Offies founder Sofie Mason: ‘No one was ever paid’
On April 23, the Off West End Awards – also known as “the Offies” – will celebrate this year’s winners at London’s May Fair Hotel. If it’s a bit glitzier than usual, and if even more fizz is downed by the guests, it’s because the event will also be a fond farewell to Sofie Mason. With Diana Jervis-Read, who’s moving on at the same time, Mason founded the awards, and before that, independent theatre listings website OffWestEnd.com.
I met Mason in 2010 at the Brockley Jack Theatre on a press night. I’d only been reviewing a few months, didn’t know anyone and didn’t have a phone smart enough for me to pretend to be busy on it. I was also wearing a waistcoat, which caught Mason’s eye (amazingly, not as a crime against fashion). She struck up conversation. I ended up interviewing for OffWestEnd.com and later on the Offies panel.
That’s not an unusual story for Mason. She embraces people, literally and figuratively. The New Diorama Theatre’s David Byrne won best artistic director at the 2014 Offies. He recalls her as a “blur of red and oranges” at their first meeting. “I’ve always said there’s something of the matador about Sofie,” he says. “I liked her immediately. And she gave me £50 for a play I was doing.”
Kenny Emson was an early beneficiary of OffWestEnd.com’s Adopt a Playwright scheme, which supports promising younger writers to create a new play. He has since been shortlisted for the 2011 Bruntwood Prize and written for the BBC. Emson calls Mason and Jervis-Read “superwomen – for their passion, their energy and their refusal to become downbeat”.
Mason’s own story would make a great play. The child of British parents who fell in love in Rome and never went back to the UK, she grew up in Naples. “There was nothing elitist or exclusive about the arts in Italy,” she recalls. This stayed with her, as did an anything-is-possible mindset shaped by Naples. She recalls: “It was the best, anarchic, chaotic, wonderful city. You had to make it up as you went along.”
This sense of creative anarchy informed her initial love of the arts, but it wasn’t until after Oxford University – where her parents had sent her, penniless, during the Italian unrest of the 1970s Red Brigades – that her passion for theatre and radical left-wing politics would converge. It was 1979, Thatcher was newly in power and London was caught in “a massive class struggle".
Q&A: Sofie Mason
What was your first theatrical job? Royal Opera House publications department in 1994.
What was your first non-theatrical job? Translating psychology books on marriage break-ups from English into Italian.
What is your next job? Initiating new ways to support writers around the world.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Governments will never acknowledge the true value of the arts.
Who or what is your biggest influence? The spirit of Naples – there are no rules, just do it.
If you hadn't done what you do professionally, what would you have done? Been a civil servant.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No.
At her mother’s insistence, Mason took a job selling advertising space at the Royal Opera House. This “beautiful accident” was transformative. “I realised the radicalising feature of the arts,” she says, “that theatre makes sense of the world around us.” Peter Hall’s adage that theatre is a community’s live debate with itself became – and remains – a guiding principle.
Mason initially got to know London’s Off-West End theatres when, as the first female branch secretary of the Royal Opera House union, she brought them together to speak against the government’s "penny-pinching" attempt to merge ROH with English National Opera. When, after 10 years, she went freelance, she tried to fundraise for smaller theatres. But, unlike the West End, their information was scattered disparately across the web.
Out of this, OffWestEnd.com was born. Importantly, it brought together listings for independent venues, of which there are now 110. The Offies came about four years later, in 2010, at the suggestion of the theatres themselves. While existing awards ceremonies were dominated by the West End houses, Off-West End venues and companies were starved of recognition.
The first Offies – with winners selected by a panel of critics based on recommendations by a team of ‘assessors’ – took place at Wilton’s Music Hall. From the beginning, Mason stresses, the awards, like OffWestEnd.com itself, were powered by the goodwill and collaboration of “the best brains” in the industry. “No one was ever paid,” she says. “It was a mission. We were trying to create something that wasn’t just a website.”
This profile-raising campaign on behalf of independent London theatres has continued since – growing, in 2014, to match ‘patron saints’ (experienced industry figures) to winners. It’s about visibility, community and providing a career boost to people working for very little money in a talent-filled sector. Even a longlist nomination is “a real pat on the back”, says Byrne: “It’s brought loads of us together.”
Now Mason and Jervis-Read are handing over the reins of the website and the awards to successor Geoffrey Brown. “We’ve used all the skills we had to progress it, but it needs another set now,” says Mason. “It needs a business plan and commercial nous.” But, of course, someone still brimming with the Naples spirit isn’t about to disappear. Mason and Jervis-Read will be promoting theatre in Kosovo, among other projects.
“She’s an inspired activist, full of ideas,” says Jervis-Read of Mason, her friend and colleague of more than a decade, “she’s sparkling and powerful".
Personally, I’ll hear the echo of that joyful, hug of a laugh of hers whenever Off-West End theatre takes centre stage. She’s a dynamo. If the Offies have become a beacon for independent theatre, she made them shine.
CV: Sofie Mason
Born: Rome, 1961
Training: University of Oxford
Landmark moments: July 4, 2006, set up OffWestEnd.com