Artistic Director of the Jermyn Street Theatre, Tom Littler tackles the 10 questions challenge with some real gusto
Tom Littler became AD and EP of the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2017 but his relationship with the theatre goes back way further. And when I asked him to about his memories of Anyone Can Whistle which I noted as my favourite of his productions, this was his response:
“I’m slightly perturbed that you think I peaked in 2010…! That was a memorable time. I remember the three leads, Issy van Randwyck, David Ricardo-Pearce and Rosalie Craig, very clearly. David had a song called ‘Everybody Says Don’t’ – a hymn to anarchy and breaking the rules, but most of all to trying: ‘Tilt at the windmill, and if you fail, you fail.’ That often feels pretty relevant in art and life.”
Where were you 10 years ago?
I was opening a play at the Arcola called Origin of the Species by Bryony Lavery, with Clare-Hope Ashitey and Marjorie Yates. It’s about a prehistoric woman who comes to life. We buried Clare-Hope in sand and the audience had no idea she was there until Marjorie excavated her.
Best show you’ve seen in the last 10 years?
That’s impossible. Impossible. In fact the question disturbs me somehow. It’s just not how I think about theatre and I don’t think I can answer it. Theatre happens live – it’s a contract between you and what’s happening on the stage. You can’t rank it or compare the experiences. Sorry to be a spoilsport.
What has been your professional highlight of the last 10 years?
Becoming Artistic Director at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2017, and then turning it into a producing house where we make all our own work. Changing a producing model sounds dry and technical, but it was – and is – a huge challenge and adventure. We didn’t know what we were doing for the first year. I was constantly on the phone begging for advice and information. Being able to back the artists we care about; cross-fertilizing the established with the emerging; putting revivals and new writing side by side. We’ve just announced a whole year of work – ten shows for 2020. Every day is harder but more exciting than I can tell you.
As a director – the nine plays of Tonight at 8.30 were pretty special to do. My five collaborations with Howard Brenton have been a great privilege and a joy. Directing Cabaret in Germany. But right now I’m head over heels for All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare up-close with a crack cast and two pianos playing 70s folk-rock.
Top flavour of interval ice-cream?
White wine flavour. In a glass.
What show do you wish theatres would give a rest for a few years?
Does everyone say Hamlet? If we work in theatre, we might feel that Hamlet happens every five minutes, but most people watching it – especially outside London – are likely to be seeing it for the first time. When we stage classics, we’re introducing them to the audience as new plays. Throughout my twenties, I hardly ever directed well-known shows – it was always new plays or rediscoveries. More recently I’ve been able to introduce classics into the mix. Next year I’m directing The Tempest, She Stoops to Conquer and Three Sisters, so I’d be hypocritical to ban a well-known play.
Having said that, I wish the smaller West End playhouses were subsidised or structured in such a way that they could only accept short runs – say a maximum of six months, and only of plays and new musicals. Long-running shows in smaller houses make it very different for new work to thrive.
I’d lose no sleep if Neil LaBute’s work was never revived.
Name someone who you think is a really underappreciated talent (in the world of theatre)?
Oh god, well most talent is underappreciated – stage management, understudies, designers, technicians, administrators, marketing teams, 90% of actors and writers … I’m going to shout out to all the Exec Directors up and down the country. They do the unglamorous half of running theatres. They make everything happen. Ours is the indomitable Penny Horner, who founded Jermyn Street Theatre 25 years ago, and has run it ever since.
Elphaba or Glinda?
I saw Wicked in previews but unfortunately Elphaba’s broomstick did not defy gravity, and she remained firmly rooted to the stage. But in theory defying gravity sounds fun.
What is one thing that you think would help theatre survive and/or thrive the next ten years?
This statistic is so outrageous that it’s probably true: the theatres of Berlin receive as much state funding as the whole of UK theatre. We are scandalously under-funded. Every pound invested in British theatre generates four pounds in tax. It’s an economic no-brainer. But that isn’t the reason to fund culture. We should subsidise the arts – and, crucially, arts education – because experiencing art makes us better, more generous, more interesting, gentler, kinder, more enlightened humans. People’s lives are tough. Theatres, and what happens in them, are very important. At Jermyn Street Theatre we have no public funding and no hope of getting any. Many regional theatres are in crisis. It’s a daily struggle to stay afloat. So, funding. I’m not holding my breath.
Which is your favourite theatre?
There’s a little 70 seat studio next to Piccadilly Circus, and every time I walk down the stairs and into the auditorium it’s transformed. I seem to spend quite a lot of time there. Regionally, I have had some wonderful times working at Theatre by the Lake on the shore of Derwentwater in Cumbria.
Can you say anything about what’s to come for you, (in the next ten years or otherwise)?
You can never tell what’ll happen next. I’m thrilled to be making a living doing what I love. There are things I’d like to explore. I’d love to direct some opera; I’d love to do some Christmas shows (everyone thinks I only make shows ending in death, which is not quite true…); I’d love to direct more musicals on a large scale. At some point I’d love to run a regional theatre rooted in a local community. But running Jermyn Street Theatre is a joy, and the magic of that up-close studio experience is unique. It’s a privilege to work with actors of such quality in such a small room. Next up is The Tempest with Michael Pennington as Prospero.