The Rt Hon The Lord Mayor of the City of London and the Genesis Foundation invite you to join them for the fifth in the series of Cultural Conversations: ‘Young People and The Arts: Making Space and Opening Doors’ taking place online at 5-6:30pm on Monday 26th July.
The Cultural Conversations series is a sequence of focused debates around Arts and Culture in the City of London. This fifth Conversation will be chaired by Gemma Cairney, in conversation with Cherry Eckel, Artist and Advisory Group member at Boundless Theatre; Neil Griffiths, Chief Executive at Arts Emergency; Montana Hall, Founder of Run the Check and Trustee at The Photographers Gallery; Renee Odjidja, Curator: Youth Programmes at Whitechapel Gallery; and Abdul Shayek, Artistic Director at Tara Theatre, and Lemn Sissay OBE, Poet, Playwright and Broadcaster.
Yet another uneventful fortnight in theatre. Leading producers going to the High Court to instigate legal proceedings against the Government for failing to release the findings of its report into large crowd events and its effect upon spread of Covid. Seasoned producers deciding to call it a day because they can’t stand the uncertainty anymore. Shows both large-scale (at the Coliseum) and small-scale (at the Royal Court) announcing triumphantly that they’re open for business and within a few days being forced to cancel ten days worth of shows due to positive Covid testing amongst the show staff. Meanwhile in the streets football fans run riot across London with outbreaks of violence and drunken and disorderly conduct, potentially fuelling the huge rise in the UK’s Covid cases without even a mention from the Government or the media.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s tantrum/marketing pitch is what we have come to expect from the man who sailed too close to the earlier “Freedom Day” announcement and decided to pack his theatre hosting his new show from the off, and spent the next few days doing his King Canute pose while his hard-working Box Office staff resignedly got on the phones and dealt with the reality of the situation.
The Government’s indolence has been another thorn in theatres’ sides. Over one year after a sound and comprehensive insurance scheme protecting against stoppages caused by Covid outbreaks was laid out for the film and TV sectors to take advantage of, no such structure has appeared for theatres and their hard-pressed producers. Level playing field, I don’t think so. The (excuse my laughter) Culture Secretary tells us “they are working on it”. What will their next big announcement be? They have discovered something called “talking pictures”?
We absolutely need to see the results of the large scale pilot events held two months ago. Why they should be held up is anyone’s guess. Mine is that they show that things aren’t as safe as they hoped they would be, and so to suppress the findings would let them get to July 19th (which from now on we shall call “Lemmings off a Cliff Day”) and simply shrug their shoulders, noting a fait accompli.
Responsibility has never been in the toolkit of this most inept and underhand of governments. Just look at the casual way they acknowledge there may be 2 million Covid cases over the summer; where has the “Protect the NHS” slogan gone? Perhaps they think that by letting nature take its course they are keeping the NHS in long-term work. Of course, the comic masterstroke was appointing as Health Secretary a banker. And just look how they saved us in 2008!
It is great that theatre is slowly returning, and I hope that return brings an increasingly smaller number of outbreaks. But the idea of encouraging everyone to throw all caution to the wind and do whatever the hell they want to rubbish the sense of responsibility which is still far too lacking in our selfish society. Rights and responsibilities are inextricably linked. You have your rights – but with rights come responsibilities – including a responsibility to respect other people’s choices.
On a related point, some people have said to me that having had both vaccination jabs, that they are “immune”, which is not actually true. What is true is that the vaccines have greatly reduced the extent to which you are likely to be seriously ill , hospitalised or die if you become infected with Covid, which is still possible, but at a lower percentage of possibility than when you were unprotected. The risk to you, although smaller when vaccinated, is still out there. Covid can damage you. And, in case you missed this, research has discovered that Covid is not so much a respiratory disease, it’s a vascular one- which means it affects your blood vessels.
I don’t believe that theatres will be able to abandon all mask policies in the short-term, especially if full capacity seating becomes the norm again (and I still believe that many theatres will limit capacities to respond to their own audiences’ feedback).
The idea that you can have theatre staff doing all they can to keep theatres clean, safe ventilated and accessible – and then have to deal with an uncontrolled crowd which fails to respect others concerns (let’s not forget there will be many who are uneasy at returning to a half-full theatre, let alone a hot, sweaty, packed-to-the-rafters one) means that as a country we have a Government which has abandoned all common sense and all responsibility in attempting to care for its citizens.
My advice? Stay safe and go to the theatre if you want – but please remember, now more than ever, it’s important to protect yourself and your health, and in doing so you’ll protect other people too.
After 25 years at the head of an educationally pioneering institution, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts’ Founding Principal and Chief Executive Mark-Featherstone-Witty is stepping down and will be succeeded in September by Sean McNamara, who has been appointed the new principal and chief executive. McNamara currently heads Guildford School of Acting. He is also president of the Federation of Drama Schools.
McNamara said “The work that Mark has done, along with Paul McCartney, in establishing this creative hub in Liverpool, with a national and international reputation for excellence, and to achieve that in just 25 years is phenomenal. To be part of that story, part of LIPA’s next chapter, is a great honour, privilege and responsibility”
Let us not forget that Mark Featherstone-Witty’s founding and development of LIPA was not his first creative foray into education. He had already conceived of, created, designed and raised millions of pounds for the establishment of the BRIT School in Selhurst which is soon to celebrate its 30th anniversary, (see the BRIT School article here) before his bug to expand the creative opportunities for young theatre-makers bit him again.
Following on from BRIT School, Featherstone-Witty established the now internationally-famous Liverpool drama educational establishment in 1996 with Sir Paul McCartney. The building, McCartney’s old school, was transformed by many millions of pounds raised by many enthusiastic supporters including McCartney himself, who I believe gave the first and the last million, and many others, including my late colleague Anthony Field who dedicated himself to supporting Mark and Paul’s efforts, becoming the project’s first Chairman, as he had done with BRIT School previously. Needless to say, my colleagues and I consider Mark, and LIPA to be a valued part of our extended theatre and performance family. With annual surveys showing an extraordinarily high percentage of its graduates in employment, it has recently been ranked as one of the top 20 educational establishments in the UK.
Mark said “As founder, LIPA is one of my children and giving it up is difficult, which is why there’s a gentle transition. I’m grateful Sean is allowing me to do this.”
Featherstone-Witty will continue his work with LIPA by focusing on the ever-expanding aims of the organisation, with progressing LIPA’s primary and sixth-form schools and its high school plans too. Ultimately, the organisation will aim to give a completely integrated education offer which appropriately values the performing arts in all its possibilities. This is a vote of confidence in the future of the arts, despite the ignorant slashing of finance for arts based subjects in the new higher education curriculum. (Let’s not forget the lofty heights of ambition of our current Education Secretary- an ex-fireplace salesman.)
Ian Jones, chair of LIPA’s Council, praised Mark’s ceaseless and dedicated work, saying “Over the past 25 years, Mark has created a remarkable institution for which he has earned our eternal gratitude. It was a challenging task to find a suitable successor and we are delighted that Sean will be picking up the reins. His background and experience make him the ideal leader for us as we move forward into the next phase of our development.”
With industry enthusiasm across the board for this establishment built with care for its students and a realistic eye for the world of work which yet maintains a burning passion for its subjects. No wonder the busiest producers -from Thelma Holt to David Pugh to Katy Lipson -all willingly offered their time to travel to Liverpool to talk to students in MasterClasses and other informal settings. Countless musicians including Sir Paul and master producer Sir George Martin (who donated and created the cutting-edge sound studios at the Institute), as well as a long roll-call of performers and others living in the arts today. Extraordinary MasterClasses from those at their peak across the performance and arts world have lead to many fruitful partnerships, friendships, collaborations and honorees at LIPA’s annual graduations, which are quite an event, with Sir Paul in attendance whenever he is not touring.
In 2014, Mark Featherstone-Witty, after the death of his friend and supporter in so many ventures, Anthony Field, established the Anthony Field Producer Prize, given annually to the outstanding graduate from the producing course, and a notable award from such a high calibre of talent.
So let’s remember all the incredible artists, musicians, producers, directors, marketers, impresarios, sound designers, engineers, mixers, lighting designers, writers, actors and many other technical on-and off- stage creatives who have learned their trade at LIPA and had their inspiration fired by the dedication of the incredible work of Mark Featherstone-Witty and his staff. An impressive legacy for anyone. Congratulations – and thank you for creating a positive, welcoming and inspiring home for fostering and developing LIPA Students’ boundless talents, Mark!
While our live theatre scene is gearing up, here is the next in a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of interesting and memorable events. In this month of LGBTQ+ PRIDE celebrations, this seemed a great time to feature SIR IAN McKELLEN, who is always worth our attention, so here he is. Enjoy!
Here’s an article from 1991, in which ANTHONY FIELD looks back at the Oxford University address given by Sir Ian McKellen, the second Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre, a role created through the generosity of Sir Cameron Mackintosh.
With his inaugural lecture at St Catherine’s College at Oxford University, Sir Ian McKellen launched his year as Professor of Contemporary Theatre. This follows on from Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant attempt to establish the musical as an art form to be accepted by the Oxford academics as something to be seriously assessed. [This was covered in the first of this series, see here]
Backmann’s introduction of Cameron Mackintosh to the University, magnificent
and benevolent as it is, still needs some years to become acknowledged as a
mature contribution to the academic development of Oxford. One could sense the
Dons bristle as Sir Ian stood up in the packed-to-capacity hall without any
visible notes. “He hasn’t prepared anything!” they nudged each other – only to
be stunned and dazzled by a non-stop hour and a half performance which held his
audience in the palm of his hand. I feel totally inadequate in having to
describe properly the wonderful balance of intelligent insight and superb
delivery that made the occasion unforgettable.
Professor McKellen started by questioning his title – “Contemporary to what?” – and suggested it meant “Modern Theatre”. He intended that he and a group of colleagues, including Martin Sherman (playwright) and Deborah Warner (director) should meet regularly and informally with graduates and undergraduates to deal with such questions as “Who runs the British theatre?” for which he is assembling “a distinguished panel of people who think they do- or would like to!”. He is shortly to appear as RICHARD III at the Apollo in Oxford, the Playhouse is soon to be re-opened and the Old Fire Station is to see productions of three of the musicals which emanated from the Stephen Sondheim year as Visiting Professor there. So Oxford will return to being a city to be reckoned with, theatre-wise.
“One could sense the Dons bristle as Sir Ian stood up in the packed-to-capacity hall without any visible notes”
Sir Ian’s lecture
commenced with comments on his career at the other St Catherine’s College (at
Cambridge!) following his early theatregoing days at the Grand, Bolton and the
Opera House Manchester. He was sadly too late to see Donald Wolfit in person,
nor Judy Garland, Richard Burton or George Formby….
to analyse the extraordinary British idiosyncratic taste for theatre was based
on a choice of words – such as calling it a “House” – which felt like a place
where a family comes together and have a perception expressed as “the magic of
theatre”, being “stage-struck” or having “ a love of theatre”. He cited four important
ingredients which have lead to theatre today: Pantomime, Pop Music, Music Hall
and Repertory. It was noted that the early days of pop music – of Eddie
Cochrane, Gene Vincent and Billy Fury – led to the less dull and more developed
acts of the Rolling Stones, the Who, Queen and David Bowie, who began to use a
plot-line, costumes, props, make up, lights and dry ice. Sadly the days of
Music Hall have passed – when Professor McKellen saw Issy Bonn and the five
Smith Brothers, the Western Brothers and Josef Locke – all using stage trickery
to hold an audience and encourage them to laugh aloud, clap to express
themselves and confirm that they are there and are a part of what is going on.
He believes that his heart belongs to, and his spirit flows from, the old Grand
Theatre in Bolton.
Council was the main instrument in getting rid of weekly repertory by requiring
companies to rehearse for two, three or four weeks, and encouraging the
building of such theatres as the Belgrade in Coventry, the first to be built
after the 1939-45 war. He applauded the fact that Manchester now has the
Library Theatre and the Forum Wythenshawe, the Palace and the Opera House and
the most exciting building in the country at the Royal Exchange because the
theatres define the city…they cry aloud what the community is really about as
no other civic asset can do.
People are all acting every day, deciding what to wear, changing their vocabulary according to whether they are talking to their lover, their employer, or whoever, always showing different aspects of themselves. Professor McKellen considered there was no real professional theatre in Italy where everyone is an actor (and therefore they needed the increased theatricality of opera or church ceremonies) whereas the British don’t emote except when on stage….thus we have an extensive amateur movement. He worried that the National Youth Theatre was a most important company which did not receive subsidy from a local authority because it was “national”, nor from the Department of Education because it was not educational, nor from the Arts Council because it was amateur. Similarly, the company Gay Sweatshop after 15 years’ work is considered an important company and everyone wants it to remain in being, but subsidy had been withdrawn from it. The failure in these cases was the failure of bureaucrats and the incompetence of politicians to find a way of supporting these companies and is not a failure of these companies or the theatre in general.
McKellen remembered his work at the Belgrade Coventry where a company of
fifteen people were engaged for a year and learned to work together on
different plays with different acting styles, how to learn lines and to pace
themselves, how to time a laugh and keep an audience’s attention, how to
develop a performance through a run and learn self-confidence on stage. The
last is most important in finding how to stop the knees wobbling when one opens
one’s heart to reveal one’s emotions. It is impossible to emphasise how much
actors need support – a first reading of a new play by experienced actors can
be like a “convention of dyslexics” – which is why actors call each other
“darling”, “love”, and kiss and cuddle and stick together for the essential
support they need. Sir Ian reckoned it took him ten years in repertory to go
into any rehearsal and dare….
Regional theatre has to be strong, Sir Ian went on. It is no use saving the National Theatre or the RSC for one further year if the Liverpool Playhouse has to shut. Remove one brick from the edifice and the wind whistles through and starts to bring the building down. In many regional theatres there are no productions of Shakespeare, having been replaced by Alan Ayckbourn; not because he is better but because he is cheaper. Also, the great classics – our dramatic heritage – have been excluded in favour of lighter shows. Soon there will be no ensembles left where actors can hone their craft.
The accountancy firm Coopers & Lybrand had been charged with investigations into arts subsidies in order to find economies. Whereas they normally find a 20% wastage in commercial and industrial companies, they could find no conceivable cuts in National theatre departments of more than 8%. No doubt this is because those working int the theatre meet their customers every night of the week.
Finally, McKellen reminded us that in the theatre, excitement begins in the stomach – not the head or the heart – both for the audiences and the actors. It flowed up through the chest and out through the mouth as the actor’s voice and was expressed by the audience in laughter and cheers. He deplored the use of microphones and considered live theatre did not have the deadening effect of the art forms of cinema, television and radio in which players could not react to live audiences. He emphasised that politicians really worried about subsidy for the arts because the arts impinge on people’s minds – the first things a dictator closes are the airports, the news services and the theatres.
dazzling epilogue Sir Ian reminded us that in the beginning was the word –
Shakespeare invented modern theatre, not Chekhov or Brecht – he invented the
soliloquy (like the aria in an opera or the song in a musical) which in Sir Ian’s
hands at the conclusion of his address moved joyously and to great acclaim from
HAMLET to COMPANY.
To be, or
not to be: That is the question:
nobler in the mind to suffer
and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take
arms against a sea of troubles,
opposing end them. To die: to sleep;
Somebody hold me too close;
hurt me too deep;
sit in my chair
And ruin my
sleep and make me aware
alive. But alone is alone.
Article published by kind permission of the Estate of Anthony Field