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

Nica Burns (Pennsylvania)

When the 66e The Evening Standard Theater Awards in association with Garrard took place earlier this month after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, newspaper owner Lord Lebedev presented two special awards.

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

Covid has forced a disparate and diffuse industry – a mix of commercial, state-subsidized and fringe organisations, mostly made up of freelancers working in financially draining buildings – to come together. “When we went into lockdown we were a pretty fantastically unconnected industry,” National Theater artistic director Rufus Norris said during our conversation in November 2020, on the brink of a promised but ultimately short-lived reopening. for the sector.

He cited commercial producer Sonia Friedman and Julian Bird, chief executive of industry body the Society of London Theatre, as the driving forces that pressed the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to back him. . Friedman lobbied for the industry in the media and behind the scenes, helped shape DCMS policy, and crafted new models of production under lockdown, first on screen and then through staged West End of The Comeback (by comedy duo The Pin) and the 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 production domestic, although every show he planned seemed to run into further tightening of restrictions. Sir Sam Mendes has set up the Theater Artists Fund with support from Netflix, which has raised £7.8million and paid grants to 8,294 struggling freelancers in the industry. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Olivia Colman created the Theater Community Fund, receiving donations from other stars who wanted to put something back into the industry that had nurtured them.

There are countless other names, famous or unrecognized, who have stood up or dug deep for theatre, who have done work in impossible conditions, who have kept our empty performance halls safe and made sure that the sector can come back in force.

A tenacious and impressive figure at this time was Dame Vanessa Redgrave. Then 83 and suffering from severely reduced lung capacity, the great actress launched a series of speeches across the country in late 2020 with a passionate defense of the arts at the National Theatre.

“We continue, continue to act, continue to try to be useful. That’s our role,” she told me at the time. Once the lockdown ended, Redgrave was among the first to return to the stage, playing Henry Higgins’ mother in My Fair Lady at the Colosseum earlier this year, 65 years after her professional debut in 1957. She was eventually named Dame en October and received the first of this year’s two Evening Standard special 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 thrilled to be in My Fair Lady, but every job is important to me,” she says. She is always ready to work and always on the campaign trail. “We have just suffered a terrible series of cuts,” she says, referring to the recent and brutal changes in funding for theater and opera by Arts Council England. “The theater is in a terrible state. This is where Evening Standard’s support can make a difference.

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

Nimax have been the first band to reopen in every stage of the pandemic, often operating at a loss, with Burns bringing a host of new producers and performers to the West End with its Rising Stars festival in 2021.

We spoke to each other regularly during these difficult times and she was a vital and positive force for the industry. Meanwhile, she was also quietly overseeing the construction of the first purpose-built theater in the West End for 50 years, the 600-seat @sohoplace theater in Tottenham Court Road, which opened last month and is currently home to Josie Rourke’s new production, As You Like It, starring 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 delighted and absolutely deeply honored to receive an Evening Standard Award,” said Burns, 68. during the pandemic and get back to as normal a life as possible. Lockdowns cost Nimax millions in lost revenue like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but also in upkeep of its venerable buildings. Did she ever despair? “No, not for a second,” she said. “I always believed that theater would come back.”

The Rising Stars festival was an artistic and financial risk: Instead of charging rent for theaters, Burns negotiated 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,” she says, “and it sold a lot more tickets than I expected.” Many of these new producers have now reached a new level. Nimax has retained all of its long-term permanent staff thanks to Covid, although Burns mourns the loss of many freelancers and specialist businesses in the industry: “We have lost so many trained and brilliant people.”

If keeping its lights on was a small leap of faith in the industry, building a new theater in partnership with Derwent PLC was a bigger one. “The construction was extremely complicated technically because we are above three metro lines and there were huge problems getting goods into the country,” she says. “The government owns the freehold, but I have a 125-year lease, which I think should get me out.” The new building’s interior color scheme and its wraparound auditorium are inspired by a twilight visit Burns made to the great amphitheater of Epidaurus 30 years ago, when she was performing.

@sohoplace theater (@sohoplace)

@sohoplace theater (@sohoplace)

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

She adds that “you can definitely blame me for the name” before justifying it. Soho is synonymous the world over with entertainment, sex appeal and fun, and the square mile district again has a theater on every corner (the others being the Piccadilly, the Palace and the Palladium: @sohoplace supplants the Astoria concert hall, which was nearby but was demolished for Crossrail).

Rather than opening onto the crowded Charing Cross Road, the entrance and bar overlook a pedestrian plaza (also known as Soho Place) leading to Soho Square. She hopes it will be a meeting place and a gateway for “the 25,000 people who leave Tottenham Court Road station every half hour or so”. Everyone uses their phone to book tickets today, hence the “@” prefix.

More importantly, @sohoplace fills in the missing piece of the theater puzzle; big enough to justify the expense of a large cast, intimate and flexible enough to support transfers from smaller venues. “We spoke to a lot of creatives about what they thought would be a West End addition,” says Burns. “It’s not here to directly compete with any other site. And I’m not going to consider it successful and ready for years. It’s going to evolve.”

Is this also the last piece of his theatrical empire, I ask? “Do you mean: am I finished? ” she says. “The answer is no.”

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

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