One of Stephanie Bain’s key responsibilities as literary manager for London’s Almeida Theatre is scouting artistic talent. She tells Amber Massie-Blomfield what gets her excited about a new play and the venue’s 2020 programme
The first play Stephanie Bain worked on when she took up the post of literary manager at the Almeida was The Writer by Ella Hickson, a blistering drama intent on ripping apart British theatre’s slavish reverence for the dramaturgy of the ‘well-made play’ – and taking the patriarchy with it. The Writer opens with an older male artistic director explaining to a younger female writer how the process of commissioning plays works. “That makes me feel sick,” the writer retorts. “That makes me want to die.”
It might have been enough to send some budding literary managers running for the hills but, fortunately, it didn’t put Bain off her new post. In fact, she is invigorated by the challenge of bringing new approaches and voices to the stage of one of Britain’s most highly acclaimed producing theatres. “The projects we’re working on have the potential to be really exciting and transformative,” she says.
Over the past 18 months she has played a pivotal role in creating some of the Almeida’s biggest successes including Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck, David Farr’s The Hunt and Claire Barron’s Dance Nation among them.
Finding the writers and directors that have the potential to shake up British theatre is a time-consuming business. One of her key responsibilities as literary manager is scouting new artistic talent. “I probably have one or two nights off a week,” she says, “otherwise I’m going to Theatre503, the Yard, Soho, Vault Festival, constantly seeing work.”
What does she get excited about in a new play? “Often, I’m looking for a question at the centre that I don’t think the writer knew the answer to at the beginning. I see a lot of productions that I think are delivering one message, plays that are like ‘the patriarchy exists’, ‘racism is bad’. But we all agree with that, what’s the purpose? Writers should cultivate their ‘on-the-other-handness’.”
Bain is also responsible for the commissioning process, working closely with playwrights to develop new scripts. “About 80% of our commissions go into programming; at some other theatres it’s more like 20%,” she says proudly. Beyond this, her days can include anything from providing dramaturgical support in the rehearsal room, organising and chairing talks, working with the young company or commissioning essays for the programme.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a waitress at Brucciani’s Italian cafe in Wigan.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I had a short admin job at Cheek by Jowl.
What’s your next job?
“Daddy”: A Melodrama and The House of Shades.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You can have a winding career path and that’s all right. The idea that you have to decide at 16 what you want to be, and work doggedly towards that one thing, is not necessarily true.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My biggest formative influence is probably Margaret Kinley from Wigan Little Theatre, an ex-teacher who directed me there. But I’m inspired by my colleagues, the artists I work with. I get really excited by writers who are autodidacts. They want to read the whole canon and are really passionate about their craft and learning how other people have written.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
If writers and directors are pitching shows, you want a sense of what the experience of the audience will be – what you will feel sitting there, what it will smell like, what you will leave feeling.
If you hadn’t been a literary manager, what would you have been?
Maybe a medieval literature academic. Or if I’d made very different decisions a neuroscientist. I was quite good at science.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I have a weird ritual if I work in the library, particularly the British Library: I always sit at the same desk – 109.
She wasn’t always destined for the theatre. Born in Wigan, she was “a shy, bookish child”. Her parents, thinking it would help with her confidence, encouraged her to join the youth group of Wigan Little Theatre. The experience was transformational. “It’s an amazing place. It’s entirely run by volunteers, and it has such an impact on the community – the director there, Margaret Kinley, took me under her wing and infused me with a passion for theatre.” Later, after studying English literature at Cambridge University, she co-founded Babel Theatre, creating debut show You Must Be the One to Bury Me. The production went on an Arts Council England-funded national tour and the company was invited to be associates at Home, Manchester, and emerging artists at the New Diorama in London. At the same time, she worked as a script reader for London’s Bush Theatre and the Bruntwood Prize.
But following a “mid-20s crisis” about the precarious nature of freelance theatre life, Bain sought more stable employment, joining the Wylie Agency as an assistant and quickly working her way up the ladder to become an agent herself with clients including Hanif Kureishi, Biyi Bandele, Hilton Als and Andrew Dickson. She thought her days making theatre were behind her.
‘I see a lot of plays that say ‘the patriarchy exists’ and ‘racism is bad’. We all agree with that, so what’s the purpose?’
“I would have happily stayed doing that,” she says. When the Almeida job came up, though, it proved irresistible. “I thought: ‘Oh my God, I could go back into theatre via literary management.’ ”
While The Writer may not have completely transformed what Bain considers to be the elements of a great play – “there are things that make good plays, there are twists and turns and a character going on a journey and experiencing conflict” – she shares Hickson’s frustration with how slow British theatre has been to present more diverse voices on the main stage.
“There’s a reason that British theatres have programmed a lot of American work: Anne Washburn, Annie Baker, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins… American development has been ahead of us, in terms of an awareness of the need for more diverse voices, and now suddenly we are like: ‘Oh no, what are we going to do? Import them all.’ ”
The north London venue has set up a programme to help solve the problem. The Genesis Almeida New Playwrights, Big Plays Programme wants to cultivate “late emerging to early mid-career” writers ready to make work for larger stages.
“I was finding that there was a gap,” she says. “People were getting a lot of studio work but then they were getting stuck.”
Launched this autumn, the first cohort – described by Bain as diverse in terms of “ethnicity, disability, socioeconomic backgrounds, and writing style” – is Kendall Feaver, Sami Ibrahim, Charley Miles, Amy Ng, Iman Qureshi, Sam Steiner and Ross Willis.
Bain buzzes when she talks about the Genesis writers. “A lot of them have a voice that’s really original. Charley Miles’ play Blackthorn is like hearing a completely new way of writing. With Wolfie by Ross Willis, I thought: ‘That’s like the next Alice Birch.’ ” Each writer will receive a commission to develop a new play, supported with dramaturgical advice from Bain, as well as masterclasses from writers including Hickson and Mike Bartlett, and a five-day research and development workshop.
“The idea is we are getting plays for our main stage, that’s our ambition,” Bain says. But she also hopes that “by refreshing our pool we find our Annie Baker and are feeding the British theatre ecology more widely”.
A play Bain is excited to import is the just-announced UK debut of New Yorker Jeremy O Harris. “Daddy”: A Melodrama, set in the Bel Air art scene, is about the complex relationship between a young black artist, an older white art collector, and the artist’s mother, exploring themes of father figures and patronage.
Described by GQ as “one of the most exciting new voices of his generation”, Harris made headlines in the US as the youngest black male playwright on Broadway with Slave Play, written while still in his first year of Yale School of Drama. Among his achievements with that run was implementing a ‘Black Out’ performance – filling the 804 seats of Broadway’s Golden Theatre with an exclusively black audience. “He’s not just a writer, he’s a personality,” Bain says of Harris. “I’m really excited about introducing him, because it will be his first London play to a London audience. It will be great for our building too: he was here a few weeks ago and just galvanised everybody.”
The Almeida has also announced The House of Shades, playwright Beth Steel’s debut at the venue, directed by Blanche McIntyre. Following three generations of the same family in a northern community, the play charts the impact of the shifting industrial landscape and job opportunities. “It feels like a British, working-class Oresteia. It’s about the disappointment in the failure of the Labour movement over the last 50 years, and a lot of people really care about that,” Bain says.
While she is excited by the new energy being injected at the Almeida and elsewhere, Bain is cautious about over-emphasising theatre’s latest buzzword: ‘Relevance’.
“You can sometimes prejudge too much what an audience might want,” she says. “We have a youth board and we talk to them a lot about the kind of stuff they are seeing. They loved Mary Stuart, which is a Schiller play. You’re like: ‘Oh, I thought maybe you would prefer Dance Nation or Barber Shop Chronicles – but you love Mary Stuart!’ ”
Born: Wigan, 1986
Training: BA (hons) English, University of Cambridge, 2009
• The Writer, Almeida Theatre, London (2018)
• Shipwreck, Almeida Theatre (2019)
• The Doctor, Almeida Theatre (2019)