
Michael Billington: But I’m also saying that you watch British television you wouldn’t have much idea about what the theatre was about. Is that fair Michael?
Michael Attenborough: I think it’s absolutely fair, I mean I don’t think the BBC’s very interested in theatre at all. I never see people at the BBC in my theatre, and I mean…
Michael Billington: How would you recognise them?
Michael Attenborough: Well a few of them I do, but they usually, usually by them ringing up and asking for house seats. But no, I think they’re, we’ve seen a decline in the quality of a lot of BBC, well in fact a lot of television drama just in the sheer writing. When you talk to writers and they find it incredibly hard to get their work on, it’s not nearly the same spread of quality. But there’s, but I think there’s a split, one might even say a fissure between, in the BBC between the central BBC and drama. But I cite one horrible example which drives me nuts every time I see it on my screen, which is that you watch a marvellous drama on television and the credits begin to come up and then they go zoom, down into the most miniscule writing and you’re looking to see… split the screen, and incidentally they then tell you not what’s on next but who’s on next in great, big capital letters. Then it goes zoom, back again, and you’re, you find out who did the location catering. But, you know, but it’s, and actually you’ve missed actors, and what it reveals is not just fundamental discourtesy and a lack of professionalism, but it’s very revealing. They don’t think that’s important, they don’t think those people are important.
Peter Gill: There’s a certain, there’s an enormous amount of anguish, anger, envy and hatred for the theatre, you know, in a lot of television. I remember somebody telling me that theatre was boring was it was a locked-off shot, in television speak which doesn’t mean anything at all in terms of film or anything else. But it’s partly to do with generational, to do with, it’s a sort partly an infantile fear of Shakespeare, of ‘I’ve done my A levels, I’ve been to university, I don’t want to go there ever again‘, which is sort of part of the subtext in the stand-up comedian generation, many of whom went to drama departments, you know, in universities and often didn’t have … their talent lay somewhere else. Right, so there’s a sort of a lot of unresolved talk going on, do you see what I mean, and it’s, and then this whole sort of thing of it being rather lardy-da and you feeling rather cool in sort of over-suburbanising your accent to apologise for your education, that whole thing.
Michael Billington: But they’re staggeringly out of touch. There are plays on about today in the theatre and they somehow have this image that it’s a sort of dried up, middle aged out of touch… Peter Gill: Taking part in the theatre like Roy, so if they’re people like doing.
Michael Billington: Yes, I mean Roy, a good example because you’ve just had this work and you filmed for Channel 4…
Roy Williams: Yes.
Michael Billington: Made as a film but to be shown on Channel 4 presumably, yes.
Roy Williams: I mean it’s, I mean the question I’m asking is because, yes, I mean I heard what Kevin Spacey said and I’m hearing what people are saying here about are the BBC in particular not doing enough. But then my question is I would come back to it with so what, I mean what do we want them to do for us?
Michael Billington: To acknowledge that the theatre in Britain exists along with lots of, along with football and all the other things that make Britain a rich and exciting place, that’s my request.
Roy Williams: But they’re not going to do that.
Michael Billington: Why not?
Roy Williams: Well I don’t know and quite frankly I don’t really care.
Michael Billington: But they could advise that books exist, that books are published in huge numbers every week, that plays, you know, pour out, and that the theatre is more than big musicals. That’s my beef
Roy Williams: Because it’s a particular cadre of people, if you watch the late review you’ll get the whole story.
Michael Attenborough: I think they propagate an elitist view…
Roy Williams: Yes.
Michael Attenborough: I think that’s what they’re doing, yes.
Michael Billington: I mean just before we open it up can I just raise, I mean we’re supposed to celebrate an affair, as Sonia said, we’re at the moment we’re saying, you know, what trouble the play is in, we’ve talked about lots of things, can we find any positives? I mean Roy, is it fair to say that the British theatre is nudging towards, anyway acknowledging they exist in a multicultural society?
Roy Williams: It’s nudging, yes, but I but don’t know it’s gone all the way completely, but it’s progressed, there does seem to be more then when I had an interest in theatre when I was younger, there does seem to be sort of healthy, it depends what you mean by multicultural. Do you mean more black work, more Asian work? If that’s what you’re specifically saying, yes, then I think there is, specifically in subsidy. The West End is a complete different ball game for very similar reasons like Sonia said.
Peter Gill: Theatre is way ahead of anybody on television in this area. At sixteen I went to see the first production that The Royal Court Theatre did that I saw, which was an all-black cast in The New Theatre Cardiff with a young jazz singer called Cleo Lane in it, called Flesh To A Tiger, and that was 1957 or whatever, 58. On television you never, you didn’t see anybody black on television until about fifteen years ago. So they’re saying has nothing to teach us about certain things, I’m afraid.
Michael Billington: So the theatre’s ahead of the game in that respect, fair enough.
Peter Gill: Of course it is.
Michael Billington: One of the topics which you’ve mentioned very briefly and I’ve brushed over it rather quickly, I’m afraid, you’ve mentioned ticket prices. Is that the other sort of key to the future? Edward Hall: I think it is, I would say. I mean if I was in my twenties or teens and I was thinking about going to the theatre, the choice for me is huge on how to entertain myself and stimulate myself. You know, I don’t have to go in to a theatre and theatre prices, I think, have a huge bearing on that and it’s a big, big problem because I have a kind of, I suppose, romantic fantasy that because the theatre is a live experience, as technology and IT and the way we do business and the way we communicate gets more and more disconnected and the experience of having a conversation with someone and developing an idea through that exchange of language diminishes, coming to the theatre will become more and more of an exciting thing for people to do. And I personally believe that’s going, over the next decade or so, that’s going to develop the theatre as an art form and is going to become more and more popular. But I do think at the moment we have to continue working terribly hard at how we keep ticket prices down so we can keep the doors open. I mean everywhere that you drop ticket prices, in every theatre I’ve ever worked subsidised, commercial, that has always massively affected who walks through the door, no question. And because it was fundamentally a loss-making venue, it’s a labour-intensive beautiful craft that we happen as a nation to be particularly good at. It needs support and help in some shape or form and we are endlessly working out how to do that and, but we do continue to…
Sonia Friedman: But I don’t think it’s just as straightforward as a lower ticket price, because of course that’s the beginning, that’s the start, but there is also, and we’ve done a play together in the West End, a new play, there’s a genuine suspicion about new work in the West End that hasn’t come via a National or an Almeida or a Royal Court. And that so even if you put your ticket price on at fifteen pounds or twenty pounds, twenty-five pounds or whatever, unless it’s come with some policy or some mandate from another theatre, you’re not going to sell those tickets even at a fiver. And I guarantee that, it’s the problem is more complex, and you might sell them afterwards once the critics have come along and supported it and said go, but not beforehand.
Michael Billington: But isn’t that perhaps quite a healthy thing that’s emerged from the beginning, the split that subsidised theatres can help to feed with the new writing?
Sonia Friedman: Well I, of course, would argue no. I would like to be able to commission and develop new work and start it in the West End and not have to rely on another company to do it first. But it’s becoming harder and harder and frankly almost impossible unless you’ve got a star in it.
Michael Billington: So if Polly Stenham had come to you with that same play and said ‘any chance‘, you would not have done it possibly?
Sonia Friedman: I tell you probably what would have happened, I think Polly would have come to me, I’d have said who can play, who can take on that role of Martha.?
Michael Billington: Yes.
Sonia Friedman: We’d of gone round the houses, the three actresses who would have been absolutely sure to have made it work commercially would have probably said no, and then it would have been let go to The Court and the right thing happened. Lindsay Duncan, who’s absolutely wonderful in it, did it here and now I’ve transferred it. Now you could argue well what’s wrong with that process, and actually in that sense it’s the right one because the writer wasn’t put under the unbearable pressure that they are put under in the commercial sector.
Michael Billington: So that’s, what you’re really saying is a play in the West End benefits from the kind of imprimatur of subsidised showing and of course critical acclaim. That didn’t hurt, did it, and it won awards etc, etc.
Sonia Friedman: Yes, that’s right.
Peter Gill: But it would be healthier if the West End, I take your point, if a new play could take the town on the West End basis. Sonia Friedman: Yes, I mean God Of Carnage has just opened and very good, it’s got four big stars in it, I believe it’s not going to run beyond those four, that initial cast.
Michael Billington: Going back to your original point you made…
Sonia Friedman: Which I think’s a huge shame that that play can’t continue, but I imagine it’s too expensive.
Peter Gill: But Michael, in the subsidised theatre part of the problem lies in replacing the cult of the actor with the cult of the director, doesn’t it?
Michael Billington: Well is that, are you arguing that that’s a given, we have replaced…?
Peter Gill: Yes, we have.
Michael Billington: Well I don’t know that we have actually.
Peter Gill: Damn well have. I think you supported it in The Guardian hugely.
Michael Billington: The director should argue the case. I don’t know when you have a cult of the director really, we didn’t have a Germanic cult of the director.
Peter Gill: We do.
Michael Billington: Michael, do we?
Michael Attenborough: I have a huge cult following. I’m not sure I agree with Peter. I think that it’s absolutely true in the bigger houses…
Peter Gill: In the subsidised theatre it’s whether you land the director or not.
Michael Attenborough: Not in my theatre particularly, I mean I’ve told the writer that the play and the actor, I mean to be absolutely honest there are a goodly healthy number of wonderful directors around. So I would say it was often easier to land the good directors than sometimes a good actor, because the actor that’s absolutely right for that part is often half locked in a different culture. The directors that you’re approaching are probably doing ninety percent of their work in the theatre, that’s not true of actors. And so you’re having to, you know, knock on the door of large, wealthy agents who go slightly mentally deaf when you mention the word theatre, and you’re very dependent on the actor saying no, I know there’s no money in it but I want to do it. Whereas the culture of looking for a director is quite different.
Michael Billington: I’d like to mention the agent which hasn’t occurred so far, because a director said to me the other day and I’ve heard this point many times, he said the only way to persuade any actor now to do any play is not to tell his or her agent. Once you tell the agent you’re ruined actually. That director cited an example of an actress, Juste Edarardo was offered a fantastic new part and the agent blocked her doing it, but she did it eventually but the agent seems to, I don’t know whether there are any in the house, they’re probably are, might like to retaliate, but agents are often cited as the villains of the peace, aren’t they, preventing actors doing theatre or if they do theatre, stopping them going anywhere…
Michael Attenborough: It’s actors hiding behind their agents.
Michael Billington: Anyway I think it’s time…
Sonia Friedman: I don’t know, I think it is sometimes actors hiding behind their agents but on the whole, you know, the theatre’s certainly the third in the pecking order. And I know I’ve got so many examples of actors who’ve pulled at the last minute or who won’t commit until the last minute because they’re up for a telly…
Peter Gill: Well that’s their choice, we all have to make choices.
Sonia Friedman: Absolutely but the agent can, it’s very much part of guiding the actor’s career now in a way that they weren’t.
Michael Billington: I think we should ask is there an agent in the house because they might like to tell you. But anyway, even if an agent doesn’t want to retaliate, it’s now your turn to ask any of us questions relating to what we’ve said.
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