with Anthony Field
Lou Stein’s amazingly versatile career in the UK has been based on his University education at Northwestern University in Chicago at its School of Journalism where he found he was more interested in fictional drama than factual journalism. In 1970 he made his name in American theatre with an adaptation of “SNOW WHITE”, at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, where she appeared in the nude as a nymphomaniac living with seven dwarfs.
His vision then was to run a theatre of his own and he studied at the Moscow Arts Theatre as well as the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Sweden, observing Ingmar Bergman rehearsing plays. Lou’s family background of five languages, including Polish, German and Yiddish, was the basis of his interest in international theatre, especially plays from Eastern Europe. With the brash confidence of a young director in 1979 he chose, rather than going to the National Theatre as a staff director, to run the Gate. Lou established it in Notting Hill in 1979 although on his first visit to its foyer he asked “Where’s the auditorium?” only to be told “This is it!” He also founded the Gate at the Latchmere, Battersea, the sister theatre to the one in Notting Hill.
Over the next four years at the Gate Lou produced “AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS” by Flann O’Brien, “DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON” by George Orwell, “FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS” which later became a critical and popular hit in the West-End and “GULLIVER’S TRAVELS”. Lou says “I was earning £25 per week and getting half-page coverage in the Guardian. The fringe theatre was much more relevant than it is now. Significant directors were emerging from regional repertory theatres where they had spent years learning their craft on very little pay. Today the theatre is in an era of the quick fix”
Having gained British citizenship he was head-hunted to succeed Michael Attenborough at Watford Palace where he spent eight exciting years. “I never considered Watford as an out of town repertory theatre but as a competitor to the National Theatre. I attracted players there such as Helen Mirren who scored a particular success in Edna O’Brien’s version of “MADAME BOVARY”, West-End transfers of “A COMMON PURSUIT” with Stephen Fry, “BUS STOP” with Jerry Hall and the musical “SPIN OF THE WHEEL” with Maria Friedman. He also nurtured Ranjit Bolt’s translation of “THE BARBER OF SEVILLE” with Helena Bonham-Carter and a new version of “TARTUFFE” with John Fortune.
“You have to keep just ahead of your audiences, not too far ahead and certainly not behind them. When you take up the job of running a theatre you only have so many Aces at the outset, then you play your Kings, then Queens and Jacks. But the early 90’s were dangerous years with decreasing Arts Council’s funds and the closing of repertory theatres. Suddenly a company of eight actors was no longer affordable and it became artistically deadly to work with only four actors, so I left Watford in 1995 and took up an invitation by the BBC to participate in their sought after three-month television Drama Director’s Course at Elstree Studios. But television did not absorb my interest so much as radio. Television is all too subservient to the clock. Radio drama had a wholly different attitude to actors. Actors don’t talk lovingly of television as they do of radio”.
Lou’s adaptation of Sandor Marai’s recent bestselling novel “EMBERS” was broadcast in April on Radio 3 with a superb cast headed by Patrick Stewart, Sara Kestelman, David Horovitch, Jamie Glover and Jenny Agutter. The emotional music underscoring the story was composed by Deirdre Gribbin.
However, there is no particular progression in radio unless one is attracted to a bureaucratic job as a Controller. Television usually can only offer two years on “EASTENDERS” and film rarely opens its doors to theatre directors.
The main subsidised theatres house new plays by Howard Brenton, David Hare, and Alan Bennett (one of his favourites) which Lou finds successful but somewhat inward looking. So he is now specialising in contemporary music theatre productions with the composer Deirdre Gribbin, whose award-winning “EMPIRE STATES” was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, and Bruce Springsteen’s lighting designer Jeff Ravitz. Together they have presented “GRACE NOTES” at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and “TRIBE” at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonia.
This year Lou is directing and producing the visually spectacular production of “THE VENUS BLAZING TOUR” and the premiere here of Brian Friel’s “PERFORMANCES” with the Brodsky Quartet at Wilton's Music Hall.
However, such expensive productions need finance and time to raise it. “THE VENUS BLAZING TOUR” can be an enormously effective event at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff and the Royal Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool. It can be performed at Warwick Arts Centre, the Cambridge Corn Exchange and the Queen Elizabeth Hall as well as outdoors in Cyprus and other international Music Festivals. This sort of theatrical magic with contemporary music needs support from the Arts Council, the British Council and the Performing Rights Society before we lose the genius, creative imagination and exciting scope which Lou Stein can bring to the cultural future of our lives.
Anthony Field CBE is Vice Chairman of Theatre Projects UK. He is a leading international Theatre Management Consultant and West End Producer. He has detailed experience of many major opera, ballet, drama companies and orchestras in the UK.