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30.3.15

Felix Cross' Blog: The beginning of a new era

After 19 years and 20 days, Felix Cross reflects on his time as Artistic Director of Nitro

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Nineteen years ago I walked up to the front door of Black Theatre Co-operative's office in Dalston to begin my first ever full-time job... On March 31, after nineteen years and twenty days, I will be giving up my post as Artistic Director... Seventeen years after BTC was formed, I came along with a whole heap of musical theatre work behind me, so it was inevitable that this would be the way forward. The name change to Nitro reflected the dynamism of this new direction. Now we are ready for the next step change in the company's history...


Nineteen years ago - at 9.30am on 11 March to be precise - after years of precarious self-employment as a musician, composer, playwright, director and stand-up comedian - I walked up to the front door of Black Theatre Co-operative's office in Dalston to begin my first ever full-time job.

There have only been two jobs I have ever wanted: Artistic Director of BTC/Nitro (tick...) and commentator on BBC radio Test Match Special (that desire quickly waning with the demise of both John Arlott and West Indian cricket). Getting off the train at Dalston Kingsland station that morning, I remember thinking that, of all the commuters around me, indeed of all the people on the planet, I must be the luckiest. In the mid-80s, I had seen BTC's production of Redemption Song at Battersea Arts Centre and come away reeling with the energy both onstage and in the audience. BTC was the oldest black theatre company in the country, in Europe; and now I was being paid for the privilege of being their Artistic Director; I was living a dream. Nineteen years later, even allowing for the few hiccups that naturally occur along the way, I'm yet to wake up.

Well, actually I'm just about to wake up. On March 31, after nineteen years and twenty days, I will be giving up my post as Artistic Director. Running Nitro has certainly not been a long holiday, but there is an old maxim about holidays - that the best ones are those that you excitedly anticipate, thoroughly enjoy and leave you at the end fulfilled yet ready to go home. That's a pretty good description of my time with the company. I am now very ready to move on.

As you will know, eighteen months ago I moved with my family to Sydney. This was precipitated by my wife's new job there and, I guess, a feeling on my part that I wanted to try something new. I wasn't sure what, but I could sense in Australia there was an opportunity, a door, not opened but unlocked. I also knew that before I got too old and stupid I needed to return to being a composer, playwright and director full-time.

But timing is everything and my move would not have been practical if Diane Morgan hadn't walked through the door one morning to begin her post as Project Producer for 'Tales from The Edge'. She quickly stepped up to being the company's Executive Producer and it became blindingly clear to me that, if I left Nitro she was the person with the vision, energy and passion to take it forward.

This company has always read the signs and adapted to change. Founded in 1979 as Black Theatre Co-operative, it was a true co-operative, like a number of other radical companies from the 1980s; the director, writer and actors all had equal say and some very exciting work was made. But all co-operatives have a limited shelf life and BTC was no exception; change was due. After a few years they began to appoint Artistic Directors as CEO: Malcolm Fredrick, Joanne-Anne Maynard then me.

Seventeen years after BTC was formed, I came along with a whole heap of musical theatre work behind me, so it was inevitable that this would be the way forward. The name change to Nitro reflected the dynamism of this new direction. Our strap-line "Explosive Entertainment" was reflected in shows like Passports to the Promised Land, Nitro at the Opera, Slamdunk, our manyNitrobeat festivals, An Evening of Soul Food, An African Cargo, The Wedding Dance and Desert Boy.

Now we are ready for the next step change in the company's history. But I shall leave it up to Diane and her team to tell you what Nitro is going to be doing. All I can say is that it is exciting, brave and vital to the development of black theatre in England.

Writing this, on a hot February night (I still can't get used to the idea of a hot February) I am inevitably looking back over the years. There have been some extraordinary highlights: 2000 people turning up to the Royal Opera House for A Nitro At the Opera, 75% of them never having been to an opera before, witnessing some extraordinary new pieces by black composers who had never thought of writing opera before; Slamdunk at Birmingham Rep - sold out, dancing on the seats, everyone taking pictures on their phones, drums bass and DJ, basketball players and dancers - a milestone in hip hop theatre; the last night of The Wedding Dance at Greenwich Theatre - for the first time on the tour we get a significant black audience and they really understand the layers of meaning in the play; it's not just a salsa dance show! Of course there have been many more but, right now, those three moments are imprinted on my mind.

I've been in Sydney for eighteen months now so, despite the many flights and hours of skype undertaken in that time, the process of separation has already begun. But it is now, as I write this, that I realise how much I will miss my colleagues, the staff members over the years who have helped push the company forward, who believed in Nitro's ideals and who cared passionately about our work, our artists and our audiences. I shall also miss the truly heroic generosity of our many board members who, for love of the company (or occasionally for other reasons), would put in the unpaid hours to attempt to govern the ungovernable. True, with both staff and trustee, there has been the odd rogue but now is not the time to dwell on them (believe me, I have the wax dolls and I have the pins....). I would particularly like to thank those long-gone board members who interviewed me nineteen years ago and who gave me the job in the first place. You may have spent times questioning the wisdom of your choice but I'd like to think I have tried to prove over the years that it was just about the right decision.

And of course I'd like to thank the many artists: actors, choreographers, composers, dancers, designers, musicians, singers, writers; as well as the stage managers, production managers and all those we have employed to put on our many shows. I have been constantly overwhelmed by your generosity and commitment - for, frankly, the money was rubbish yet you worked and worked until the show was up and then you kept it running.

For me now, apart from sitting on beaches, drinking the most exquisitely affordable wines and avoiding deadly spiders, I am very busy. This year sees me directing a number of shows here: a remount of Nitro's first Australian show, The Prophet, in our Sydney home in Bankstown; then over in Blacktown, a semi-operatic version of an ancient Arabic legend, Leyli & Majnun; with The Stiff Gins, a fabulous Aboriginal song-writing duo, I'm directing a new show called The Spirit of Things, about the sounds of stories found in objects. In Brisbane I'm developing a show called Being Alvin, a verbatim music-theatre piece about a local Trinidadian steel pan player (we are everywhere...). I'm also composing a lot of music and last week opened a show for the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) called Between Us. And in May I'm writing the score for a show based on A Wide Sargasso Sea in Adelaide.

Oh, and next week I'm playing my second ever piano concert...

See you all sometime soon and thanks for everything.