Life should be relaxing on a summer’s day in Regent’s Park, but for Timothy Sheader, Artistic Director of the Open Air Theatre and Director of new musical Gigi, it all seems a bit hectic, finds Matthew Amer.
Having already directed Romeo And Juliet in Regent’s Park this summer, Sheader opens his new show, a revival of the musical Gigi, on 14 August. When we speak – for I manage to sneak a 20 minute mobile phone conversation in Sheader’s snatched lunch break – he is rehearsing Gigi during the day before viewing auditions for his next project, upcoming West End musical Imagine This, in the evening. He is also already planning next year’s Open Air season and dealing with the day-to-day running of the theatre. His working life is, he says, “hard work, but wonderful”.
“How can you not enjoy coming into work and people singing to you and creating dance routines in front of you?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s really exciting. I just love doing musicals; they make me smile all day long.” It is hard to gauge quite how happy Sheader is while talking to him via phone, but when he describes working on Gigi, he sounds as though a wide grin has spread effortlessly across his face.
It would probably be difficult not to smile while rehearsing the stage adaptation of the 1950s Lerner and Loewe film musical Gigi, it being a classic Cinderella tale, a love story with a twist featuring songs such as Thank Heaven For Little Girls. The talented cast must also help, including, as it does, emerging musical theatre star Lisa O’Hare, stage and screen veteran Millicent Martin, and Fiddler On The Roof legend Chaim Topol.
The Israeli actor Topol is a busy man, even at 72, and will return to playing Tevye next year, more than four decades since he first played the Jewish Russian milkman in the 1965 Israeli production of Fiddler On The Roof. In the 43 years since he first sang If I Was A Rich Man, he has played the role across the globe, most famously on screen in the Oscar-winning film. In Sheader’s mind, he was always the best person to take on the role of Honore, played by Maurice Chevalier in the film: “He was my first thought, because he’s got that twinkle and that charm, exactly what this play needs. When he smiles, he’s absolutely charming.”
"The thought of being able to do Shakespeare and musical theatre in a 1,000 seat theatre in the centre of London doesn’t knock at your door every day"
It was Chevalier’s enchanting voiceover and the opening scenes of the film depicting a Sunday afternoon drifting by on a warm summer breeze in the Bois de Boulogne that originally caught Sheader’s attention and planted the thought of recreating that lush, relaxing setting, and turn of the 20th century France, in Regent’s Park.
It might seem an easy proposition; recreating leafy, lush park scenes in a leafy, lush park setting, yet, as Sheader is quick to point out, “It’s harder to put a musical on in the park than it is a Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is written for no lights and to be performed outdoors during daytime, whereas musicals clearly were not conceived for that.”
As a result, the five key characters of the film are being supplemented with a chorus to fill the wide expanse of the Open Air theatre. Lacking the technical ability to make swift, seamless changes of scene in its park setting, Sheader has also adjusted the show’s scenes so that they all take place al fresco.
These are just two of the challenges Sheader has faced since accepting the position of Artistic Director of the Open Air theatre. It is the first time he had taken charge of an entire theatre, rather than a production, and with the extra challenges of the Open Air, it strikes me as very much an ‘in at the deep end’ situation. This, of course, can be more literally the case if the weather is a touch on the inclement side.
“The shows really take off when it’s full, with beautiful weather,” Sheader enthuses. “You really appreciate what the environment is and how wonderful it is to experience theatre outdoors uniquely every night as the climate changes and the night changes.” When it rains, however, the experience can be very different. That said, even the rain cannot spoil a good evening at the theatre, not when, at the end of this season’s production of Twelfth Night, for example, Clive Rowe sings The Wind And The Rain. A touch of precipitation at that point generally has audiences applauding in a typically British fashion while they and the performers share a soaking.
"You have to be true to what you believe in and what you want to achieve"
To moan about the weather would be to dismiss one of the unique draws of the Open Air theatre; every performance is a communal event, even more so than in a conventional, roofed theatre. If the wind picks up or a chill descends, as it did at the press night of Twelfth Night, everyone shares it; not just the audience, but the performers too. This is half the reason Sheader wanted the job: “I just love park life, I love communal life in parks, anyway, and to be able to tell stories in a park is the apogee of that to me and it’s wonderful. The thought of being able to do Shakespeare and musical theatre in a 1,000 seat theatre in the centre of London doesn’t knock at your door every day, so I was very excited; didn’t hesitate at all.”
The decision to take the job seems very easy indeed, though there will have been plenty of arts and theatre commentators watching exactly what Sheader changed this season. Not only is it his first as an Artistic Director, but he was following Ian Talbot, a man who had been in charge at the Open Air for two decades and at whose feet much of the credit for the theatre’s success must be placed. Though Talbot has deliberately distanced himself from the venue this year – he would have found it hard to attend too much anyway, as he is currently playing Wilbur in Hairspray – Sheader was very much in a catch 22 situation: if you don’t make any changes you are criticised for not putting your mark on a season, make too many changes and you leave yourself open to failure and criticism for altering a winning formula.
“You just have to be brave and be your own person really,” Sheader states calmly but with utter belief. “That’s why you’re hired. We’re all different as artists and practitioners and the theatre and artistic institutions depend on their leadership. So you have to be true to what you believe in and what you want to achieve and the work you want to do.”
He speaks like a man revelling in the best of both worlds. Yes, he has greater responsibility and pressure shaping an entire season, but with this extra pressure comes extra joy when everything goes swimmingly. He is enjoying taking more of a consulting, producer-esque role on the shows he is not directing, offering comments and suggestions while still allowing the directors to do their jobs. And, when he wants to get away from it all, he can turn his attention to the imminent West End transfer of Imagine This.
Premiered at the Theatre Royal Plymouth last summer, Imagine This is a musical tale of the human spirit rising over adversity, set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. It is a story of actors trying to inspire hope within a community in the shadow of the Final Solution. It sounds a world away from the smiles of Gigi.
Sheader, though, argues that there is just as much joy to be found within Imagine This: “It’s incredibly inspiring. It’s full of hope. It’s a soaring, emotionally engaged musical. It’s watching human beings live under awful conditions and being forced to make incredibly difficult decisions; how people behave when they’re forced to make life-changing or life-threatening decisions. It’s full of dignity and humanity and integrity and hope. The piece isn’t just about annihilation. It’s not just about people dying. It’s about people dying for what they believe in and to inspire other people.
"I like the enormous amount of people that musical theatre can reach in a way that a lot of straight theatre perhaps doesn’t."
“I think there’s a place for it because we’ve got so many other wonderful shows at the moment that are so saccharine and bubblegum in the best possible way; Hairspray I just think is amazing, I’ve seen it four times. Our show is so completely different. It’s as entertaining and as fulfilling as Hairspray but in a completely different way.”
To hear Sheader talk about both Gigi and Imagine This is to listen to a man who is truly in love with an art form. The two shows are poles apart in terms of the subjects they cover, yet as musical theatre pieces they have common ground, to which Sheader is devoted: “I like the accessibility of it. I like the enormous amount of people that musical theatre can reach in a way that a lot of straight theatre perhaps doesn’t. I like the popular side of musical theatre. I like being in an auditorium packed with people who are listening to music and then applauding really loudly and laughing. I love it. I just find it incredibly exhilarating and enchanting and magical.”
It is odd to think that Sheader, with so much passion for theatre, originally studied law at university, rather than following a more artistic path. He says he knew he wanted to be a director when he was 18, but didn’t know how to go about it. A trainee directors' scheme at the Orange Tree theatre set him on the path, followed by two years as an Assistant Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Since then, his productions have included Hobson’s Choice and The Clandestine Marriage at the Watermill theatre, Cinderella and The Three Musketeers at the Bristol Old Vic, and national tours of Arms And The Man, The Vagina Monologues and Annie Get Your Gun. Before this summer he was less prolific in London, but by the end of the year he will have completed his first season at Regent’s Park and have opened a West End musical.
I don’t know how good a lawyer Sheader would have made, but I suspect he could have held his own in a court of law. He has a natural gift for drawing you into his world and his beliefs. It could be his tone of voice, his arguments or the fact that he believes 100% in what he is saying. Either way it works, and theatre is lucky to have him as an advocate: “I think the live experience of being in a room or in a park with hundreds or tens or thousands or it could be five people, but other human beings that you’re communicating with live, here and now, and anything can happen in front of you while people tell you this story, is a fantastic touchstone for where we are in society in the 21st century. The complicity of performer and audience is a real primal feeling that can’t be replaced by many other things. As society advances and develops, to sit down together and tell each other stories is a great reminder of who we are as a people. I think that’s really important, that theatre continues to do that in whatever form and wherever it does it; all are valid because it brings us together to communicate in an unexpected way.”