After an early career in education and raising a family, director Carol Metcalfe returned to her first love of theatre, initially joining west London’s Questors’ Theatre, the biggest amateur company in Europe.
But it was the Bridewell Theatre which made her name – and she it’s. Metcalfe discovered the derelict Victorian swimming pool space off Fleet Street in the City and, along with partners Clive Paget and Tim Sawers, decided to turn it into what Whatsonstage.com contributing editor Mark Shenton describes as London’s leading new musical ‘laboratory’.
Indeed, since founding the Bridewell in 1994, Metcalfe has helped to establish the theatre as the capital's most important space for the development of new musicals, with a particular emphasis on premiering shows of up-and-coming American composers such as Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa as well as rediscovering the work of Stephen Sondheim and others (See Features, 23 Jul 2001).
Over the years, Metcalfe’s own Bridewell productions have included Damn Yankees, On the Twentieth Century, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and, Sondheim-wise, the world premiere of Saturday Night (co-directed with Paget) as well as Pacific Overtures, which launched the Bridewell, and the current revival of Passion, mounted to mark the theatre’s tenth anniversary.
The timing of the celebratory Passion production is also apt for the Bridewell’s future, which has been uncertain since last summer. Previously, the Bridewell had existed rent-free within the premises of the charitable St Bride Institute. But a change in the Institute’s lease means that the theatre must now pay full rent, as well as a service charge of £90,000 per annum (See News, 12 May 2003).
Thankfully, earlier this month - just weeks before the 31 March deadline for renewing the lease, and possible closure - the Bridewell secured its first-ever core public funding of £60,000 which, on top of £50,000 raised through private audience appeals, has enabled the theatre to sign a new two-year lease (See News, 9 Mar 2004).
In October 2003, as a result of the Bridewell’s cash crisis, a team from the theatre gave evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Parliamentary Select Committee, which is holding an Inquiry into the future development of musical theatre in the UK. Unlike other performing arts, musical theatre has traditionally received minimal public subsidy.
Date & place of birth
Born 21 October in Glasgow, Scotland. I’m not going to say the year, as I’m unfeasibly old, and people begin to think you’re going to fall off the planet, but I’ve got a lot of life in me yet!
Lives now in…
Borough in south London. I’ve lived there for nearly ten years, since six months after the Bridewell opened.
How did you become a theatre director?
I became a director because it was what I always wanted to do, but my father, who had some early involvement in theatre, would have nothing to do with it, so insisted I became a teacher instead, and I did exactly what he wanted. But when my children were growing up, I joined the Questors’ Theatre in Ealing, the biggest amateur theatre in Europe, and it was a fantastic experience. I would recommend it to any would-be director – you get all sorts of opportunities to do what you want to do and try out your ideas in a very supportive environment.
First big break
Walking through the door here and finding myself in a derelict Victorian swimming pool, when I had nothing on my mind about starting a theatre, but seeing that wonderful space and going, “Wow, you must make this a theatre!” I was looking for a venue to do a production of Much Ado About Nothing, which I was taking to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a theatre company I had by then started with Clive Paget and Tim Sawers. The company was called Breach of the Piece, and we also had this idea of doing a production of Pacific Overtures that they both subsequently appeared in. I wanted to do it in a long, thin space, to get a sense of distance that the show is about: the two cultures and countries that are so, so far apart. Someone had suggested the Bridewell Hall that’s upstairs, but it had a terrific echo and was quite unsuitable. And then the person showing me around mentioned this derelict swimming pool below the hall. I begged them to let me see it and I found this beautiful and amazing space.
Career highlights to date
I remember having this idea to do Damn Yankees, and a friend suggesting that I should ask Jill Martin if she was prepared to play Meg. I went to her with some embarrassment, reluctance and trepidation, but she was just so fantastic and supportive and un-starry, and just did it. Peter Gale also joined her, and we had not one but two alternating amateur choruses! It was a great breakthrough for us. I felt that a lot of the success I had was owed to them – that they came along and were prepared to understand what I was trying to do. So did Kathryn Evans, who came here to do On the Twentieth Century here. Obviously, Sondheim’s Saturday Night - a previously unproduced early show of his that we gave the world premiere production of – was a great highlight for the Bridewell, and it was fantastic that he let us do it.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
I always love the thing I’m currently doing, but at Questors I did Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera that I was hugely proud of it. Here at the Bridewell, I loved Michael Nyman’s opera, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and I loved working on The Ballad of Little Jo last summer. That was a completely new musical that I had been interested in for a long time, and I felt it was a great achievement to get it on. But then I also loved the new work project we did in the autumn, which included an eight-part a capella musical called Re: Love that we helped develop here. The whole fact that we managed to do something completely new like that I found really exciting.
Favourite musical writers
Adam Guettel. His Floyd Collins, which Clive Paget directed brilliantly when we did it here, is one of the best musicals ever. For me, it’s been one of the great highlights of what we’ve done. Obviously, I couldn’t possibly not mention Stephen Sondheim, who has been such an inspiration. I have quite a low boredom threshold, but I never tire of listening to Sondheim’s work. There’s always something new there and something that I haven’t quite appreciated before. I’m also a big fan of Michael John La Chiusa, whose Hello Again we did, and I’m also very interested in doing more work by Sarah Schlesinger and Mike Reid, who wrote The Ballad of Little Jo and have a wonderful theatrical sense. They have great storytelling qualities and they’re also very accessible.
What other directors do you most admire?
I do genuinely admire Nicholas Hytner very much and have done for many, many years. There’s a great clarity about the way he directs. Vicky Featherstone at Paines Plough is another director I admire. For someone focused on new writing, she manages the difficult balancing act of fostering the writing with an innate sense of what makes things work in the theatre. It’s not an accident that the new plays she directs are amongst the most successful new work around.
What’s the last stage production you saw that you really enjoyed?
Michael Frayn’s Democracy at the National. It was outstanding writing about a really interesting historical subject, and the clarity was such that you felt you understood the issues. It also had great performances. Jerry Springer - The Opera, of course, was a real breakthrough, too. I saw it early on at Battersea, and again at the National.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre? Why is musical theatre viewed differently in terms of public funding?
I do think that successive governments should be made to realise the importance of the arts in Great Britain, because they contribute so much to the British economy. I would say to any government that they should remember that art is one of our greatest exports and claims to fame. We don’t always win at rugby or football, but British theatre tends to win.
Musical theatre has been viewed differently because arts-funders have erroneously believed it is commercial and makes a lot of money and pays for itself. Of course, a lot of musical theatre does do that, but they are now realising - because a lot of us have been shouting about it for a long time - that no art form will go on being great if it’s not supported in development. It’s not always going to be instantly popular. Certainly, when we went to Select Committee in Parliament in October, that’s the message we tried to get across – that if you want to develop an art form, you need to commit funds and energy to it. Hopefully, we will start seeing a change in attitudes now.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
It would have to be George Bush, but a day wouldn’t be sufficient to try to turn back the clock from the time and place he has led the so-called free world into.
Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. Atwood is a woman of my generation, she writes brilliantly and insightfully about the whole business of female identity. Also Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is a life-changing book that simply puts the world into perspective.
Favourite holiday destination
Anywhere remote, by the sea and warm! Italy is one country I love.
If you hadn’t become involved in theatre, what would you have done
I was a teacher before this – but that wasn’t a choice! I think if I’d had a choice, I’d like to have been a political journalist – politics should never be ignored! You can’t afford to be apathetic about politics.
What inspired you to found the Bridewell Theatre?
The inspiration was an idea and ideal that I shared with Clive (Paget) and Tim (Sawers) that it would be interesting to see musical theatre as a facet of theatre, and do with it what people had been doing with drama for a long time, taking work that was originally presented in huge theatres but presenting it instead in smaller, rougher spaces. I wanted to see how a big musical behaved when you did the same thing. Doing Damn Yankees in a tiny space showed that it changes the focus and reveals different facets to the material. We were all fans of Sondheim, too, and he’s a composer who so richly repays being looked at in a myriad of ways – not necessarily just in an intimate space, but he does work particularly well in one because his lyrics are so central to what he’s doing and they become very immediate in a small space.
I was very lucky when we found the Bridewell, because Canon John Oates was chairman of the Governors of the Bridewell Institute that owned it, and was a great lover of the theatre, so he responded very positively to the idea of it being turned into a theatre. So that was how it was able to happen.
What unique function do you think the Bridewell fulfils?
The theatre’s unique function is very clear. Unsurprisingly, few small theatres produce musicals, especially new ones, because it is so difficult to make them work financially. We are unique in that we try to produce new musical theatre, and in ten years, we’ve presented nine or ten new musicals.
How do you persuade so many top actors to perform at the Bridewell?
I think it must say a lot about the unique features of the Bridewell and the work we’ve done that we don’t have to do a lot of persuading these days. People come to us and ask when we’re doing a new musical and, if they can afford to come here and work for sadly rather little money, they’re very keen to do it. There isn’t anywhere else that they get the opportunity to create a role in the UK premiere of a new piece of musical theatre, and they’re really excited to do it.
What’s been your most exciting discovery as part of the Bridewell’s new musical work?
Re: Love, was exciting because it was by a young composer and lyricist called Osnat Schmool, who’s also an actress, and she produced something that was totally, totally different. To date, I’ve not had enough encounters of that sort, but thanks to the new funding just gained from Arts Council for our Musical Theatre Development Project, in conjunction with NITRO and Mercury Musical Development, I’m really looking forward to discovering many, many more exciting writers. We also started a new writers and composers group at the end of last year, and they now meet regularly. It has been a very exciting experience, and they’ve started to form partnerships and work together. I’m looking forward to producing their work.
Why does the theatre have a special affinity with Sondheim?
I think it has a special affinity with Sondheim because he is the benchmark for modern musical theatre. If you’re thinking about musical theatre in a fresh and edgy and challenging way, you have to think about Sondheim. He represents all that we aspire to support and create.
Why did you choose Passion to celebrate the tenth anniversary?
To celebrate our tenth anniversary, I first planned to revive Pacific Overtures, which is the first musical we did at the Bridewell, but the Donmar beat me to it. But I also always wanted to do Passion, too, ever since I first saw it. It’s a very difficult show – you can find Fosca, the heroine, quite alienating. But in amidst that 19th-century Gothic horror of the situation, it’s the story of a person who falls passionately in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate her love. Many of us have had that experience, and it can be a devastating one but it can also be a life-enriching one. There’s a lot in what happens in the piece that people can empathise with.
What’s your favourite number from Passion?
I really find that impossible to say. I can never pick favourites! I could go on indefinitely about moments that come up in the show where, every night, I feel it in my stomach. There’s a chord, for example, right at the end of ‘Happiness’ that wrenches my guts every time.
What’s the funniest/oddest thing that happened during
rehearsals of Passion?
It’s not been funny or odd, but it has been so exciting, because I’ve had a cast whose dedication and enthusiasm for the piece has been 100%. It’s been one of the happiest rehearsal periods I’ve ever had. We’ve had a fantastic time, which is just as well – we only had seven working days to cast it, and three weeks to rehearse it!
What are you plans/challenges for the future of the Bridewell?
We’ve been able to sign a two-year lease, and that’s as much as we can say. We’re going to have to raise more money to keep us going through 2005, but we will be working like hell to make that happen. But a year or two is a long time in the theatre! I want to enjoy and use to the full the money we’ve got for development. I want to make sure that it goes as far as it can! And I really want to build the diversity of our audiences. Eventually, I also want to produce a homegrown new British musical, and give it a full-scale production.
- Carol Metcalfe was speaking to Mark Shenton
Passion continues at the Bridewell Theatre until 3 April 2004.