THEATRE AWARDS ROUND-UP: with James Seabright

Olivier Awards logo
The annual awards season is drawing to a close, and we’re thrilled that so many NHB plays and theatrebooks have picked up gongs along the way. The King’s Speech won both the Bafta and Academy Award for Best Screenplay; Simon Callow beat off stiff competition to take the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography with My Life in Pieces; and Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn was voted the Best Play of 2010 by the 45,000 theatre-going voters in the WhatsOnStage.com Awards.

Anne Boleyn jacket

This Sunday is the biggest theatre awards in the UK calendar – the Oliviers – and both Nina Raine’s Tribes and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park are nominated for Best Play – the latter having already picked up the same prize at the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards. James Seabright, author of So You Want to be a Theatre Producer?, considers the impact of the Oliviers, and how he feels about being nominated for the first time…

‘This is an exciting year for the Olivier awards. A major relaunch funded by sponsorship from Mastercard has allowed its organisers, the Society of London Theatre, to give the whole event a much bigger public profile. This includes a red-carpet style ceremony this coming Sunday at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, with extensive coverage on the BBC both in advance – through the Audience Award promoted via Radio 2 – and on the night, as you can watch the whole thing via the red button at home, or listen in on the radio.  I see all of these as very welcome developments, especially for the selfish reason that for the first time one of my productions has been nominated in the awards: Potted Panto is up for Best Entertainment.

So on Sunday, I will be donning a tuxedo (the last time I did was a decade ago!), and joining several colleagues from the show – and several hundred from the industry as a whole – at my first-ever red carpet awards ‘do’. The hope is that, despite the considerable competition presented by major hits in our category like The Railway Children and Ghost Stories, our show is smiled upon by the mysterious panel of Olivier voters.  Whether or not that happens – it will be a great opportunity to celebrate the success of the show, which is the third in the series of “Potted Productions” that I have developed with Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner since first seeing them perform an early version of Potted Potter at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006.  Potted Panto is the first of these to transfer to a proper West End run, hence making it eligible for Olivier consideration. So whatever the envelope reveals on Sunday,  the awards will be a welcome celebration of five years’ hard work developing a fringe format into a mainstream, award-nominated one.

As well as this year’s awards taking on a new format and enhanced presence in the public eye, it feels like there are some exciting developments in terms of up-and-coming theatre practitioners being acknowledged through the Olivier shortlists – and not just the single category given over to ‘Affiliate venues’, as the off-West End houses are euphemistically known. It is particularly welcome to see the wonderful work of the team at Opera Up Close being recognised with a nomination for their production of La Bohème, which moved all the way from a pub theatre in Kilburn to two record-breaking runs at Soho Theatre. Now that would be a quite extraordinary achievement, to win an Olivier above the publicly-funded opera houses. So for a whole host of reasons, selfish and otherwise, I’m hoping that the underdog wins out on Sunday night!’

So You Want To Be A Theatre ProducerJames Seabright runs his own production company Seabright Productions and is the author of So You Want To Be a Theatre Producer? (£12.99, 9781854595379). You can order your copy of this title – plus any of the award-winning books featured in this post – through the NHB website with free P&P by adding ‘AWARDS blog offer’ in the comments field (UK customers only).

Potted Panto is currently touring the UK to June 2011, click here for more information and to book tickets.

Five minutes with Bruce Norris – author of CLYBOURNE PARK

jacket image of Clybourne Park

Bruce Norris’s raucously funny and fearlessly shocking racial satire Clybourne Park opened in the West End this week. Since its UK debut at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010, the play has received widespread critical acclaim – hailed as ‘the funniest play of the year’ (Evening Standard), ‘genius’ (Times) and ‘out of this world’ (Independent) – and has already scooped all of the prestigious theatre awards. We tracked down the author in his native USA to ask him a few burning questions, exclusively for the NHB blog…! 

 

Clybourne Park dares to confront the submerged racism of its characters, black as well as white, in a potentially explosive way. Do you think it important to provoke audiences in the theatre as well as make them laugh?

I’m not sure whether or not it’s important, per se, it’s just what I enjoy. I’ve always been argumentative by nature and so anything that might potentially cause a fight in the theatre amuses me, as long as fists aren’t used. I had a friend say to me recently, “you should never say mean things to people because words can hurt as much as a fist.” I asked her if she’d ever been hit by a fist? She said no, so I said then maybe someone should hit you so that you’d have proper basis for your comparison.

How have you found British audiences have reacted to the play? Has there been a notable difference to the reaction in the US?

I think that what’s surprising is that the reactions have been remarkably consistent. I think that that’s because theatre-going audiences in the US and the UK draw upon a similar constituency: Well-educated, privileged and (primarily) white people.  Conservatives also go to the theatre in both places, but they go to see shows like The Lion King or Jersey Boys. Conservatives prefer musicals, (or failing that, Shakespeare) and that’s because they know full well that the creators of the kind of theatre you’d see at the Royal Court are, by and large, liberal – sometimes in the extreme – and they (the conservatives) don’t want to go somewhere only to be preached at by people with different opinions. I don’t blame them; I’d hate to go see a play by some conservative bastard whose opinions I despised. The only problem with all of that is, when there is no political or cultural disagreement in an audience it makes for a rather bland experience where our values are simply reconfirmed by the play that we see.  So I find it interesting to explore what would potentially divide or upset a mono-culturally liberal audience – and liberals, currently, are rather easy to upset, both in the US and UK because we’ve been effectively silenced by a dominant center-right coalition for several decades, and are thus, unsurprisingly, a little edgy.

What are your views on the American model of funding theatre (e.g. private finance/philanthropy), and do you think the British Government is right to encourage the UK’s subsidised arts sector to adopt this model?

That’s a really tricky question. Obviously we theatre people over here in the US are ridiculously jealous of your system and would benefit enormously from having some (less paltry) government subsidy for the Arts. If American theatre actors could make a comparable living to London theatre actors they’d be dancing in the streets.  The problem for me (and this is where I become slightly – oh god, dare I say it? – conservative) is that, in order to advocate for government money to be placed in service of the theatre, I’d have to believe that theatre – including the theatre I create – was some kind of social necessity that justified taking away tax dollars from housing programs or education or health care for those who can’t get it via other means. I’m just not sure theatre is important than those things. Correction: I know it’s not. Of course, others would say but your tax dollars are already going to support unjustified wars…Yes, true. But I don’t think that funding one can contradict the other. I don’t think that theatre promotes political change; I think you’d be hard-pressed to show me a real, concrete example of how it does. Moreover, I think that if you’re looking to theatre to effect political change you’ve chosen the most inefficient means possible. I think theatre reflects and responds to the world we live in, rather than leading it. So, how do you justify its funding at the governmental level?

On the other hand, you’ve got the US model. Here’s an interesting fact: The Chairwoman (or -person) of the Board of Directors at Playwrights Horizons (the theatre where Clybourne Park had its premiere), the woman principally responsible for raising money from various corporate entities to fund the existence of that theatre, is married to…former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, formerly a board member of Goldman Sachs, and arguably someone who holds partial responsibility for the mess our economy is currently in (and, it should be noted, a lovely man and a fan of my play). Yikes. How to make sense of that?  Here our economy is in free-fall, jobs lost, houses foreclosed upon, and we in the theatre are expected to somehow respond to all of this while at the same time our very existence is being made possible by the very people who put us into this situation? And so you have an entirely different question:  If the money that goes to pay our bills is drawn from the same coffers that perpetuate policies with which we disagree, how should we respond? Are we content to be jesters for a court of Medicis? Or do we attack them with our savage theatrical thrust (that was sarcasm) with the aim to somehow bring them down? And what if we could? Doesn’t Playwrights Horizons exist as a function of the largesse of the wealthy? Should we be grateful for that, or resentful? If we could somehow, through the mechanism of theatre, foment a liberal economic revolution (more sarcasm) that would somehow level the playing field, and thus redistribute some of that same largesse to some of the less fortunate, such as theatre people…wouldn’t that, then, eliminate Playwrights Horizons altogether, and simply bring us back around to the previous paragraph? I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t.

Clybourne Park is currently playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, to 7 May 2011.

AWARDS: Evening Standard Best Play * Critics’ Circle Best New Play * South Bank Sky Arts Best New Play * NOMINATIONS: Olivier Awards – MasterCard Best New Play

PART 5: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

image of Andrew Sheridan

Andrew Sheridan receiving his award

Andrew Sheridan is a joint-winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition for his play Winterlong – ‘a dazzling debutGuardian. Set in Manchester, the play explores what happens when a baby is discarded a few nights before Christmas. Sheridan is also an actor, and has appeared in award-winning TV, film and theatre.

How would you describe your play, Winterlong?

It’s a play that wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s no bullshit with it. It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s direct. It’s like Mancunian people. We’re direct. There’s no flannel.

So a sense of place, of belonging in Manchester is important to you as a writer?

I’m Mancunian. I write with a Mancunian voice. It’s important. It always has been. It comes from a tradition, a history of having to search for beauty in the ugly. It has to be shiny and bold and revolutionary. Full of vibrancy and expectation. It has to speak louder than other voices not because it wants to but because it has to. It doesn’t have a choice.

How have you found the experience of working with the director, Sarah Frankcom, on your play?

Sarah Frankcom is without doubt one of the most important directors working in British theatre. She has such an understanding of me as a writer. She has always believed in my play and the characters that populate it. She has never wavered in her support and vigour to direct my play with truth and honesty and daring. I would trust her with my life.

It must be strange – as an actor – to be watching other actors do the job for a change?

Going from actor to writer is slightly weird – almost like trying to walk again or learning to ride a bike. It really hit me when we started casting really. I suddenly realised that I was on the wrong side of the table, and I was so used to walking into the room and seeing these three people, the casting director, the writer and the director.

And the cast?

Every one of the actors in Winterlong is the best there is. They are quality. End of. They all bring an amazing amount individually and collectively to it. I’m so lucky. They’ve all clicked into that Manchester vibe of thinking regarding the play and how they feel about it. “We’re all doing this and we don’t care if you like it or not. We’re doing it.”

jacket image of WINTERLONG

Winterlong by Andrew Sheridan

How does it feel to have your play staged at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre?

The Exchange is where I saw my first play. The Exchange is where I got my first acting job. The Exchange is the theatre that will premiere my first play. I can’t say how much this building means to me. It creates some of this country’s strongest and most daring theatre and all the people who work there are the best there is. They are all totally sound.

How important has the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition been to you?

I think the Bruntwood is the most important new playwriting competition in this country! You can enter the competition completely anonymously. No one knows who you are. It could be your first play, it could be your fifth play, it doesn’t matter, you will be judged on the merit of what you write and that is what’s so good about the competition.

Bruntwood are doing such a good job really considering the hard times that we’re going through economically in this country and the cuts to the arts. They’re  really maintaining what’s important for new writing theatre. It’s just so important at this time that this competition continues… Well done to Bruntwood for doing it and the Royal Exchange for hosting it!

Winterlong received its world premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, February 2011. It will later transfer to Soho Theatre, London, opening on 23 February 2011.

Next week: Bruce Norris on his multi-award-winning hit Clybourne Park – now playing in the West End at the Wyndham’s Theatre until May 2011 after a sell-out run at the Royal Court.