Meet Sonia Friedman: British Theatre’s most important LGBTQ advocate
21 December 2018
An article on Gay Times Magazine by William J Connolly.
In April 2018, during an exchange backstage at the Olivier Awards, leading arts producer Sonia Friedman promised to represent the queer community in London’s West End within 12 months.
“I’m of a particular age now and know that if I’m going to continue to do theatre that represents now, I’m going to have to work with younger generations to keep me stimulated and keep me fired up to tell those stories,” she acknowledged with great honesty – something perhaps unexpected for a leader of her field. “See me next year and if I haven’t done anything then wrap me over the knuckles. Seriously!”
Well, it didn’t happen in 12 months but in fact six, as Sonia Friedman Productions (Sonia’s producing company, clue is in the name sweetie) opened The Inheritance, a new play by writer Matthew Lopez. A piece of art we understatedly described during its initial opening at the Young Vic Theatre as “a remarkably consistent work on gay themes that leaves you stirred, shaken and deeply moved” – and that’s putting it lightly. Anybody that’s been lucky enough to spend a day at the Noël Coward Theatre knows it’s a modern masterpiece at that, and has been unsurprisingly showered with critical acclaim even from the hardest of top line tabloids. But why was the story of the AIDS crisis and a group of gay men in New York right for 2018?
In an exclusive interview, Sonia Friedman speaks about why diverse and minority casting is to always be embraced, how staging The Inheritance holds a personal connection to her and the friends lost in the 80s AIDS crisis, and how she will always be there for the queer community to ensure our voices and stories don’t ever become invisible. Sonia Friedman is a true ally – fact.
How would you describe who Sonia Friedman is?
I’m a theatre producer who unusually, for my profession, loves all genres of work; musical, play, modern classic, revival, Shakespeare, cabaret and modern music. Because I’m obsessed with new work and new writing, and because I like to think of myself as quite musical and also politicised and plugged in. I’m at my best and happiest creating and developing and finding new stories to be told.
Is it a requirement that your work must always have a second meaning then?
It’s giving audiences work they don’t know they want to see. It means I’m always trying to plug myself into what people are perhaps talking about but thinking about, but that’s not necessarily in our zeitgeist or on our stages. As I get older, I’ve got history to fall back on and my emotional range is wider and my life experience is wider so the stories I’m interested in are growing. As a producer, I’m just so curious. I never stop wondering what on Earth is going on with our world. As we talk right now, I can’t imagine a more confused or difficult or challenging but also positive place that we’re living in – think I might have said that ten years ago. Is it getting worse or getting better? I don’t know.
Have you been tempted recently to present work that discusses the current political dramas internationally? Trump, for example.
I don’t know that audiences here and now want to sit in the theatre and see something about Trump because we’re reading it everyday. We need our writers and our artists to take us on a different journey and make us think about Trump perhaps in a different way, but through the lens of something else. It’s much more satisfying for me, and if you were a writer pitching a play about him, I would argue that play would be out of date next month. Somebody will do that play, but it’s interesting it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t know how we respond to what’s happening now, other than looking backwards.
Do you look and listen to the minority voices around you regularly?
Oh gosh, yes. It’s very interesting, as when preparing for this conversation, I was looking back over my work of the last few years and how I’ve changed. There’s no question that, in my mind for inclusion and diversity, it’s been a massive shift. Not just with me but the industry. Even four or five years ago, it wouldn’t have been a conscious decision of mine with a director to say that ‘diversity is just a given’. Then it would have been unusual. If you go back even further, eight or nine years ago, the diversity that happened within my company – people were cast because of their colour, not regardless. I look at now and it’s so changed and I think as an industry, as opposed to being ashamed or berating ourselves, we should celebrating how we are moving forward and checking each other and ensuring we’re better at that and calling each other out when we’re not.
If we go on outdated stereotypes, LGBTQ focused pieces shouldn’t work commercially for the West End, but they do. Angels in America at the NT last year, for example, was a huge success.
Angels is quite rightly a modern classic and it changed my life – and I’m not gay. It changed my life as to what is possible in theatre. It took me to places I didn’t know existed. Angels is one of the great plays ever written. It’s a big ol’ piece. It will, I hope for many decades, be part of the canon. I didn’t produce it.
Do you wish you did?
Erm… do you know what, I don’t wish I produced it because it meant I wouldn’t have seen it. I feel like I’m doing my Angels now with The Inheritance. We’re giving our answer to Angels now.
Have you noticed attitudes have changed since you began producing a play and subject matter like The Inheritance?
I have a very personal relationship to the play and subject matter. I was very involved in the AIDS crisis in the 80s. When I was a young stage manager at the National Theatre, I volunteered with the Terrence Higgins Trust and spent a good two years in 1986/87 through to 1989. I worked pretty much full time and the National Theatre were great and gave me a lot of time off, to do whatever I could do. It ended up being, without question, the most important and informative time of my life. What started it was seeing people in my industry dying. I was frightened of it like many people were, but rather than running away from it, I ran towards it to try and understand and help because there was something within me that needed to reach out. I created an enormous amount of events and benefits. I didn’t even know I was producing. We went for it and so doing that changed my life. I’ll never, ever think of the world in the same way as when I was young. I still am haunted by the memory of how many young men I would see either in hospital beds or on their own with one bar of heating and they couldn’t afford anything more. The best I could do was write them a cheque from the money we’d raised to pay for the electricity bill for another month. To know that I did the tiniest, just the tiniest bit to help, I will always be very thankful I was there at that time. Without exaggeration, I was going to a funeral a week. I then went back to work. Well, the truth is I had a meltdown. I think you can only face so much devastation for so long. I then went back to my day job and, for a lot of people who were around and particularly the men who’s lovers died, God knows how they were dealing with it. I was able to walk away in one sense but it’s unfinished business in my head, and The Inheritance is by no means the close of a chapter but is responding to that. I’ve been looking for this story because there are many, many wonderful plays about that time, but what is the play that is about now, about then? This is it. Just talking about it now, I can’t stop thinking about the 80s and what the gay community went through, and how staggering it is that we are where we are now. How good it is now where we are in many ways.
So how did you two end up finding each other?
The Inheritance sort of just landed on my lap like a gift. A gift from above. I wasn’t meant to be producing it, but it was a series of random circumstances with me doing it because of my relationship with Stephen Daldry (The Inheritance director). Stephen was around at my house and he read my Margaret’s monologue at the end where she’s looking back on the time, like I did, seeing so many young men dying. He read me this monologue and at the end of it, I said to him, ‘I’ll do anything, literally anything, to be involved in this. Please.’ I felt I had to justify my credentials because I’m not a gay man. I literally can’t stop thinking about the 80s at the moment. I lost my mother recently and I’m also thinking about the past a lot as well. It will speak to my generation and people around at the time, but more importantly young gay men. I’ve talked to quite a few gay men in my office and around my life, and what has really surprised me how unaware some of them are about what happened. About what really happened. Being involved in The Inheritance, these same young gay men have said to me, ‘This is the first time they’ve seen a play ever that is speaking to me. It’s talking directly to me’. The fact they say and feel that, I know this play is a play for a generation and I feel it very, very, very deeply. While it’s a challenge at an eight hour piece of theatre, I’m absolutely convinced I’m involved with a piece of history.
I think anyone that’s been to see it knows that. Genuinely.
I hope so.
You’re a strong character. Did you have a time in your career when you felt like giving up?
Gosh. I’ve never been asked that question before. As we’re having an honest conversation, quite recently just after my mum died. So, February, March, April? Because my mum was my greatest influence in my life and my inspiration, she was who I sort of did it for really. I worked very, very hard and long hours and would always check in with her. If not by phone, text, letter. She wrote me poems every day. I didn’t realise until she died that she was my anchor and all my work here – the narrative that runs through it is my mum. I remember where she was when she saw every piece and her reaction. That was suddenly out of my life and I didn’t really know. It was grief. That’s an honest answer and I’m not through it yet, but plays like The Jungle and The Inheritance specifically right now in my life… something was in the stars that aligned so that they happened right now because they’ve made me appreciate my life in a way, and working life in a way that’s so essential when I’m going through this crisis. It’s a balancer. Yes, I’ve lost my mum, but look at the story we’re telling in The Inheritance. Get it in order, Friedman.
And finally, alongside everything you’ve mentioned above, you’ve also put a musical version of Legally Blonde on stage, brought Dreamgirls to London, and you’re now working on the stage adaptation of Mean Girls. Are you ready to claim your gay icon status?!
It would be my greatest honour. It would be. Why is Mean Girls so… Do you want it in London?
I mean… if ever you’ve got a hit, there it is.
Can you imagine what it must be like for me to work with Tina Fey. I’m in the writing room with Tina Fey and I pinch myself. She also might be a gay icon but she’s my icon, too. She’s everybody’s icon. I was phoned up by the producer of the film and asked if I would come in and join him on Mean Girls. It’s been very exciting and obviously there’s conversations about bringing it here, and Tina Fey has said she’d be very excited to bring it to London, so it’ll happen.