Sonia Friedman: ‘Sexist guys? It’s not their time any more’ in Financial Times

5 October 2018


The world’s leading theatre producer on staging Harry Potter, cracking Broadway, and #MeToo.

An article by Hannah Beckerman.

Sonia Friedman rushes past the spot where I’m waiting for her, shakes my hand and apologises for being late. “I’ll be about 10 minutes,” she says, before disappearing through a door disguised as a bookcase, the kind of exit that would not look out of place in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, one of the hit plays for which Friedman is responsible. Meanwhile, I’m ushered into the boardroom of her Covent Garden offices — a narrow room dominated by a long, thin black table. Apparently, Friedman likes conducting interviews here because you get a feel for the company. You certainly get a feel for its success. One wall displays a gallery of framed Olivier Awards: I don’t count them but Friedman has 48 in total. On another wall are photographs from a selection of productions: it’s not every single one of the more than 160 shows Friedman has produced since 1990 — from David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow to The Book of Mormon — but it’s enough to remind you why she is regarded as the world’s most successful theatre producer, and why this year she featured on Time magazine’s 100 list of the most influential people in the world.

When Friedman, 53, enters the boardroom she sits down opposite me, a bottle of water in one hand, a bottle of juice in the other. It’s lunchtime but I get the impression that she probably doesn’t take many breaks in the middle of the day. I tell her that I recently saw The Jungle, her critically acclaimed play about life in the Calais refugee camp, directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin and starring a number of refugee actors.  “The Jungle is a defining moment in my career,” she says, “because I don’t think I could produce it in the West End now if I hadn’t had the 20 years of experience behind me. I’ve got to the place professionally where I can say, ‘Let’s do this’: convince the theatre owner, convince investors, convince artists to do it in that space. It’s a defining moment for me because if I can’t do that type of work alongside all the rest of it, I don’t want to do my job. I have to be able to tell those stories too.” Friedman is right that it’s hard to imagine many producers who could bring a play like The Jungle — a vibrant but politically and emotionally challenging piece of immersive theatre — to the West End. And yet it’s been playing to healthy audiences throughout its run. Is she only able to produce such projects — which carry more commercial risk — because she has numerous profitable shows already under way? “Absolutely not. I can’t think of my work in terms of commercial versus non-commercial. Everything I do has to start from a passion to tell that story with that group of actors and creatives. Somewhere in the process I’ll have to look at the recoupment sheet and budgets and go, ‘Is this going to make any financial sense or not? Is this a going concern?’ But it’s not my starting point. [That] has to be how I respond to an idea. Having said that, it would be disingenuous for me to say that having something like Harry Potter and The Book of Mormon in my life doesn’t enable me to make things like The Jungle possible. But they’re all completely different financial models. So it’s not that Harry Potter pays for The Jungle. I have different investors [for each]. But my own money — my own income — can support these ventures if I feel that they’re going to need a bit more help.”

Friedman pauses and when she begins to speak again her voice is impassioned. “Nothing I do sets out to be commercial. I’ve had an allergy towards that word since I worked in the subsidised sector. I hated commercial theatre. I think it’s anti-art, anti-theatre, anti-creativity, anti-audience, and so I like to think of myself as an independent producer as opposed to a commercial producer.” 

Those who have worked with Friedman support this view: far from the conventional image of the bean-counting producer, she has a reputation for being on the side of writers, actors and directors. Actor Mark Rylance has said that what sets her apart is that she shares more traits with an artistic director than a traditional producer. Jez Butterworth, creator of Jerusalem and The Ferryman, has spoken of how she makes him feel special and looked after, while Tom Stoppard has called her the go-to theatre producer of her generation. At one point during our interview, Friedman pulls out her phone and shows me a text message she received from Stoppard earlier. “He’s writing me a play at the moment and just before I came in here he wrote me a text saying he’s on page 35.” I ask what the play is about.  “I don’t even know what he’s writing,” she says. “But to know that Tom Stoppard is somewhere locked away in a room right now writing a play for me to produce maybe — if I’m lucky enough — is just extraordinary.”  Friedman’s range has always been eclectic. Having started her career as a stage manager at the National Theatre, she moved into producing in the 1990s, forming the Out of Joint Theatre Company with Max Stafford-Clarke, before establishing her own eponymous production company in 2002. From the outset, Friedman didn’t shy away from controversy, taking on productions such as Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and F**king (1996), and has always been a champion of new writers: Lee Hall, Sebastian Barry and Patrick Marber all had early work produced by Friedman. Her Midas touch has been well documented: The Book of Mormon has smashed box office records at the Prince of Wales Theatre since Friedman brought it to the UK in 2013. Nine Olivier awards later, it is still a sell-out despite being, according to a ticket survey last year in the theatre newspaper The Stage, the most expensive West End musical, with tickets costing up to £202.  Friedman acknowledges there have been productions that didn’t work out as she’d hoped but, diplomatically, declines to name them. If she is impossible to pigeonhole as a producer, I ask whether there is a shared DNA among her projects, and what it is that piques her interest at the outset. She thinks for a moment, begins a sentence, stops herself and thinks some more. “I’ve got lots of answers to this. The only reason I’m hesitating is because I don’t know which one to start with. What piques my interest is where I am in my life at that particular moment. What’s preoccupying my mind, not just politically but also my own personal interests, my own personal problems, griefs, issues. Is it in any way helping me understand what’s going on? But, most importantly, it has to surprise me. If I turn a page and I don’t know what’s going to happen next but I’m engaged, I’ll keep going. Or it can be a director. I have long-standing relationships with several directors and so a lot of projects emerge through discussion, debate, reading with a particular director who I want to keep working with. And then, of course, there’s writers and actors.” From Harold Pinter, Trevor Nunn and Rupert Goold to Keira Knightley, Elisabeth Moss and Carey Mulligan, the cast of those Friedman has worked with reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary dramatic talent. It is perhaps not surprising that Friedman has such a natural affinity with creatives. Her father — who left home before she was born — was the renowned violinist Leonard Friedman. 

Her mother, Clair Sims, was a concert pianist who relinquished her career in order to raise her four children, becoming a London tour guide and piano teacher to pay the bills. Her siblings include the actress Maria Friedman and the violinist Richard Friedman. They are a remarkably successful group despite the instability of their childhood. I ask Friedman whether she sees a link between the estrangement from her father and her own drive to succeed. A notoriously hard grafter, she rarely gets home before 11 o’clock at night and never takes holidays.  “Of course. I was looking for approval from both my mum and my dad but particularly from my absent dad, who was very much out there and active but didn’t know who I was. In fact, the only time he contacted me — and I’m not exaggerating — was when he wanted some money. I don’t think I was aware of it then, that what I was looking for was approval. I don’t think you understand what your motivation is when you’re young, do you?” The estrangement from her father, who died in 1994, has affected her career in unexpected ways. Many producers had tried to persuade the best-selling Harry Potter author JK Rowling to collaborate on a stage version of her stories but it was Friedman’s idea that finally convinced her. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as it is wouldn’t have happened unless there’d been the father issues. My father had terrible parenting himself: how does that impact on your own children? And if you’re a great man — if you’re a great artist — does that mean that you can’t be a good dad? In terms of that narrative, I have my absent dad to thank for that story because that was the conversation that Jo [Rowling] and I had,” she laughs. Friedman describes how she and her siblings coped with their father’s desertion by putting on plays together when they were home alone. “My very early childhood was wild and boisterous and crazy and bohemian and full of music and creativity and then it stopped. Bang — just stopped when I was eight. They [her siblings] all left home in the space of a year and it was a very difficult time. Very, very difficult. And that was the time when the only survival was to escape through my dolls’ house, and by plugging into the thing that my brother and my sisters had given me which was storytelling. So I created stories on my own for about three or four years. And then I left home when I was very young — when I was about 13. I left home to go to a boarding school and then I never really went back.” Having spoken in a thoughtful, considered way thus far, Friedman suddenly becomes visibly distressed. She tells me that her mother, to whom she was incredibly close, died recently and that this is the first interview she has given since. Her mother’s death has, she says, reshaped the way she views her own motivations.  “Losing my mum has crystallised for me everything to do with the absent father and actually who I was really doing it for. I was actually really doing it for my mum. Because my mum had such a difficult time: four children under 10, on her own, no money, rejection from my father’s side completely. He had multiple affairs and he didn’t ever give her a penny. And she put her whole career on hold, her life on hold. I thought I was doing it for my dad. I wasn’t. I was doing it to prove to mum that it was worth it.” Does she think this will influence the kind of plays she produces in future? “When I saw Harry Potter just after my mum died, up until that point, the play had been about one thing for me. And then I saw it again and it became a completely different play to me. Before, it was a play about father-son issues, parent-children issues, how you communicate. And then after, it was a play about grief and loss, and that’s what it is to me now. Because I am a girl who is grieving and has lost. So that will no doubt inform how I move forward creatively… Yes, I lost my dad, but I didn’t grieve. That was anger. So we’ll see how it affects the next period of my working life.”

Throughout, Friedman is candid — at one point, she jokingly comments that the interview feels like a therapy session. I wonder if she has a theory as to why, in 2018, a successful female theatre producer is still a rarity. Is theatreland still a sexist place to operate? “I think if it’s sexist, those guys have to keep their mouths shut, don’t they? It’s not their time any more. And my God, doesn’t it feel good? “But there are still some very real issues and challenges women have to face: having a child, bringing up a family. I, for various reasons, have never had that choice put in front of me, so I haven’t had to make that choice. I think it would be very hard for women to have the sort of career I’ve had and bring up a family because of the hours and time it takes to do it. So I don’t think that’s sexist, but I think it’s still very real.” But is she optimistic that, a year after the #MeToo movement went viral, there is a brighter future ahead for women in the theatre industry? “In terms of female directors, female-led plays, female writers — this is the shift. It’s certainly, in our lifetime, the biggest shift and the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen, happening right now. I think we are now seizing the moment and I can’t see it going backwards.”

Meanwhile, Friedman has another packed season ahead. In addition to the current slate of shows on both sides of the Atlantic, she has two new plays in London — The Inheritance, a two-part Matthew Lopez play inspired by EM Forster’s Howards End, and Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke — as well as Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman on Broadway.  I ask her if it’s true that it’s a much tougher nut to crack than the West End. “Broadway is primarily about the one review — The New York Times. For plays, if you don’t get a good New York Times review and you don’t have a massive, massive star in it, you’re dead. You’re dead within days.” Does she manage to sleep much before Broadway openings? Friedman laughs. “No. Literally every time I open a show on Broadway I go, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this to myself. What am I doing?’ But Broadway is the best place to produce in the world because of the high-wire act. It’s intoxicating. It’s devastating when it doesn’t work but, my God, when it does it just feels like you’ve conquered the world.” Given how often Friedman has conquered the theatrical world — a notoriously crowded and capricious space — what’s the secret to her consistently good audiences? “It’s not difficult, if it’s good,” she whispers, and smiles. “I don’t have a worry about the economy of our theatre. Great work, great stories will always have an audience. It’s not about taking an advert in three newspapers and making sure that your digital campaign works and you’ve got enough escalator panels up — it’s not about that. Of course that’s part of it. But it’s about word-of-mouth, word-of-mouth, word-of-mouth.” Since Friedman started producing 25 years ago, the meaning of word-of-mouth has expanded dramatically. In the age of social media, a creative team can get real-time audience feedback during the first preview of a new production. So does social media reduce the importance of critics? “No. The critics are very, very important but the critics can’t make it a hit if the people don’t want to go. You can’t have a hit if the audience and the word-of-mouth is not strong. But if they happen together you’re off and running.”

One of the contentious issues in the theatrical world in recent years has been the casting of celebrities — particularly in musical theatre — as a means of attracting audiences. Friedman’s shows over the years include productions with unknowns — such as The Jungle — and those featuring household names such as Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch in 2015, for which all 100,000 tickets sold out in hours. Is it ever a difficult decision to cast a famous actor? “It’s simply about whether I think they can do the job and whether they’d be right for that role. There’s no question that audiences love star performances. It’s what the theatre’s always been about. I think some producers are sometimes criticised for casting stars when actually they’re terrific theatre actors who happen to be famous for doing Sherlock,” she laughs, referring to one of Cumberbatch’s TV roles. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that if a star is in a play, that is going to make my life easier. But I just want to be clear that we understand what the word star means. A star is a great actor that audiences may have heard of.”  Friedman and I have talked a lot about her professional motivations: her absent father, self-sacrificing mother, a childhood steeped in storytelling. Before we end, I ask her whether there might be something else, some other driving force behind her success. She thinks for a few seconds before replying. “I think it’s about proving it to myself — proving that I can do it. The world I’ve chosen to work in, nobody really knows the answer as to why something does or doesn’t work. So I think what keeps me going is the fact that I don’t know what the result is going to be, and I need to go through it in order to find out. I’m not a coward, you see. I’m really, really excited by the unknown.”