Women’s Week: New Wolsey’s Sarah Holmes selected for Stage 100 list of influential producers
PUBLISHED: 12:32 19 January 2018 | UPDATED: 13:42 22 January 2018
In Women’s Week, the New Wolsey Theatre is celebrating the fact that chief executive Sarah Holmes has made The Stage 100 list of most influential theatre figures. Arts editor Andrew Clarke asks what the award means to her and the company
Theatre can be a very insular world. Historically, it rarely casts its gaze beyond London when looking for quality and innovation. The regions were often dismissed as places where yesterday’s West End hits went to live out their retirement.
Happily this is no longer true as Sarah Holmes, chief executive of the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, has, for the first time, landed a place in the highly coveted Stage 100 list which ranks the most influential people in British theatre.
Not only does the The Stage, the industry’s paper of record, cast its net beyond the M25, it also draws attention to the fact that in Women’s Week, there are 48 women listed in the Stage 100 rankings – including the top slot which was nabbed by Vicky Featherstone, of The Royal Court, who swiftly drew up a new code of practice which guards against future sexual abuse in the industry, following the allegations levelled against Kevin Spacey while he was working at The Old Vic.
West End producer Sonia Friedman is third of the list. Sarah Holmes is placed at number 47 with frequent collaborator Jenny Sealey, of Graeae theatre company, at 48.
The New Wolsey is the sixth placed regional venue on the list under Royal Exchange Manchester, Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre, Sheffield Theatres and Birmingham Hippodrome.
Stage editor Alistair Smith said: “The Stage 100 is the definitive list of theatre’s most influential people and partnerships. Each year, a crack team of leading industry figures is polled before senior editorial figures at The Stage consider business success, vision and ability to affect change for the better.
“Rankings are based on ongoing success, weighted towards achievements in the past 12 months. In terms of diversity, the list aims to reflect the way the theatre and performing arts industry is, not what it aims to be, nor what The Stage would like it to be.”
Sarah Holmes, who has been in charge at the New Wolsey since it re-opened in 2001, is surprised and delighted at the award and says that in her experience that theatre has been a rewarding place to work and generally treats women well.
Here’s our conversation:
In your experience, is the theatre a good place for women to make their mark?
SH: “Speaking personally, I don’t think I have ever been blocked because I am a woman. I think the reason I have got to where I am is a preparedness to work hard and take risks and not earn a fortune. I don’t think it has anything to do with gender. It’s more about having a certain amount of audacity and persistence.
“At the New Wolsey we have quite a good gender balance but we recognise that we have a less good balance in the creative teams when it comes to the writers, directors and actors we work with but that is something we are working on.
So when you are pulling together a season do you book blind just looking for the best work on offer or do you look to strike a balance between male and female writers/companies?
SH: “It’s got to be about the work, about the quality of the work on stage. I am not about filling quotas. I will never say: ‘Oh my God, we haven’t got enough women writers in this season, we have got to go out and find one,’ I will never sacrifice a quality production just to get a woman writer to fulfil a quota. It’s about looking out there early enough and checking your unconscious bias. You have to ask yourself, why are you choosing that production over another one? That’s interesting. You have to look at why there are more male playwrights, why is that and what can you do to correct that imbalance?
So, do you think theatre is any better or worse than other industry in the modern world?
SH: “No, I don’t think it is any worse but I think it’s hard for me to be an authority on it. If you look at Joan Littlewood in the 1960s, the woman who staged Oh, What a Lovely War, she was criticised for displaying male traits but I think that was just jealousy.
Is there a feeling that the world is changing, particularly now you and the New Wolsey have now made the Stage 100 list?
SH: “It’s not something that I particularly aspired to but The New Wolsey is the sixth highest placed regional theatre under Royal Exchange Manchester, Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre, Sheffield Theatres and Birmingham Hippodrome – all much larger venues.
Did they say what you did that impresed them?
SH: “I have to say the award came out of the blue. What they talked about was the Ramps on the Moon project, which is all about providing opportunity of the Deaf and disabled, not just on stage but backstage as well, and for audiences, and a lot about Tommy, our big tour last year. They also mentioned Ladykillers and our role in co-producing, so it was a broad sweep of our work here but a big focus on Ramps and Tommy.
“And I think that’s the thing that has driven it all the way along. It’s not doing good or being inclusive above all else but its giving a creative team a broad artistic palete and they will get excited and produce something wonderful.
For me the big buzz is seeing real quality work on that stage and real engagement.”
Does the award help put the New Wolsey on the national theatre map?
SH: “I think, it is now up to us to take charge of the story and explain why we have been included among the great and the good of British theatre. I suppose, if I am honest, I think that, in the past, we have been a little frustrated that we haven’t had national recognition because they has been amazing work going on here over many years.
“It helps that we are touring work that starts here in Ipswich and then goes out on the road – so we do have a national profile in that way but that is something we have always done. Our first ever production here Sweeney Todd went to York Theatre Royal and to the Colchester Mercury and Vincent in Brixton, which we did soon after that, went to Salisbury, so we have always looked to share our work and to develop relationships with other theatres.
“I don’t think we are doing more in terms of touring but we have been consistent in the work that we do. We have consistently developed the art form of actor-musicianship – it’s not unique but we are one of the leaders and we have led on the work for Ramps on the Moon because it has developed out of the work that Pete has done with Graeae with Reasons To Be Cheerful, which he and Jenny Sealey co-directed together and we recognised that it was time the mid-scale mainstream took a bit more responsibility for what they should be doing and being more inclusive and the way to do it is through production.
“We have put a lot more energy into that and have been working collaboratively with other venues and we have cast disabled actors in other shows because, absolutely, they were the right people for the role, not because they were playing a disabled person but because having a disability shouldn’t rule them out from playing a whole variety of roles.
“Ben Goffe, one of the actors who has featured in our Graeae productions, as well as Beauty and the Beast, is now working with the RSC. This demonstrates how brilliantly talented they are.”
You must be pleased that the New Wolsey and regional theatre is now finally being recognised for producing quality work in its own right?
SH: “I love the fact we got two UK Theatre Awards just before Christmas, one with Ramps for our work with diversity, and one for Tommy as the best touring show in the country last year. That’s phenomenal, the best touring show in the country started here in Suffolk on the stage of the New Wolsey. Reasons To Be Cheerful started its fully staged journey here in Ipswich as a co-production with Graeae and ended up playing a part in the Paralympics opening ceremony. And from that came Threepenny Opera with Graeae and we began to realise what exciting artistic possibilities there were to be had working with these talented folk.
The Ladykillers was huge. We are about giving the people of Ipswich and Suffolk the best mix of quality theatre we can and then, where possible, sending it out on tour and collaborating with other theatres to enable us to do quality shows and share some of that New Wolsey magic.”