Zool Verjee, manager of the famous Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford and of course one of the Creation Trustees discusses jazz soundtracks, Creation Theatre’s funding and what it’s like to helping to navigate the good ship Creation in waters both choppy and calm.
I became a Creation Theatre trustee in around 2010 and if you can forgive me for starting off with a cliché, it is a pleasure and a privilege to serve as one. I was recruited to the cause by Jeanne Wesson, (who many of you will know), the Chair of the Trustees at the time.
So as a trustee, what do I do and why do I do it?
To take the second question first, I love Creation Theatre. Like many of the best companies in the world, it feels like a family. I also happen to agree with its mission, its ethos, its creative energy. ‘To bring classic texts to life’ – what’s not to love? One might add to that, “in new and unexpected ways”.
When I was younger, I appeared in many plays and I remember with a sweet sense of nostalgia the intense camaraderie of being in a play and, alongside a cast and crew, being part of a united creative force dedicated to bringing a vision to life on a stage. As Irene Cara once sang, What A Feeling! So now I sort of get to be part of that same process, experience the same buzz, albeit with a different hat on. We’ll come onto the plays in a moment, but one thing I never tire of telling people is that Creation has consistently achieved the knack of employing people who are friendly, talented, hard-working and dedicated to their craft. This, as much as the quality of their productions, is something that marks out Creation Theatre as something special, in my opinion. And without wishing to embarrass them, Lucy Askew and Charlie Morley are a talented duo whose skills and personalities are a major part of Creation’s identity. Their combined drive and determination to try out the new, to bring innovative productions to their many venues, to succeed in an intensely arduous and punishing industry, is something for which they deserve many plaudits. I’ll now come to the first question I posed, what does a trustee do? Well, many of you probably know the answer to that question already, but to those who don’t know…as a trustee you are trying to accomplish a number of balances…
Firstly, to ensure that Creation adheres to its rules of governance, of course.
Secondly, to ensure that Creation is true to its social and moral responsibilities, bearing in mind its status as a charity. But I would say that this also includes remembering its ethos and staying true to that. Thirdly, us trustees have a responsibility to guide and advise the strategic direction of Creation without necessarily treading on the toes of the artistic vision. The dividing line between the two isn’t always distinct, but, for example, we should be more focused on how many productions we can afford to put on per year, than whether the summer production should have a jazz soundtrack (although we’re entitled to opinions on that sort of thing too!). On a more serious note, as you probably know, Creation Theatre has no external funding and depends on ticket revenue to thrive and survive and as I’ve already alluded to, this is a tough industry. Within this context, one of the things we wrestle with – and as a trustee it behoves us to consider this with as much wisdom and strategic acumen as we can muster – is the number and scale of risks we can take. This is not a simple black and white issue. It’s not exactly a case of ‘bankable hit’ or ‘edgy experiment’?
Audience expectations change from year to year. In fact we can change audience expectations by putting something in front of them which makes them reconsider what they want from a production. Certainly, we want to surprise and delight our audiences, ‘push the envelope’ as the phrase goes.
Recent productions such as 1984 and Dracula are good examples of this. Equally, and especially at times of financial uncertainty, we have to at least think about being cautious. This might refer to style of production, location, artistic decisions, cast size, choice of title, and so on and so forth. For all that, Creation doubtless has an instinctive drive to change perceptions, to present tilting perspectives on texts you think you know, to intrigue you – and that’s a pretty inspiring place to be.
There’s a bunch of us trustees – Julia, Peter, Colin, Carl, Mary, James and myself – and I know that each one of us feels emotionally attached to Creation and proud to be one of the patches in its quilt. With a variety of different backgrounds and skill sets, we try our best to contribute in some way to Creation’s success and reputation. We don’t always agree with each other, or with Creation’s management, and nor should we (or what would be the point of us as an independent-minded, straight-talking panel of advisors)- but I hope that our conversations are respectful, constructive and good-humoured, as the good ship Creation navigates waters both choppy and calm.
In my time as a trustee, I’ve seen many memorable productions ranging from Tales from King James at the St Barnabas in Jericho, to King Lear at Blackwell’s, from Henry V at Oxford Castle to A Christmas Carol at the North Wall. I’ve got to know and understand the styles of specific directors, recognise and become a fan of recurring cast members, and admire the clever use of specific venues (site-specific theatre at its best).
I’ve also seen moving, funny, exciting, uplifting, mesmerising theatre time and time again. Being able to intimately comprehend the specific set of challenges that may have accompanied bringing any given play to the stage only brings an additional dimension of respect.
I hope that you find the summer shows to be a tremendously entertaining offering and that, if you’re not already, you become a part of the Creation family and return again and again and again.
Upcoming shows not to be missed:
Dorian Gray 9 July – 27 July
The Tempest 19 July – 15 August
Don Quixote TBC