AI PROFILE: Include me in

Lou Stein, artistic director, Chickenshed Theatre Company

 Nine-year-old Ethan isn’t the reason why Lou Stein agreed to become Chickenshed’s artistic director, but he has been what Stein calls his pilot, his guide into a world that, for all his experience in running theatres in this country, Stein didn’t know.

Ethan is Stein’s son and he has Down’s Syndrome. Until he saw the ad in The Guardian for an artistic director, Stein’s only connection with Chickenshed had been in dropping Ethan off for the weekly workshops at Chickenshed of which the boy is a devotee. “If you have a child with disability the notion of inclusion is with you 24 hours a day” he says. “Exclusion is common, inclusion is not”.

And inclusiveness is the essence of Chickenshed, the theatre company created 42 years ago by a teacher, Mary Ward – who had been struck by how much better children learn through drama and believed this could be applied to their lives in general – and the singer/composer Jo Collins to work with children and young people of all abilities and backgrounds to create inspirational theatre. It started in a disused chicken barn as a theatre “that celebrates diversity and inspires positive change”, with participants aged five to 21 invited to become members. There are now over 800, and many of the 60 strong- staff were members. Nineteen independent sister sheds have been set up in the UK and Russia.

In 1994, after an intense fundraising programme led by Lord and Lady Raine and the Princess of Wales as royal patron, Chickenshed opened its own purpose-built theatre at Southgate on land pledged by Enfield Council. The following year the company had its first national tour. 

Chickenshed raises almost all its £4m annual turnover thanks to a devoted cohort of wealthy supporters and the work of a staff of ten fundraisers and it has never had a sub- sidy, something Stein feels it is entitled to.

A native New Yorker and now in his 60s, Lou Stein arrived in the UK in 1978 with a journalism degree from Chicago and a master’s in theatre directing from Iowa, having had some formative months at the Moscow Arts Theatre, In 1979 he founded the Gate Theatre in a room above The Albert pub in Notting HiIl where he produced plays and adaptations (often by himself) of works by the likes of Flann O’Brien, George Orwell, Bulgakov and Mayakovsky.

He was there for six years before being head-hunted to succeed Michael Attenborough at the Watford Palace which he changed from an out-of- town local theatre to a successful rep company with 90% audiences and a string of West End transfers. He was there until 1995, working with performers like Helena Bonham-Carter, Ronnie Corbett and Helen Mirren, and developing the idea of encouraging big name actors to work with students to create new productions: the reason why more celebrities don’t work in small theatres with young actors, he says, is often because they aren’t asked. He also worked at extending the audience, realising that there was a substantial black and Asian population in and around Watford and finding plays to interest them.

But the good times at Watford were eaten away by grant cuts, so that average casts of 11 became three and his scope was significantly narrowed. He went into arts management, as CEO of the Arts Council’s East of England Arts Board, and a highlight of his three years there was to involve hundreds of local people and dozens of boats in a beach performance at Great Yarmouth of Hilary Westlake’s Out of the Blue as part of East Anglia’s year of opera and musical theatre.

Then he set up his own company, Lou Stein Associates, with collaborations to make new work, and to apply theatre skills to leadership training. The most recent production was his adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the Waterloo Vaults.

“You don’t do theatre in the Vaults if you have bronchitis, but those performances got an extra under-25 audience” he says. “We all talk about them in theatre, how do you get them, and there are a lot of different answers. But it’s where you do it, how the audience is represented; there’s a kind of movement against traditional theatre in the sense of a lot of the most successful work is happening outside of traditional theatres. I’ve always been interested in including people who don’t feel theatre is for them, to pass on how theatre can illuminate, entertain, change us.”

He is well aware that he is only the second artistic director of Chicken- shed after its founder Mary Ward and therefore takes on a fully-formed and cherished theatre community - “When you walk through the doors here, you feel like you’re coming into a family, a family with open arms” says Jo Collins in the company’s website video. In 2013 AI published a poem by Chickenshed’s gifted writer in residence, Paula Rees, who cannot speak because of cerebral palsy, in which she wrote about Chickenshed:

          Life is good when you are in it 

          Life if bad when you are not 

          Life is better for you

          Life would not be if not

         Life is good with you.

But Lou Stein has plans.

The first is to upscale the professionalism of the company, and to do that he plans to make associations with companies such as the Royal Court, the Almeida, the Donmar. Chickenshed has a unique quiddity – broadly it’s inclusiveness, a concept in theatre it more or less invented – but it also has a range of inventive product and its own theatre, and these qualities could mix with the professionalism of the West End playhouses which would also get access to an outer London venue.

He wants to add serious theatre to the rep, playwrights like Brecht and even Shakespeare’s contemporary Lope de Vega, which he believes could be given the Chickenshed treatment with spectacular success. One of Chickenshed’s problems has been attracting leading critics, and although drawing them isn’t Stein’s motive it’s hard to see how Fleet Street could ignore a Chickenshed appraisal of The Threepenny Opera. He wants to establish a proper touring organisation for which he will ask for Arts Council funding.

Chickenshed is fearless in tackling gritty subjects like knife crime and domestic abuse, often informed by the young performers’ own experiences, but Stein believes there are not enough new productions so he wants to set up a new work centre through which the company will commission new work, bringing in playwrights and using the new associations with major theatres. 

And he wants to work again with his wife, the opera composer Deirdre Grtibbin, and there have already been conversations about creating a children’s opera for Chickenshed. “It’s in our sightlines, but we will have to develop people who can sing that kind of music” Stein says. “They’re here, they just need to be coached and within a year there could be something we could try…” He wants to inject a new ambition into an company he acknowledges has already accomplished much more than it was entitled to expect, but he wants to raise its sights.

He also wants to see a broadening of scope for performers, already shown in black actors being cast in traditionally white parts and women in what had been supposed were men’s roles. Before he first brought Ethan to the workshops he had seen Mary Ward’s ingenious adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Puck is played by three actors, one of them with Down’s Syndrome, working in perfect harmony together. He congratulated Ward on it, who asked if he’d like to see Ethan as Puck one day. “I said I want to see Ethan playing Hamlet at the National Theatre, not be- cause he has Down’s but because he’s a fine actor.”

 

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