As Theatre Royal Stratford East marks the start of a new era with The Village, a revamp of Lope de Vega’s classic Fuenteovejuna, its artistic director tells Matt Trueman her inaugural season is as much a nod to the past as a look into the future and explains why she is focused on making sure there is something for everyone…
Outside Theatre Royal Stratford East, workmen are digging up the cobbles of Gerry Raffles Square. Behind a metal fence, a bronze statue of Joan Littlewood sits on a pile of bricks in her signature cloth cap, surveying the scene with an inscrutable smile. She’s wrapped in protective blue padding – probably for the best given that, right now, the spot she sits on is contested ground. All year, there’s been a behind-the-scenes battle over the theatre behind her – a theatre over which her legacy still looms large.
A fresh chapter is beginning: a new artistic director with a whole new approach. Tonight, Nadia Fall opens the first show of her inaugural season: The Village, an adaptation of Lope de Vega’s 17th-century classic Fuenteovejuna by April de Angelis. It’s as much a nod to the past – Littlewood presented a version of the play here in 1955 – as a look at the present, but mostly, it fires the starting gun on Stratford East’s future. Fall isn’t just shaking things up. Like Littlewood, she’s promising “a theatre revolution”.
Since Fall’s arrival last October, a lot has already changed. A significant staff overhaul spilled out, rather nastily, into the pages of The Stage in May, along with the news that Stratford’s studio space, cafe and in-house restaurant were all shutting their doors. Its long-running musical theatre development scheme was also wound up, before Fall announced a season that seemed like a marked departure from what had gone before. Obscure classics reworked. A community-led opera. Trendy young directors. Ambitious new plays. If it set theatre Twitter salivating, would it do the same for Stratford’s core audience?
Most visibly, the theatre itself has had a facelift, or, if you prefer, a face peel. Gone is the distinctive, bright red frontage; the paint blasted back to the building’s original brickwork. Out front, the words ‘Stratford East’ are emblazoned across it in warehouse white caps, while inside, public spaces have been repainted and adorned with vintage props, old posters and framed archive photos. Upstairs, a new restaurant, Meza East, is serving Lebanese food, and the once-dingy downstairs bar is now gleaming white set off by softly bleached wood. A light sculpture hangs on a mirrored wall, Littlewood’s words paraphrased in lipstick pink: “My life was built on the Rock of Change.” It was Fall’s little indulgence – a mischievous message to her detractors.
“Change is uncomfortable,” she says, straight-up. We’re sat in the Murray Melvin Room upstairs, Stratford East’s archive. Pictures of Littlewood – Joan, as Fall calls her – dot the walls, alongside old model boxes and dusty play texts. “So many people love this theatre, and it has this real sense of nostalgia and history.” Her aim is to put it right back on the map. “I want this theatre to be part of the conversation. I want it in people’s minds when they’re thinking where to go, what to see, where to work. I want to create an excitement about it.”
If Stratford East wasn’t already on that map, it was, in part, a choice of its own making. Littlewood’s heyday was fiercely oppositional – excellent and accessible in equal measure. Its legacy was localism. For decades, under Philip Hedley and Kerry Michael, Stratford East has sought to serve its community, rather than theatre’s glitterati. Reflecting Newham’s population, the theatre led on diversity long before others picked up the cause, with populist programming at affordable prices – the cheapest in London.
Some have framed Fall’s changes as a betrayal of all that. It’s a question that keys into bigger social shifts. For her part, Fall is respectful of Stratford’s past. It was, she says, a huge part of the job’s appeal, as was the theatre itself. “Theatres have a vibe, they have a spirit, and this one has definitely got the vibe.”
She describes its original 19th-century auditorium, a hemp house refurbished in 2015, as “a jewel – intimate, but a serious proscenium arch” that allows artists to make work at scale. “That,” Fall adds seriously, “is the Holy Grail.”
Fall knew Newham well, working on various participatory projects there over the years. “It’s a unique part of London,” she says, acknowledging its working-class roots and immigrant communities. “It’s a real restless place, full of life. You feel that as soon as you step off the tube.”
Equally though, post-Olympics, post-Westfield shopping centre, it’s undergoing huge change with “big glass apartments, new businesses, new people coming in”. As Fall sees it, culture can serve both. “The community needs art and a theatre to be proud of, but culture has to be part of the change.” Look at Docklands, she says: all shiny, no soul. “I thought this theatre could really be something. In some senses, I saw it as a bit of a fixer-upper.”
‘I want this theatre to be in people’s minds when they’re thinking where to go, what to see, where to work’
Fall was something of a surprise appointment at Stratford East. She’d never worked at a theatre that has, historically, appointed its artistic directors from within. Nor was she one of those names bandied around whenever a big leadership job opened up. In fact, she says, artistic direction wasn’t a particular aspiration: “I never thought: ‘I’m going to run a building.’”
Only seven years ago, she was assistant-directing at the National Theatre. Her first full-blown professional production opened there in 2012, a revival of The Doctor’s Dilemma by George Bernard Shaw – not the sort of play normally associated with Stratford East. On top of that, Fall is, as she puts it, “very south London” – a blend of warmth and steel. She’s chatty as anything, but unafraid to speak out. “If you say something, I’m going to tell you the truth back: ‘Oi, what do you mean? Come here and say that to my face.’” Representing a theatre has meant reining that in – a bit.
Born in Lewisham, Fall grew up in the Middle East, schooled by Carmelite Indian nuns in Kuwait City. She spent her summers with relatives in London and relocated, aged 10, ahead of her parents. “Within two weeks, I’d picked up a London accent,” she laughs. At secondary school, she discovered a “very private, secret love” for drama, relishing roles in English lessons, but her family had little contact with the arts.
Her roundabout career is, in a way, a reflection of that. “I never thought I’d be making plays,” she says. “I thought that kind of thing wasn’t for people like me.” After a French degree, she joined Tara Arts as a trainee producer and gradually decided to direct. Having taken a master’s at Goldsmiths, she spent years self-producing on the London fringe and leading community and participatory projects, before finally winning a staff director’s role at the National.
Since 2012, the shows she’s directed make a disparate mix – stylistically at least. “Perfectly-crafted” old classics with “real beating heart” like Hobson’s Choice sit alongside pin-sharp new writing such as Ayad Ahktar’s Disgraced. They’re tied together by a sharp social conscience, as evident in Taylor Mac’s unruly portrait of white working-class America, Hir, as in Suhayla El-Bushra’s sitcommy spin on The Suicide, shifted from Stalin’s Russia to London’s estates.
• When money is scarce, try to keep your hand in. Run workshops. Get friends together. Make something site-specific or participatory. It’s all part of art and if you’re practising, your muscle’s getting strong.
• It’s not a competition. Our industry is full of competitiveness and we’re all encouraged to be like that. But just because someone’s made a beautiful piece, it doesn’t mean they’re ahead of you. Try to keep a sense of ownership of your own work.
• If you have to work outside of theatre and do other things, it doesn’t make you any less of an artist.
It finds a synthesis in Home, Fall’s own devised verbatim piece set in a temporary hostel for the homeless that opened in the NT’s Shed. Mashing up testimonials with beat-boxing and dance, its style varied wildly, but its politics ran throughout, mingling with Fall’s interest in participatory, community work. It’s still the piece she’s most proud of: “Life and art, there was not seam between the two. Those things don’t happen very often in life.”
For Fall, that’s been very conscious: a separation of art and identity. “I don’t like the idea of being pigeonholed,” she says. “I actively avoided making work about the British Asian or the Muslim experience post-9/11. That’s not my responsibility. I don’t want to carry that burden.”
She’s relented of late. Dara, at the National, drilled into Islamic history and The Village takes a concerted aim at Narendra Modi’s increasingly nationalistic government in India.
“In a way, I’m really old-fashioned,” she says. “I love stories and I really like to see an emotional arc – a beginning, a middle and an end. I like the catharsis of a story that begins somewhere and ends somewhere else.” The aim, she says, is for work that gets under an audience’s skin; theatre that can “if only for a moment, unbutton you and make you see common humanity”. Her projects all start from “a small kernel” of theatricality, rather than a big issue or idea. “Art doesn’t work that way round,” she says. The unifier is key: “It has to be good – that’s the big challenge. It has to be good, because if it isn’t good, we check out.”
‘You have to reinvent. You can’t say something’s been like that for years so it can’t be changed’
If any mantra is driving Fall’s Stratford East, it’s that: “Maybe I’m being naive, but I believe if you make good work, people will come. At the end of the day, no theatre’s going to work if people aren’t coming. If they don’t, then we can close the doors. That’s the reality.”
Stratford East wasn’t failing – income had stayed steady and prices low – but it had begun to falter. Audiences had been falling away, and a theatre that played to 83% capacity in 2014/15 had dropped to an annual average of 55% within two years – an issue exacerbated when half the tickets sold are concessions.
Its in-house restaurant, Caribbean Flavours, went from earning £92,000 a year to losing £35,000 in the same period.
The two things are not unconnected. When footfall falls, so do food sales.
For whatever reason – austerity perhaps, or just interruption – the theatre never fully recovered after a five-month refurbishment in 2015. By the end of 2017, it had slipped into the red, and its once healthy reserve was inching beneath the crucial 10% of turnover – less in terms of liquid funds. With an audience that habitually books last minute, Stratford East was, to borrow a phrase, just about managing. In December, the Arts Council intervened with a grant of £493,000, intended to stabilise the organisation and help with the new regime’s planned restructure. A month later, a further £321,232 was granted to supplement Fall’s proposals and programme.
“If we hadn’t had that help, we would have been in a situation,” she says. “The books might have been balanced, but I couldn’t make any work. We’d spread ourselves so thin that we were haemorrhaging money.”
Fall’s solution has been a Gordon Ramsay-style intervention – streamline, go back to basics, keep it simple. Her year-long season is an attempt to win advance bookers with enticing prospects and a few big names – Art Malik and Lenny Henry both do good box office. “I want it to have a through-line,” she says, “a season where there’s something for different ages and communities and tastes. I want to get people back in and find out who our different audiences are.”
It’s an offer that extends beyond Stratford’s old core – to surrounding areas and suburbs further east, as well as to regular theatregoers across London. The prospect of the Gate’s Ellen McDougall directing The Wolves by Sarah Delappe or Ned Bennett’s new spin on Equus are enticing ones, even if they risk appearing to alienate or abandon the theatre’s old core.
Born: London. Age: “I’m the right side of 40, that’s all I’m telling you.”
• The Doctor’s Dilemma, National Theatre (2012)
• Home, National Theatre (2013)
• Disgraced, Bush Theatre (2013)
• Dara, National Theatre (2015)
Agent: Rose Cobbe, United Agents
The crux of all this is gentrification. Stratford East’s summer facelift could be framed in two ways – either softening a scruffy space into something inviting or sprucing it up in a way that risks alienating. Spaces give off signals, and decor can deter as well as attract.
It’s an idea that Fall forcefully rejects. “When people spend their hard-earned cash on an evening out, they expect clean toilets that aren’t being used to smoke crack, they expect something to eat, they expect a nice environment. What, because we’re in a working-class area in east London we don’t deserve that stuff?”
She stresses that this was about stripping back. “There’s no airs and graces in exposed brick and sanded-down doors, but you can’t stay stagnant. You have to reinvent. You can’t say something’s been like that for years so it can’t be changed.” Besides, she says, Stratford’s changing too. “Look at what’s going on all round east London. It’s full of art. It’s got an effortless cool. Why can’t we be part of that? I don’t think that’s gentrification. I think that’s plugging into the times.”
Price hikes, however, are far less ambiguous. Stratford East’s top seats are now £32, up from £27. Its cheapest are £10, as are all its concessions, bar a £5 scheme for first-time attendees living locally. If that sounds cheap, it’s steep by Stratford standards. In 2016, the average price paid was £11.49 with some concessions as low as £2.50. “The thing is,” says Fall, “the panto sells out.” In other words, people will pay for work they want to see – if it’s good, they’ll come. She points to arts consultancy TRG Arts’ warnings against devaluing art. “Should we just give our tickets away for free? We could do that, but there’s a value to what we do. It may be a huge hike, but it just wasn’t sustainable.”
‘No theatre’s going to work if people aren’t coming. If they don’t, then we can close the doors – that’s the reality’
One thing ties Fall’s plan together: youth. It was what she clocked about Stratford East straight away. “Young people have an ownership of this space that can’t be engineered. It’s long and historic and that’s to be respected.” Last year, she caught the theatre’s young company performing an NT Connections show. “I was just like: ‘Boom, there’s some talent.’”
Her hipsterish refurb clearly has youth in mind and, she says, it’s bringing people in by itself. Anyone under 25 can see any show in any seat for just £10, and her first season, beneath the surface, is speaking directly to them. Whether it’s the teenage girls playing football in The Wolves – “the first play I’d read in a long time that felt genuinely and authentically the voice of young women” – or the young men back from war in Anna Jordan’s new play The Unreturning, everything centres on young voices and young lives. Teenage sexuality in Equus. Gang violence in Noughts and Crosses. The 16-year-old revolutionary leader of Fuenteovejuna.
“Young people, to me, are the most exciting possibility. What I love about them is that they tell it how it is, but they’re full of ideas about the future. A young person is never plaintive – well, they can be, but they always have a sense of possibility. That’s really important to me, because that optimism is a political act.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a waitress.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Trainee producer, Tara Arts.
What is your next job?
King Hedley II by August Wilson, Stratford East.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Beyonce and Nicholas Hytner.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have done?
Work with young people.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Prepare, but not so much that you can’t be open to notes.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always have my brother to opening night.
The Village is at Theatre Royal Stratford East until October 6, stratfordeast.com