Winners of the Black Theatre Awards 2020 announced

On a busy night for British Theatre, the Black British Theatre Awards were awarded in a ceremony broadcast by Sky Arts channel (Freeview ch 11) on Sunday 25th October.

Personally, I was delighted to see that Nadia Fall really deservedly won Best Director of a Play or Musical for her brilliant production of FAIRVIEW at the Young Vic (see my review here)

I was also very happy to see two rising stars who are in my personal favourite list being honoured – Cherrelle Skeete was awarded Best Supporting Female Actor for her nuanced performance in THE HIGH TABLE (see my review here) and Rachel Nwokoro (who I enjoyed hugely in LITTLE BABY JESUS for which which she recently won The Stage’s Debut Award (see my review here) at the Orange Tree in Richmond) was presented with the Disability Champion Award.

Best Male Actor in A Play was Valentine Olukoga for THE FISHERMEN at Trafalgar Studios, and Best Female Actor in a Play was Rakie Ayola for ON BEAR RIDGE at the Royal Court (see my review here).

DEATH OF A SALESMAN was awarded Best Production Play, whilst the award for Best Male Actor in a Musical went to Noah Thomas for his performance in EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE and Best Female Actor in a Musical was won by Miriam Teak-Lee for her work in & JULIET, scooping a double win on the same evening she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the same show.

Congratulations to all the nominees and winners!


Remembering the great Tommy Rall

Tommy Rall with Ann Miller in MGM’s KISS ME, KATE (1953)

“The best all-round dancer we had at MGM was Tommy Rall. He could do anything and do it better than any other dancer.”

Gene Kelly

“above Astaire and Kelly”

Donald O’Connor

It is terribly sad to hear that one of the greatest twentieth century dancers, the sublime Tommy Rall, passed away aged 90 on October 6th.

Ballet, tap, jazz, acrobatics, Rall could do it all. He was also a highly accomplished singer (an operatic tenor), actor, and his good looks were hardly a drawback.

Born in 1929 and growing up in Seattle, he took dance classes from an early age and was soon performing in Seattle theatres. When his family moved to Los Angeles in the early forties, Rall was hired to be a member of the jitterbugging Jivin’ Jacks and Jills, a group created for Universal Studios musicals unit to lighten several of the unit’s movies. Aged just thirteen, you can see him bringing his acrobatics and grace to bear in this excerpt from one of those early musicals.(below). The clip heats up at about 0’40” in.

Rall was very in-demand through the forties , fifties and sixties. His stage work through into the fifties lead to more film work, and he spent many years shuttling between Broadway and Hollywood. Film-wise Rall was most often at MGM, where he was featured in KISS ME,KATE and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS as well as Gene Kelly’s INVITATION TO THE DANCE. Other film work included Columbia’s MY SISTER EILEEN where he worked alongside co-star/choreographer Bob Fosse.

In his retirement he became a celebrated painter and continued to receive letters from fans right up until his passing.

Why didn’t he become a more recognised star? Perhaps because there was more work we saw on film of him in combination with others rather than solo, therefore perhaps people underrated his abilities and appeal? Personally I have always considered him one of the all-time greats. Elegance combined with confidence and sheer ability fuse to make him a magnetic force on-screen.

On 6th October there came this message from the Tommy Rall Facebook page – From the post by Cynthia Wands: “I’m very sorry to share the news that our dear Tommy Rall, died tonight of congestive heart failure around 5:00pm Pacific Time, in Santa Monica, California. But I want to share with folks here a rather magical story of Tommy’s passing. A hospice nurse was by Tommy’s bedside and found a box that held the cards and letters that had been sent to him in the last few weeks. She spent the afternoon reading each one to him, and when she finished reading the last one – he peacefully stopped breathing and passed away. She was very moved by the experience and wanted to share that story with the family. A private service will be held in the future. In the meantime, we have Tommy’s dancing and singing and beautiful spirit to remember. Thank you for helping to honor that spirit in these memories.”

Thanks to film, we can enjoy and lovingly remember Tommy in his prime. Watch him here “duel-dance” with Bob Fosse – and win! (Notice also the long continuous takes for each sequence of the routine.)

And here’s another Rall triumph from Paramount’s 1955 THE SECOND GREATEST SEX

Tommy Rall – there’ll never be another.

ONE TO WATCH – a free Online Event: Cultural Conversations – Philanthropy in the Arts

‘Philanthropy in the Arts’ was hosted online from 5.00pm-6.30pm BST on Wednesday 30th September by The Lord Mayor of the City of London, Alderman William Russell and the Genesis Foundation. This is the third in the series of Cultural Conversations.

This Conversation, the last of the 2020 season, is chaired by BBC arts presenter Kirsty Lang, who was joined by: 

Kwame Kwei-Armah OBE, Artistic Director of the Young Vic; 

Dame Julia Peyton-Jones CBE, Senior Global Director at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac; 

Rebecca Salter PRA, President of the Royal Academy of Arts; 

Sir Nicholas Serota CH, Chair of Arts Council England;

and John Studzinski CBE, Founder and Chairman of the Genesis Foundation.

In these times of extreme fluidity in shaping the future of the arts within a shifting cultural landscape, this proved a useful and stimulating debate.

POSTSCRIPT This event is highly-recommended – an engrossing and inspiring meeting of minds, and the event was “attended” by over 500 viewers. Very worthwhile to watch for anyone interested in the arts, you can watch the recording of the discussion here

Cultural Heart of London debate launches new cultural strategy for the West End

On the morning of Tuesday 29 September, the Heart of London Business Alliance (HoLBA) held an online symposium to celebrate the launch of their cultural strategy – the Cultural Heart of London, whilst simultaneously announcing the launch of a new digital channel – Art of London – which should be available later this week.

In a discussion led by Jan Dalley, Arts Editor of the Financial Times, representatives from the West End’s leading cultural institutions discussed London’s unique spirit and shared their ideas on how to protect and promote its extraordinary creative potential.

Introduced by Ros Morgan, Chief Executive of Heart of London Business Alliance, and livestreamed from the ODEON Luxe, Leicester Square, the panel included Kenny Wax, President of the Society of London Theatre, Stuart Murphy, Chief Executive of English National Opera, Axel Ruger, CEO of The Royal Academy and Sherry Dobbin, partner at FutureCity.

The debate was lively, thoughtful and insightful, as the participants shared how the Covid-19 crisis has affected their organisations and the creative methods that they are employing to continue their engagements with audiences to provide vital diversions during this time of national crisis.

HoLBA commissioned Arup to investigate the potential impact of Covid-19 on the West End in a range of different scenarios and to produce ideas and recommendations for future recovery. With a range of modelling of different scenarios, at worst with the West End suffering repeated lockdowns the area would see a “catastrophic” loss of 97% of GVA (Gross Value Added- the financial value of all goods and services produced in an area).

What was unanimously agreed was that the sector requires immediate help, in the form of support and investment. The arts and culture have always played a big part in economic national recovery and 2020 is no exception.

All of the participants agreed on the importance of restoring confidence to visiting audiences, with Axel Ruger highlighting the emotional states of both venue workers and audiences who visit. Ruger felt it would take about a year for audiences to restore their confidence levels, saying “the nervousness is not to be underestimated”. He added that it was vital for concerted action by all organisations and businesses to achieve consistency in behaviour in applying the guidelines, which would in turn boost public confidence. He reminded us that the crisis has shown us just how “essential” the culture sector is, noting the “explosion” in online uptake of cultural offerings, adding “I’d say we provided an essential service”.

Stuart Murphy rightly highlighted people’s nervousness about travelling on public transport to get to and from the West End, also citing the older demographic of the ENO’s audiences, noting that with the digital outreach they must appeal to a wider age range in order to generate younger attendees. Echoing many who think from an audience point of view, Murphy also added “Socially distanced theatre doesn’t work. People don’t want to turn up to a party that’s half empty….Socially distancing is troubling in theatres.”

Without government help, Wax said, “95% of the West End theatres will stay closed”. Big musicals are major drivers to London’s economy but they “won’t open without government backing”. He highlighted the need for a government-backed insurance scheme covering business interruption cancellation which includes COVID risk. The insurance market is currently refusing to cover for this. The government has already helped the Cinema and TV industry with just such an agreed government backed insurance scheme, so logically all it would take is for them to extend this scheme to cover the live theatre sector. Their lack of action and initiative is inexplicable.

Supporting Wax, Murphy added “We (the arts and culture sector) are world leaders – you can’t say that about much in the UK”

Wax also reminded viewers of the complex ecosystem of theatres across the country which depend on a thriving West End to receive hit shows which then tour to great financial advantage to all regions of the UK. Mentioning the almost 300,000 people who work in the theatre sector, he also highlighted in the injustice of the vast numbers of freelance workers who have “fallen through the cracks” of the government’s range of financial support schemes.

The call to directly aid freelancers – the majority of the creative world’s workers – was unanimously supported, with Axel Ruger reminding us that “the notion of creativity is predicated on freelancing and flexibility”.

Drawing attention to the many ways creatives had adapted to contribute to society during the first months of the pandemic, Murphy was rightly proud of the creative ways his organisation has engaged with communities. Whilst appreciating this, Axel Ruger cautioned against becoming “instrumentalised”, filling the gaps in social care, reminding of the need to stay connected to the artform and its expression.

Sherry Dobbin provided some useful overviews during the debate, reminding us that “we go to the creative sector when we don’t know what to do, which is an indicator of value”, and “Absence teaches us what is valuable”.

Ros Morgan concluded the event by issuing a challenge to viewers to think about how they could make a contribution to the rebirth of the West End. Whilst acknowledging that we have many challenges ahead, the publication of this new report and the opening of the new digital channel Art of London are concrete measures of the determination of London’s West End cultural leaders to find a positive way forward.

Thank you to everyone involved for a very worthwhile event.

You can watch the recording of the event here

Time to Remember: The value of nurturing emerging creatives

At a time when the future of our theatre spaces are looking less secure than ever, the impact upon those who create the productions to fill our theatres is enormous.

The Kogod Cradle photo by Nick Lehoux courtesy of Bing Thom Architects

My friend and colleague ANTHONY FIELD was a passionate advocate of new talent, and, as he writes here, had been since the early days of his career. He recalls some of the many initiatives he founded. It is impossible to tell at this distance how many aspiring creatives his initiatives supported, but we can say with some certainty that without his passion and dedication, a fair number of the plays that have entertained you across the last fifty years may never have seen a stage. This article is from his writings in 2011.

The Arena Stage in Washington, not particularly noted as a hotbed of American theatre in the same category as Chicago or Seattle, has opened its new 200-seater space christened the Cradle. Thus, the Cradle will be a home in which to nurture new plays and playwrights.

In these days when investment in new work and young artists is difficult to attract, artistic directors are more inclined to revive classics than risk world premieres and even more important, second or third productions of new plays. But without talent we risk losing all creativity, not only in our theatres but also in our films, radio and television programming.

Over fifty years ago, when the Arts Council of Great Britain cared about creativity, it had evolved numerous schemes for investing in drama companies. There were annual grants, guarantees against loss, touring guarantees, transport subsidies to help bring audiences into theatres, training schemes, guarantees for new plays, guarantees for second and third productions of new plays, guarantees for neglected plays, grants for young peoples’ theatre, capital grants….the schemes were endless and constantly evolving. [Editorial Note: All these initiatives had stemmed from Anthony Field himself, as Finance Director of the Arts Council for 27 years, but -for the record- he was too modest to say that in this article!]

In 1960 I proposed that the Council might consider establishing a theatre in London which would be available for new work. There were at that time so many fringe theatres going out of business like the New Lindsey, the Boltons and the Irving, and other fringe theatres being run by artistic directors that it was becoming increasingly difficult for new, young producers to find a home for new plays.

In New York there were literally hundreds of off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway and even off-off-off-Broadway venues for rent. They were not run by artistic directors with their own programmes but by landlords simply asking for a weekly rent for a 100-seater space for an open-ended run. Thus, I thought it would be productive for the Arts Council to fund one such space in London. After some consideration the Drama Department came back to me with a proposal to purchase the Shaftesbury Theatre (which was then called The Princes Theatre). I pointed out that it was completely the wrong size and configuration, with a 1400-seat capacity across three levels, which had completely the wrong ambiance for new work. Unfortunately, the whole scheme collapsed after that.

Now a small theatre in Washington has launched a new space to foster the craft of playwriting and the careers of playwrights. Further, it has rented a house with four bedrooms for playwrights to live and work close to the Cradle. Already one playwright who has spent time there has a new drama, THE MOUNTAINTOP, scheduled for Broadway, and another whose LEGACY OF LIGHT has been produced at a number of other regional theatres.

Arena Stage

Arena Stage, which has fostered the Cradle, has already benefitted financially from the musical NEXT TO NORMAL which has just closed after a two-year success on Broadway.