20 Questions With...Gemma Bodinetz
Date: 13 April 2004
Gemma Bodinetz - who took over as artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse Theatres in September 2003 - explains why she admires other directors, reveals her naïve side & her plans for the city's year as Capital of Culture in 2008.
After graduating from Trinity College Dublin in 1990, director Gemma Bodinetz got her first job was at the Royal Court Theatre where she assisted, amongst others, Max Stafford-Clark on Top Girls, Harold Pinter on New World Order and Lindsay Posner on Death and the Maiden, winning the Gerald Chapman Award and the John Fernald Scholarship. She left the Royal Court to assist Pinter on The Caretaker, returning to co-direct Hush with Stafford-Clark.
Between 1992 and 1994, Bodinetz was a staff director at the National Theatre, working with the likes of Richard Eyre (on Night of the Iguana) and Trevor Nunn (on Arcadia). Her productions since then have included, Caravan (Liverpool writer Helen Blakeman's first play and winner of the George Devine award) and A Buyer’s Market at the Bush Theatre; and, at Hampstead Theatre where she was previously an associate director, Paper Husband, Chimps, English Journeys, Snake, Death of Cool, Hand in Hand and After the Gods.
Bodinetz’s other credits include Yard Gal and Breath Boom at the Royal Court, Shopping and Fucking, Meat and Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic, and Corridors for English National Opera as well as productions of Luminosity, Closer to Heaven, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Four Nights in Knaresborough.
In 1998, Bodinetz premiered Jonathan Harvey's Guiding Star at the Everyman in Liverpool, before it transferred to the National. She’s now returned to Liverpool, where she took over in September 2003 as the artistic director of both the Everyman and Playhouse Theatres, working with the new executive director Deborah Aydon (See News, 16 Dec 2003).
The pair's inaugural season has already included high-profile revivals of John Osborne's The Entertainer, starring Corin Redgrave, and Calderon de la Barca's The Mayor of Zalamea, which Bodinetz herself directed. Amongst the upcoming highlights are the This month, the Everyman presents the UK premiere of American dramatist Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, which transfers to London’s Hampstead Theatre after its run this month in the Everyman, and Bodinetz’s production of August Wilson's modern African American classic Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Further ahead, plans are underway for the part the theatres will play in 2008 during Liverpool’s year-long reign as a European Capital of Culture (See News, 4 Jun 2003). Meanwhile, the Everyman and Playhouse have jointly been shortlisted as one of the UK’s top ten regional producing theatres in Whatsonstage.com’s current Big Debate poll.
Date & place of birth
Born 4 October 1966 in Barking, Essex.
Lives now in..
I live in Hoylake on the Wirral.
First big break
It was probably being an assistant at the Royal Court in London, and while I was there I won two awards that allowed me to stay on. But my first job there was assisting Max Stafford-Clark on Top Girls. Previous to that I had been working in a shoe shop so it was a real break.
I think getting this job! To be artistic director of two major regional theatres is definitely a highlight and my biggest challenge to date. I wanted the job because Liverpool felt like a city on the up, and I desperately wanted to run a building. As it happens I've got two! The real challenge is to make them major producing theatres on the scale of Manchester’s Royal Exchange and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. And, of course, ten days after Deborah (Aydon, executive director) and I were appointed in September, we had the extraordinary news that Liverpool had won the bid for European Capital of Culture for 2008, which just made everything seem possible and exciting. We're really proud of these theatres, and I think you'll see work here as good as anywhere in the country.
I've thought about this one and it's really difficult because everyone I’ve worked with deserves a mention, so we'll work on that assumption and I'll talk instead about people I'd like to work with who I haven't yet. I would love to direct Judi Dench. I know that's kind of obvious, but she’s so luminous, subtle and transcendent; she’s achieved greatness by taking her craft to another level and you can understand that. By all accounts, she's a very nice human being too - and company spirit is a very important part of theatre to me.
We’re dying to get home-grown Liverpool talent back here, as well as our favoured regulars, people like Sue Johnson, Ricky Tomlinson, Matthew Kelly and Neil Morrissey - they'll all tell you I'm chasing them. You see, it's the Everyman's 40th birthday in September so I'm calling all the Liverpool alumni - the list is incredible. Bill Nighy, for example. I've worked as an assistant on a play he's performed in, but he's somebody I'd really like to direct myself.
Which other directors do you most admire?
Again, the list is huge. In fact, I think this is such a difficult profession, I admire anyone who struggles on at it; it can be a frightening and lonely profession. And there are too few jobs for too many people. Max Stafford-Clark is a huge influence on me, he has such a skill and sensibility for new writing. The things he believed in in 1975 he still practises without being jaded or dusty. He still puts his plays on all over Britain, from vast theatres to working men's clubs, and has a hunger and a youthful passion and a wonderful desire to ask questions and challenge audiences. We're very excited about his production of The Permanent Way visiting us in May.
This is very hard because so much of my work has been with new writing. The list is endless. I worked for Harold Pinter for a time as his assistant and, beyond his obvious genius, he has an incredible integrity. He and Max are linked by that word. Jonathan Harvey makes me laugh, Debbie Tucker Green is a very exciting new talent. Also Tony Green, Katie Douglas and Lawrence Wilson here in Liverpool. And then I think the other people that are really touching are writers such as Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale and Bill Morrison - these are people who dedicated their lives to these theatres. Max's watchword was always loyalty. It’s inspiring and touching that, in a commercial cut-throat world, these people still live by that.
Prior to Liverpool, you’ve spent a lot of time at new writing theatres like Hampstead, the Royal Court & the Bush. What appeals to you about directing new plays?
I think it's the lifeblood of theatre; when you neglect new writing, you turn your back on the future. I haven't had many opportunities to direct classics so I'm enjoying that now, but there's nothing like presenting an audience with new work. Young voices and new plays can challenge the art form and address the issues we are struggling with. You reap what you sow, and if you aren't sowing the talent of tomorrow, you'll have a poor harvest. And, after all, in an ephemeral art form, the plays themselves are your legacy.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
It's an unfashionable thing to say, but I believe in culture for culture's sake. The culture of a city can do a huge amount for the self-respect and quality of life of people who live in that city. It reminds me of something Corin Redgrave said about the Birmingham Symphony and Simon Rattle. He said that there was a civic pride about what that orchestra brought to the city, even from people who had never seen them play. Sometimes the government ignores that and simply wants to see a concrete return on their money, forgetting what culture can do for the human spirit and morale. I'd encourage them to invest in vision as well as capital projects. As for the state of British theatre, it depends when you catch me. Generally, I'd say, given all the usual constraints, things are looking up. The RSC and the National seem to be on a creative roll, and there’s a great buzz in many of the regional theatres. Then I read that BAC (Battersea Arts Centre) is receiving less funding from Wandsworth borough, and Hampstead is struggling, and the world is a bleaker place again. Maybe we're forever destined to be walking on perilous tightropes.
If you hadn't become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?
Up until I discovered what a director was, at the age of 14, I was going to be a barrister. Friends will say that I can talk for England so I suspect it would have been something that used communications. I would quite like to go into politics if there was any way one could come out of it uncorrupted, but that's probably the naïve Gemma speaking.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
This is honestly the last thing I saw that I really enjoyed: The two one-act Noel Coward plays that were on here in Liverpool Playhouse until last Saturday (Still Life and The Astonished Heart). Besides being very good productions they are very moving in their recollection of a simultaneously more innocent and sophisticated time. Both concern marital infidelity and human beings trying to be decent and failing. I'm a great believer in decency, loyalty and grace, and some of those qualities are less valued now, I was hugely moved by that evocation of another time.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would like to be a member of our audience, a Liverpudlian member of our audience who's followed these theatres through their long and chequered history. I've only been in Liverpool for six months, and I'm trying so hard to understand. I'd love to have some real sense of where they've been and what they want from their theatres. Alternatively, I'd quite like to be Bobby Moore holding up the World Cup trophy.
I think Richard Eyre's diaries (National Service) at the moment, partly because I assisted him on Night of the Iguana when he was artistic director at the National and he was so sublime to work with. He was a beautiful swan, but under the surface his legs were paddling madly. I'm running my building here, and it's nice to know someone else gets stressed about how to make successful theatre. As a young girl growing up, one firm favourite was certainly Wuthering Heights. I loved the idea of running across the moors with the wind blowing through my hair - but that's naïve Gemma again!
Favourite holiday destinations
Right now, any beach anywhere with no mobile phone, no computer and time with my family and a fantastic stack of books.
There's a huge breadth of plays in your inaugural season, from an obscure Calderon to a modern classic (The Entertainer) & new commissions. How do you decide which plays to programme?
The maxim I have for these theatres is that anyone living in Merseyside should never have to go to another theatre to see the whole range of the theatrical canon. Our schedule should be simultaneously challenging and entertaining. I sometimes just go for just entertaining but never just challenging as no one likes to be bored at the theatre. I always read scripts with an idea of introducing people to something new. The Calderon (The Mayor of Zalamea), was potentially the most accessible and entertaining play in the season, although it's obscure. My message to Liverpool is: just because you haven't heard of it doesn't mean it's going to be abstruse. I also believe you shouldn't have to travel very far to see the best in British and (come 2008) European theatre. We are a resource that takes our audience in many directions if they will trust us. With new writing, we're nurturing up-and-coming writers, and they are really fighting for spaces in our theatres. There's so much great work coming through.
Why did you want to direct Ma Rainey's Black Bottom?
That play, to me, embodied the sort of thought-provoking and entertaining theatre I just mentioned. It's set in 1920s Chicago, where Ma Rainey was a very well-known blues jazz singer - Billie Holliday was one of her more famous peers - and this is about her band. It asks questions about these musicians who were at the top of their profession and yet were disenfranchised socially because they were black. Liverpool has a great love of music, but this is more challenging than a musical so, for me, it fulfilled the brief on both counts. It’s also relatively rarely performed although it's one of the great American plays by one of the great American writers (August Wilson). Theatre's job is to take us to a world we can't go to every day. It does that even better than film. Part of me wanted to go to 1920s Chicago's underworld in the time of prohibition and take my audience to that new exciting world too.
Liverpool has been chosen to be European Capital of Culture in 2008. What will that mean to the Everyman & Playhouse?
It means we've got a lot of work to do. By 2008, I want to be able to call any director or actor, however famous, and be assured that they’ll have heard of us and want to work for us. In some areas, we're under-resourced, but we're building our reputation with every show that passes. We've also got a lot of work to do in the community. Our legacy is to the city’s more deprived areas, and that work is ongoing. In the end, all the arts institutions in Liverpool need to come together over this to work out how best to serve the people here so it’s not just a big firework display in 2008 and then a big anti-climax in 2009.
Do you have any special plans for that year's season?
There is going to be a major community project and there will be invitations to the Liverpool alumni. We want to discover the next Peter Brook or Peter Stein and what's going to be really interesting is taking Liverpudlian actors and writers and marrying them with international work so it’s integrated. It wouldn't be a very healthy capital of culture if we ignored our natives but at same time we can't be seen to be parochial. We also want to get Liverpudlian writers to work on unusual projects. There's nothing specific as yet. We like to think we are at base camp at the moment - that's very much to do with our high expectations rather than a sense of the impossible though!
How do you view the state of regional theatre at the moment?
We're at a very exciting time. Everywhere I look there are go-getting artistic teams. Certainly, places like Bristol, Birmingham, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Chichester really seem to be challenging the misconception that regional theatre is dusty and rep-y and simply does rather sad revivals of classics. There's a sense round the country that regional theatre can be like the National, with brave programming and high production values. And that's very exciting because these places are raising the bar all the time, they’re constantly aware that audiences expect quality. For me, what Michael Grandage did at Sheffield was really impressive - he programmed what he wanted to see. That's from the heart and when you do that, you do work of high quality. As soon as you patronise your audience, the artistic value of that work begins to slide as well. I can't think of a regional theatre that isn't on the up.
What are your other plans for the future?
We plan to carry on as an employment resource and an artistic theatrical resource. Of course, Deborah and I are getting used to Liverpool and getting to know what our audience like - we often hang around the foyer after a show to get people's feedback. I always programme from the heart, but I do listen to our audience and encourage the people of Liverpool to keep us posted and also to open their minds and just try something new.
- Gemma Bodinetz was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Yellowman runs at the Liverpool Everyman from 16 April to 8 May 2004, before transferring to London’s Hampstead Theatre for four weeks from 25 May. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom runs at the Liverpool Playhouse from 28 May to 19 June 2004 at Liverpool Playhouse.
Click here to VOTE in our regional theatre Big Debate! Poll closes 26 April 2004.