Archive interview with former Artistic Director Clive Judd February 2017
“There is something really magical about theatre that’s both intensely comic and then punches you in the gut.”
Congratulations to Clive Judd who in his own words has just had a ”big moment removing ‘incoming’ from the beginning of Artistic Director”. After ten months as literary manager he is now the main man, having handed over the Literary baton to Gus Miller.The two of them are having a meeting when I arrive. Judd is 30, very slender with a luminous smile. As he comes over to chat to me, he’s like a beacon in this slightly darkened pub. Clive introduces Gus as the man “already making more happen than I ever did …” because there is now a monthly reading of a play found through the literary department. It’s something that Clive embraces as the search is on for the next Kathy Burke or Tim Foley. He describes the major differences between the roles as “more bins to change”. His level of administrative responsibilities along with venue management has taken a huge leap, but these are just as important as the artistic direction.
If there is one pub theatre everyone knows its surely Old Red Lion Theatre. It opened its doors in 1979 and has seen hundreds of playwrights, actors, directors, and creatives across the board making their way from fringe theatre into west end and regional theatre. To this end, Judd is really searching for that play which could “go on our stage or go on somewhere else, to being produced by other people”. He explains: “That’s where you learn your craft. You learn a lot from talking and development but theatre is a live art, it has to be in front of a live audience.”
The Literary team are all theatre makers in their own right and they discuss everything they read in forum setting. They are particularly keen on collaborations between the director and writer. Judd and Gus Miller elaborate: “We’re not just taking a draft we’re given, but really trying to encourage a robust collaboration, to get under the skin of the play, in a way to serve the play rather than the writer, to be unafraid, not pussy footing around. We want the play and writer to make as full an expression of themselves as they can; not just draft 2 or 3 but draft 4 or 5.” However, this doesn’t mean they want it to be totally polished, Judd says “it’s punk rock space, so we’re stripping it away to get to raw heart of it.”
Judd is brilliantly funny on his private twitter (@CliveJudd). As well as events at ORLT his personality and private life is all over it. He’s an avid footie fan. He’s an Aston Villa supporter (his nearest Premier League club when he was growing up in Worcester). Judd ruefully explains that it was a bone of contention with his family, in particular his Grandad, because he supported West Brom. Judd says: “My love for football is similar to theatre, when I see a really exciting football match and you’re in the crowd there’s nothing quite like it . . . or in the audience – there’s nothing quite like it in front of an incredible play.”
He recently tweeted about Stourbridge FC’s run in the FA Cup. “Spent many cold evenings at their ground with my grandad. He'd have loved it! In Worcestershire and the Black Country Grandad was a referee’s coordinator and assessor. We’d watch football matches together - been to all of those grounds with grandad and watched some of the direst football on some of the coldest winter nights you could imagine. He was my hero.”
Judd admits he’s Watched lots of dire theatre as well and he jokes “some people have seen my work and they probably think the same”. It is refreshing to meet someone (in my line of work) who says outright “can’t write, I’ve tried”. He’s found his forte: “All of my work is as a director of new writing and a dramaturg, but I’m an interpreter of plays rather than a writer”. There follows a discussion about the changing face of the role of the director.
Judd believes: “Roles are becoming less distinct. The dramaturg is helping on visuals, the movement director is not just doing scene changes but also how bodies move. Polly Bennett, for example, is a wonderful movement director who wants to be building pictures and working directly with actors in scenes, not just on transitions. The set lighting and sound designers are also dramaturgs. I work with the sound designer Giles Thomas a lot and he gives some of the best notes about acting that I’ve ever been given.” However, Judd doesn’t mean there is no single clear vision. He admires the experimental Toneelgroep Amsterdam led by Ivo Van Hove. Judd says “you can sense the collaboration that’s gone into that - clearly, it has an overarching vision, but everyone has brought their own thing”.
Over Christmas Judd posted a photo of his Christmas tree; the most misshapen tinniest left-over specimen ever. Turns out its a living tree from his garden but he admits it’s “miserably decorated”. Nevertheless, there is something endearing about its wonkiness. Might this oddity be reflected in the kind of theatre programmed in ORLT?
“It’s probably what drew me a little bit to the theatre, the offbeat energy. What you can discern from the pic of Christmas tree, is that there’s a sense of humour there, and the stuff I want to programme will have a sense of humour. There is something really magical about theatre that’s both intensely comic and then punches you in the gut. Its marrying the seriousness of the world with the absurdity of human situations. Draping Christmas trees in lights is one of those totally crazy rituals we have in life which are so important to us but sometimes we’re just not kind to each other, which is so much more important. I’m interested in those absurdities and interested in human beings – the contradiction of humans.”
Perhaps this is why people have such a soft spot for this strangely shaped black box theatre. Judd, himself finds his work here, “all encompassing, with only one day off a week”. Yet, he finds himself “thinking about this place so much” that it’s something that became “exciting” for him.
Before he worked here shaping the Literary department from scratch he worked as a free-lance director and at Foyles. He says: “Sometimes people are ashamed to admit they do other jobs, but it’s important to talk about your other jobs. At Foyle’s we had amazingly talented and qualified people, medical, philosophers, musicians, artists. I ran the plays department for a year. You need to do other jobs to learn about the world you’re living in because theatre can be an echo chamber, a bubble. Also, you need it to survive.”
In the past few years the Old Red Lion Theatre has transferred work off-Broadway and four times to the West End. ORLT do co-produce and the ambition is for work that comes here, to transfer, whether regional studio theatre of comparable size or larger theatres, so that it doesn’t just come and end here. Companies who want to bring work to ORLT are asked ‘why choose this venue’? Judd pulls a wry smile. “It tends to just be, our play is small your room is small therefore it will fit – so uninspiring!! Or, it only needs 2 chairs and that’s it, so right fit for theatre!” He refers to several companies/shows that used the space well including Off West End nominated THE BENIGHTED. “The team really made an effort to make something of the space”. Judd also sees its important to programme work that attracts different audiences. “It changes from show to show and I think that’s valuable, from BENIGHTED, to BIRTHDAY SUIT to LISTENING ROOM. And I’m predicting what we’ll see here, but there’s a small core who come and see everything we do, but there’s no real trend. We have the capability of attracting all sorts - theatre makers, fans of theatre and those who’ve never been to the theatre before.”
The final question has him flummoxed for a while (it always gets them). What’s your favourite play? Arthur Miller is a perennial favourite and Judd mentions him while getting some thinking time. “ANGELS IN AMERICA (Tony Kushner) – I read it again and again and find something different in it every time. It’s the first play I read at uni - I didn’t know plays could be like this. Favourite recently … THE FLICK by Annie Baker at the National last year.”
He’s mentioned ORLT is a punk rock space more than once in the interview which means a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s an oxymoron, since punk rock never likes to have boundaries. So ORLT is a boundless space where anything can happen.
Clive Judd was chatting with Heather Jeffery, Editor of London Pub Theatres Magazine
February 2017, All Rights Reserved London Pub Theatres Magazine Limited
Old Red Lion Theatre
418 St John Street
Box Office: 0844 412 4307
The Old Red Lion Theatre first opened its doors in 1979 and is one of London's oldest and most loved Fringe theatre venues. This 60-seat theatre has seen many artists passing through its doors and go on to work in the West End, in regional theatre and internationally. ORLT has transferred work off-Broadway and frequently to the West End. See it here first in this intimate setting!
Anything goes in this quirky space from rediscovered classics to contemporary satire, horror to comedy. They particularly like to present plays that connect us to individuals and worlds that we have not encountered before. It is also the home of London Horror Festival. As well as their main programme, they also have Sunday and Monday night rehearsed readings, new writing, and the occasional festival.
ORL is a proper British boozer – the people’s pub! Expect pies, pie and pint deals, happy hour (4-7pm), bands (or solo artists), dogs, free wifi and sports on massive screens with state of the art sound system. Its often-empty midday and rammed after work and most evenings. Some nights there’s standing room only whilst the theatre crowd are forming a snake at the box office hoping for returns, the sports fans are cheering noisily. The small courtyard is full of smoke and the women are laughing about the woeful toilet facilities.
ORLT champions new writing nights and is keen to find new voices, particularly the under represented. They want to engage new audiences as well as thrill their regulars with something they may never have experienced before.
Extra Live! Performances – In house productions and some visiting companies offer relaxed performances (perfect for those who cannot keep still, or quiet, or those who prefer to chill). Look out for these on ORLT website. Any questions? Drop them a line: email@example.com
In the past few years the Old Red Lion Theatre has transferred work off-Broadway and four times to the West End. Notable hits beyond the Fringe include: The World Premiere of Arthur Miller's first play NO VILLAIN (Trafalgar Studios); THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG (Trafalgar Studios and No 1 Tour); MERCURY FUR (Trafalgar Studios); KISSING SID JAMES (London and off-Broadway); THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (Old Red Lion Theatre and Theatre Royal Haymarket)
In the 18th Century Hogarth featured the pub in his painting ‘Evening’ which depicts its rural location, a pond, a smattering of houses, with women, children and a dog in the foreground going about their daily lives (including milking a cow). The painting shows the garden of the pub where we see people around a table and through a window glimpse those inside the pub.
One of the things Danbury really loves about theatre is the idea of “being in someone else’s shoes, living a new story - that’s the absolute beauty of theatre, being completely immersed”. When programming the new season, she asked herself: “Who am I representing?”. She wanted each production to tell a new story from a different perspective. Danbury wants to give audiences an alternate reality, “something they may never experience themselves – or a character they might not come across in their own lives”.
The black box theatre space itself has a quirky, offbeat energy, which can be a challenge for some theatre makers. Danbury agrees but she herself completely fell in love with the space. "The L shape adds an extra intimacy with lots of opportunity for set designers" says Danbury. "I’m always amazed by how well it lends itself to transformation”.
Danbury is passionate about supporting artists and new writing. “One of the reasons I like working at this level is discovering talent and providing a platform for their first opportunity on the theatre ladder, which allows other people in the industry to see their work. That’s one of the big pros.”
The cons, inevitably in fringe theatre, is having no arts funding. The pub and the theatre are part of the same business. The pub is very supportive. “It’s like a family. We’re well looked after by the pub staff.” However, it’s getting more expensive for companies to put on full productions with theatre rental being dictated by business rates. Danbury feels it’s a problem that urgently needs to be addressed: “Otherwise theatre will be dominated by the same rich kids, with the same stories, over and over again”.
It’s one of the reasons why she brought in David Loumgair as Senior Dramaturg to help address this problem and think outside of the box for ways to support artists coming through the ORL. The Old Red Lion used to have an open-submissions literary department for plays without a production attached. However, with the huge number of submissions and so little resources to cater for them, Danbury and Loumgair agreed that there was little they could offer the playwrights to justify keeping it open and that ultimately it was no longer a sustainable venture. Happily, Danbury has the solution to this and Old Red Lion now hosts several new writing nights. Companies including Broken Silence Theatre, Plays Rough and Blink. They present extracts or short plays showcasing new writing. Danbury is always scouting for the best talent and anything that catches her eye has the opportunity of being developed further at ORLT. The Sunday and Monday theatre slots are dedicated to this work and give opportunities to test out new work on an audience.
So, what is Danbury specifically looking for in a main production? The programming right up to next April is all about representation across the board. Danbury is finding new artists but it’s also about finding new audiences and keeping the venue alive. “I constantly want new audiences coming through the doors, as well as engaging members of the local community from all different walks of life. I recently had a meeting with a company about programming their play and they explained that a few venues had said ‘no’ because they felt it was too 'niche'.” Danbury feels strongly that this is not the right attitude because at the same time they are completing ostracising the very people who want that kind of theatre. “At the end of the day it’s all about marketing. It might be niche, but these stories should be given a platform. We need to make sure we’re getting bums on seats so in doing that, we’re finding new audiences, they shouldn’t be dismissed.”
Another important part of her work is trying to address the imbalance between female and male representation. Some theatres are cagey about the use of the word ‘feminism’ and prefer ‘female oriented’. Danbury says that the only problem with the word ‘feminism’ is that some people still “don’t understand what it means”. She tells a story about a company who brought in the feminist play ‘Hear Me Howl’. “The moment it went out on twitter with the #feminist hashtag, the company got trolls. The company delightfully responded with humour.”
Danbury believes feminism isn’t about being female centric, it’s about equality between the sexes and having fair representation. “It’s about having fully-considered characters that are not just in the background or serving as plot devices with no story of their own, rather than just appearing as an attachment to the male protagonist – ‘the wife’, ‘the girlfriend’. Every play by definition should be feminist, in that it has equal consideration for every character involved, whether male or female.” She is tired of hearing certain bigger theatres who say: “We didn’t have any decent plays from female playwrights”. Danbury sees as an excuse for the male-heavy programming. “If they are not willing to do the legwork themselves, then I strongly urge them to come on down to the Old Red Lion" she adds, "and check out all the brilliant female playwrights I’ve got lined-up". Most recently Lydia Rynne and Hatty Jones, and coming up Charlie Ryall and Liv Warden, plus many more yet to be announced.
An important point that Danbury makes is that ORLT is politically agnostic. Considering they have been on the receiving end of anti-semitic verbal abuse with regard to a play earlier in the season, a lot of thought has gone into the programming. “We’re not making a political statement ourselves, we’re welcoming voices from all different backgrounds and cultures.” To this end, her seasonal show this year is ONE JEWISH BOY, a bittersweet comedy about anti-Semitism. "It's about inherited trauma, the miracle of Chanukah, the end of youth and staying in love" says Danbury. "It has laugh out loud moments as well as delivering some really hard-hitting messages through flawed but loveable characters”.
Danbury is one of those people who have a chameleon like quality about them. As well as AD and manager of Old Red Lion Theatre, she is also producer of the London Horror Festival, which is now in its eighth year. For the last three years she’s run it on her own. She is amazed to see how the festival has grown having now been extended to a month long festival celebrating Halloween.
It’s enough to say that Danbury is very proud of this and her first season of plays coming up at ORLT. What she really loves about the pub theatre circuit is that it is "so very British isn’t it - it’s a wonderful cultural institution”. She often hears people say in disbelief: “No? Is there a theatre up there?”
"The quality of work is a very high standard" says Danbury. "And it’s transformative for someone coming to the pub for football and they then see an extraordinary piece of theatre above a pub. It’s a great way for people to access culture."
So, Old Red Lion roars at trolls? That's because it has a big heart and plenty of courage.
Katy Danbury was chatting with Heather Jeffery, Editor of London Pub Theatres.
@November 2018 London Pub Theatres Magazine
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