Interview: Lou Stein, Chickenshed

When Lou Stein became Artistic Director of Chickenshed in 2016, it was the latest move in an already long and distinguished career. As founder of Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre and former Artistic Director of Watford Palace Theatre, he brings to the role a wealth of professional experience – but also a unique personal appreciation for the value of Chickenshed’s work.

My son Ethan, who is now eleven, has been a member of Chickenshed’s Children’s Theatre since he was seven, and it was he who brought me to Chickenshed,” explains Lou. “He has Down Syndrome and I began to see the organisation through his eyes – the eyes of a young person with ambition who doesn’t want to be labelled as having a disability, and who loves theatre. When I saw the job advertised, I saw it as an opportunity to re-focus the direction of the company to re-energise its purpose.”

That purpose is to pioneer inclusive theatre practice, something Chickenshed has been doing for over 40 years, since the company was established in 1974 by its founder – and Lou’s predecessor – Mary Ward. In addition to its professional theatre programme, Chickenshed also has a Children’s Theatre membership programme, a Youth Theatre, an Outreach Programme, a Performances for Children division, and runs an expansive Education programme ranging from BTEC to BA courses.

The uniqueness of Chickenshed is that all our various parts work together to embed notions of inclusion and diversion across everything we do,” says Lou. “In short, inclusive theatre is the language which propels all of our activities. The most exciting thing about Chickenshed for me is that when you walk through our doors, all labels are dropped. When I talk about it, I always love the fact that we have the most diverse performers and audiences in the UK. My biggest challenge as Artistic Director has been to harness the amazing core ethos of the company, which has been in development now for 44 years, and work with the company to make our current work relevant to the future and to our societal goals.”

Originally from New York, Lou arrived in London in 1978 with a life-long interest in European theatre and politics. That passion found an outlet the following year in a room above Notting Hill’s Prince Albert pub, which would become the Gate Theatre. The Gate reflected the then bohemian community in Notting Hill and the work there was devoted to international drama, particularly work that hadn’t received an outing in the UK,” says Lou. “At that time, the chance to see innovative international work was limited and the Gate filled a very important gap. When I left to become the Artistic Director of Watford Palace, I ensured that the core of the Gate’s future work was always to centre on daring, political, and innovative premieres of international drama. And that has been the bedrock of the Gate’s success throughout the years. I am so proud that it has spawned so many brilliant directors, actors, designers and playwrights.”

After ten years as Artistic Director at Watford Palace, where he worked with some of the best talent in the UK – including Helen Mirren, who turned down a stint at the RSC to appear in a new version of Madame Bovary – Lou formed his own production company to begin creating new work which explored collaboration between art forms, particularly contemporary music and theatre.

I have always been proudest of work that I’ve done which has somehow broken ground or pointed to new directions in how things can be done,” he says. Highlights come in many shapes and forms, and the projects that stand out have somehow either changed me or people around me. Certainly the raw creativity and freedom of those early years at the Gate was a huge highlight. The Gate story is a bit of a Cinderella story. With no funding in what was a very down at the heel pub, a group of outsiders came together to create work which was highly recognised very quickly.”

Another highlight for Lou is his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was the first production at what was then called the Gate at the Latchmere (now Theatre 503), before transferring to the Fortune Theatre in the West End. “I’ll never forget Hunter Thompson – a notoriously reclusive writer – saying that he was flying in from his home in Aspen, Colorado to see the show, and if he didn’t like it, he was going to tear the theatre apart,” he recalls. “Luckily, he loved it.”

Before coming to Chickenshed, Lou wrote, produced and directed regularly for BBC Radio 3 and 4.After my son Ethan was born, I was commissioned to write and curate a five part programme for The Essay about how children affect the creations of their artist-fathers – The Father Instinct,” he explains. “In the first episode I wrote about how Ethan positively changed my work as a director and writer, and how I approach my work. His birth was the biggest highlight of my career in that what I choose to do, and how I do it, changed dramatically. Without Ethan, I wouldn’t be at Chickenshed.”

Chickenshed’s spring season recently opened with monolog, featuring a timely revival of Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance, the world premiere of Diane Samuels’ This Is Me, and six new monologues commissioned by Chickenshed from within the creative community. This will be followed in March by a new musical piece about climate change, called Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, which features nearly 150 performers drawn from young members and professional creatives who are part of Chickenshed.

Finally, in April the company presents One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest, using a physical theatre approach and working with actors drawn from its professional staff, and a number of Chickenshed actors who will bring a special understanding of the play by drawing on their cognitive disability. “I don’t know of any theatre in the country who have the courage to do a play like this with a cast as diverse, in all ways, as ours will be,” says Lou.

The professional theatre programme is the spearhead for all our activities, and by producing high quality inclusive work, all of our various strands are pulled together. My vision for Chickenshed is that it will be a confident and highly skilled professional inclusive theatre company, which clearly places itself at the centre of London theatre’s consciousness, producing unmissable work – regularly partnering with similarly minded companies and institutions. It would be good if the Arts Council recognises this new direction and helps us to sustain this goal in the future.”

To find out more about Chickenshed, visit

Review: Monolog at Chickenshed

The first time I went to Chickenshed was just over a month ago, to see a cast of hundreds in their Christmas show, Rapunzel. My second visit, in dramatic contrast, was an altogether quieter affair: Monolog, as the name suggests, is an evening of solo performances in the intimate Chickenshed studio. Artistic Director Lou Stein has put together a programme that simultaneously celebrates two of the nation’s favourite writers – Alan Bennett and Diane Samuels – and showcases original work from new voices within the Chickenshed community.

In a twist to the format, every audience will see a slightly different show; there are six new plays altogether, but only two will be performed on any given evening. In addition, the second monologue of the night, Diane Samuels’ This Is Me, will be performed on alternate days by 15-year-old Lucy-Mae Beacock and the “somewhat older” Belinda McGuirk (I’m not being rude, that’s what it says in the programme) – who also performs the first piece, Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance. Got all that?

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Our particular programme began with Belinda McGuirk as Lesley in Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance. She’s a likeable but naive actress who thinks she’s got her big break in a movie, but can’t see how she’s being manipulated into doing everything she always swore she’d never do. This is a well-timed revival of Bennett’s brilliantly written monologue – originally performed by Julie Walters for TV’s Talking Heads – which shines a light on the treatment of women in the showbiz industry, while also addressing the question (one we’re all getting far too used to hearing these days) of why any self-respecting woman would possibly choose to go along with such behaviour.

The evening continued with Lucy-Mae Beacock in Diane Samuels’ This Is Me. Less a play, more a series of snapshots, the piece is made up of snippets from Samuels’ unpublished autobiography. But – once again – there’s a twist; each memory is written on a piece of cloth and handed out to the audience, thus giving us the power to decide which stories we hear and in what order. Far from appearing daunted by the prospect of a constantly changing script, however, teenager Lucy-Mae Beacock gives an impressively assured and engaging performance. She never once hesitates or stumbles, and brings a youthful innocence to the words and memories of a woman more than three times her age.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Of the six pieces of new writing commissioned, we were treated first to Last Piece of the Sun, created by Alesha Bhakoo, Dave Carey and Milly Rolle. A deceptively light-hearted opening leads us quickly into rather more serious territory, as a young woman in her 20s reflects on the life-changing consequences of a one night stand. The short piece is beautifully performed by Alesha Bhakoo, and packs quite the emotional punch just when we least expect it.

The final piece of this particular evening was the intriguing I Find Love in a Bin, written by Peter Dowse and directed by Tiia Mäkinen. The short piece features Sarah Connolly as a woman who has, quite literally, just found love in a bin at Waterloo Station. The discovery both delights and troubles her, and sparks a flurry of questions and emotions; she has no idea whose love it is, and knows only that it doesn’t belong to her – however much she might want it to.

Both of these new pieces will be performed again – though not necessarily together – as the run continues. The only downside of the mix and match format is that we don’t get to see all six, although hopefully there’ll be further opportunities in the future to see the ones we missed: Dinner With My Dead Dad, Sands of Time, The Creature in the Dark and Walls Like Paper.

Where Rapunzel was big, loud and colourful, Monolog proves that a good story well told by a single voice can have just as big an impact as a stage full of people. More than that, though, the show is an exciting opportunity to see the talent being nurtured within the Chickenshed community. A thoroughly entertaining – and unique – evening.

Monolog is at Chickenshed until 3rd March.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Rapunzel at Chickenshed

If you thought Rapunzel was the story of a girl sitting in a tower waiting for a handsome prince to rescue her – think again. Chickenshed’s ambitious and heartwarming version of the well-known fairy tale is notable not only for its conspicuous lack of princes, but also for a heroine who more than knows how to take care of herself and the people she cares about. Nor is the story all about Rapunzel; we spend just as much time discovering the magical world in which she lives, and following her parents as they search ceaselessly and with unwavering – and ultimately rewarded – hope for their stolen child.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

The story, written and directed by Lou Stein, begins in the attic of a house on the outskirts of London, where six children and their childminder Hazel fall asleep while reading stories. They’re spirited away into Hazel’s dream, in which she’s Rapunzel and has been locked in a tower by Gothel the Witch. These leaves her young charges alone in the woods, where they encounter many magical creatures, among them dryads, underground gnomes and hinky punks. Meanwhile, the Kind Kingdom ruled by Rapunzel’s parents is populated by artisans, royal servants, urchins and more.

When all these groups come together on stage in one of Dave Carey’s rousing ensemble musical numbers, it’s a pretty awesome sight. The total cast for the production numbers 800 (with four rotating teams taking their turn at different performances) and brilliantly showcases Chickenshed’s mission to create inclusive theatre. This show has a role for everyone, and though this means the story at times gets a bit confusing, the overwhelming enthusiasm from all involved is far more joyous to watch than a simpler plot or a smaller, more polished cast would be.

Which is not to say there isn’t a considerable amount of talent on display. Cerys Lambert is a feisty Rapunzel with a beautiful singing voice; Philip Rothery nails the physical comedy in his role as Henry the clumsy woodsman; and Gemilla Shamruk steals the show at the end of Act 1 with Gothel’s dramatic solo number, Don’t Mess With Me. The show also features signing throughout, incorporated seamlessly into the performance of Loren Jacobs and Belinda McGuirk as dryads, and a fantastic band tucked away at the back of the stage.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Nor is it accurate to say this production isn’t polished – managing a fairly complicated plot whilst getting that many children on and off stage with a minimum of fuss is no easy task, yet somehow everyone always ends up in the right place at the right time. This is in no small part thanks to Lucy Sierra’s brilliantly inventive set, which is riddled with secret trap doors, balconies and hidden tunnels, allowing multiple ways in and out so that the action can always keep flowing.

The show is advertised as “Rapunzel as you’ve never seen her before!” and this production certainly delivers on that promise. Along with a magically entertaining story, enjoyable solo performances and toe-tapping tunes, this version sends us away with three particularly powerful messages: look out for each other, don’t fight, and never give up hope. Most importantly, it’s all performed by a passionate, diverse cast whose joy is infectious and truly uplifting. This was my first visit to Chickenshed – and I hope it won’t be the last.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉