Jenny Eastop, the multiple Offie-nominated director and producer for London-based Mercurius Theatre, will be playing a vital role in the transformation of the prestigious S&S Award into S&S Theatre Productions, dedicated to producing radical new musical theatre with partnerships between the UK and the USA.
Not only will she be collaborating as a co-producer alongside writer Warner Brown, literary agent Caroline Underwood and Kent Nicholson, doyen of new musical theatre writing in the States, but she will also be directing the new company’s second musical.
S&S Theatre Productions has already co-produced the live-stream of S&S Award winner Tim Gilvin’s Stay Awake, Jake from Southwark Playhouse. The innovative second show, written by Brown and Joshua Schmidt (the American composer of Adding Machin3 amongst others) will set a template for the transatlantic aims of S&S Theatre Productions.
Jenny has staged 15 productions and transfers for Mercurius Theatre (including Brown’s first musical The Biograph Girl) and has also directed for companies such as Shakespeare’s Globe, Paines Plough, the National Studio and the London Play Festival. She has been associate director to Michael Blakemore on Copenhagen at Chichester, The Life at Southwark Playhouse, Blithe Spirit, with Angela Lansbury – both West End and US tour, Afterlife at the National, Embers at the Duke of York’s, Democracy at the National, West End, Broadway, Sydney and Chichester and Three Sisters, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, in the West End.
Below Jenny explains how she is relishing the opportunity to direct a radical new musical which will be staged both in London and Off-Broadway. Dates and venue for the London leg will be announced just as soon as the world returns to some kind of normal.
Warner tells me that when he first heard that a director wanted to revive The Biograph Girl, he wasn’t keen on the idea, but after meeting you for the first time his opinion completely changed and he couldn’t wait to see what you did with the piece at the Finborough Theatre? Is that how you remember it?
I remember that we hit it off creatively straight away and that we had a lively and spirited discussion about the show and my ideas of how I’d stage it. However, I hadn’t realised when he suggested the meeting that he was expecting to say no. I assumed he just wanted to check I would do justice to the show. He did ask some rigorous questions, but the first thing he asked was ‘why do you want to do this show?’ – I had no idea my chance of him saying yes hung so precariously on my answer!
I can understand why he didn’t want a revival of a show he’d written at the start of his career and that had had a very successful West End run, but I was passionate about my reasons for wanting to do it. Our conversation sparked backwards and forwards and by the end of the meeting I think he was as excited as I was about the thought of the production at the Finborough Theatre.
What was it about that initial meeting that made you both enthusiastic about working together again?
I think we realised straight away that we shared a creative vision, that we had very similar feelings about how theatre, and in particular musicals, could captivate and inspire an audience. That first meeting was incredibly stimulating and energising and I went away full of ideas and plans for the future. I can’t imagine a more exciting collaborator.
When did you first start discussing a collaboration between S&S Theatre Productions and Mercurius Theatre? What do you think makes that such a perfect fit?
Warner and I met for lunch during the run of The Biograph Girl as a sort of winding up, or debrief. At that lunch we talked about the chance of doing another production together and got very excited at the prospect. We went on talking for so long, with ideas flying around, that I finally had to rush away to get to the theatre just in time for the evening show! It felt then, and feels even more now, like a perfect fit to form a collaboration with Warner and Caroline. We found we’re all passionate about developing new musical theatre as a way into deeper and more profound themes, and we have similar ideas about the sort of stories we’re eager to tell.
Warner and Caroline believe that the production company is a natural evolution for the S&S Award, what are your thoughts on that?
The S&S Award has done amazing work to develop and nurture new musicals and the chance for the winner to get a professional workshop and a prestigious showcase has helped launch a lot of exciting talent. However, that can only go so far, and very often the most fresh and innovative musicals are the least likely for producers to take a risk with. So, launching S&S as a company, to actually produce new musical theatre, does seem the obvious next stage in the process, albeit a daring one.
You have worked as a director on both sides of the Pond and part of the thinking behind S&S Theatre Productions is to encourage international relations, particularly via Off-West End and Off-Broadway. That must be an exciting prospect?
It’s a very exciting prospect and one that makes perfect sense. Off-West End and Off-Broadway musical theatre – its structure, style, themes, audience expectations – has a lot of similarities but there are also vast disparities that at times can make them seem like different art forms. It will be brilliant to celebrate what makes the experience universal to ‘both sides of the pond’ and thrilling to share those things that are unique. I think anything that connects people, thousands of miles apart, in a shared creative experience is to be very welcomed.
In addition, the wish is to nurture and develop new and radical musical theatre projects, to not regard musical theatre as a formula and to encourage breaking the rules. What would you define as radical musical theatre?
I believe there are two definitions of the word radical – ‘overturning the traditional and accepted forms’, and also ‘getting to the root and fundamental truth’. One of the reasons I work in theatre is because it’s an art form that constantly pushes boundaries and reinvents itself, that finds a ‘rule’ and immediately subverts it. There are brilliant naturalistic plays, as well as plays that have non-linear structures, that mix up time sequences, overturn language and question what is real.
Musical theatre is, however, usually seen as much less subversive and tends to be more constrained by expectations of the form. It can sometimes play with that form and structure but when it does it’s rarely seen as mainstream. I think radical musical theatre is simply something that doesn’t allow itself to be limited by rules or expectations and, by doing so, delves into the very essence of what it is to be alive.
How excited are you to work with American composer Joshua Schmidt on the first fully-staged production?
It’s wonderful to get the chance to work with Josh. His music is so innovative, and inventive, and is so loved – his show Adding Machin3 sold out within days at the Finborough Theatre. His quirky, idiosyncratic approach has been a breath of fresh air and his cutting-edge music helps bring the gutsy heart of the show to life.
The theatre industry is in something of a crisis but Warner and Caroline think that makes it a perfect time to spread some good news, the formation of S&S Theatre Productions. I imagine that is your view too?
What’s so frustrating for everyone is not knowing what the future holds, not being able to plan and have control since the situation changes day to day. Theatre is in crisis but it’s also, arguably, the one industry that’s best used to riding storms – weathering unpredictability, constantly taking risks, adapting to radically changing circumstances, never being able to plan far ahead with any certainty, making leaps of faith – however wise and cautious anyone is in theatre we all constantly grapple with these things, in shifting seas and heaving waves, to make it through.
These are unique and challenging times but we should see this chance to launch something as exciting as the formation of S&S Theatre Productions, as a positive affirmation that land has been sighted on the horizon – I’d better abandon this overstretched metaphor now!
‘It’s an entertainment, a love story, but at its heart it is also a profound look at the issues of what it is to be human’@Mercurius5 AD @jennyeastop describes the radical musical that S&S Theatre Productions will be bringing UK & US audiences soon #SandSTP #radicalmusicals pic.twitter.com/TVAJdCjLNV
— S&S Theatre Productions (@SandSTP) April 23, 2021