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Sonia Friedman: Leadership changes are a chance for an industry-wide shake-up

Monday, 12 February 2024

By Matthew Hemley

Read the original article here.

Sonia Friedman has hailed the “giant sea change” the industry is going through as a chance for the new leaders of various theatres to “shake the whole thing up”.

The acclaimed producer told The Stage that she felt the changes in regimes at theatres across England meant there was "new blood, new energy and new optimism", claiming it would be positive for the sector.

It comes as many theatres undergo leadership changes, including the Donmar Warehouse, the Royal Court, the RSC, London’s National Theatre and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

The Royal Court, now under the artistic directorship of David Byrne, has recently been the subject of media scrutiny after it emerged a period of consultation was underway, with the venue’s literary department understood to be at risk.

However, Friedman said: "I am not going to talk about what has happened, but what I can say is I think it’s a really really exciting future. I met with David Byrne today – I think it’s going to be great."

She acknowledged it was "complicated" but said "new regimes, new ideas and new voices" would be positive overall.

"It’s a huge period of change [in the sector]. It’s the year of the election but it’s also the year of this giant sea change in theatre, in our institutions. Every single one of them will have a new artistic director - it’s giant if you think about it. I think it’s fantastic we have all this new blood, all this new energy and new optimism, and I hope at its heart, it will encourage and bring on a whole new generation of writers, and indeed writers who feel they haven’t had a place to have a voice to come back," she said.

She added: “I genuinely believe it’s a really good time for theatre."

She highlighted the challenges facing venues, including reduced Arts Council England funding and "crippling debts", but said new leaders now had a chance to change things up.

"Those issues have to be dealt with, but at the heart of it we have some really dynamic, really exciting. New people are coming in and in one sense they sort of have nothing to lose. I know if I was running those institutions I would be like: 'Well let’s just shake the whole thing up, what can we do?'. It needs a shake up. I am excited for our future."

Friedman was speaking to The Stage at the opening night of Jez Butterworth’s new play The Hills of California, which she is co-producing.

Friedman said it was a "great honour" to work with Butterworth and revealed she had been told about the play about a year ago while she was in New York.

"He sent me a text saying: ’I have written a play...’ I was quite low that day and I got this text and I went: ’Okay, breathe. Something to live for,’" she said.

Friedman added that her brother had recently died and that Butterworth’s play about family loss and broken dreams had resonated with her.

"I read it and was pretty devastated as my brother has recently died and we used to sing and dance as children. When the play arrived I said to Jez: ’Did you raid my soul? This is my story, that’s my family up there’.

"We have been spending a lot of time in my family going through our past, as is what happens when you lose someone – particularly a sibling. [The play] absolutely pierced my soul," she said, adding: "I was absolutely broken and actually I don’t think I have fully recovered from the experience of it. Great work, great art, can change you and it is changing me and the way I am thinking about my life, my family and my history. I am absolutely blessed to work with Jez and [director] Sam Mendes."

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