Why We Tell The Story: In Conversation with Sheila Arden

Artform is an amateur theatrical company resident at the Broadway Studio in Catford, South East London. They have produced a diverse selection of musicals, plays and concerts. Their previous productions include ‘Avenue Q’, ‘Into the Woods’, and ‘Oh What A Lovely War’. I met up with Sheila Arden, Artform’s Chair and Artistic Director to discuss the ins and outs of running a theatre production company, what it’s like to be a Director and what Artform has planned next.

Name: Sheila Arden

Role: Chair and Artistic Director of Artform

Favourite Show/Play: Sweeney Todd (I’m told the answer changes and may be different at the time of writing!)

Favourite Part About the Theatre: When as a director, you have certain ideas but then the cast brings something different. That’s when the magic happens.

I was giddier than a girl on Christmas Eve when I learnt that Artform’s production of the ‘The Last Five Years’ was being staged near me. After spending years listening to the gorgeous Jason Robert Brown score and constantly replaying the Original Cast Recording, I couldn’t believe my luck.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can say that it was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in the theatre in a while; the production was flawless and I was left in tears during the opening number.

When I reached out to Artform, I was kindly put in touch with Sheila Arden, Artform’s Chair and Artistic Director. My main goal was to gain a better insight into the production company but by the end of the conversation I had learnt so much more.

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It was a privilege to be in the company of someone so knowledgeable about the industry and who has such a wealth of experience. Sheila has such a sharp insight into what makes a production work. It was fascinating to hear her thoughts on shows and to learn more about the local community theatre scene which appears to be thriving right on my doorstep.

Role of an Artistic Director and Chair of Artform Board

Sheila has done it all from performing to directing and has been part of Artform since its inception 25 years ago. It’s clear that being the Artistic Director and Chair of Artform is no easy feat.

In simple terms, the role is about following your instincts. “My gut instinct is what I use to guide me. This involves choosing the production and overseeing all aspects of it and monitoring it. If I’m not directing, it’s to make sure it’s going a way that I think is integral to Artform’s ethos and integral to the production itself”.

The ethos of Artform is to stage lesser known and neglected works, and those needing smaller casts, which other local societies (and I learn there are many other competing ones in the area) may not be able to consider.

As Artform is a production company rather than a society, this gives them a certain degree of flexibility. They are not limited to selecting shows which suit a certain membership size but can cast people who they deem to be the best fit for a role. This explains why they were able to stage shows like ‘The Last Five Years’ with only a two-person cast.

There is an art in selecting a show and matching people to right creative parts. Take their recent production of Blood Brothers for example, “We did Blood Brothers the play as you can’t get the rights to do the musical. The play is awesome, so much more powerful.”
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“I was lucky that a colleague of mine was in the original musical version of Blood Brothers, so asked him to direct it. He was rather taken aback that it was a play, not a musical. But by the end he preferred the play. It’s as much about the play as it is the person who directs it. This drives what we choose to do.”

Running a production company brings enough challenges to make your head spin. There’s finding storage for set pieces, scanning which other competing shows are on, bringing in new audiences, making sure the production fits the space well and casting to name a few.

One of the most significant challenges appears to be financing. They are mostly able to generate revenue from ticket sales, fundraising and generous donations over the years. Unlike commercial theatre, it’s apparent that this industry isn’t driven by profits but by the sheer passion that Sheila along with her fellow board members have for the theatre.

Beginnings

I always enjoying learning about how people first discovered their love for the theatre. For Sheila, it began at age 7. Her aunt used to perform in the local Amateur Dramatic Arts society. “As a child, I used to be allowed to see the dress rehearsal, but would never be able to stay until the end”.

She would later go on to join the same society and was consequently bitten by the theatre bug. After this, she moved to London to go to college and joined the local choir and operatic society as a hobby.

She continued to be a performer and some of her favourite roles include Mrs Lovett and the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, Eliza Doolittle, Dolly, The Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods. With fewer roles available for older women, she turned her hand to directing and got a bigger buzz out of it. For the past 25 years, she has been directing for Artform and for many other local companies too.

Directing

So how does one approach being a director? “I go to the theatre a lot, which always thumb_60933099provides inspiration and you build up a bank of ideas. As well as studying and analysing the text itself, I do as much research around the piece as I can. The cast need to understand their characters and how they influence the whole drive of the piece.

“My thing is always taking the audience with you. It’s about paring it back to its simplest messages and making sure they come across, and that the audience care about the characters.”

What’s next for Artform?

Artform’s next production will be ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ which will run from 9th to 13th October 2019. In the musical, created by duo Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, we follow Franklin Shephard a songwriter and film producer and see the sacrifices he’s made to get to where he is. The twist is that the show is revealed in reverse order; we meet Franklin towards the end of his career and by the finale we see a young Franklin about to embark onto young adulthood.

Eagle-eyed followers of Artform will notice that they like to theme their seasons. In the previous season, the darker shows such as ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and ‘Assassins’ explored the bleaker aspects of society.  

In the current season, with ‘The Last Five Years’ and ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, audiences are being treated to two time-travel pieces. In the Last Five Years, Cathy’s story is revealed in reverse order. Similarly, in Merrily We Roll Along, as the show progresses, the show journeys back in time.

And Hot off the Press! I’m pleased to announce that for Artform’s next season they will be staging The Elephant Man and A Chorus Line which I’m very much looking forward to seeing.

Following my conversation with Sheila, I’ve learnt so much. Most importantly, I’ve learnt that as an audience member, you can enjoy many different aspects of the show. But until you develop an understanding of all the work that goes on behind the scenes, this appreciation can only be surface level at best. I’m in awe of  Sheila and the brilliant people at Artform for dedicating their energy and efforts to staging wonderful productions for audience members to enjoy and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Thanks for reading! And a huge thank you to Sheila for allowing me to interview her.

If you’d like to hear more from Artform, here’s their links:

Website: http://www.artform.org.uk/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ArtformTheatre/
Instagram: @artform_uk 

YouTube: Artform Theatre 

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In the ‘Why We Tell the Story’ series, I’m looking to interview the variety of people who help make theatre magic happen. I’d love to interview a cross section of individuals from writers to musicians and casting directors. If you’d like to be part of the series or know someone who you’d like to be featured, please let me know in the comment section below! #whywetellthestory

 

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