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Evidence for Ira Aldridge’s tenure tenure at Coventry Theatre (your views, August 24)

Portrait of Ira Aldridge as Othello by Henry Perronet Briggs
Portrait of Ira Aldridge as Othello by Henry Perronet Briggs
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Thanks to Ted Bottle for requesting information about Ira Aldridge’s period as manager of the Coventry Theatre (Letters, August 17).

As Bernth Lindfors revealed in the first (2007) volume of his biography of the actor, Aldridge took over the management of the Coventry Theatre in late February 1828, after the disastrous tenure of a Mr Melmoth ended in protests and bad debts.

Bottle rightly raises the question of what it meant to be a theatre manager in the 1820s. In fact, we know how seriously Aldridge took his artistic and social responsibilities.

He was then known as FW Keene. On February 29, in an open letter to “the inhabitants of Coventry and its vicinity”, Aldridge promised to end Melmoth’s reliance on visiting “stars” – the policy which had brought Aldridge himself to the West Midlands. Instead, he had already begun to build a new “settled company”.

To achieve stability, Aldridge drew on three theatrical families: local favourites the three Penley sisters, TP Cooke’s wife and children from Cheltenham, and ‘the inseparables’ – the well-connected Rede brothers – who served Aldridge as actor and stage manager, as well as a source of new plays from London.

Aldridge didn’t ignore front of house. He promised to tighten efficiency, with performances starting and ending on time, and he undertook to improve the boxes and conduct repairs “as far as time will permit”.

Standards quickly improved. “We observed a greater regard paid to properties, scenery and stage business than we have been used to,” the Coventry Observer reported. “With the new company several pieces have been produced in a very creditable manner.”

However, the theatre’s owner, Sir Skears Rew, died on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, and soon afterwards the Coventry Mercury reported that the “late manager of our theatre” was on tour in Worcester.

These facts are clear. What lay behind them – how and why a 20-year-old black performer became manager of the theatre in a West Midlands town, even for what he announced as “a short season” – is open to discussion.

Tony Howard
Professor of English, University of Warwick

Shaw Theatre archive project

The Shaw Theatre in King’s Cross, London, is creating an archive of its past shows, from the theatre’s opening in 1971 to the present day.

Our aim is to collect stories and memories to publish on our website, along with an accurate list of productions. We are also asking for donations of posters, tickets, leaflets or other items to display in our foyer area to showcase the theatre’s history and give provenance to some of the stories we have heard about the venue but cannot prove.

Did you see the theatre’s opening production Zigger Zagger? Or maybe you saw one of the many National Youth Theatre productions. Did you perform your graduate showcase here? Perhaps you saw Elton John, George Michael, Dionne Warwick, Kerry Ellis, Eartha Kitt, Boy George, Van Morrison or Ron Moody at one of our many concerts.

Did you take the photo of Queen rehearsing there before their 1985 Live Aid appearance? Were you in the audience in 1992 for Eddie Izzard’s two-week run before he moved to the Ambassadors Theatre? Or maybe you saw the one and only performance of Oscar Wilde the Musical in 2004.

If any of these ring a bell or you have other stories connected to the Shaw, we want to hear from you.

Ellen Frost
Theatre manager, Shaw Theatre
100-110 Euston Road London NW1 2AJ
info@shaw-theatre.com

King’s Head tribute

I read with interest and delight about the plans for the King’s Head Theatre’s new London home.

Perhaps it could be named after Dan Crawford, who founded the original pub theatre, which grew into the magnificent fringe venue we know today.

It would complement the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, which honours another American artistic visionary.

T Patmore
London

Quotes of the week

Selina Thompson
Selina Thompson

“There are a lot of artists of colour now, compared to years before. Many other artists of colour that I speak to do not think this. I am inclined to think that they are right. It is important to resist the idea of the tipping point, the idea that diversity has been done and now we can stop working. In 3,500 shows, less than 100 shows from artists of colour is not good enough. It is crushingly lonely.”
Writer and performer Selina Thompson (Exeunt)

“I’m starting to suspect Trump is trying to have the worst presidency ever. It’s like The Producers, but with, somehow, even more Nazis.”
TakeThatDarwin (Twitter)

“The most depressing thing is young actors losing their accent, getting skinny and becoming like every other cunt in Spotlight.”
Playwright Luke Barnes (Twitter)

“I know what critics will say when Young Frankenstein opens in London. They’ll say, ‘Well, it’s good. But it’s not as great as The Producers was…’ In my career, I always get a good review, one review later. With the film of The Producers, right at the start, a few critics got it but I was mainly damned. Then I did The Twelve Chairs, which was a good little movie. A lot of them said: ‘What happened to the genius who gave us The Producers? Why is he so sad?’ Then I did Blazing Saddles and they said: ‘This is bad taste insanity. What happened to the Mel Brooks who gave us The Twelve Chairs?’”
Writer and comedian Mel Brooks (Telegraph)

“I thought I was going to be a lot happier just being a mother, but of course I didn’t give up a job, I didn’t just go from being in an office; I gave up my life, I gave up my calling, I gave up a passion, I gave up creativity. I suddenly felt that a greater part of me was locked into a room.”
Dancer Alessandra Ferri on giving up dancing for motherhood (Telegraph

)

“I want to be entertained, but I want ideas coming at me that I can think about and wrestle with. There are things theatre does that you can’t do in a newspaper article. A journalist’s sacred rule is to find the truth, tell you the facts – and that’s not our job. Our job is to ask more complicated questions, not to tell you the answer.”
Playwright JT Rogers (Sunday Times)

“It’s very frightening, writing. It’s like someone nagging you all the time. I thought, this is getting silly, I’ve got lots of ideas, I’ve got to write some of these.”
Monica Dolan on writing her first play (Fest Magazine)

What you said on Facebook...

About The Green Room discussion on whether theatre is too middle-class…

It depends on what is put on. In Sheffield there is a great mix – Sheffield People’s Theatre involves the general public in productions, attracting people of all classes. The more the industry goes on about theatre being a middle-class thing, the more it will be.
Victoria Sigsworth

I come from a traditional working-class background, go to the theatre three or four times a month and work in the industry. The price of tickets isn’t the only deterrent. I’ve not seen a play in recent years, especially in London, that I can relate to. Theatre needs to be accessible to people of all backgrounds.
Amy Louise Fincham

I’m working class and go to the theatre. My money is as good as anyone else’s.
Loolie Bennett

About how school reforms are affecting the way drama is taught…

It’s time drama schools stopped offering three-year degree courses. My acting degree was pointless, but it was the only course for which I could get financial help. I didn’t enjoy it and feel like I wasted three years of my life.
Susannah Cannon

About the decline of performing and expressive arts A levels…

My daughter wanted to study performing arts in year 12, but her school needed 18 students for the course to be viable and she had to study elsewhere. I was disappointed that the school did not encourage more to take it up.
Sarah Spillett

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