9 March 2011
By Michael Holland
Awards Season, so everyone should now be fed up with seeing Colin Firth collecting shiny things for stuttering well, and we all know the Oscars is a farcical fest of nepotism, but at street level Southwark’s plethora of small fringe theatres are also in the running for ‘real’ awards; awards that reflect the great work they do for the arts and the community, and at affordable prices.
Over the years at the Union Theatre, along with her army of volunteers, friends and business partner Ben De Wynter, Sasha Regan has been picking up prestigious awards for so many things I fail to remember them all, and this year is no different, with nominations for Best Production, Best New Play, Best Set Design, Best Director and a host of others.
I went to see her just a few days before the winners were selected at Wilton’s Music Hall.
Now in her 14th year at the former paper warehouse under a railway arch she told me how the theatre had developed in that time: ‘We did mainly new plays at the beginning and we still continue to promote new writing now; many a visitor, stranger or friend has passed me a script that I have ended up producing.
You never know what story someone might have to tell. Then when the recession hit we found that people were less likely to risk their money on an unknown piece but happy to buy tickets for more popular works; so we started to produce lots of musicals and well-known plays. Then, as our audiences have grown and they have come to trust us, you can invite them to a new play and they will come. It has been like building a relationship with and for my regulars.’
Of course, with two daughters this has only been possible with the help of husband Sean, who took the role of stay-at-home dad. ‘We have found that it works really well. Although, I feel terrible guilt when I am working a lot and miss the girls so much,’ she reveals. ‘A few tears on the way to work and then into the rehearsal room.
’She looked wistfully round the café that fronts the theatre and which some may call bijou. ‘The flip side to that is that I love my work and my two girls get to see that you can be a mum and have a rewarding career too. They come into rehearsals, play dress up in the costumes and get to see lots of wonderful theatre.’
Working hard for little financial return means she relies on the goodwill of others: ‘We have lots of actors who volunteer their help. It has to be a flexible workplace, so that if people land a nice part they can leave and come back later. Andrew does all of our stunning artwork for the flyer designs and Big Steve has been lighting my shows for ten years. We are friends that work together.’
She laughs as she recalls a night out at the What's On Stage Awards last year: ‘My cast had to perform on the Mamma Mia set at The Prince of Wales Theatre. I was sat, with Sean and my mum, behind Sir Ian McKellan, Sir Patrick Stewart and Matthew Kelly. Mum tucked in Matthew Kelly's label in the back of his shirt. It was a fantastic night.’
She remembers one nomination that made her smile: ‘I was nominated for Best Director in the Broadway World 2010 Awards and I was up against directors from world famous shows such as Legally Blonde, Hairspray and Sweet Charity - the voters must have wondered who on earth I was! I didn't win!’
In recent times shows produced at the Union have found themselves transferred to the West End, and this is a very big deal: ‘The first transfer was 'A Man of No Importance' directed by Ben De Wynter. We went to The Arts Theatre in town. On the first night I sat at the back of the theatre and had tears rolling down my face. I was so proud.’
But it’s not just those major successes that hit the spot: ‘Every now and again I am watching a play in the Union and I look at all the people. I listen to them laughing or see them all totally engrossed in the drama and a wave of pride just washes over me.’
But along with the highs there are the lows: ‘It is hard being self-employed when you are sick or your family need you. I cant always walk away.’
Obviously inured to the hardships Sasha Regan looks onwards and upwards: ‘We are taking Iolanthe to Wilton’s in March. The show is a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. Not many people know it but it is magical. Lots of fun and even the hardest and most doubting of people come and enjoy it.’
I asked what her plans were after that: ‘We have some really exciting plans in the pipeline but I’m not allowed to say.’ I was intrigued to know more but all she told me was that there was a season of short comedies and then Godspell in April.
As the time came for her to get back to work I asked if she had any last words: ‘I would love people to come down and try the Union; even if you have never been to a theatre before or have only ever visited big theatres.
‘You can always ring us for some advice - I can normally help with what show would suit you. It is better than sitting at home!’
I second that.
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