Competition: Desperate to get back to theatre? Win a £50 ATG Voucher and take your pick of shows


TRSE - An Interview with Artistic Director Kerry Michael

Image credit: Jamie Lumley

We spoke to Kerry Michael, Artistic Director at The Theatre Royal Stratford East, about their upcoming pantomime Sinbad the Sailor and the importance of diversity and community in the arts.

At the heart of the London Borough of Newham is Theatre Royal Stratford East, not just a theatre but a cultural hub for the local community. It’s a busy time for the TRSE, they have just announced a new season full of provocative and diverse theatre and their annual pantomime Sinbad The Sailor opens next Monday. We caught up with Artistic Director Kerry Michael to talk about the pantomime and the theatre’s dedication to encouraging diversity and community engagement within the arts.

London Calling: You’ve directed a few pantomimes at the TRSE now. How has it been this time around?  
Kerry Michael: Well we spent the whole year developing the show because we take the process so seriously. By January and February we were talking about the story for Sinbad, designing the staging between February and April and composing the music. We’ve spent the whole year planning it because we love it so much!
LC: Are they fun to do?
KM: Yeah, it’s all about casting a wonderful bunch of actors and singers who are also very funny. We really had to stop ourselves from laughing too much in rehearsals. We get them to sing their wonderful songs, and they all have great voices. It’s an original story with original music and has the central element of a young person growing up in the story and navigating the good and bad elements of life. It was really important that Sinbad has some real drama and challenges within the story so that they (the audience) can learn. I think we underestimate how sophisticated young audiences are, they understand high drama and danger. It’s so important that we included that within the show.
LC: What is a typical day like for you as an Artistic Director?
KM: I think the most typical thing about my day is that you never do the same day twice. What’s really exciting is you go from the very detailed thing to the big epic thing, like spending one moment looking at script work or marketing then the next in a meeting about the next 5-10 year strategy. What’s so exciting is that you have a building full of talented people with very different disciplines. The best composers, engineers, finance people, they are all experts in their own right. We use these different skills to come together to make the theatre work. It’s the best job in the world, we start at 9 in the morning and we’re sometimes here till 11 at night for the performance, but it doesn’t feel like work because everyone is here, working hard and having lots of fun.
LC: How do you encourage people in the local community to get involved with the arts?
KM: I think we have a civic responsibility to be a beacon within East London, a place where different kinds of people can come. You can sit by a stranger and have a great time, and I think we need that more and more now in a very changing world. To find excuses to gather and have lots of things happening within one space and enjoy art. It puts a mirror up to the world and explores possibilities, opinions and differences within a safe place. We’ve just announced a season that is very vibrant and diverse, there’s some great fun shows coming along. We try and make the experience as welcoming as possible. 
LC: You’ve been an advocate for diversity and more roles for BAME in the arts. What do you think needs to be done to foster more diversity within the arts?
KM: I think the biggest challenge is the fact that there are fewer opportunities for young children. It’s those early experiences where they go ‘oh wow I never knew this existed, this is what I want to be’ that are important and we need to make sure that schools and colleges get young people into theatres as much as possible, to show them that the world of arts and culture exists. We also need to be really honest about how expensive the theatre is, unless you have a lot of money you don’t want to take the risk.
The biggest challenge is around cultural diversity and the lack of representation on our stages, and it’s a class thing too. Working class people are finding it harder and harder to fund themselves when entering the theatre, and we need to work to stop those barriers appearing. We in the arts have to be really honest with ourselves and make sure we’re not just working in a bubble. We need to engage with people who previously didn’t want to take the risk of engaging with the arts. There are a lot of people out there who we’ve ignored, and we need to step out of our comfort zones to engage with them on their terms.
LC: How have you been trying to encourage more diversity at Stratford East?
KM: Fundamentally it’s about the stories we put on stage. With the season we’ve just announced, there are stories on stage about celebrating difference. For instance we have Bubbly Black Girl, which will be an Off-Broadway musical about difference and how that difference isn’t scary but actually quite exciting. We also have a transgender company called Summer in London performing. Everything in the season looks at something you might not have seen before.
LC: Currently we live in very uncertain and divisive political times. Do you think this will be reflected in art, particularly theatre, over the next few years?
KM: Change can be a really good excuse to bring people together, and art can be at the heart of change. We can play a really important part in helping to understand our neighbour. I’m full of hope because what we do in the arts can make a difference. It’s a strong mechanism and weapon to bring people together, but we have to work even harder to pump the world full of possibility. I have to keep positive otherwise I would just end up giving up completely!
LC: Can you tell us a theatre production that you think everyone should see?  
KM: Wow, good question! I think everyone should come and see a good pantomime at Theatre Royal. The thing about our pantomimes is that we stage shows which are full of adults, because it’s such a good few hours of entertainment. So yeah, everyone should do that.

Sinbad The Sailor runs from 28 November – 21 January 2017. Tickets range from £15 to £25.50, for more information visit the website.