There is nothing like a dame: Muddy meets Rhys Thomas
Rhys Thomas is the director of Hertford Theatre. After stints at Brockley Jack, Theatr Clywd and Sherringham Little Theatre, he relocated to Hertfordshire from London. Buntingford is now is home. Oh no it isn’t! Oh yes, it definitely is. Despite the fact that Rhys spends all year planning the pantomime, he’s full of enthusiasm for the Christmas show. I catch up with him ahead of the grand opening of Rapunzel, a show he has written, produced and directed.
Rhys, what can you tell us about this year’s Christmas show? Will someone wheel a supermarket trolley onto the stage and throw sweets out to the audience like they used to do in the Seventies?
In Rapunzel, there won’t be a trolley full of sweets. But children can go up on stage and if they are lucky they might win some sweets. And we do have ghosts. And loads of slosh. But we don’t have a dame.
No dame? That’s a shame!
I don’t want to sound too highbrow about it but we’ve got lots of funny female performers so why shouldn’t we work with funny women? We have a dame character. It’s either the jolly mother or the wicked stepmother, but played by a woman. I really like that.
Are pantomimes and theatres fiercely competitive? Is it Battle of the Christmas Shows between Hertfordshire towns?
We’re in an age where there’s no cash so we have to be less paranoid about what other people are doing. We’re heavily involved with Rhodes in Bishop’s Stortford, with the Broadway theatre in Letchworth. We also link and partner with Harlow Playhouse in Essex.
Has the Christmas show, or panto, increased in popularity in Hertford?
Hugely. Rapunzel is not just about entertainment, it’s also about understanding quality of story and quality of character. We’re not putting on a reheated show and popping in a celebrity. Our audience won’t have it. We cast really strong musical theatre performers who can knock out a song and can dance. People love to see that talent.
I imagine that for local schools, Rapunzel is a hot ticket?
Absolutely. In 2010, six schools come to see our Christmas show. Last year, forty-eight schools came to see Little Red Riding Hood. Children get to shout and scream and hop about. They have a blast.
What is the role of a theatre, in particular Hertford Theatre?
Happier, healthier, safer and proud is our mission statement. Our focus is very much trying to understand how the theatre functions in relation to the health and wellbeing of the community. It means that we can extend our programme and bring in work that perhaps speaks to a part of a community that is under represented. We want to invite people to engage with issues that are challenging and difficult, and in a safe environment.
Can you give us an example?
Next year we’ve got a show called Testosterone from Rhum and Clay. It’s an autobiographical piece by Kit Redstone, a transgender artist. It’s based on his first experience of going into an all-male locker room as a man. I saw it in Edinburgh and it taps into all those terrible clichés we all know and love about men. But it sets those against a story of real social challenge. It’s a great starting point for a conversation. You only have to watch Jonathan Ross’s interview with Paris Lees, the one that came about after he made a glib joke, to see that transgender is increasingly significant issue.
We’re going to pilot a new Pay What You Can scheme. You can order your ticket and you won’t pay anything at the point of ordering and then the audience will be invited to leave an amount of money at their discretion, after they have seen a show.
And what about health?
I believe that art and culture is good for people. It’s good for our health. We all recognise the experience when we watch a film that we find very moving. Something is going on for us. It’s cathartic when we are able to process challenging personal circumstances through experiencing art. It’s the theory behind the popularity of soaps. You understand your own emotions in relation to other people’s experience.
Is there life after Christmas?
There certainly is. Next year we’ve got Gangsta Granny coming in March and also Horrible Histories in July. Birmingham Stage Company is launching Gangsta Granny with us before the national tour, and Horrible Histories has chosen to launch here at Hertford Theatre prior to the West End. It’s coming in for a full week, which is very exciting. And it’s thanks to Sue Scott Davison at Letchworth Broadway that we’ve now got this relationship with Birmingham Stage Company.
We’re always interested to hear from people who’ve got projects that they want to get off the ground. Hatch is our no cost scheme: we are able to support certain projects because we’ve got the space. It might be dance classes, workshops, rehearsed readings. And we’re always looking for volunteers for all kinds of roles.
As a relative newcomer to the county, what do you think of Hertford and Herts?
I think the location of the theatre is very beautiful. We’re by a river. We have a 12th Century motte. I live in Buntingford and I love being able to walk out of my back door and straight into the Hertfordshire countryside. And it’s working countryside. There’s that sense of it being alive and functioning and part of the fabric of the county. I’m very fond of the Fox and Hounds in Hunsdon. My favourite pub is The Old Barge in Hertford. I love Courtyard Arts. And I’m very fond of Harlow. It has the most amazing collection of art and sculpture.
What does the future hold for you and Hertford Theatre?
We’re looking at how to tour work in other parts of the county. We’re working on a film festival in Buntingford and we’re also working with a theatre company Pins and Feathers. And we’ve another exciting development that we hope to be able to talk about in 2018.