Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment Magazine The Ticket, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of thirty years. They have a son and a daughter in their early twenties – and the family is completed by a Bedlington Terrier puppy called Bertie! E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
David Babani - the boy who always wanted to be a producer when he grew up achieved his ambition before he left his teens... and now runs the hugely successful Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre. He talks to Judi Herman .
‘I’ve got a friend who swears blind there’s some vault full of chocolate and he keeps trying to smell it out but I haven’t come across it yet. The thing about chocolate is that it’s warm and inviting, like this building ‘.
We’re sitting companionably side by side in the empty auditorium. David Babani looks around proprietarily as well he might, for he runs the hugely successful Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark.
It was once exactly that, but now it’s a theatre with its own restaurant above. The recipe seems to work. It’s quickly become one of London’s trendiest, most ambitious producing theatres. And its director, at twenty-nine, is still one of the country’s youngest theatre producers. Yet with ten years experience, he’s already achieved ambitions others wait a lifetime to realize.
In the space of a year, this 160-seat theatre has transferred two major musicals to the West End after sell-out runs. And as Mencken and Ashman’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ was about to open, the first transfer, Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, won an astonishing five Olivier Awards, beating off the strongest competition in years from ‘Spamalot’, ‘Wicked’, ‘Cabaret’, ‘Evita’ and ‘The Sound of Music’.
‘One day’, I joke, ‘they’ll make a musical of ‘The David Babani’ story!’ I want to know what made him want to be a producer rather than an actor.
‘I’ve never really wanted to be an actor’ he demurs. ‘Growing up, I became very involved in the technical side of theatre, as a lighting designer. That’s how I got to understand the various jobs in very specialised areas in the theatre’. Respect, he feels, and an understanding of the process of making theatre is vital for a producer.
He could have added flair, drive, vision – and an uncanny feel for the Zeitgeist, but he’s a modest man. I look in vain for a theatrical streak running in his family.
‘‘I’ve no idea where it comes from. It’s Black Magic, my mother says’, he smiles. ‘She’s a bridge teacher, my father was a children’s book publisher and there’s nobody in other generations. It’s just something that luckily came very naturally to me and that I love and worked very hard at. You have to learn from the inside, to gain from experience and that’s why there aren’t any courses to teach you how to become a producer that I’m aware of, it’s an impossible thing to teach’.
In a way, Babani did learn to be a producer at school, where he had his first taste of both producing and directing. In 1997, aged only nineteen, he made waves with an ambitious production of Sondheim’s ‘Assassins’ at the New End Theatre. He was headhunted to run the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre and in 2000 he brought the ‘The Donkey Show’, a large-scale ribald rock retelling of Shakespeare’s ‘Dream’, from New York to sell-out runs in Edinburgh and London.
There’s often a Jewish theme to his work, from producing musicals by Jewish writers, to his involvement in the Arts initiative DASH, notably with his production of Ryan Craig’s brilliant dissection of the Arab-Israeli conflict, ‘What We Did to Weinstein’
‘I was very proud of it’ he says. ‘I’m very true to my roots and Jews make up a very large proportion of the Chocolate Factory’s audience’.
Babani even lives above the ‘shop’, in a loft apartment above the theatre. So is there time for a social life?
‘Definitely! I do live theatre, but there’s got to be balance. Now that The Chocolate Factory has hit its stride, I’m still very much part of the building but there’s time to travel, to find more exciting projects to do here, to see friends and to relax and just be a human being…’
‘Little Shop of Horrors’ runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre London where it’s booking until 1September 2007 Web : www.littleshopthemusical.com.
The current production at The Menier Chocolate Factory is ‘Total Eclipse’ by Christopher Hampton. Web : www.menierchocolatefactory.com
This is an extended version of an article that appears in the April 2007 issue of the magazine Jewish Renaissance.
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Daniel Evens as George with Company
Total Edips Photo Nobby Darke
Lttle Shop of Horro's Photo Alastair Muir