In the near quarter-century that The Stage 100 has been published, an actor has never topped the list. Until now.
Why? Actors are clearly a core part of theatre. But, while individual actors have certainly been influential – Mark Rylance has featured prominently in recent years – it is rare for them to truly wield influence on the whole of theatre.
This is, to some degree, a sign of the times, a reflection of the era in which The Stage 100 has been published. Had we started this list in the 1950s or 1960s, Laurence Olivier would have been in with a fair shout of securing the top spot, probably repeatedly. But the era of the actor-manager has largely passed, meaning that while individual actors can be influential in a focused way – some performers are undoubtedly major box-office draws without whose presence a show would not be a success – their influence is often limited in scope and scale. This is especially the case when compared to the power now exerted by the large commercial theatre groups or national companies, notably not headed by actors.
McKellen is, in many ways, a throwback to the era of Olivier – indeed, McKellen was a member of Olivier’s National Theatre Company at the Old Vic in 1965. Like Olivier, McKellen has enjoyed a garlanded career, and global success, both on stage and screen. But again, like Olivier, he has always remained a man of the theatre.
It is hard to imagine future generations of British acting stars being able to devote the same amount of time to theatre work as he has: film and TV’s obsession with multi-season series and ‘cinematic universes’, in which actors are locked into long-term deals, can make it very hard for performers to commit to all but the shortest of theatre runs. So, McKellen is special, an exception, maybe even an example.
Last year’s number one, architect Steve Tompkins, wielded influence by updating the physical infrastructure of theatre in the UK. The year before, Vicky Featherstone topped the list for her work instigating crucial conversations that called out abuse and challenged historic, unhelpful, even damaging power structures in theatre.
Both were recognised for their transformational work updating theatre, challenging the status quo – and there are many figures in this year’s list who feature prominently for similar reasons: Sarah Frankcom as she crosses over into the drama training sector and reduces audition fees, Daniel York Loh for his campaigning work on behalf of British East Asian artists and Jamie Lloyd for his radical re-imagining of classical theatre. But McKellen’s placing recognises the opposite of this. He is acknowledged for his work celebrating, supporting and drawing attention to a traditional aspect of British theatre that is worth preserving, something that is at risk of being lost, or at least diminished: the UK’s extraordinary network of local theatres.
He has raised significant sums of money for those theatres but, one hopes, his greatest legacy will be in persuading his peers and successors of the importance of taking theatre to the people, all around the UK.
Elsewhere in The Stage 100, individuals who run theatres that McKellen visited on his tour feature prominently. Indeed, more than 20 of the venues he visited are represented – from Theatr Clwyd in north Wales and Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the Highlands to Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. This is evidence that – despite the challenges faced by UK theatres, especially from reduced local funding – many are still thriving.
If they are to continue to do so, they will need more high-profile individuals from within the theatre sector to show their commitment to theatre outside the capital. And that commitment will need to be matched by central and local government.
Now in its 24th year, The Stage 100 is the definitive list of the most influential figures working in the UK theatre and performing arts industry. It focuses on achievements in the past 12 months, but also takes into account overall standing within the industry. Anyone working in theatre and the performing arts (on stage, off stage or in support roles) is eligible.
As with any such list, the final 100 is subjective. However, we go to great lengths to make sure that our final 100 reflects the full breadth of the industry and its most influential people.
In its first couple of years, the list was decided by industry vote, but the decision-making process was soon taken in-house after it threatened to turn into a popularity contest. Now, it is judged from the point of view of The Stage as an industry publication. This means that as well as artistic achievement, we look at factors such as financial performance, number of jobs created and the wider impact on the sector and its development.
Large-scale commercial theatre and the major subsidised houses tend to feature heavily, as they account for most theatregoing in the UK. But we also try to feature names from across the industry, at all scales and in all places.
We invited 50 leading figures from the theatre and performing arts industry to anonymously submit the five people they would place from number one to five in the list, plus one other name they believed should feature in the list and why. The 50 people were drawn from different areas of the industry and different professions within it.
We invited senior editorial contributors to The Stage to submit their suggestions for the final list.
A final judging panel (comprising editor Alistair Smith, associate editor Lyn Gardner, features editor Nick Clark, news editor Matthew Hemley, reviews editor Natasha Tripney, chief reporter Georgia Snow, critic Tim Bano and Daily Mail entertainment columnist Baz Bamigboye) considered all the names submitted in stages one and two, added their own submissions and decided on the final list.
The Stage 100 is intended to reflect who are the 100 most influential people working in the theatre and performing arts industry. It is considered from the point of view of The Stage, as a trade publication, and so focuses both on theatre as a business and an art form. Inclusion within the list and ranking is weighted towards achievements in the past 12 months, but also takes into account continuous achievement. We also aim to have a list that – as much as is possible and plausible – reflects the astonishing breadth of the theatre industry. However, we do not weight the list to attempt to make it gender-balanced or ethnically diverse: we believe the list should aim to reflect how the theatre and performing arts industry is, not what it aims to be, or we would like it to be.
‘New entry’ denotes that a person did not feature in the 2019 list.