Kerry Michael: 'I can't think about life after Stratford East just yet'

The artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East talks about ”Tommy” and his plans for leaving the theatre in December

Kerry Michael
Kerry Michael
© Helen Murray

Kerry Michael has been artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East for the last 12 years and in that time has established the venue as one of the most important in London for championing new voices. He has presided over productions including The Battle of Green Lanes and The Great Extension by Cosh Omar about home grown extremism, Tankia Gupta's Love N Stuff and musicals including Takeaway and The Harder They Come. He has been responsible for many of the theatre's raucous yearly pantomimes and TRSE is now widely regarded as one of the best places to see panto in London. His latest project is a production of The Who's Tommy staged as part of the Ramps on the Moon initiative which works with disabled and non-disabled talent. Earlier this year he announced he would step down from the running of the theatre in December 2017. Here he talks about Tommy and his plans for the future.

What made you think that Tommy was a perfect show to do in conjunction with Ramps on the Moon?
Doing it with this company in this context meant we were able to reclaim a lot of the narrative around Tommy and make it work inside a political arena that’s relevant today. So we took the fable about this deaf, dumb and blind kid and turned it on its head. We were able to look at how the period in which Pete Townshend originally wrote the piece was very different compared to now and how much our perception of disability has changed. But it’s also just a bloody good musical with some great songs and a big cast.

Were you a fan of the musical?
Yes, I remember seeing Paul Keating play Tommy in the West End with Kim Wilde. It’s an iconic musical that works for generations. I ended up having lunch with Pete Townshend and he was so generous and supportive. He allowed us to look at it with fresh eyes and see how the story can make more sense for a contemporary audience. It changed when the original show came to the West End, then Ken Russell’s film was very different, then they changed it on Broadway, so we were able to look at all those different versions of the piece and put them in our show. Everything is still Pete Townshend’s but it has been about where you want to put the close up within that. And we changed the Acid Queen part quite a bit.

The cast of The Who's Tommy
The cast of The Who's Tommy
© Mike Kwasniak

Peter Straker plays the Acid Queen?

I am friends with Peter and I just thought it would be great having him play the Acid Queen. He was in the original West End cast, but as the narrator. I had him playing the Acid Queen in the back of my head the whole time. It was really a cameo part, but I wanted to give that character a new song for the end, and so now she appears in act two as well as act one and has more of a journey as a character in her own right.

Was it very exciting working with Pete Townshend?
He is a great big world famous rock star, but he’s also a storyteller. His music is all about stories, so he understands other people who want to tell them too. He originally wrote a very long poem which was the inspiration for the album and show and he gave us that to read as a starting point. He’s just like the rest of us, but he happens to be very, very successful. He’s probably a theatre maker too, deep down.

How vital is it that an organisation like Ramps on the Moon exists?
It’s been so exciting that the Arts Council have been able to underpin the whole process with resources. It’s allowed us to push forward on making everything completely inclusive. That’s from the cast, to the creative team, to the technicians. People’s physical impairments haven’t stopped them from working on the show. In the rehearsal room it’s so interesting because there is a whole other layer of language to work with. You have communication with BSL, audio description, captioning. It made for a really rewarding process.

You’re leaving Stratford East very soon. How are you feeling?
I am about a year in to a year and a half long leaving process. The reason I’m going is because, ironically, it’s the best job in the world. I love it, things are going really well, but I’ve been here for 12 years. One of the things I’m really proud of at Stratford East is how we’ve made sure we have refreshed the theatre scene as much as possible. We’ve given the opportunity to people who might be overlooked by the mainstream and enabled a new generation to come through. I can’t keep doing that and writing about it and then hog the best job in British theatre. So my head is leading my heart.

What’s been the hardest thing to learn, over the last 12 years?
Nothing in the job has been particularly difficult to do – the biggest challenge is that there’s been so much of it. You never get the same day twice. Working out where you put your energy has been one of the exciting things to learn. At Stratford we also get inundated – in a really lovely way – by people who want to work with us and people who we should be working with. Our ambition is huge but our resources aren’t. So working out how we can support as many people as possible has been quite hard to do.

Peter Straker as the Acid Queen in Tommy
Peter Straker as the Acid Queen in Tommy
© Mike Kwasniak

What are you most proud of?
The number of people we’ve worked with and the different kinds of people and how many new writers we’ve pioneered and how many new directors we’ve worked with. We’ve championed them and given them a platform so they can go into the mainstream. I’m really proud of that.

You didn’t have any formal training, do you think that helped you?
It was the right thing for me and it was the right thing for Stratford East. I left school at 18 with two bad A-levels and I’m dyslexic and English is my second language. So I felt quite an outsider going into British theatre. But that has driven me to milk the assets of Stratford East and to share them with as many people who also might feel like that. But I’m not sure you could get through now in the same way I could.

Will you miss the panto? Or will you be back to do it?
I will miss it, but I won’t miss spending the summer months in a room having to design a Christmas show. I love trying to be more and more subvertive, and I will miss that. But I won’t be coming back every year, it wouldn’t be fair on the new artistic director. The wonderful thing when I took over was that the previous artistic director Philip Hedley was very sensitive and generous about not being a backseat driver and letting me make my own mistakes.

What’s next?
I haven’t done that list yet. Every time I think about what’s next I feel like I’m having a secret affair. I feel really guilty. The next milestone is Tommy in Stratford and seeing how well that will go. We would love Tommy to have an afterlife as well. Then the announcement of the next artistic director will be soon-ish and once those things happen, I will say: Kerry, now you’ve got things sorted let’s think about what happens next.

Tommy runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 17 June and then tours.