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Mark Borkowski: Theatre Royal Stratford East must not forget its pioneering legacy

Joan Littlewood sculpture by Theatre Royal Stratford East, London. Photo: Robert Day Joan Littlewood sculpture by Theatre Royal Stratford East, London. Photo: Robert Day
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While Theatre Royal Stratford East’s incoming artistic director is keen to usher in a new era, its former publicist Mark Borkowski warns against airbrushing out the venue’s vital achievements in the years since Joan Littlewood’s departure

When the venerable Victorian playhouse Theatre Royal Stratford East appointed Nadia Fall, a young director from the National, it was big news and a wonderfully positive move by the board.

Read The Stage’s interview with Nadia Fall

But when launching her first season, an interview given by Fall to the London Evening Standard provoked a sense of incredulity from many, including myself, who worked for the theatre in the past and hold its rich theatrical legacy close to our hearts.

Fall’s interview implied that, since the departure of the legendary Joan Littlewood in 1974, the theatre’s programming had been lacklustre with falling audiences. In just a few paragraphs, 45 years of groundbreaking work on and off the stage was masked and glossed over.

A certain generosity and elegance wins friends and will never arm enemies. Unfortunately, past successes seem to have been unconsciously airbrushed. In the interview, Fall proclaimed that she was channelling the true spirit of Joan Littlewood. The latter might not have immediately embraced the appointment of a National Theatre graduate. Those who knew Littlewood recall she had little respect for the National, calling it “that fucking concrete mausoleum”.

Back in the early 1980s, TRSE’s then artistic director Philip Hedley took a chance by giving an ambitious 21-year-old wannabe publicist a job. That publicist was me.

At the core of Philip’s ambitions for the theatre was risk. The first show I experienced, Nell Dunn’s Steaming, had already been rejected by the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company and London’s Royal Court, but Philip committed to it instantly on reading the script. There was no one to consult on his choice. Stratford had no dramaturg, Philip did not consult the board and did not put the script through a process of readings and workshops or wait until he found a star. He simply committed to stage it on the first available date.

This inspired me to cajole the media into covering the theatre’s work. It was a hard sell. Stratford was developing work that was designed to attract black and Asian audiences, which were hardly considered sexy or relevant at the time by most other theatres. Philip worked hard to make shows that were relevant to Stratford East’s diverse communities.

Before the D-word became fashionable, few understood how far ahead of the game Stratford East was

These performances had real dazzling chutzpah. What they lacked in sophistication they made up for with other glories. The West End – pandering to the chattering mob – was never a priority. Based in Newham, with a transient population, the theatre understood its duty was to deliver a great night out that the local community could afford to attend. Diversity became a conscious ingredient in both artistic and audience development. Before the D-word became fashionable, few understood how far ahead of the game Stratford East was. Certainly many seem to have forgotten the theatre’s incredible legacy.

Keeping the theatre alive in the 1980s was a huge task, as the Thatcherite cuts crippled many companies trying to build on ethnically diverse and politically motivated work. Yet Newham Council understood the theatre’s importance and helped it to survive by bestowing a meagre grant – a financial stability of sorts that allowed it to flourish.

The theatre paid back that grant with groundbreaking work. Stratford East ran courses to train black and Asian directors. The students received £100 per week expenses and several became leading lights in theatre. Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle, Michael Buffong at Talawa, Matthew Xia and Femi Elufowoju Jr all cut their directing teeth there.

Kiln Theatre artistic director Indhu Rubasingham: ‘Theatre should bring unheard voices into the mainstream’

In 1998, TRSE became the first to run musical theatre courses annually for anyone who had experience of writing or composing in any form. These courses were instrumental in producing the sensationally successful show Da Boyz, which was an adaptation by Ultz from Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse. The American theatre world was astonished that any theatre, let alone a British one, had obtained the rights from a notoriously protective source to transform a classic Broadway show with rap and hip hop.

The American showbiz magazine Variety hailed it a triumph. Da Boyz was a signal of the future of musical theatre, but it was not a future that either Arts Council England or the West End could envisage. Both refused to invest in Stratford East’s wish to create musicals from the glorious mix of races and musical talent in London, even when the final musical theatre show in Philip Hedley’s time at the theatre, The Big Life, became the first West End musical set in Britain to tell a story based on black experiences.

The writer Paul Sirett, who came up with the idea for the show, was theatrically very experienced and white. However, the wonderful mix of popular black music was by a black musician who had never seen a West End musical. And in the Stratford tradition of risk and trust, the black director, Clint Dyer, who had never directed before, carried it off with great success. It is a shame that the (deserved) hype surrounding Hamilton ignored that production’s legacy.

Hedley’s vision was skilfully succeeded and further developed by his brilliant protege Kerry Michael, who made his own unique mark with some landmark work. This included Jimmy Cliff musical The Harder They Come, the Olivier-winning, site-specific show Roadkill (2012), the first pantomime ever to be nominated for an Olivier (Cinderella, 2008) and the early development of hip-hop dance group Boy Blue Entertainment, which went on to win an Olivier for its production Pied Piper. The venue’s programming was driven by giving outsiders opportunity. Once this was class, which then morphed into those from post-war immigrant communities, and then the more complex set of diversity and equality agendas of the 21st century.

The Evening Standard article claimed that TRSE has been playing to audiences as low as 20% and needed an additional £800,000 grant from the Arts Council to prevent it closing. But audience numbers averaged 55% in 2016/17, with the theatre having recently reopened following a refurbishment. In the five years up to 2017, they were as high as 74% on average. Meanwhile, the theatre’s most recently published accounts reveal unrestricted reserves of more than £300,000. TRSE manages all this while keeping ticket prices far below the London average.

All things must change and theatre must move forward. E15 might now ring with the well-spoken brogue of affluent incomers, hoovering up properties in the post-Olympics gentrification of the borough. But my hope is the theatre will not pander to the transient hipsters, but focus on the unique diversity of its audience with a free spirit of rebellion, non-conformity and individualism: hopefully, it will not lose the unorthodox, the eccentric and the heart of the outsider.

I hope TRSE will not become a career waypoint for ambitious theatre folk, who see it as a bottom rung rather than a pinnacle, and those who are entrusted with delivering an exciting future for the theatre will not forget its glorious past.

Mark Shenton’s top venues: Theatre Royal Stratford East

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