Joan Littlewood's Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, revolutionised British theatre with shows such as 'Oh What a Lovely War', 'The Hostage' and 'A Taste of Honey'. Peter Gee spoke to the theatre's director, Philip Headley, about continuing the battle to make theatre relevant and vital to working people's lives.
Q. In what way has Joan Littlewood's legacy affected your approach in attracting a working class audience to your theatre?
A. She was totally concerned with social inclusion, except the term hadn't been invented then. She always spoke of the continuous loop between theatre and the community. We draw on ideas, experiences and talents from the community, and create shows and present them back to the community. As the demography of the local community changes, so must the shows presented on stage.
Q. What barriers exist that stop people coming to theatre?
A. Price is of course important. The Theatre Royal is in Newham, which is usually named in any survey as one of the three most deprived boroughs in the country, with more than half its residents eligible for some form of state benefit.
I'm proud that over half our audience come in for £3 if they are eligible for that concessionary price. Also, they can book the best seats available at the time of booking. This guarantees an audience mixed in age, race and class in all parts of the theatre, instead of poorer audience members being confined to the gallery.
If we charged the same price for concession tickets as other comparable regional theatres in London then we would earn an extra £250,000 a year at the box office. That means sacrifice. It is very tempting to put up prices to pay our staff and artists decently, and to be able to put on more ambitious shows . But it is a principle I stick by. I feel it is an issue I would resign over.
It is not just price that is a barrier. We examine everything that we do. We try very hard not to make our posters too arty, which would only confirm the belief that theatre is elitist. We have a community relations office, which most theatres do not have, to reach out into the local community. Also we look at the way our staff talk to our customers--avoiding jargon which may be offputting to those who haven't been to the theatre before.
Q. Musicals play an important role in your new season. Tell us about them and your reasons for putting them on.
A. Many in the theatrical establishment do not think that rap, hip-hop, bhangra, or house and garage music have a place in musical theatre. I am convinced that the wonderful fusion of music from different racial backgrounds that is produced in London and other major cities could bring a lot to theatre and re-energise it.
The programme of work includes three collaborations with black companies. One is a new company which we helped to establish. The two other black companies are restaging musicals they have performed before. Another exciting role model will be a young, talented Asian composer, Niraj Chag, who is writing his first theatre music for a staging of an Indian classical film. Niraj is a graduate of the first of our three month long musical theatre workshops.
Finally, we have been given permission by the estate of Rodgers and Hart to musically update The Boys From Syracuse. No other major composer or their estate has ever given permission to update their work with rap or hip-hop before.