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Brief Encounter With ... Thom Southerland

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Thom Southerland is the director of State Fair, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical currently running at the Finborough. Having completed a postgraduate degree at Rose Bruford College in 2005, Southerland has spent the last four years directing small-scale productions of major musicals, including stints as resident director at the Union Theatre and the Broadway Theatre Catford.

This production is the European premiere of State Fair, which was written as a movie musical in 1945 and only adapted for the stage in the 1990s. Here the 25-year-old director tells WOS what made him want to bring State Fair to the London Fringe and why Rodgers & Hammerstein continue to delight.

The film of State Fair has been around since the 1940s. Why do think it has taken this long to reach the stage in this country?

I think probably because it’s one of the least known of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s work and really wasn’t that much of a big hit originally – I mean the film – over here.

So what attracted you to the show?

It’s a beautiful story. The benefit to doing something on the Fringe is that you don’t have to guarantee an audience. I can hope that 50 people might turn up to see this. But I can air a beautiful story and also a wonderful score that I don’t think is really recognized very much in this country.

Why is it that inspires you about this kind of work?

I really want to show people that these shows do have worth, that they’re not just big spectacles with nothing beneath them. The story is what is key and although people can criticize them when they go into the West End or on Broadway for having too much glitz and glamour and not enough story, I think it’s only because you can’t see the story through all that.

How have you approached it?

In terms of the script I’ve changed very little of what they put on stage in 1996. I think it does stay quite loyal to the film but cuts out all the dated references and changes the pace quite dramatically. It’s about finding the real, true heart of the story in a language that might not be the one that we use today.

What are the advantages of doing this type of show on the Fringe?

The story is what’s key in taking stuff down onto a small scale. It’s about finding the heart of that piece.

I’ve heard rumours that a transfer is on the cards for State Fair. Can you confirm or deny them?

We’ve had two meetings with theatres in town about the possibility of moving the show to them. In this economic climate you’re looking for a musical that will – not necessarily a musical, but a show – that is full of nostalgia and also that’s something new and will satisfy another market as well. With only 14 peole in the cast and only three musicians is actually quite an affordable show to put on. But it would have to be somewhere with the same kind of intimacy that the Finborough would bring. I don’t think there would be any merit at all in a larger house.

What’s next for you?

After State Fair I go and work at the Broadway Studio Catford again to do the first revival of The Full Monty. Again, it’ll be on a small scale, looking at the book and the music and scaling it all down to a small venture.


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