Toward a Future Theatre – a free online discussion

photo credit: James D. Morgan (courtesy of Methuen Drama)

On Wednesday 27th April from 6.00pm to 7.30pm BST, you are invited to join an interesting free online discussion about the future directions of theatre in the UK.

Presented by Research@Central, an events creation group based at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, the online discussion will prove worth watching, I am sure.

In December of 2021, Methuen Drama published Caridad Svich’s Toward a Future Theatre: Conversations During a Pandemic, which documents theatremakers’ dreams for a new post-Covid reality in which theatre is reimagined and issues of racial and economic justice are addressed. This panel brings together five artists featured in the book to reflect upon their renewed commitment to theatre’s ability to effect and model change at a time when the arts sector finds itself in a precarious state of flux and transition.

The Panelists are, as of this writing, James Graham (playwright), Roy Williams (playwright), Jennifer Jackson (movement director), Suba Das (artistic director, Liverpool’s Everyman Playhouse), and Daphna Attias (co-founder of the site-responsive, immersive theatre company Dante or Die).

Caridad Svich is a playwright, an editor at Contemporary Theatre Review and founder of NoPassport theatre alliance and press. She received a 2012 Obie for Lifetime Achievement.

Tom Cornford is Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Performance at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and author of Theatre Studios: A Political History of Ensemble Theatre-Making.

James Graham is an Olivier-Award winning playwright and librettist and screenwriter. His works include Ink at the Almeida, the West End and Broadway.

Roy Wiliams is a Black British playwright and screenwriter. His works include Death of England and Sing Yer Out for the Lads.

Jennifer Jackson is a British Bolivian movement director, actor and theatremaker. Her work has been seen at the National Theatre, Royal Exchange Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith, among others. She is currently a Leverhulme Arts Scholar.

Suba Das is Creative Director for the Everyman and Playhouse Theatres. A theatre director, producer and dramaturg, he was Artistic Director and CEO of HighTide. Previously Associate Director of Leicester Curve, one of the UK’s major producing houses, Das was Resident Director at the National Theatre Studio and English Touring Theatre, and has directed for the Young Vic, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Nottingham Playhouse, Northern Stage and the Roundhouse. In 2017 he made his opera directorial debut with the world premiere of Sukanya by Ravi Shankar for the Royal Opera and London Philharmonic. Suba read English at Clare College, Cambridge and trained on the Birkbeck Director Training Programme. He is a Trustee of The Sage, Gateshead, Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation and Theatres Trust.

Daphna Attias is Co-Artistic Director of Dante or Die, a site-specific theatre company celebrating the human condition. She has directed all of the company’s works to date.

For more information, and to reserve your place, click here

Movie Theaters (sic) exhibition in London

At the Tristan Hoare Gallery in London, you’ll find a fascinating exhibition about US movie theatres, featuring forgotten palaces of entertainment whose time ran out.

Undoubtedly melancholy in spirit, the exhibition is a needed wake-up call that these once- popular treasures can be saved if a will and a way (and several million dollars in cash) can be found.

The book which the exhibition is based upon, Movie Theaters, is a recently-published work by two French photographers, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, the result of a 15-year collaboration which captures the former “cathedrals of cinema” of America. Shooting with a large format 4×5 camera using long exposures in dimly-lit auditoriums, the images are conceived as historical documents of what was once the Golden Era of the American movie-going experience.

From the venue’s website: “Many of the theatres captured by Marchand and Meffre date from the Golden Age of American film (1910s to 30s) when the big film studios competed to build extravagant venues to entice and thrill their audiences. A night at the movies was a glamorous occasion where the buildings themselves became as much of a draw as the movie being screened. Following the stock market crash in 1929 and in the post-war era thereafter, multiplexes and shopping malls made these theatres redundant, inevitably causing them to fall into disrepair. Many were converted into a multitude of purposes ranging from churches, retail space, flea markets, bingo halls, discos, supermarkets, gymnasiums, or warehouses, and often with comical results! While some remain relatively unchanged, others clash with their newfound purpose, creating unexpected spaces which act as a fascinating documents of American History.

The exhibition presents the never-before exhibited Proctor’s Theater, Troy, NY (2012), taking the central place in the gallery’s first room. The works exhibited present examples of abandoned theatres with their curtains torn and seats shrouded in decades of dust, reused cinemas in disrepair, acting as bus depots or car workshops, and finally those that have been reused and refurbished, often hiding the grand vaulted ceilings and ornamental mouldings that once attracted visitors. The exhibition will also present a series of typologies of the exteriors of the grand movie palaces Marchand and Meffre ventured into.

Marchand and Meffre’s images represent some of the survivors of a century of industrial, aesthetic and social change, their continued existence prompting a sense of nostalgia for the golden age of American cinema which carried American values, ideas and entertainment across the world.”

The free exhibition runs until March 11th and the gallery is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 11am to 6pm.
Tristan Hoare, 6 Fitzroy Square, London W1T 5DX
(close to Warren Street and Great Portland Street Underground stations)

Find the gallery’s website here

For those intrigued, the huge book from which the exhibition is curated has 300 pages with 220 colour illustrations, and is currently available on Amazon at a substantially discounted price here

Online talk TRAILBLAZERS OF BLACK THEATRE plus Q&A on 22 September

Ira Aldridge, the original Trailblazer of Black Theatre

On Wednesday 22 September there’s another fascinating online talk. TRAILBLAZERS OF BLACK THEATRE is an illustrated talk by Stephen Bourne, author of forthcoming book Deep are the Roots, an odyssey into Black history on the stage.

Deep Are the Roots celebrates the pioneers of Black British theatre, beginning in 1825, when Ira Aldridge made history as the first Black actor to play Shakespeare’s Othello in the United Kingdom, and ending in 1975 with the success of Britain’s first Black-led theatre company.

In addition to providing a long-overdue critique of Laurence Olivier’s Othello, Bourne has unearthed the forgotten story of Paul Molyneaux, a Shakespearean actor of the Victorian era. The twentieth-century trailblazers include Paul Robeson, Florence Mills, Elisabeth Welch, Edric Connor and Pearl Connor-Mogotsi.

There are chapters about the ground-breaking work of playwrights at the Royal Court, the first Black drama school students, pioneering theatre companies and three influential dramatists of the 1970s: Mustapha Matura, Michael Abbensetts and Alfred Fagon. Drawing on interviews with leading lights, here is everything you need to know about the trailblazers of Black theatre in Britain and their profound influence on the culture of today.

Mr Bourne will take us on an illustrated tour of his new book and then take questions. ‘Deep are the Roots’ is published by the History Press on 7th October and is available from Amazon.

This event is organised by Black History Walks in conjunction with the Sarah Parker Remond Centre at U.C.L.

This is an online event at 6.30pm UK/GMT time. The Zoom link will be sent to your email. Check your JUNK MAIL when you register and just before the event starts.

Tickets are free but must be booked to receive the broadcast link.

Get tickets here

After The Final Curtain – America’s Abandoned Theatres

Matt Lambros is an American movie location scout and photographer of abandoned entertainment buildings. On Saturday February 22nd the Cinema Theatre Association hosted Matt in London to talk about his new book “After The Final Curtain – America’s Abandoned Theaters”, featuring his photographs of scores of abandoned theatres across America. In a talk illustrated with generous amounts of his original photography, Matt took us with him on his travels across America to find forgotten delights.

Matt does what we would all love to do- if we had the time and energy. He travels the country photographing these abandoned gems in whatever state he finds them. His stories about gaining access are often tortuous, but Matt’s perseverance is boundless – and he comes up with the goods.

Getting in is one challenge; what he finds inside is quite another. He describes swarms of rats (he has regular tetanus shots), crumbling masonry, asbestos, water and even sheet ice, all in an often pitch-black environment (no electricity!). Matt relies on his LED camera light packs to give him the illumination he needs, both for navigation and for photography. And the results of this limited lighting, as seen in his many photographs, are pretty breathtaking.

Covering America from coast to coast, the theatres that Matt presented in his talk were mostly built between 1915 and 1925, the majority as vaudeville houses. Pretty soon, cinema took the place of vaudeville, and many of the theatres became movie houses before changing hands in the 70s and 80s through a succession of short-term owners whose interest in the buildings declined with their lack of viability as money-makers. Mostly left to rot, these decaying beauties simply sat and succumbed to the ravages of neglect. Many now plainly past saving, Matt’s photos are a vital (in some cases perhaps the only) record of these once important public amenities.

Along the journey, Matt shared with us some oddities, such as the State Theatre in South Bend, Indiana which eschewed the traditional balcony for small stepped boxes along the upper side walls of the auditorium with a shallow gallery high up at the back- making both an odd-looking auditorium and losing several hundred potential prime balcony seats in the process!

Apparently the Americans have not yet compiled a register of theatres at risk, (which the Theatres Trust do within the UK), so it appears that, worryingly, no-one is keeping a watchful eye over these fading gems.

Matt told us that he also tried to photograph each theatre’s usually ornately decorated fire curtain; he often attempted to lower these heavy steel curtains. However, with these decaying, unmaintained buildings he had to bear in mind that they might not go back up.

If all this dereliction sounds rather bleak, Matt recognised this and provided us with a most welcome “happy ending”, highlighting several theatres which have been rescued, restored and returned to live use, saving until last the Fischer Theatre in Darwin, Illinois which took less than a year to renovate from start to finish, which Matt reckons may well be a record.

Many thanks to Matt for his five-star presentation, and here’s to more happy endings for these American forgotten beauties.

Many of Matt’s photos can be found at his Instagram address here

You can buy Matt’s book “After The Final Curtain: America’s Abandoned Theaters” here

You can find out more about the Cinema Theatre Association here

Catching Up with…….Richard Smedley, theatre historian and author of THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOSEPH SMEDLEY

NEWS: Nottingham residents will be interested to know that Richard Smedley is talking about Joseph Smedley (and his book) in a free event at the Theatre Royal Nottingham on Tuesday June 18th at 1.00pm, booking is not necessary, so do go along to enjoy a fascinating lunchtime in the company of this engaging and knowledgeable speaker. Details here 

Born in Nottingham, Richard Smedley started working as a youngster backstage at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, working his way up as call boy, dresser, stagehand, stage doorkeeper, finance assistant and then Finance Director and later General Manager.

Early retirement has given Richard the chance to pursue his love of theatre history, and his research work has won the Theatre Research Society’s Kathleen Barker Prize for his book, The Life and Times of Joseph Smedley, which is a fascinating chronicle of regional theatre in the nineteenth century, and the Smedley family’s influences upon the theatrical profession.

Utilising detailed and intricate research, Richard vividly portrays the world of UK touring theatre in the first half of the nineteenth century when his namesake, Joseph Smedley was an actor and theatre manager who toured theatre shows to the people of Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Rutland and further afield.  It is a time of strolling players where family played a strong role to fill many of the roles required on stage. Joseph also built his own theatres, and at his height controlled a circuit of thirty theatres. Striving to elevate the low reputation of the theatrical profession, he practised what he preached, becoming known for his honesty and fairness to all. It’s a book filled with all the colour and characters of travelling players of almost 200 years ago, and as such it’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in the geographical areas covered or theatre history in general.

Thanks for talking with me, Richard, Can I first ask you what sparked the idea for the book?

When my mother and I visited the Minster town of Southwell in north Nottinghamshire  we came across a plaque on a building in the town centre identifying it as previously having been a theatre managed by Joseph Smedley. I had never heard of him, but given our shared surname and my interest in theatrical history, I decided to dig into his life, purely out of curiosity. The more I found the more interested I became, and it went from there.

How long has it taken to write?

Five years, give or take, for the research and writing; plus another year or so to polish, edit, proof and publish.

It seems that the research was very widespread. How did you approach this?

At first it was basically a scattershot approach to find material where I could. However I was fortunate in that many of his papers had been lodged in the Lincolnshire Archives in Lincoln by Joseph’s direct descendant, with whom I got in touch. Thanks to his kindness and knowledge I gained access to the original material of the copies in the Archives, and much more. Eventually, having realised that there may well be enough material to write a book, I worked out a means of telling Joseph’s story in a chronological way, and this very much steered the way in which I approached my further research. However, doing research can become quite expensive, as a lot of it meant travelling some distance. For example, I did a lot of research in Wakefield, where Joseph owned the theatre for a time; Bradford, Northallerton, London, etc. As I exist on an occupational pension, I was only able to do the research that I could afford to do in any one month. This is one of the reasons the book took so long to write. I was fortunate though, in being awarded the Kathleen Barker Prize by the Society for Theatre Research, in recognition of the value of the research I was doing, which helped to stretch my resources.

You mention that Joseph built a theatre at Sleaford. Was there a particular reason that he chose to build there? Is the theatre still standing/in use?

From his earliest days of touring, Joseph appeared in Sleaford, and he had friends there, including a man called Obbinson, whose father had acted in a small company based at Sleaford. Obbinson fils was a well-known businessman in the town, with whom Joseph entrusted his income while away on tour, i.e. rents from the hire of the theatres he had leased, and rooms hired out, etc. At some stage Joseph decided to domicile his family there, perhaps because it was more central to his touring arrangements. Joseph had financial interests in several theatres that he visited on tour, sometimes buying shares in them. The theatre at Sleaford, however, he had built entirely at his own cost, (£478) which opened in March, 1826, and another theatre in the town of March in Cambridgeshire, costing £611, which opened in October of the same year. The building in Sleaford is still standing, and is in use again as a theatre for the community, although it has in the meantime undergone several ownerships and changes of use.

You say that Joseph started out in Robertson’s theatre company and then branched out on his own. So was there a rivalry between the two?

No, I don’t believe so, in fact I think the opposite. As a member of the Robertson’s Lincoln Theatre Company and its circuit, Joseph had been popular with both audiences and fellow cast members alike. Joseph then married Melinda who seems to have been mentored by the Brunton family while at Norwich, one of whom was now married to Robertson himself. This was proven by Joseph’s and Melinda’s first child being named Melinda Brunton Smedley. It appears that they took the good wishes of the Robertson company with them when they set out on their own, and it would have been most unlike Joseph to have left with ill-feeling in any case. The dates Joseph and his company played were smaller towns and villages than those on the Lincoln circuit, and wider afield, and did not therefore affect Robertson’s business directly, although it may have had an indirect adverse effect when audiences started to drop, and the Lincoln Theatre and its circuit suffered financial reverses and Robertson was jailed for debt in 1816.

Both Robertson and Smedley staged a similar type of theatrical entertainment, and of similar quality except that Robertson was inclined to try and boost ticket sales by importing famous actors. I have no doubt that they kept in touch with each other, and I am sure that Joseph continued to visit Lincoln. Unfortunately, Joseph kept no diaries or written records to confirm this, in the way that Tate Wilkinson had; but then Joseph didn’t worry about how he would be viewed by future generations.

You also say that Joseph’s aim was to elevate the profession from its then lowly status and to do so by leading by example. This included treating people well and fairly and by building his personal reputation and “brand” as we might call it today. What in your opinion was Joseph’s most lasting legacy to the theatrical profession?

I am not sure. Certainly he did try to elevate his profession, but from the bottom rung of the ladder. Something that Irving managed 40 years later by leading from the top of his profession. We must remember that Irving started as a strolling player too, and would also have been aware of how poor a reputation his fellow players were held in the eyes of the public. That Joseph managed to build such a good reputation for quality of acting, probity, sobriety and moral rectitude amongst his company can only be met with approval.

In addition, Joseph was considered as having been successful. Yes, he suffered as others did by having the takings stolen, or got depressed at poor attendances, but he seemed to weather such storms more easily. His granddaughter also wrote of her memory of him as being “well-off”. In these matters he was perhaps no different to other managers of similar circuits in other parts of the country. But I doubt that there were many who managed two circuits totalling over 30 theatres in 5 counties, although even this is not necessarily unique. Neither was he alone in battling against Evangelistic anti-theatre rhetoric. Theatres were closing as a result of this new brand of Puritanism; Chesterfield was forced to close in 1838, Oswestry in 1850, Richmond converted to wine cellars and an auction room in 1848; but most of these were after Joseph had left the stage.

I think if anything, he should be remembered for introducing and keeping high standards of production and despite extreme opposition in varying forms, continued to entertain and attract largely agricultural and rural audiences who might have otherwise been deprived of such theatrical fare. What is also interesting is the way he, and many other managers of the time, utilised the services of his growing family to fill some of the roles in the repertoire, and it is interesting to see how they grew up. Curiously, given his own past, Joseph absolutely insisted that none of his daughters were to marry an actor!

So, you may ask, why did I write it? I can only refer to something Iain Mackintosh, theatre historian and expert on Georgian Theatre wrote: ‘if it adds to our knowledge of the theatre of the period, then it is worth it’. I hope I have succeeded in this at least.

I am sure that some of our readers may be thinking about buying your book, and would be interested to know a little more. What would you like to say to them?

I would say that if they have an interest in theatre history they might enjoy it. If they are from, or know, South Yorkshire, the area known today as Humberside, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, East Anglia, Leicestershire, or Rutland, then they may be interested in the book from a local history perspective. Throughout, I have tried to discuss the challenges that faced Joseph in his work, and the people who impacted on it, and the changes in culture that affected him, so it is also has an element of social history too, not least in relating how Friendly Societies grew, and the popularity of Freemasonry during this period.

Without giving too much away, were there any big surprises uncovered in your research?

Certainly, there are surprises, not all of them happy. I gained much pleasure whenever I discovered something new, or was able to correct an error in something, because it felt that I had moved the story on somehow. Early on, I spoke with CMP Taylor, a historian, who wrote about Joseph as part of her history of the Wakefield Theatre, and indeed wrote his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Apart from that part of her book not following a chronological timeline, which was confusing, she wrote about the Duke of Newcastle’s visit to see Joseph’s Company when at Worksop, when he paid for the whole audience at that performance to celebrate Queen Victoria’s accession. By going back and reading the Duke’s diary entries for the period, kept in the Manuscripts and Special Collections Department of Nottingham University, I was able to correct, and add to, the information contained in her book, as well as getting a first-hand account of the evening from him. A small pleasure to be sure, but nevertheless a reward for diligence.

Where can people buy the book ?

You can find it at Amazon here

You can also order it from good bookshops or from other on-line retailers:

Softcover: ISBN 978-1-912562-84-8

E-book: ISBN 978-1-912562-85-5

Thank you for talking with me, Richard, and I hope that your book continues to be a great success.

EVENT NEWS: Nottingham residents will be interested to know that Richard is talking about Joseph Smedley (and his book) in a free event at the Theatre Royal Nottingham on Tuesday June 18th at 1.00pm, booking is not necessary, so do go along to enjoy a fascinating lunchtime in the company of this engaging and knowledgeable speaker. Details here