Changing Lives  

Lou Stein, AD at Chickenshed, chats to Susan Elkin about his achievements and aspirations for this life-changing arts centre

Nearly four years ago Lou Stein was appointed artistic director and chief executive at Chickenshed, the famously inclusive, diverse North London producing company which functions as a higher/further education college as well as a youth theatre. The Chickenshed slogan is “Theatre Changing Lives” and that summarises the ethos perfectly. 

What, I asked Lou, is he proudest of having achieved in his new(ish) job in the three years since I last spoke to him? “First, we won an Offie award for our show about climate change and that puts us on an equal footing with our colleagues across the rest of London theatre. Or maybe we’re better” he grins.

“Second, I came in with the aim that we’d mount a national tour and we did it with Mr Stink. A commercial producer took it on and we toured to ten venues from Manchester, to Wales to Cheltenham and seven more. We made no casting compromises, spoke for 30 seconds at the end of each show about the work of Chickenshed and the response was wonderful.”

And he hasn’t finished. There’s a third thing. “I’m also really delighted to see younger children behaving like professional adults when that’s required and being influenced so positively by the adults they’re working with.”

Lou took over from the company’s co-founder Mary Ward in April. 2016. “Yes that’s a pretty unusual position to be in,” he agrees, given that Mary had co-founded and run Chickenshed for 42 years. His arrival, inevitably, marked the beginning of a brand-new phase.

“It took me, to tell the truth, a couple of years to learn the heart and inside of Chickenshed” he says. “It’s an intricate organisation with lofty aspirations and over 70 staff. My main aim is to bring external professional credibility to every production here, not just the ones I direct myself.” 

US-born, Lou has worked all his adult life in London. “Not long after I arrived, I went to Paris as a long-haired, 20-something idealist, to hang around Theatre Des Bouffes du Nord, where Peter Brook and his company were doing Les Ikes. I was totally inspired by Brook’s mere presence,” he says. “I’m a great believer in presence. Some people only have to be in a room and they have an enormous influence over what happens there.”

Stein has a magnificent track record of writing and directing – including working with Helen Mirren, Benedict Cumberbatch, Helena Bonham Carter and Christopher Eccleston at London’s Gate Theatre and Royal Court, in the West End, repertory theatre and on BBC drama. “But the interview and recruitment process for the Chickenshed job was the most rigorous I have ever been through,” he says.

Chickenshed is often, misleadingly, associated with disability, but Lou stresses inclusion. Many Chickenshed participants have learning difficulties as well as visible or invisible physical disabilities, but, equally, many don’t. “It’s a reflection of society as it is,” he says. “Lobbying for inclusion is like lobbying for air,” he continues optimistically. “We don’t do it because it’s just a fact of life.”

Married to composer Deirdre Gribbin, with whom he has worked extensively, Lou has a son, Ethan, 13, who has Down’s syndrome. Ethan joined Chickenshed seven years ago and it was as a parent that Stein first became fully aware of Chickenshed’s way of working.

“You see, I understand just what a person like Ethan is up against,” he says. “So many doors are closed, but at Chickenshed he has been welcomed, treated by staff and other students with love and empathy. The growth we’ve seen in him as a result is remarkable. Because theatre is my life, I was looking for something theatrical for him to do where he wouldn’t be marginalised. And he’s a real guy now – not a little boy any longer”.

Lou is a great enthusiast for learning though mentoring. “You have to acquire the basic skills and there’s so much scope for learning them from people more experienced than you,” he says. “I’ve mostly worked with younger actors over the years and mentoring is vital. And it cuts both ways. Here at Chickenshed to be learning so much at this stage in my career is terrific”.

Meanwhile, Chickenshed is a busy place because it operates on so many levels – something that is not fully understood by people who think it’s a youth theatre, producing house, a dance school, “a place for disabled kids”, or a further and higher education provider. In fact, of course, it is all of those and more. And rapidly, with Lou at the helm, it is also finding fame for its cutting-edge, highly professional productions. “It’s essential that we attract new audiences. More and more people, I’m happy to note, are realising that our shows really are worth making the little trip to Southgate for. The David Walliams play Mr Stink brought lots of people who’d never been here before.”

Is it difficult to balance the different aspects of the work given the complexity of the organisation? He chuckles. “Well I’m usually involved in a huge production. There are 800 in the cast of this Christmas’s Snow White in four teams. All my working life until now I’ve been limited to casts of four or five people so it’s a bit of a contrast.” He continues: “And at the same time I have to meet commercial producers because we’d really like to tour more shows and I’m working with Channel 4 on a series. I manage nine people directly too and I like to see them each for a meeting at least fortnightly. You see we’re so much more than a theatre. We’re a charity which changes lives.”

Snow White, directed by Lou Stein runs at Chickenshed from 27 November 2019 to 11 Jan 2020

Chickenshed, 290 Chase Side. London N14 4PE

0200 8292 9222

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