66th Evening Standard Theater Awards Special Award winners Vanessa Redgrave and Nica Burns talk about the future of theater

Nica Burns (PA)

When the 66th The Evening Standard Theater Awards in association with Garrard took place earlier this month after a two-year pandemic break, the paper’s owner, Lord Lebedev, presenting two special awards.

As in previous years, these have been chosen to pay tribute to those who have made – and continue to make – an outstanding contribution to British theatre. But this year they also recognized people who fought for this art form and kept its spirit alive during the pandemic.

Covid has forced a disparate and widespread industry – a mix of commercial, state-subsidised, and fringe organizations mostly made up of freelancers working in financially draining buildings – to come together. “When we went into lockdown, we were a pretty fantastically unified industry,” National Theater artistic director Rufus Norris said when we spoke in November 2020, on the verge of a promised but ultimately short-lived reopening for the industry. .

He cited commercial producer Sonia Friedman and Julian Bird, chief executive of industry body Society of London Theatre, as the driving forces soliciting support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Friedman lobbied for the industry in the media and behind the scenes, helped shape DCMS policy and devised new production models under lockdown, initially on screen and then through the West End stagings of The Comeback (by comedy duo The Pin) and Re:Emerge season of three new plays by emerging playwrights.

Dame Vanessa Redgrave at the 66th Evening Standard Theater Awards (Lucy Young)

Dame Vanessa Redgrave at the 66th Evening Standard Theater Awards (Lucy Young)

Norris himself kept the domestic production going, even as every show he planned seemed to run into a new tightening of restrictions. Sir Sam Mendes set up the Theater Artists Fund with the support of Netflix, which raised £7.8m and provided grants to 8,294 struggling freelancers in the industry. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Olivia Colman established the Theater Community Fund, receiving donations from other stars who wanted to give something back to the industry that nurtured them.

There are countless other names, famous and little-known, who have championed or dug deep for theatre, who have made working under impossible conditions, who have kept our empty playhouses safe and ensured that the industry could return to roar.

A tenacious and impressive figure in that period was Dame Vanessa Redgrave. Then, aged 83 and with severely reduced lung capacity, the great actress kicked off a series of talks around the country in late 2020 with an impassioned advocacy of the arts at the National Theatre.

“We keep moving forward, we keep acting, we keep trying to help. This is our role,” she told me then. Once lockdown was fully over, Redgrave was among the first to return to the stage, playing the mother of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady at the Coliseum earlier this year, 65 years after her professional debut in 1957. She is was finally made a Dame in October and received the first of this year’s two special Evening Standard Awards this month.

Nica Burns at the 66th Evening Standard Theater Awards (Dave Benett)

Nica Burns at the 66th Evening Standard Theater Awards (Dave Benett)

“I was excited to be on My Fair Lady, but every job is important to me,” she says. She is still ready for the job and continues to campaign. “We’ve just suffered a terrible round of cuts,” she says, referring to recent and brutal changes in Arts Council England funding for theater and opera. “The theater is in a terrible state. This is where the support of the Evening Standard can make a difference.”

The second special prize was awarded to Nica Burns, managing director of Nimax Theaters, owner of the Palace, Lyric, Apollo, Garrick, Vaudeville and Duchess theatres. A producer, theater owner, and former actress, Burns told me at the very beginning of the block that she kept the marquee lights on at her theaters as a symbol of hope.

Nimax have been the first act to reopen in every phase of the pandemic, often operating at a loss, with Burns bringing a host of new producers and artists to the West End with his Rising Stars festival in 2021.

We have spoken regularly during these challenging times and she has been a life force and positive to the industry. Meanwhile, he was also quietly overseeing the construction of the West End’s first purpose-built theater for 50 years, the 600-seat @sohoplace theater in the round at Tottenham Court Road, which opened last month and is currently home to the new production of Josie Rourke of As You Like It with Leah Harvey, Rose Ayling-Ellis, Alfred Enoch and Martha Plimpton.

Vanessa Redgrave and Amara Okereke in My Fair Lady (Marc Brenner)

Vanessa Redgrave and Amara Okereke in My Fair Lady (Marc Brenner)

“I am so thrilled and absolutely deeply honored to receive an Evening Standard Award,” says Burns, 68. through the pandemic and return to as normal a life as possible.” The lockdowns have cost Nimax millions in lost revenue from the likes of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but also in the upkeep of his venerable buildings. Have you ever been desperate? “No, not even for a second,” she says. “I always believed that the theater would come back.”

The Rising Stars festival was an artistic and financial risk: Instead of charging rent for the theaters, Burns brokered a box office split with the 19 new producers and kept ticket prices low. “The only thing I wanted was to not lose more money than to be closed,” he says, “and it sold a lot more tickets than we expected.” Many of these new producers have now taken it to the next level. Nimax has kept all of its permanent staff on a long-term basis during Covid, although Burns mourns the loss of many freelancers and specialist firms in the industry: “We have lost so many skilled and brilliant people”.

If keeping the lights on was a small gesture of faith in the industry, building a new theater in partnership with Derwent PLC was a bigger gesture. “The construction was enormously technically challenging because we’re at the top of three subway lines and there were huge problems getting goods into the country,” he says. “The government owns the property but I have a 125-year lease, which I think should see me off.” The color scheme of the new building’s interior and its enveloping auditorium are inspired by a twilight visit Burns paid to the great amphitheater at Epidaurus 30 years ago, at the time of his acting.

@sohoplace theater (@sohoplace)

@sohoplace theater (@sohoplace)

While @sohoplace’s name and its glassy exterior have received criticism (including from me), the auditorium is beautiful and completely insulated from train noise, and there’s a wonderful rooftop rehearsal room. “There are only 13 purpose-built full-round theaters in the UK, although there are some flexible spaces, but we are unique,” ​​says Burns. “It’s curved all the way around, which is a lot more expensive but it gives you what we call – the technical term – ‘the hug.’ Everyone feels more included and the audience feels as one the moment they sit down.”

He adds that “you can certainly blame me for the name” before justifying it. Soho is synonymous worldwide with entertainment, sensuality and fun, and the one square mile neighborhood now has a theater on every corner again (the others are Piccadilly, the Palace and the Palladium: @sohoplace supplants concert venue the Astoria , which used to be nearby but has been scrapped for Crossrail).

Instead of opening onto the busy Charing Cross Road, the entrance and bar overlook a pedestrian plaza (also called Soho Place) which leads into Soho Square. He hopes it will be a meeting place and gateway for “the 25,000 people who leave Tottenham Court Road station approximately every half hour”. Everyone uses their phones to book tickets today, hence the “@” prefix.

Best of all, @sohoplace fills in the missing piece to the theater puzzle; large enough to justify the expense of a large cast, intimate and flexible enough to accept transfers from smaller venues. “We spoke to a lot of creatives about what they felt would be an addition to the West End,” Burns says. “It’s not there to compete directly with any other venue. And I will still not consider it successful and ready for years. It will evolve.”

Is it also the latest piece of his theater empire, I ask? “You mean: I’m done?” she says. “The answer is no”.

As You Like It is at @sohoplace until January 28th; buy tickets here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *