After 12 years as artistic director at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East, Kerry Michael announced last year that he would be stepping down at the end of 2017.
Why is he leaving a job he so evidently adores? “Because I’m too embarrassed to stay any longer,” he says. “I have no desire to leave, but I can’t sit on any more panels and talk about how we have to democratise British theatre and let new voices have a say, if I’m sitting on this great job. That’s why I’m going.
“Things are really good there at the moment,” he adds. “And I want to go when things are good.”
When we speak, Michael is in the middle of rehearsals for a new production of rock opera The Who’s Tommy  with a cast of 22 disabled and non-disabled actors. It is being produced by Ramps on the Moon, a consortium of UK theatres -creating work that integrates disabled and non-disabled performers and practitioners.
The company breaks for lunch and we head outside. The sun is blazing – it’s a gorgeous day, the warmest of the year so far – so we bypass the cafe and go in search of a hot spot. We find some sun by the car park behind Three Mills Studios and end up perching on the kerb with cups of coffee at our feet.
“Theatre was my saving grace,” says Michael as we sit down. “I was really bad at English, I’m dyslexic. I was put in drama class and that was my saviour at school.”
Michael’s parents are Greek Cypriots who came to the UK in the 1960s as economic migrants. They didn’t have any formal education after the age of 15 and never went to the theatre. Michael says it may be “cheap psychology” but basically the reason he does what he does is because of his parents. “It’s about trying to get people like them watching shows.”
Man and van
He did terribly in his A levels, he explains, because by then he’d been seduced by theatre and was writing and performing in the sixth-form revue. No one in his family had been to university before and he decided to take a year out before applying. He spent that time working in theatre.
“This was back in the day when there were jobs at the back of the stage for actors. I worked with a small company, five people in the back of a van, performing in working men’s clubs, even in shopping centres.” This experience proved to be educational in more ways than one. While they asked him back, he realised it wasn’t an experience he wanted to repeat, but by then he knew he wanted to direct. This, he says, despite not really knowing much about directing “so I blagged it”. At the age of 19, he applied for two credit cards, maxed them out, and took a show up to the Edinburgh Fringe. “It was blind naivety,” he says, laughing. “I got into huge debt. I was stupid. I had no concept of money. If you’ve never had any money, it’s easy to get into problems with money.”
Despite this, the show (a production of Jim Cartwright’s Two in 1992) did well and ended up transferring to the King’s Head Theatre in London. Off the back of that, he got a bursary from the Arts Council. “I got it under their Black Initiative. I’m a Cypriot, and I thought, ‘I’m not black’,” he says, amused, “but I guess I was foreign enough for them. English was my second language.” A position as assistant director at Contact in Manchester followed, and then, in 1997, Michael joined Stratford East as an associate director. After a period of -freelance work, he was appointed artistic director in September 2004. From the outset, one of his key aims was to explore the -immigrant experience on stage, to reflect the London communities outside the theatre’s doors. His debut play as artistic director was The Battle of Green Lanes by Cosh Omar, a play set against the backdrop of London’s Cypriot community. “It was a piece of new writing ahead of its time which looked at homegrown fundamentalism a year before the July 7, 2005 terror attacks.”
“What I love about this job,” he says, after admitting that his view of it is inevitably a romantic one, is that “I have no formal education, no university, no drama school. This was a proper old-school apprenticeship where you learned on the job.” He was 33 when he took on the role and, when you’re that age, “there’s an optimism and positivity. You’re fearless.” He gets a little wistful. “It’s honestly been the best 12 years.”
Inspiring a generation
He cites The Harder They Come as one of his greatest successes. The musical, based on the iconic 1972 film that popularised reggae music, ended up transferring to the Barbican, the West End, Miami and Toronto. “There was so much pressure not to fuck it up. Getting that right was a great moment. The first night of The Harder They Come when Jimmy Cliff jumped on stage is something I’ll never forget.”
But for every critical and commercial success, there are smaller triumphs that make the job worthwhile. He -mentions Cynthia Erivo. “She’s now an international star, but I -remember when she was an usher at our place. I find all that really fulfilling.”
The thing he’s most proud of, though, is the audience. “When I’m having a bad day at Stratford East, I sit in the foyer and watch the audience come in. They’re often first-time theatre-goers. They’re not culture vultures. But they still come to Stratford East and I find making work for them really rewarding.”
How has he managed to have the most diverse audience in the country? It’s threefold, he says. “Firstly, we’ve been pushing at this for a very long time.” In the 1980s, his predecessor as artistic director, Philip Hedley, started programming Black, Caribbean, African and South Asian work.
“Secondly, the surrounding community is one of the most diverse in London.” That hasn’t made his job any more straightforward, he stresses. “We also have the highest levels of deprivation and the lowest levels of arts engagement.” A diverse community doesn’t necessarily lead to a diverse audience; it’s about how you programme and what you programme.
“Theatre has been good at ignoring vast swathes of the population,” says Michael. “But we’re putting on shows that speak to a diverse audience, either through the people who are making the work or who are appearing in the work. We’ve worked with people the majority of British theatres wouldn’t work with, people who aren’t, rightly or wrongly, perceived as being part of the mainstream.”
Q&A: Kerry Michael
What was your first non-theatre job? Working in the China and Glass department at House of Fraser.
What was your first professional theatre job? Colgate commercial for Indian TV.
What is your next job? Watch this space.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Be brave enough to employ smarter people than you.
Who/what is your biggest influence? My old English teacher. I was having problems with English as it’s my second language and so, at the age of 12, she took me out of English classes and into drama ones.
Best piece of advice for auditions? Check your teeth for spinach.
If you hadn’t been a director what would you have been? Architect.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Always have a new notebook for the first day of rehearsals.
Programme for change
One of the key cultural moments during his tenure was the 2012 London Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad. Stratford was at the heart of that moment. “There were lots of promises and rhetoric surrounding the Olympics,” says Michael. “There was a need to create a narrative in order to justify spending all that money.” He believes that while around two-thirds of what was promised didn’t come off, one third did. And that’s been enough to have an impact on people’s lives.
For one thing, the cultural sector started collaborating and “talking with one another in a way we’d never done before”. This led to Stratford Rising, an initiative set up with the -objective of promoting Newham and Stratford as centres for the arts. “We did some exiting stuff” – Theatre Square was briefly transformed into a giant playground – “whether that was peer-to-peer support or making work, getting funding bids. We still talk to each other more than we did pre-Olympics.”
Then there’s infrastructural and physical regeneration. “I’ve lived and worked in Stratford for 13 years now and there’s been a fundamental change to the environment and resources and opportunities in the area.” The most exciting thing to come out of it, he says, “is that there’s a sense of optimism and possibility. Before that, people who lived in Stratford were invisible. It was just the bit between Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street. But during the Olympics people felt pride that Stratford was hosting the Games. You could see it, this was their area and their manor. There were a lot of young people who gained confidence from that because they were being given some attention.”
Visibility – giving space to people whose stories are not told on stage – seems key to Michael’s artistic approach, a personal manifesto. This extends to Stratford East’s involvement in the Ramps on the Moon project, a consortium of theatres who have come together in recognition of the under-representation of disabled people in the industry, to create a six-year programme of work that integrates disabled and non-disabled performers and practitioners.
Following the success of earlier Ramps on the Moon production The Government Inspector , they have taken things a step further. Michael’s production of Tommy features deaf and disabled actors, singers and dancers. “We’re finding other -narratives by integrating the British Sign Language and audio descriptions,” he explains. Tommy is a fascinating and potentially provocative choice, the story of the “deaf, dumb and blind” pinball wizard, here played by William Grint, so memorable last year in Matthew Dunster’s Cymbeline reworking, Imogen, at Shakespeare’s Globe.
“It’s bloody exciting,” says Michael, speaking of both the production and the rehearsal process. “We have addressed the mechanics of making sure that everyone in the room is on an equal footing in terms of receiving information. I haven’t had so much fun, experienced so many creative challenges and learned so much as I have on this production.”
The commitment to access and inclusion applies at all levels. Each consortium venue has an Agent for Change officer to make alterations in terms of how the building operates, to make it fully accessible.
“It’s about attitude,” says Michael. “This reminds me of a lot of the conversations we were having 20 years ago about ethnicity and colour-blind casting, but it’s politically different – we’re having these conversations in the mainstream now.” Graeae has done some remarkable work in this area, paving the way for Ramps on the Moon to follow.
“It’s about always asking questions,” Michael says. “Asking why can’t that character have a physical disability? Why do we assume they have to be able-bodied?”
Action not words
Michael adopts this approach in all aspects of his programming. He picks out Summer in London by Rikki Beadle Blair as a highlight of the current season at Stratford East. It’s a love story about “living in London with no money”.
The cast of seven actors are all transgender. “I’m not sure another theatre has ever done that before,” he says. This is characteristic of Michael’s attitude to theatre. Talk will take you only so far. The most effective way of making change is to change things. “It’s just about saying: why can’t we put those actors on our stage, and then doing it. We’re just doing it.” He clearly believes it’s an attitude that should apply more widely. In last year’s Stratford East programme, female directors and writers were in the majority. “If you want to address equality and visibility: just do it,” he repeats with more force.
Not everything he’s tried has worked. An attempt to engage audiences via social media and create a ‘tweet zone’ within the theatre where people were free to use their phones never really took off, but Michael remains amused by the -outrage the idea sparked in some areas. “There was so much uproar and disapproval that people had never experienced before and so, on some level, we really don’t like change.”
During his 12 years at Stratford East, it won the Olivier award for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre twice: in 2007 for Peter Pan, and in 2011, for Cora Bissett’s harrowing Roadkill. The theatre was also nominated in 2014 for its revival of Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War! , marking the centennial year of the theatre’s legendary artistic director .
Each year Michael also directs the Stratford East pantomime, including last year’s joyous Sinbad the Sailor . “Our Christmas shows are similar to all our other work,” he says, in that “it’s always a working-class story – an outsider trying to change things, trying to change the establishment, the status quo.” He thinks about this. “Pretty much everything I’ve programmed over the last 12 years has that as a theme and I guess that’s because I feel on the outside of British theatre.”
As we talk, he keeps coming back to the audience. “The first character we cast in any piece of work is the audience. Who we’re doing this for is more important than why we’re doing this. You may have a great show but it only works if you have the right audience – it’s the two things coming together that give you your event. There’s no point doing this if you have the same audience coming back for every show.
“The problem we’ve got when we’re discussing diversity and equality is that it’s all still about blame. If there’s one thing I want people to remember about my time at Stratford East is that we’ve become the most diverse theatre in the country, not because we get more money for it or because we’re trying to right a wrong or we’re nice liberals, it’s because these artists are making the most exciting work out there and as an artistic director I want to programme the most exciting work. It’s about trying to be excellent, rather than trying to be righteous.”
Talking about diversity is one thing, but it’s important to look at the way that conversation is framed and the language that’s used. “Sometimes we celebrate inclusiveness by saying ‘isn’t this good?’, but there’s not enough debate about the excellence that comes from being diverse. That’s where we need to go in the future.”
As for his own future, he seems very much focused on his current project. “The thought of leaving for another job felt like having an affair,” he says.
Kerry Michael on theatre and other mediums
• I don’t understand people who work in theatre who don’t watch films. That’s where some of the best writing is.
• Some of the best storytelling at the moment isn’t happening in theatre, it’s happening in other art forms.
• Our audiences are very in tune to cinematic storytelling, to all different kinds of storytelling.
• There’s pioneering work happening in music and in gaming. We need to be aware of those other influences.
Does he think his career path would be in any way possible for a young artist from his background to replicate now? “I don’t know how you survive as a young artist now. I ended up in theatre because I had nothing else. I felt lost. It was the only thing I found which gave me a sense of purpose and worth.” These days, he wonders, if there were other things you could do, “why would you choose the theatre?”
If the industry is to stay healthy, it’s vital that we “make sure we’re attracting the best talent. To do that we need to look at who the opinion formers are and where the critical debate is coming from.” That’s a responsibility shared by everyone, he says, very pointedly, eyeing my Dictaphone.
Michael never did succeed in getting his parents through the doors of Stratford East, but he believes in theatre’s power to save people and make change. “You make change as a -collective. Theatre is a bunch of people with all these different skills coming together to make this one thing. You have sound engineers working with designers working with poets working with composers. All these skills coming together.”
He leans back against the wall of the car park. Throughout our conversation, it’s been clear that he feels the best way of creating change is through action, cutting through the bullshit and getting things done. He’s tired of having the same discussions over and over, of getting angry and frustrated about the same things; he’s done with that, he says. It’s the quality of the work he wants people to remember.
“We need to look at how we celebrate excellence. We need to move the conversation on.”
CV: Kerry Michael
Born: London, 1971
Position: Artistic director, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 2004-2017
Landmark productions: The Battle of Green Lanes (2004), The Harder They Come (2006), I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (2010), The Infidel, co-directed by Kerry Michael and David Baddiel (2014), Tommy (2017)
Awards: Olivier for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre for Peter Pan (2007) and Roadkill (2011)
Tommy is at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London , from June 7-17