Interview – Kerry Michael on bidding farewell to Theatre Royal Stratford East and pioneering new British musical theatre

Chris Grady writes… From early days working with the production of Ken Hill’s Invisible Man in the West End, and directing his first show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, KERRY MICHAEL went on to be the right hand creative of Philip Hedley at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, and for the last 12 years he has been the theatre’s chief executive, artistic director and champion.

It was my pleasure to recently review the national touring production of Tommy [which Kerry has directed] with a multi-talented cast in a truly bi-lingual production (BSL and English).

At the time I wrote: “This new touring project from the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich and Ramps on the Moon offers us the additional mix of artistry with integrated sign language, and an array of artists who are bringing their own adept physicality and passionate humanity to inhabit their roles with additional layers of performance skills. It is a great way to bring Tommy to touch the hearts of any theatregoer.”

I followed this up by chatting to Kerry as he begins the process of handing over to the next artistic director at the venue [director and playwright Nadia Fall will take over at the end of this year].

I recommend a read of many interviews that Kerry has given about his work and his passions for theatre which connect with the storytelling and creative consumption of a contemporary multi-cultural population.

On this occasion, we concentrated on musical theatre…

Many congratulations on Tommy. I reviewed it for Musical Theatre Review and enjoyed being able to give it a personal rave. It is very special theatre.

Yes it is the diversity within the production which makes it excellent. It makes it a more universal piece. The fact that we have quadruple threats… it was one of the most exciting experiences I have had in the theatre for a long time. I really hope it could eventually get a showing for 10 to 12 weeks in London – a tight season to show the work.

The cast of Tommy on tour. Picture: Mike Kwasniak

Tommy has been on tour and therefore has reached out to a musical theatre audience across the UK. Would you explore with us your sense of the challenges of developing musical theatre in the UK today.

I think the challenges in development are no different in their fundamental principals from developing any new work. You are up against reaching out to people/audience who have privilege, some resources, limited time and energy to see work. People want safety in their choice, be it title or star – I’m not sure they are any more ambitions or less risk averse than they were 10 to 15 years ago.

What we had about 10 years ago was an understanding that we had some of the best British music, the best music in the world. I’m not sure this is our top selling point now. We are far more part of a global music network.

We then had the Rule Britannia scene. British artists were doing the British thing all around the world and part of their wonderfulness came from the fact that they came from an island which had the results of Empire with mass integration and influences from around the world, defining themselves as British and making British music which was really exciting.

We talked about that as we started our musical theatre development programme 10 years ago which talked about British music leading the world, a brand which is about multi-culturalism and fusion.

I think things relating to musical theatre were far more complicated then because there was not really a British musical theatre scene, but the musical theatre was far more part of a global network.

At its core we then need to celebrate, and support writers of British musical theatre – how can we do that best?

It is about how you sit as an individual inside a global network. It is about your individuality and your voice and your energy and the sparks which create attention. The problem you’ve got is that when you are young and aspiring to be successful, the debate about success is still harping on around a canon of musical theatre work which is from 50-60 years ago.

Our critical debate around musical theatre and new work really hasn’t developed in the last 10 to 12 years. It is really hard to find the critical discourse on what is wonderful. Writers have to forge their own paths. Every time you get the top best musicals or shows or a top 10 highlights it unfortunately goes back to a canon of work which is about the past.

Julian Capolei, William Grint and Matthew Jacobs-Morgan in Tommy at the Theatre Royal Stratford East and Touring. Picture: Mike Kwasniak

Unfortunately, because of the economics of the British theatre, everyone is more risk averse and there are not the pioneers – another revival, another great title is what will get into a regional theatre and then transfer, or will get star casting. It is partly to do with economics, prices are going up.

I sense people/producers are looking to find one show where there are less variables, where they can define something like star casting or a known title. Dreamgirls is wonderful but it is based on the 1980s, Harry Potter is a phenomenon and a known title. What is most interesting is what happens with Hamilton in connection to the British musical psyche. Will it change what the audience sees as musical theatre – putting hip-hop and rap onto the main stage. That’s very exciting.

As one of those people pioneering British musical theatre, how do you move the grass roots forward?  

Twelve years ago when we were bashing away at this no one was doing new British musical theatre. And you couldn’t get a meeting with the Arts Council to talk about musical theatre. Now a number of organisations have been funded to develop British musicals and to the Arts Council’s credit they give us credit for being at the centre of that mix to open the debate about other possibilities. They have been onside.

Now there are other venues all talking about making musical theatre and being the home of musical theatre, and that’s fabulous. Also, there are now a lot more young producers and young directors and young writers who are thinking they will have a go at it. It has all moved on which is really exciting. All that is going in the right direction.

Now I think it is a matter of understanding how the new creative British musical theatre fits within the cradle of the other art forms. Whether you are looking at indie film, the visual arts, gaming – inside all these worlds you will find the new generation or millennials and teens and the way they are consuming information. Entertainment is really changing.

The two-act play, for example, is how it has been done, but all the energy is shifting. When we are in a theatre now, the majority of us are looking at our watches after 30 minutes, we are in an internal rhythm of a 30-minute soap, and a lot of us have those rhythms inside of us.

To get the answers for the new form you will not look at the old books and back catalogues, because the younger generation has other influences and different rhythms on how they want a story told to them.

How do we gently influence one generation, the older generation maybe, to buy tickets and explore new forms?

I don’t think we need to. I think there are horses for courses. I am a great fan of Jesus Christ Superstar which is 50 years old and I will buy a ticket for that at the Open Air Regent’s Park where they have reimagined that. I love Dreamgirls. And lots of young people will enjoy those shows. We are not in a bad place. At Theatre Royal Stratford East we have wanted to reimagine and push the form because we are talking to a different audience.

You are moving on from the Theatre Royal, what are your reflections?

I have the best job in British theatre, and I don’t want to leave, but after 12 years I can’t keep talking about the evolution of theatre and opportunities and then hog the job. I have to make sure there are opportunities at every level. So I have to step aside to let someone else have a go, which will again let someone else have their job – it all ripples around. That’s why I am going. It is purely a logical, not an emotional thing.

Once I have finally moved, then I will work out what my future is going to be. I haven’t left knowing what I am going on to – that would feel like having an affair and I am too loyal to the building. That would be like cheating on it. There are lots of things I want to do, and lots of things I am going to do. It is just working out in what order I am going to do them.

Musical Theatre Review is read by enthusiasts and professionals – what’s the message you want to get through to that broad mix of people?

I think the musical theatre community more than most really does talk to itself at times. It too often looks within itself. It could learn a lot from the great new playwrights and music promoters. I see the same faces and I hear the same names. I see the same people making and developing musicals between themselves and for themselves – and that’s good because they are committed and they are loyal and they push on. But actually I can never understand theatre directors and writers who say ‘I never go to films, I just watch theatre all the time’. Wow – we all need wider understanding of a bigger, broader church.

Normal people engage with a wider different culture and range of activity and that is how they develop their tastes and value system. Too often musical theatre makers just do their things within themselves.

And that’s why our programme has been exciting because we deliberately get people who hate musicals or have never seen one until they work on it. They are great storytellers and there are lots of different ways to tell stories – musical theatre helps revitalise what they do with each other if they look beyond the usual subjects.

There is also the big trouble surrounding critical discourse about British theatre. You could do a test. There are less column inches being written about musical theatre and the arts in general now. Reviews are getting shorter and slimmer and slighter. No one has time to write that big opinion piece about something complicated. Now everything is online and so the (owners) can see that that small piece on something in a pub theatre got 40 clicks, compared to that thing with that Hollywood star which got 2,000 clicks, or there’s that Harry Potter feature – which is a rehash of the Harry Potter feature from last year – which got 100,000 clicks.

The pub theatre, the obscure theatre, is now just playing to the gallery. Only now the West End big stuff will get the coverage. It gets harder and harder in the Fringe theatres, and in the regions it is even worse. Everyone starts feeling the need to book/produce the very famous or the gimmick to try and grab the attention of the press. How do we get better critical debate?   

Thank you Kerry, as always your passion for the art form of musical theatre shines through, and your creation of Tommy on the road seems to find a way to steer the path between so much that you have talked about with this discussion. A celebration of the many voices making theatre reaching out to the broadest audience across the UK. I look forward to seeing where your creative path leads in the next 12 years.

* The Who’s Tommy continues at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London until 17 June, then tours at Sheffield Theatres until 1 July. On Saturday 17 June at 2:30pm, the theatre is live-streaming the production into adult social care homes across the UK as part of its commitment to the Ramps on the Moon initiative to make theatre accessible to all.

Readers may also be interested in:

Tommy – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich and Touring – Review

* Kerry Michael joined Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1997 as an associate director. He became artistic director in September 2004.

In 2007 TRSE was nominated for an Olivier Award for ‘a powerful season of provocative work that reaches new audiences’ and its hip-hop production Pied Piper won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre.

In 2008 Kerry’s production of Cinderella was also nominated for an Olivier, the first pantomime nominated in the awards’ history. 

Kerry’s directing credits include: John Adams’ opera, I Was Looking At The Ceiling & Then I Saw The Sky (co-production with the Barbican), The Harder They Come (which transferred to the Barbican, Playhouse Theatre in the West End and tours of Canada and the US), Ray Davies’ Come Dancing and Takeaway, the first British Chinese musical. In 2014 Kerry co-directed David Baddiel’s musical The Infidel.

TRSE has also been nominated for Olivier Awards for You Me Bum Bum TrainRoadkill and Oh, What A Lovely War! 

For more than 15 years TRSE has been working with established artists and those new, and sometimes hostile, to musical theatre to develop new shows that speak to more diverse audiences. This work has led to over 20 world premieres and more than 150 artists have gone through the programme, helping to shape the conversation around the British musical and broaden the range of work seen in the UK.

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