“I hope there are people out there tonight watching this who didn’t know they wanted to be in theatre, and as a result of watching it now do,” said Michael Grandage whilst he was artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse, during their 2008-9 West End season. Grandage’s upcoming season of plays at the Noël Coward Theatre with the Michael Grandage Company adopts a similar structure to the Donmar season by offering 100,000 tickets priced at £10. I know from personal experience that this ticketing system works as Ivanov, the first play in the Donmar season, was the first play that I ever saw. As a result, here I am, interviewing the man that made me want to work in theatre.
Grandage couldn’t be more enthusiastic about giving young people and new audiences access to the theatre through this ticketing scheme, “I said we needed to make it an access for all season, which means people who can afford to pay top price don’t worry about it, they already have access, but their access subsidises the people that can’t afford to go to the theatre regularly. It’s just a very concerted effort to reach out to the next generation of theatre-goers.” Last week Grandage opened TheatreCraft, the annual event for young people looking for a non-performance career in theatre – proof that he’s not only looking to create new audiences, but also to introduce young people to the “jobs that are available in the theatre, because there are hundreds, possibly thousands, and nobody knows half of them – young people certainly don’t have access to the mass of jobs that go on behind the scenes.” As a part of MGC Futures, the company’s education policy, he says “we’re training associate directors, producers, lighting designers”. The Michael Grandage Company is much more than a West End season because every element is connected: “the actors, the plays they’re in, the company and the way they interconnect with access and education, it’s all part of a very big picture that’s been pre-planned. We worked out how we could join up all the dots.”
The names involved in the season will definitely be a part of creating those new audiences, with the power to draw in all sorts of crowds. “What would we be doing if we were doing a new play with some very good actors that people didn’t really know, would we be in the position we’re in now? Probably not. Nobody knows who we are so we need to encourage people to come see the work.” The plays themselves are “a very good mix: two classical plays, a new play, British twentieth century repertoire and an Irish twentieth century repertoire”, which were chosen as a result of conversations with the actors involved. “Jude Law and I were talking about what we wanted to do next after Hamlet and we knew we wanted a return to Shakespeare, so Henry V – because it’s a relatively young man’s play – he said, I want to be able to get that done next. David Walliams and Sheridan Smith came out of a conversation I was having separately with both of them. I was talking to David one day and he said I would love to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I thought I could bring those two together. Then The Cripple of Inishmaan happened because I saw Daniel Radcliffe in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on Broadway and had seen him in Equus and said I’d love to work with you, what kind of plays do you want to do? And he said his background is Irish so I’d love you to look at the Irish repertoire. The other play in the season, Peter and Alice, came about because John Logan, the writer and I, had just done Red together at the Donmar and he gave me his next play.”
The first play of the season is Privates on Parade, which Grandage says is “one of the first plays I ever directed. It was a very limited run, it was in a very small theatre so it’s a lot of unfinished business for me. It’s this amazing comedy set against a wonderful piece of social history. It’s an important document, nobody really knows anything about this extraordinary war that we weren’t even allowed to call a war in Malaya, between the Chinese Communists and the Commonwealth. So from a director’s point of view, that’s a wonderful thing to bring to an audience.” Privates on Parade, starring Simon Russell Beale, “is what I call a good night out,” to start off Grandage’s much anticipated season.
When I started going to the theatre, the majority of the plays I saw were directed by Grandage because after he got me hooked with Ivanov, I knew that I could expect high quality theatre from him. Therefore I’ve always wondered how he maintains that standard, and the answer is evident in his manner of talking: enthusiasm. “I’ve always picked something I really, really want to direct. That means I go into the rehearsal process passionate, and on the first day when I’m trying to bring a whole group of people together – not just actors, but technicians, production staff, everybody – I’ve got to somehow communicate to them why we’re all going to be passionate about this project. You can only do that if you believe it in yourself.” His other priority is to “keep yourself constantly pushed. The moment you can identify a comfort zone, you should push yourself out of it. That’s what helps me move forward as a director.” Grandage would push any aspiring young person in the arts to think the same. “Seek something that challenges you as an individual, get collaborators around you who are going to challenge you. And know why you want to be a director and make sure you’ve got a good answer.” However, Grandage also thinks it’s important t point out that “don’t think early on you’re making a decision for life – I changed my career at 36. Young people can have a go, decide it’s not for them and move on. It’s really straightforward: keep changing.”
There’s a pattern emerging from the professionals I’m interviewing. When I ask what advice they’d give someone like me, or what’s the secret of their success, everybody answers along the lines of “you’ve just got to make it happen”. Grandage envisages a “London, national, and hopefully international theatre scene” which redefines the conception of London theatre as “expensive and just doing musicals. I think the mission statement for me is to take everything we’ve learnt in that subsidised sector about access, education, touring, programming and take that to as wide an audience as possible. All those things now need to be applied to a West End model.” The Michael Grandage Company’s West End Season has “thrown down a gauntlet by going ‘look, you can produce work in the West End with 100,000 £10 tickets, you can have an education policy, training schemes’. You’ve just got to make It happen. In making it happen it becomes your policy, and in becoming your policy it will help define others, and in helping define others, you can create the bigger holistic picture”. Well, watch out West End, there are going to be some changes made around here…
The Michael Grandage Company’s West End Season opens with Privates on Parade on 1 December, and closes with Henry V which runs until 15 February 2014.
Image 1: Privates on Parade in rehearsal by Marc Brenner
Image 2: Michael Grandage by Bronwen Sharpe