After 40 years running Polka Theatre, Stephen Midlane is retiring. He tells Lyn Gardner about working with world-famous children’s authors, why it’s crucial schools bring kids to the theatre and why he isn’t disappearing yet
There are not many people in theatre who stay in the same job throughout their entire career. But Stephen Midlane, who steps down from the role of executive director at the Polka this month, after 40 years, is an exception. During all that time he never even applied for another job.
The gently spoken Midlane has remained fiercely loyal to the south-west London children’s theatre, which has brought so much pleasure since it first opened its doors in 1979. “Polka is an extraordinary place,” he says by way of explanation. “And it has been extraordinarily successful.”
Five artistic directors have passed through the doors of the Wimbledon venue since it first opened, but only the current incumbent, Peter Glanville, will outstay Midlane. And at the announcement of Midlane’s retirement, Glanville hailed the executive director’s impact on the theatre, saying he was “key to the continued delivery of world-class theatre for children”.
“One of the things I’ve brought is stability,” says Midlane. “I’ve always felt a strong commitment to make this place work and deliver on what it is trying to do for young audiences. If I had felt I was a hindrance I would have left long ago, but there is something unique about the Polka and its place in theatre. I really love it. It’s where my family grew up. My wife even ran the shop when the theatre first opened.” His successor is Lynette Shanbury, the former executive director of Little Angel Theatre.
When I make the mistake of calling the Polka “quaint” he raises an eyebrow and says tigerishly: “I’d call it warm and welcoming.” It is. If the Polka has felt like home to Midlane during his years there, it has also felt like home to several generations of children.
Many have had their first taste of theatregoing seeing shows in the Polka’s Adventure Theatre before advancing to the Main Stage. They have also played in the garden and the foyer and perhaps taken part in some of the theatre’s holiday workshops and after-school clubs.
For 40 years, the Polka has remained pretty unchanged both in how it looks and, to a lesser degree, what it puts on stage. When I visit, the main stage is again hosting Vicky Ireland’s fine adaptation of Double Act, which I took my own children to in 2003.
Midlane is a fan of both the show – “it’s a piece of real quality” he says, and he’s right – and Ireland, who was a vocal and energetic artistic director of the Polka for 14 years. During that time, she founded Action for Children’s Arts, to promote and celebrate the importance of children having access to the arts. But he recognises there is a tension between creating ambitious work and making the books balance.
Another of Ireland’s shows stands out for Midlane. Three Cheers for Mrs Butler, a musical play with poems and characters created by Allan Ahlberg, was performed by children and adults, whose roles were swapped. “It was a really lovely insight into the life of children over a school year,” Midlane says.
If he has a regret, it is that “we’ve not managed to expand what it is that people think of as children’s theatre and a broader sense of what it can be as much as I would have liked. Audiences can be conservative with a small c”.
He points to the rise of the big commercial productions such as Harry Potter or Matilda or the David Walliams’ page-to-stage titles such as Gangsta Granny and the forthcoming Awful Auntie, which will reopen Bloomsbury Theatre this Christmas. While he doesn’t begrudge them their successes, he does wonder whether they “reinforce the idea that children’s theatre is only about adaptations”.
He reckons Polka has often pushed at expectations, particularly with shows such as Daniel Bye’s Error 404 and David Glass’ Off the Wall, but argues that, in the end, repeatedly taking risks requires more subsidy than the Polka gets. “It just isn’t sufficient,” he says, before pointing out the decline in school trips to the theatre, which has also had an impact.
“When I began, ILEA [the Inner London Education Authority] used to buy out entire performances,” Midlane says, “but now it’s much harder to get schools to come because of the cost of coaches and the pressures of the curriculum.”
But he reckons school audiences are key, not least because they tend to be a much more diverse audience. He’s proud the Polka has been working hard to create partnerships and creative projects with local schools and has had great success working with children at risk of exclusion.
Last year, the company set up Polkalab to support companies or artists, particularly disabled artists and those who have a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, to make work aimed at early-years audiences. It has led to the theatre commissioning three artists including actor Jack Benjamin, who will develop a project based on his grandfather’s recordings from when he first moved to the UK from the Caribbean.
Also working with that audience, from newborn to five-years-old, Midlane is proud that Polka is the UK representative of Small Size, the European network for early years’ theatre. It is one of the 18 companies that partner across Europe, and fortunately Polka has already secured funding to continue the work, despite Brexit, until 2022.
For Midlane, theatre wasn’t a huge part of his childhood. “I went, but to be honest, I preferred film,” he says, though at university he fell in with the theatre crowd. “My best friend became an actor, and suddenly I found myself surrounded by theatre people.”
Midlane never sought a career in theatre, working in publishing after he left university. A nine-month contract as a project supervisor of some building works changed all that. “It was serendipitous,” he says. The contract was for the building that became the UK’s first dedicated theatre space for children, and it turned into a full-time role. Initially he worked as an administrator, and subsequently administrative director, before taking up his current position in 2002.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Oxfam charity walk organiser.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Project supervisor at Polka Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t be afraid to ask advice.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Vicky Ireland. I admired the passion and commitment she brought to the work even when facing seemingly impossible challenges.
If you hadn’t been the Polka’s executive director, what would you have been?
I always thought I would run a bookshop.
Polka began as a touring company in 1967, with Richard Gill as artistic director, and at the time it specialised in puppetry. It found a permanent home in Wimbledon’s Holy Trinity Halls in 1976 and moved in three years later after a long fundraising campaign.
Its reputation has grown over the years and it has worked with writers including Alan Ayckbourn, Malorie Blackman and Michael Rosen, who are also patrons, as well as Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo. “Like Polka, those writers have a commitment to excellence for children as readers and viewers in their own right, not looking at them as just consumers of the future,” Midlane says. “To have writers of that level work with Polka shows they recognise our expertise and understanding of the audience.” In the 37 years since it first opened its doors, Polka has had more than 3.5 million visitors.
If Midlane’s connection with the theatre began as a building project, it will end with one too – the first since its opening in 1979. He will continue to act as an adviser on Polka’s upcoming £6.5 million capital project, of which £4.8 million has already been secured, after his retirement.
The works will open up the frontage of the theatre and build a new early-year’s theatre with rehearsal space over the top, while the current Adventure Theatre will be repurposed for creative learning. Midlane thinks the project will be good for both audiences and the theatre, which will be able to generate more income by hiring out space. But he hopes that eventually it will go further. “In an ideal world, we’d like to reconfigure the main auditorium to open up its potential, but that will have to wait.”
Midlane is looking forward to seeing what retirement brings. In the meantime, he reflects on 40 years of commitment to children’s theatre in general, and uniquely to one venue in particular. He says he hopes that he has been of service.
“I’ve seen how theatre can bring lasting benefit to lives and how at its best it creates memories that children and adults treasure. I hope I’ve been able to maintain a really superb team at the Polka who have delivered an awful lot of experiences to many different audiences. Experiences that they will always remember.” That is definitely worth 40 years of anyone’s time.
Born: 1951, Pinner, Middlesex
Training: University of Exeter
Landmark productions: All at Polka Theatre:
• Three Cheers for Mrs Butler, (1996)
• Off the Wall (1997)
• Error 404 (2015)