Beth Shouler is Nottingham Playhouse’s recently appointed Artist Development Co-ordinator and she’ll be heading up Ampilfy, the Playhouse’s new programme of work which reimagines the resources and opportunities being made available to local theatre-makers.
We checked in with Beth to ask about what she and the Playhouse have in the pipeline, to find out how her background as a maker will influence what she plans to do in her new post, and to reflect on the collapse of Nottingham’s bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2023.
You can find out more about Nottingham Playhouse’s Amplify here.
Gareth: Congratulations on being appointed as Artist Development Co-Ordinator at Nottingham Playhouse, where you’ll be leading Amplify, the venue’s new artist development scheme! Can you tell us a bit more about the scheme and the ways in which local artists can get involved?
Beth: Thank you! It’s a really exciting time at Nottingham Playhouse as we begin a fresh chapter under the new artistic leadership of Adam Penford. Our region is full of talented artists and we want to help them flourish.
The scheme is in its early days but there are various things in the diary. There are Plug Ins which are opportunities to meet Adam Penford (Artistic Director) and Fiona Buffini (Associate Director) before a show. There are scratch nights to try out new work, ideas submission windows (there’s one currently open at the moment) where you can submit a script or proposal for a show, and surgeries around the business side of things. There are all sorts of plans on the horizon and it’s important to us that what we offer is genuinely helpful and not tokenistic. So the programme will evolve as we go along and find out what is needed to invest in local producers, designers, directors, theatre-makers, performers and writers.
To join, have a look at the information of our website which tells you what to do if you’re an individual artist or a company. Once you’ve signed up, you’ll also get access to discounted tickets and 25% off food and drink in the Playhouse Bar and Kitchen. Basically, all I need is a current CV and a brief letter telling me about yourself.
I think it’s important that we engage with people who haven’t just been shaped artistically by London and who have a passion and understanding of regional theatre-making ecology.
Gareth: If money were no object, which artist or company would you bring in to Amplify to run a workshop?
Beth: If I had an unlimited budget, there are various artists I’d love to bring here, partly in recognition of the broad range of artists in the region. Sally Cookson would be high on my list as a director and deviser, someone whose career is extraordinary and who came up through the regions. I’d love Kully Thiarai to do some training on visionary leadership and making things happen – she’s so inspiring. When I did the Royal Court Writers Course, Chloe Lamford came to talk about her role and completely shifted the way I think about design. I think it’s important that we engage with people who haven’t just been shaped artistically by London and who have a passion and understanding of regional theatre-making ecology.
Gareth: Tell us about three pieces of theatre – or theatre makers – that have had the biggest impact on you, and tell us why they made such an impact.
Beth: I remember watching A Clockwork Orange by Northern Stage at Derby Playhouse in the late nineties when I was in sixth form. I’d never seen any physical theatre or something with such a strong aesthetic, so that was a defining moment when I knew I wanted to work in theatre professionally. It was visceral and got under my skin and made me feel things. Probably the first moment I felt politically engaged. I remember not sleeping afterwards as my brain pondered so many big questions about the world.
De La Guarda at the Roundhouse changed the way I thought about narrative and the audience experience. Who knew that being drenched with water in January would be such a thrilling, nonsensical and ultimately amazing experience? The sense of theatre being a party the audience was invited to has stayed with me. I love the way that theatre brings a cross-section of people together in a shared memory. I get frustrated when the experience is elitist or requires insider knowledge or is just dull. Dullness will be the death of theatre.
Boy by Leo Butler is one of my favourite plays of all time. I’ve worked with a lot of young people over the years and this is one of the most sophisticated and subtle expressions of youth. Throughout my career, I’ve moved increasingly towards working with writers and developing voices and I’ve always had a real passion for ensemble plays with large casts. This exemplifies all that is good about writing in theatre. Sacha Wares’ production at the Almeida was stunning. I suppose this also illustrates my passion for stories about young people that don’t just perpetuate lazy stereotypes.
Gareth: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing independent artists and companies at the moment — both in the Midlands, and in general? How would you like to see the sector develop over the next ten years?
Beth: Theatre is expensive to make and the legacy of austerity is that everyone — from organisations to audiences — is strapped for cash. The other real problem is how the arts are being side-lined out of the national curriculum, so increasingly young people have no access to theatre unless their family values it. This is a real challenge if we don’t want theatres to be perpetually dominated by one type of voice. We need to find ways to get rid of invisible barriers and not let privilege be the deciding factor in who gets to make theatre.
The arts are being side-lined out of the national curriculum, so increasingly young people have no access to theatre unless their family values it. This is a real challenge if we don’t want theatres to be perpetually dominated by one type of voice.
We’re going to have to get creative about building interesting partnerships and opportunities that think outside traditional structures. The growth of digital technology offers new ways to engage and interact with audiences and potentially offers new ways of working that we’ve not thought of before.
As the world increasingly becomes less personal, with fewer opportunities for people to come together in a space to tell stories, there is something incredibly profound about the theatre experience that no other art form quite replicates. That USP is something we can really promote. I grew up in a family where hospitality was a key component of our values and, as people are increasingly hungry for human connection in actual time and space, theatre can grow community in a new way where hospitality and relationships are key, rather than something that is transactional. It’s about the experience.
Gareth: Through our work with East Meets West, we’re interested in reducing barriers between theatre-makers and venues within the entire Midlands region. What challenges do venues in particular face in offering support to local artists?
Beth: There are general challenges we all face such as limited funding and a risk-averse climate. Specifically at the Playhouse we have a 90-seater studio and then a 750-seater main house so finding opportunities for artists who are ready to make work for a space that is bigger than a studio but aren’t quite ready for a 750-seater is something I’m aware of. Sometimes the decisions a venue makes can seem baffling to those outside, so trying to make processes and decisions that affect freelancers clear and manage expectations are priorities for me. The other side is I get to advocate for freelancers in our building and to other organisations which is great.
Gareth: A lot of your work to date has been around developing new writing. Which writers should we look out for who you think are currently producing the most interesting new writing, and what is it about their work that excites you?
Beth: Mufaro Mukabika and Jane Upton are two local writers whose work is incredible. Both just won major awards and I am so proud as I’ve known them since they were starting out and watching the way they’ve developed their process has been fascinating. Their stories make me feel things. I respond to some writers quite cerebrally but their work always punches me in the gut. I’m looking forward to reading more scripts and championing new talent from this region. I’m bored of UK culture being defined by the North / South divide. There’s a distinctive Midlands voice to be heard.
Gareth: You grew up in Nottingham and have been visiting the Playhouse since you were a child. Tell us about the most memorable experience you’ve had there.
Beth: The first piece of theatre I ever saw was the Panto when I was two. We went every year and I desperately wanted to be one of the dancers. I was so jealous of those being ‘on the inside’. My first assistant directing job was on A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and I specifically remember this feeling of butterflies and excitement the day we started tech and I was sat in the empty auditorium as it all came together, feeling like I belonged.
Gareth: Brexit has meant that Nottingham’s bid to be the 2023 European Capital of Culture has been stopped in its tracks. What would being Capital of Culture have meant for Nottingham — and what would it have meant to you, personally?
Beth: Oh, it’s just frustrating and sad. It would have been an amazing opportunity for Nottingham. There’s so much potential in this city. It’s vibrant and exciting and full of creatives plotting and doing amazing things.
The first piece of theatre I ever saw was the Panto when I was two. We went every year and I desperately wanted to be one of the dancers. I was so jealous of those being ‘on the inside’.
Gareth: Throughout your career, you’ve worked a lot with youth groups and children, as well as with professional artists. Are there any ways in which your work with one group has influenced your work with the other group, and vice versa?
Beth: In a practical way, it started out as a way for me to make theatre and climb the ladder in a city where very few directing opportunities existed. I found out very quickly that I really love working with young people. There’s a fearlessness in the creative process I find inspiring. They assume you know what you’re doing and embrace risk with real enthusiasm – I’ve flooded rehearsal rooms, created food fights on stage, worked in the dark, set up all sorts of mess and chaos and they’ve brilliantly just gone with it. They’ve shaped me as much as I’ve shaped them.
Increasingly, there are a number of artists like myself who make professional work with young people and are blurring the boundaries of what can be made. This has allowed me to work on a much bigger scale earlier in my career and create a different kind of experience for the audience. I remember watching the first performance of Girls Like That by Evan Placey down at Theatre Royal Plymouth and the energy of the 20 in the cast was something else. It made the hairs on your neck stand up. They had 5 performances to get across this story that really mattered to them and they went for it. However, there are limitations in terms of content, rehearsal time and ability when working with younger actors.
Working with professional actors allows you to find real depth in the performance and you can really riff off the other creative expertise in the room in a totally different way – it isn’t all on you to hold it together. I also get to be a director and not have to do at least 3 other roles in the room alongside. And usually you don’t have to ask people to give the flirting a rest mid-rehearsal! Professional actors don’t leave learning their lines to the last minute either. I worked on one really physical show and one of the actors turned up on Day One with their lines basically learnt so we had real freedom to find the physical shape of that show and that was a real treat. You have the luxury of time to explore the possibilities of the play and to push everything. Actors come back in each day having worked on things at home so you’re constantly moving forward and striving for brilliance. You also get to stay in the world of the play for an extended period of time which changes your relationship with it and gives it focus.
It’s important for me to work on both. One encourages me to be risky and playful, the other pushes me for artistic excellence and depth.
Gareth: Many of our blog subscribers are performance students who plan to go on and make their own work professionally. If you had to give one piece of advice to them, what would it be?
Don’t wait for permission. Make things happen as best you can with the limited resources around you.
Beth: Don’t wait for permission. Make things happen as best you can with the limited resources around you. Take initiative (especially if you are a woman, as often we apologise for our existence). Buildings want to know you are a leader and can be trusted. I am part of collectives in Plymouth and Nottingham where we began to do interesting things and the buildings came on board to support us because we showed we were bold, resourceful and competent with what we had.
Don’t bitch about anyone – this industry is tiny, your paths will cross. Don’t be entitled but at the same time don’t be afraid to ask for help: artists are really generous towards each other.
I wish women were less self-deprecating. I get far more men emailing me about their work or things they need. Women are too scared of getting it wrong or making some sort of faux pas. Take unnecessary apologies and the word ‘just’ out of your emails.
Do something each week that is nothing to do with theatre – the bubble is not always helpful.
Sorry that was more than one!