Mark Shenton’s week: As one publicist turns playwright, another turns censor
Theatre PRs are at the front line of a theatre’s relationships with the critics, columnists and reporters who cover theatre; and it’s an increasingly big and diffuse job, too, with the radical expansion of online outlets (but a shrinking of the traditional media ones). It means they have to keep track of a much bigger world and respond, fairly and promptly, to a lot more people who feel entitled to be at their first nights.
It must be especially difficult at the Royal Court, where an opening at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs can only accommodate around 70 people. But Anoushka Warden, the Royal Court’s head of press and publicity, always seems to negotiate it with skill and tact.
But last week she handed over the task to her assistant and was nowhere to be seen near the press desk (or even in the theatre) for the opening of My Mum’s a Twat – a play she’d written herself. In an interview in The Observer, journalist Kate Kellaway observed: “You cannot miss her festive metallic tights (the sort you have to be an extrovert to carry off)” and adds, “For all her exuberance, I can see she finds it weird to be interviewed and to have one of her colleagues doing the PR for her play.”
This isn’t the first time a theatre PR has written a play that her own theatre has then put on: in 2002, Charlotte Eilenberg saw Hampstead give the world premiere of her play The Lucky Ones. As Charles Spencer noted in his review for the Telegraph at the time: “For several years, Charlotte Eilenberg has been the refreshingly unpushy press representative of Hampstead Theatre. What none of us suspected was that she was also at work on a play of her own. She sent The Lucky Ones to the theatre under a pseudonym, and artistic director Jenny Topper leapt at the chance of staging it before realising just how well she knew the author.” Eilenberg went on to win an Olivier Award for most promising playwright, a category that was only presented twice before being retired.
Warden didn’t quite do the same thing with her play: she workshopped it privately with a producer, then told her boss about it – who immediately wanted to read it. The next day, Warden was summoned to see her and the theatre’s executive producer Lucy Davies. Kate Kellaway picks up the story in the Observer: “The pair had long faces (it takes theatre people to act). Warden thought she must be in serious trouble. They escorted her in, closed the door behind them. Then they threw their arms open: ‘We love your play’ they said, ‘and we want to put it on here’.”
But it proves there are aspiring playwrights all over the place – sometimes under one’s own roof. In one of my favourite musicals, On the Twentieth Century, a celebrated theatre director Oscar Jaffe finds that everyone he meets – doctors, railway porters – have all written a play they want him to read.
Critics getting banned
Every now and then, a producer takes against a critic and refuses them press privileges. Recently, in New York this backfired spectacularly – when a journalistic commentator, who was also A Tony nominator, was declined a ticket to see the Broadway transfer of the West End’s 1984, the show was ruled ineligible for consideration for this year’s Tony Awards, as the rules require that all nominators see every show.
So that turned into an own goal. Its original London co-producer Sonia Friedman was asked by the New York Times for her reaction to this decision, and she replied, “I don’t have a comment on the matter other than I am disappointed with the outcome.
But there’s nothing to stop a critic buying a ticket to review a show they are denied access to and reviewing it anyway. Last week Lyn Gardner, my fellow associate editor here and a critic for The Guardian, found herself summarily denied access to review Cirque du Soleil’s Ovo at the Royal Albert Hall. As she reported: “You can invite who you like to your own party, but it’s downright rude to extend an invitation, wait until it’s accepted and then tell your invitee that she won’t be welcome after all. That’s what happened to me, presumably because somebody finally got around to reading my one-star review of Cirque’s 2016 Tempest-themed love story, Amaluna, which I described as being as erotic as a wet wipe.”
So The Guardian duly bought her a ticket, which at £73, only offered a side view over the stage. Theatre PRs typically give critics the best seats in the house, on the basis they want to provide them with the best possible experience of the show; but I sometimes think we should sit in the worst seats of the house, too, to get an authentic audience experience.
Or, she could have just viewed it all online in the video clips and photographs that the opening announcement actively encouraged us to take (as long as we didn’t use a flash), and post to social media. This seems to me, to be extraordinary: it is seriously saying it doesn’t mind audiences experiencing the show’s wonders second-hand through their camera lens. Because of course, it has a PR advantage: with people posting this stuff on their social media channels it does their marketing for them. Who needs critics like Gardner then? As it is, Cirque du Soleil doesn’t even bother with the usual courtesy of giving critics free programmes so they can accurately name cast members.
Stunt casting at Chicago
In Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, a young actress recalls her audition frustrations in the song Climbing Uphill. “These are the people who cast Linda Blair in a musical,” she sings. She’s referring to the one-time child star of The Exorcist who appeared in a 1990s Broadway revival of Grease, in which she played Rizzo. The same people, Barry and Fran Weissler, have announced the star for the London return of their long-running hit production Chicago in March, and it will be American film star Cuba Gooding Jr in his musical theatre debut.
In an interview with Baz Bamigboye in the Daily Mail, he duly joked that he’s been doing karaoke to get his voice in shape, and then more seriously said he’s got a vocal coach Eric Vetro to help him. “I’ve always had a strong voice but no control, so Eric has taught me how to breathe properly. My voice goes a bit hoarse, but he and I know the work we have to accomplish.”
I hope they pull it off.