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How the JMK Trust is supporting emerging directors

Lisa Spirling, regional programme co-ordinator, and Stephen Fewell, chair, JMK Trust, have an ‘astonishing’ hit rate of picking winners
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There could be no more vivid or enduring testimony to the unrealised potential of James Menzies-Kitchin, a promising young director who died far too young, than the JMK award set up in his honour by a group of his friends in 1997, and which has now helped numerous other directors to get a professional directorial head-start.

JMK Trust company profileAmong the alumni who have gone on to prolific careers are such luminaries as Thea Sharrock, Bijan Sheibani, Natalie Abrahami, Joe Hill-Gibbins, Caroline Steinbeis and Michael Oakley.

Stephen Fewell, an actor who is the chair of the JMK Trust that administers the award, explains: “The vision of it is to ensure that everyone has access to a career as a director. We started off by making a single award every year to a talented young director, which we continue to do, to help them to put on a show; but we now do a lot more than that.”

Lisa Spirling, herself a professional director with recent credits at Hampstead Theatre and the Rose in Kingston, is the trust’s regional programme co-ordinator, which offers year-round support and events to emerging directors at 10 regional venues, and bursary placements to work at each as assistant directors.

As she puts it: “The organisation was incredibly successful at picking the future – our hit rate of winners that have gone on to important careers is astonishing. But we realised that there’s an extraordinary focus on London in the theatre. Through conversations with regional venues, we found they were keen to offer opportunities for young directors to work with them, but there was little or no money for it. The JMK Trust sought to address this, and we secured sponsorship for three years’ funding to give one bursary to each venue per year, so we have 30 bursaries across the thee years.”

She also facilitates a directors’ group at each of those venues, with between 10 and 50 members in each – the winner of this year’s JMK award, 25-year-old Liz Stevenson, was a member of the Manchester group. She trained at the theatre directing MFA course at Birkbeck in London, and has worked as an assistant director at Manchester’s Royal Exchange and London’s Gate, Menier and Hampstead theatres. But moving to the next stage of directing her own work has been difficult, not least because of financial considerations. “A lot of it comes down to money; yes, people are making really exciting work without funding, but there are a lot of challenges. So winning the JMK Award lets me make a production in which everyone is being paid.”

The award provides £25,000 towards the costs of putting on a show, with winners encouraged to find additional funding depending on their ambitions and requirements for it. But the award also comes with a guaranteed run at London’s Young Vic, that doesn’t charge a rental and offers additional support including a production manager, as well as box office and marketing.

“I’m so excited,” says Stevenson. “I love what the Young Vic is about and what it was born out of – a desire for a more classless society. Theatre has become such a middle-class activity in terms of the people who work in it, and this needs to be addressed.”

5 things JMK TrustThat’s exactly what the JMK award does. It levels the playing field for others to enter and play the game, too. And it does so by a very rigorous process.

Stevenson is putting on a revival of Barrie Keefe’s Barbarians: “We were given a really long list of plays, and had to choose one to make our written application with that to direct. I wasn’t sure that the competition was for me, but then I read this and discovered it was my kind of play. It’s about three working-class lads from Lewisham in the 1970s at the height of the unemployment crisis, and we follow their lives at three different times across two years. It’s gritty and funny and by a working-class writer.” Her production will run at the Young Vic from November 27 to December 19.

From the written submissions – the trust gets roughly 150 a year – a long-list is drawn up of 20, who are invited to develop their proposals further. “It’s as if they’re in pre-production; and we’ve found that even if they don’t win the award some will go ahead and make their shows happen anyway,” says Spirling. “That’s a testament to the connection they make with a text – once a director has that and it burns in them, they will have to make that play happen.”

Those 20 are then invited to a workshop weekend where they spend a couple of hours each working with professional actors on a scene from their chosen play, and are observed to see how they work. “They’re not trying to put their plays on in a day,” stresses Spirling. “Rather, we’re trying to see how they work in a rehearsal room. Sometimes people will be erudite and passionate in their applications, but this allows us to see what happens when we put them in a room with actors.” The next day the finalists are each interviewed, before the final winner is selected.

Giving the award – and helping someone to put on a show – is only the start of what the JMK Award seeks to offer. “We also provide pathways into the industry. People need sustaining, or they’ll have to go back to working in a restaurant,” says Fewell. It’s a gap that needs bridging. The award may help someone to get noticed – “it’s the finger of God coming down and paying attention to them” – but the JMK award is also about building and maintaining relationships for its alumni.

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