Interview: Kerry Michael, artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East

Last month, Westfield Stratford City opened its doors to a deluge of eager customers. The gleaming £1.45 billion retail complex has transformed the skyline and created ripples in local commerce; and it will have an even greater impact as the main entrance to the Olympic park when the Games come to town next year. Bordered by four of London’s most ethnically diverse and deprived boroughs – Hackney, Newham, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets – the 2012 Games have been heralded by the government as the ‘regeneration Olympics’. While the actual long-term social benefits of the £9 billion project continue to be debated, it is undeniable that East London’s geographic, economic and cultural landscape is changing.

For Kerry Michael, the softly spoken but forthright artistic director of Newham-based Theatre Royal Stratford East – situated only a few minutes’ walk from Westfield – the 2012 Olympics have been an opportunity to imaginatively engage with local communities as never before. On behalf of, I met with Michael to talk about his sense of theatre’s social obligations, letting the audience decide what goes on stage, annoying critics and why tweeting during a show is a good thing.

What is Theatre Royal Stratford East’s artistic policy?

We aim to produce exciting work that provides a great night out for everybody. The ‘for everybody’ bit is what makes us special. It’s about putting on stage the aspirations and concerns of our audience and letting that energy feed back into what we do. It’s about democratising theatre. We’ve been called ‘the people’s theatre’, which I like. I think the biggest trap that Stratford East can fall into is not taking risks – we build our security on taking risks. So we stage plays by new playwrights, often directed by new directors. It’s about empowering a new generation of people, whose voices haven’t been heard.

Those are good intentions. But how does it work in practice?

The spirit of our work is stories that have come out of the community; there’s honesty to them. The population around Stratford East is hugely diverse and multicultural. And you can see that in the people who come to see our shows. There aren’t many theatres in London where you can see the same diversity in the audience as you do on the streets. I mean, a third of London isn’t white. When was the last time you went to a big venue or an institution and had that demographic either on stage or in the audience? We have that demographic here.

Is the multiculturalism of your approach rooted specifically in the area around the theatre? Or is it more general?

It’s more general. East London is a remarkable place of energy and vibrancy. There’s also a working-class sensibility. These things make what we’re doing obviously right for us. We don’t tell stories of diversity or the working classes because we’re told to – we do it because they’re what most inspire us. They’re full of risk and inherently exciting; they come from a place with voices that haven’t been heard before, full of passion, excitement, joy and anger. What we do isn’t polite and it’s not middle-class – those things are, I think, death to theatre.

Theatre Royal Stratford East’s reputation for working closely with local communities goes back to Joan Littlewood and her belief in theatre’s potential for social outreach. Were you conscious of her legacy when you became artistic director in 2004?

I’m a dyslexic Greek Cypriot who never went to drama school or university. There aren’t many theatres that would have given me the top job. So given that that I’m an outsider myself, it’s no surprise that I ended up here and not somewhere else. And the reason I’m here is that I love theatre, and the arts, and I want to get as many people as I can to feel the same passion that I do.

How many places could or would be able to offer you what you have found at Stratford East?

It’s not about the theatre; it’s about the communities. I’ve always said that the theatre’s success depends on the people who work in it and those who come to it. We’re in a beautiful Grade 2*-listed building, which is more than 100 years old, but we’re not precious about it – it’s here to be used. We’ve just turned it into traverse for the next two shows. What’s really important is that we’re in the most exciting part of London. If this city is the centre of the world, Stratford is at the centre of that. It’s a hub of huge change and energy. And I can’t think of anything better than creating work in this environment, for the audiences we have.

How do you ensure that Stratford East remains relevant in a part of London experiencing so much social change?

By constantly doing new work, by making sure that the last character we cast is the audience and by remembering that our young people are the blood that pumps through us. We’re always one step behind, because things move so fast, but we’ll never stop aspiring to keep up. An example is our Open Stage programme, where we’ve opened up the theatre to the audience for six months. We’ve done this for a number of reasons. First, the Cultural Olympiad is coming here and there’s been a lot of rhetoric about that. Open Stage is our way of trying to fulfil the promise made by other people to put culture at the heart of the Olympics and to let people have control over it. Second, I don’t want us to rest on our laurels – I want us to be a great theatre that’s as accessible to its audience as possible. And third, I want us to further imbed ourselves in the community. Hopefully, when the party leaves town in autumn 2012 and the hangovers have passed, we’ll have even better networks than before.

Basically, I want Open Stage to be the start of a bigger debate with our peers about what art is for and who we are here to serve. Who’s in control? We will only intervene in the process for three reasons: if it risks bankrupting us; if people want work that we believe will incite hatred; and most importantly, and interestingly, if there’s apathy. If what’s proposed isn’t going to change us, then we’ll try to shake things up.

Have you been surprised by the choice of shows so far?

No, not really. In some ways, it’s an endorsement of what we’ve been doing. Looking back on what we’ve done, it’s already clear to me that it’s not going to have been about six months of strange new work; it’s going to have been about a high level of engagement, different kinds of conversation and the capturing of people’s imagination. So I think that the process itself will turn out to be as exciting – if not more so – than the results.

You could never have predicted the resonance A Clockwork Orange would have in the aftermath of the riots. But do you think that its selection reflected concerns that were already in the community?

Actually, we did it because of the novel’s last chapter, which is about redemption. We wanted to present some difficult, challenging stereotypes and then move them on. It’s what we’ve always done. The piece before, Gladiator Games, was about Zahid Mubarek, who was put in a cell with a racist white bloke who killed him. Around that, we held a lot of discussions about how the criminal justice system isn’t working; about how you can come out of prison as a hardened gang member because you learned how to be a better criminal inside. For Mad Blud, we went out and spoke to people about knife crime, about why they used knives, and played it back to audiences on the main stage. Both pieces were part of a debate predominantly about how we deal with our young people, about how we process them through the system and don’t hear their voices. A Clockwork Orange was really good source material in that context – particularly the last chapter, which enabled us to explore a lot of questions.

Is it difficult to maintain a distinction between debating issues and preaching? Do you ever worry about ending a conversation before it has begun?

No, I don’t think so; because we don’t profess to know the answers. What we do is put stories on and let them speak for themselves. There’s never consensus and that’s how it should be, really. I think we’d be doing something wrong if everyone agreed. If everyone had seen A Clockwork Orange and approved of it, we’d have had real concerns. The fact that a certain demographic of the audience hates it while another loves it – and that you can see patterns there – well, that’s really interesting.

Is it ever a source of tension for you that the critics who review your shows tend to be white and middle-class?

Is it a tension? Well, you have to respect everyone’s decision. And if you’re going to take the praise you have to take the criticism. But I do think that we make work for a certain demographic and another demographic comes in to review it. I think that’s interesting. But we’re trying to expand the picture by doing bloggers’ previews. They can come in on the first preview and blog immediately. We have no embargoes.

The practice of bloggers reviewing previews has been met with resistance by some critics, hasn’t it?

Yes, so perhaps we’ve upset a few people by doing that. But it wasn’t intentional; it wasn’t about devaluing critics. It was about demystifying what we do and inviting people in to have a debate with us about our work. It aligns with what we’re doing with Open Stage.

Something else that has upset some critics and other journalists – although no one else seems to be that concerned at the moment – is our ‘Tweet Zone’. This is an area in the upper circle where people can tweet during a show. It’s not a huge area and sometimes nobody does it. But it’s about letting the audience know that they can express themselves in that way, if they want to. Have you ever watched people tweeting through The X-Factor? It helps them to solidify their opinions. We’re enabling them to do the same thing here.

As you say, people happily tweet through TV programmes. Do you think that we treat theatre with unnecessary sanctity in comparison?

I’d have that opinion. But I appreciate the views of others who talk about it as an art form, as something delicate, an expression of skill, that shouldn’t be disturbed. However – and I don’t want to sound old – I do think that the way that the younger generation multi-tasks with multimedia suggests a new phase is on its way. In ten years’ time having a tweet zone will be nothing new.

Has there been much pick up so far?

It’s been quite modest. There’s been more talk about it than people doing it, which may tell us something interesting in itself. But it’s a genuine attempt to find more ways of opening up the process and making it accessible to everyone. I think it’s appalling in 2011 that British theatre is so undemocratic and elitist. What I find particularly frustrating is the rhetoric of liberalism. We’re intelligent people who buy organic food and read the Guardian. But still we are perpetuating an industry that is un-diverse and white-male heavy. We need to take a reality check.

There has been considerable scepticism about how much the 2012 Olympics will benefit East London. What is your view?

It is accelerating the regeneration of East London. You could ask whether this regeneration is positive for society in general or for a specifically capitalist society, but I don’t think that there’s a clear answer. Last week, a million people went to the new Westfield Stratford London when it opened. Is that good or bad? Is shopping part of the cultural diet of our society? Should it be? A cynic would find it disgusting, but I think it’s more complicated than that. We have to look at what makes people feel proud. And why shouldn’t they feel proud of their area in that way? As part of the Olympics, the biggest green space in London for 150 years is going to be built here, with world-class facilities and a huge waterway. That’s positive, isn’t it? Is it costing too much money? I don’t know – particularly when you look at how much this government has had to spend to start bailing out the bankers.

Do you think the answer will be clearer once the Olympics are over?

No, because once they end the fence goes up and the Olympic Village is turned into social housing. The next phase of development will take 10-15 years, so there will never be a moment when we can say, ‘Here we are.’ And I think that’s the right way, because East London is constantly evolving.

What is Theatre Royal Stratford East doing in relation to the Olympics?

We’re part of a really interesting consortium called Stratford Rising, which consists of 19 Stratford-based institutions who are coming together as one united voice. This summer we collaborated on Shed Space, which was a wonderful community engagement programme with high art and mass participation. We have more ideas planned for 2012.

The theatre itself is involved in at least two Cultural Olympiad pieces. In En Route, audiences will wear headphones and be able to experience their city as they never have before. We’re developing that with producer Richard Jordan and an Australian company, One Step at a Time Like This. We’re also working with the Barbican to remount You Me Bum Bum Train, a live-installation piece from two years ago. It involves 300 volunteers and is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen or done in a theatre.

So, is collaborating not only with communities but other venues an important part of what you do?

We’ve always worked in partnership with other theatres and organisations. But 2012 has solidified this approach. For example, we’re also part of World Stages London, which is a group of London theatres that are coming together to produce international work in a way that they haven’t been able to previously. We’re working with Sadler’s Wells to put on a new Bollywood musical called Wah! Wah! Girls. It’s written by Tanika Gupta and we’re staging it in collaboration with Kneehigh Theatre. It’ll open in May next year. We’re also doing something called the Stratford East Singers, which is a massive, open-to-all choir. We’ve got a couple of gigs for them already.

Also in 2012, Theatre Royal Stratford East will be hosting the second Off West End Theatre ‘Offies’ Awards. Why did you agree to this?

Because I love Sofie Mason’s spirit and energy – she’s trying to do something, to make a difference. We’ve got stop thinking that big is best. Fringe theatre is an important part of our ecology and going up isn’t the only way; we should be looking left, right and down as well. The Offies recognise this and are helping to give independent theatre the status it deserves.