Tony – we are delighted that you have agreed to be our Festival Adjudicator this year in the Royal Hall, Harrogate. It must be eight or nine years since you adjudicated for the Festival in Buxton Opera House. What is it like returning and will you do anything differently?
Hi Janet, I am delighted to be back playing an ‘active role’ in the International Festival – since I was last involved at a competitive level, I have attended the Festival as an audience member.
I am especially honoured to be adjudicating in the Silver Anniversary year.
It was only 6 years ago that I last adjudicated the Festival. It just seems longer because you missed me so much! Ha! So, should I clear my diary for 2024?
I suppose nothing has changed in terms of the standards that I expect from a competitive, International Festival. Maybe the six-year gap has seen me become more “mellow” as a person (others will disagree with that!) … but I hope it hasn’t diluted my passion or weakened my resolve in wanting the competitors to set the bar high for themselves.
I’m not a toothless tiger, yet.
I think that’s the point… don’t aim high to please the adjudicator…aim high for your audience, for yourselves and for Gilbert and Sullivan. Think about how you can improve on your last production. I’m only too aware that there can be huge differences in budgets/talent pools/production values/etc between the companies; so just be the best you can be…..given whatever restraints have been forced upon you. If you can come away from your production holding your head up high and saying “we did the best we could” then there isn’t an adjudicator in the land who can diminish your achievement. However, you are at an International Festival of great standing… so approach it with a sense of professionalism, determination to be better and an enthusiasm that exceeds ‘one man’s opinion!’ A healthy respect for the work and the audience is what’s required.
So, in short, I am really looking forward to returning to the Festival and no, I will do nothing different, as my expectations remain the same.
International Festival = high standards!
How do you prepare for the job of adjudicator and do you worry about the effect any negative comments might have on a cast?
My preparation is the same in everything I do. Research, reading and bloody hard work. Attention to detail will come naturally if you have these elements in place.
‘The harder I practise, the luckier I get!’ is a phrase that has been attributed to a few golfers, a soldier during the Cuban revolution, Ethel Merman and L. Frank Baum… but whoever said it first stumbled on a maxim I have lived by for many, many years.
If I was to adjudicate a local village hall Festival where the admittance charge was small, the facilities limited and the expectation low, then I would temper my views. However, we are at an International Festival in a major theatrical space and ticket prices are suitable to the occasion, therefore each company has a duty to bring their A game. They know they are to be adjudicated and thus some level of criticism should be expected. I would hope that that criticism would be helpful and educational and inspire the director/company to improve in the future. This cannot be achieved if the adjudicator refuses to give his/her candid opinion. I also have a duty of care to the audience and to myself… not pointing out the less good points of a production will help no one. Surely, we should learn from every venture. I was associated with four consecutive winning shows at the Festival and none of those productions were perfect. It’s impossible. We strive for perfection, but it remains elusive. That’s why we keep coming back for more. If the company realises that I come from a place of wanting to help and improve standard, then how can they view the comments as negative?
What can the audience expect when you step in front of the curtain after the show?
They can expect me to tell the truth. MY truth. It may differ from others’ opinion; but it will be my honest and forthright account of what I have seen.
The curtain/public adjudication is always difficult because you don’t get a chance to prepare and measure your words. And sometimes you end up dwelling on a positive/negative note for too long and it colours the audience’s views of your opinion. But the private, written critique is always a true and considered opinion of what I’ve just seen. It might well even be a little more hard-hitting than the ‘curtain adjudication’ – as it is no one’s intention to publicly embarrass or annoy. Of course, I have annoyed (even angered) some people in the past…inevitable. I, myself, have been criticised by adjudicators and by the press. It, momentarily, is tiresome and sometimes exasperating but it’s part of a learning/growing process – you don’t have to agree; but you do have to realise that others are entitled to their opinion and that it might vary from yours. It’s what makes theatre interesting.
You have been involved in the Festival for many years: as performer, director, producer and adjudicator. Which role do you enjoy the most?
In order of preference…
You obviously love Gilbert & Sullivan. Tell us a little about your Gilbert & Sullivan journey and when you discovered your passion for the operas.
When I was about 10 years of age I discovered a set of Gilbert and Sullivan long playing records (vinyl) at home. To this day I don’t know who owned them… I presume they belonged to my mother. I played them incessantly – to the annoyance of my six siblings! I learnt every lyric off by heart and would retain many of those words to this day. This is very annoying to my actors when I come to direct a piece; as I can’t have any paraphrasing! (Though I’m not as pernickety as our music director, Aidan Faughey!)
My partner, Vivian Coates, and I met each other some 22 years after I first heard those records. I remember listening to CD’s in the car when we travelled together over the years, and we phrased and breathed in the same places and every musical dynamic was the same. It was then that we discovered that we had, separately, listened to the same recordings as precocious 10-year olds!
I was never a member of a Gilbert and Sullivan Company, but I always managed to join any local company which was presenting G&S.
Do you have a favourite G&S opera – or a favourite role?
I think my fav role is one that I have never played…KoKo. I just love this character and he never fails to entertain me. Of the roles I’ve played? Pooh Bah. I have such fun with him and I love playing around with his multi-role persona.
Sometimes I think “Oh, now that’s my favourite G&S!” when listening to one or other of the operas… only to contradict myself five minutes later when I play another!
There has recently been a lot of discussion about how Gilbert & Sullivan should be performed and whether the director should stay “traditional” without bringing in any distractions or changing the way the operas are performed. What do you think about adapting and/or updating productions? Do you have any strong views?
Yes, I have very strong views…surprise! I’m a great believer in progress, future, youth, ingenuity, invention. Note that I haven’t used the words ‘tradition’ or ‘modern.’
When ‘Festival Productions, Dublin’ (and a year later ‘The New Lyric Opera Company, Belfast’) won The International Trophy, we didn’t set out to do a ‘modern’ OR ‘traditional’ production. Our goal was to bring an energetic, lively, fresh, youthful and inspiring piece of theatre to Buxton. The vehicle just happened to be G&S and both Vivian Coates (Festival’s director) and myself (NLOC’s director) had the same vision – to let the piece dictate to us… NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND. This is where the mistakes, in my opinion, are made. Plus, of course, we were part of a team who had the same modus operandi… choreographers and music directors who were led by the music and lyrics. It is so important that nothing is imposed. Subtle changes, perhaps… the odd dialogue or lyric change (IF it works!), the odd bit of ‘modern’ business (IF it works and is respectful – or happily disrespectful, within limits.) I always say to myself when I get an idea that is not ‘traditional’ – “what would Gilbert have said about this?” If I think he would have approved… it stays in!
If things don’t evolve, they become stagnant. If directors insist on showing off and imposing themselves upon a work, then it becomes another animal – something quite different. So, we must use our discerning, inner instinct. Some of us have that…others don’t!
Tradition must be respected, admired, held in great esteem – but not to the point of being “a slave of duty!” That isn’t healthy. Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan were pioneers – they would not have wanted their works to idle in the past… they constantly knocked down theatrical and political barriers; let’s not do them an injustice. I don’t want to see a chorus/company standing in a semi-circle and singing AT me. If I want to see how the original Mikado was performed I’d rather see it in a museum-style situation. Yes, it would be interesting to see the original, but those productions do not excite me – the rest of us have moved on. They are only of use to historians.
I have just finished a set of auditions for The Wizard of Oz (a Summer Youth Project in the Opera House in Belfast.) From 400 kids I had to narrow the cast down to a mere 240! With the girls auditioning for Dorothy I/we dissected the lyrics. I then asked them to sum up The Wizard of Oz in one lyric. The most common answer was “…and the dreams that you dare to dream…” So, my answer to your question is “…dare to dream…”
With 6 months to go to the start of the Festival what advice could you give the companies, to best prepare them for the competitive element of the Festival.
Firstly, I like the way that question is phrased because there is more to the Festival than winning or losing. Yes, there is a competitive element to the fabulous three weeks of G&S… there should also be pure entertainment, joy, fun, friendships and ‘craic!’ The last time I adjudicated I changed the old scoring system to include entertainment value. That’s why we turn up! I will be repeating this marking scheme.
To answer your question, I would advise the following…
Number 1 – make sure the show selection is a good match/marriage to your company…OR create a company to suit the chosen opera!
Number 2 – don’t compromise on getting the correct cast. If number 1 and/or number 2 aren’t correct, then you are doomed! These two elements must be in place – or as close as you can do so – or you are fighting a losing battle. Be honest with yourself and the company. Does ‘X’ show have too many principals for you to confidently cast? Will your chorus be capable of singing show ‘Y’ to the required standard? Do you have the money to successfully costume show ‘Z?’ Can your company perform the required choreography that show ‘X’ demands? And so on….
Number 3 – Sublime diction, phrasing, intonation, musical intelligence.
Number 4 – Truth in dialogue and lyric. Trust to the text. Cast actors who can sing well… not singers who can make a stab at acting. If you don’t then it will become an aural concert, and this is not what we want. It’s a fully staged production of opera we want to see; which must be theatrical.
Number 5 – Lots and lots of energy… and you don’t have to be young to create this energy. It’s about individual and collective intention and commitment to the text and to the music. And a willingness and stage craft to communicate your story to the audience. Musical energy is very exciting too.
Number 6 – Movement/Dance. Too many companies don’t employ or engage a movement director or choreographer, in my opinion. A clever choreographer can transform a production from the mundane to the visually exciting. Please don’t use the excuse that “we are not dancers.” You don’t need to be, to create beautiful moving pictures and tableaux. Have more rehearsals! Concentrate on that element of your show…your production will be transformed. Believe me.
Number 7 – Attention to detail. Directors… don’t accept a prop that is wrong. Go the extra mile with embellishing a costume or footwear – it will be noticed.
Number 8 – Production Team… the buck stops with you. If you cast someone incorrectly it is your fault, not his/hers. I will put 80% of the ‘blame’ on the production team. It is up to you to lead your troops and guide them in the right direction. To represent the company/Gilbert and Sullivan/theatre in general, correctly. I always tell my companies when we go to a competition of any kind… “don’t take anything personally; everything on that stage was cleared and given the go-ahead by me. I’m responsible. Go out there and enjoy yourselves… I’ll pick up the pieces!” The director must take it on the chin.
The International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival is 25 years old in August. Do you have a message for our celebrations?
Yes, I do. Like you, I am passionate about Gilbert and Sullivan. It must not be allowed to die. Please refer to one of my previous answers… my message is, again “Dare to dream, Smith’s” I hope in 25 years I’ll be shuffling along to celebrate the 50th year of the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival – that is, if it’s not my turn to adjudicate! Ha!