Interview with Joanna Read

The noted theatre director talks about dispelling drama school preconceptions, reducing tuition fees and negotiating with local gangs

April 6, 2017
Joanna Read

Joanna Read is a theatre director and librettist. Her works include a musical version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities with music composed by Howard Goodall. In 2010, she became the first female principal of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda), the oldest drama school in the UK. Alumni include David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson. Later this year, Lamda will be opening a new £27 million centre for drama training and public performances on its Hammersmith campus.

Where and when were you born?

Stroud, Gloucestershire, March 1968.

How has this shaped you?

I prefer the country to the city and need to see green spaces regularly. I have that quiet country contempt of the city and city folk who get excited over a new bar. That said, there wasn’t much to do as a teenager in my village: it was either the bus shelter or the war memorial. Stroud was the sort of place you had to get out of if you wanted to do anything ambitious – at the time there wasn’t a single university in the county. This gave me a strong drive to do something, in that typical 1980s spirit.

How does Lamda attract applicants from a range of backgrounds when there is a certain presumption that drama school is for white, middle-class young people?

We put a lot of resources and energy into proactively reaching out to people. We work in partnership with organisations in the arts and young people’s services across the UK and through our Pathways programme and access work, to ensure our training is accessible to anyone, regardless of background. We are a specialist conservatoire, but are very outward-looking and work with others to make those who might not think drama school is for them aware of us. We run workshops and we use our graduates to deliver some of this work too. So when people come to Lamda, participate in one of our workshops or watch a production, it’s likely they will see someone they can really relate to.

Many concerns have been voiced about the damage caused by cuts to arts funding. Why is it so important to protect funding for the arts, even when budgets are being squeezed?

Arts tell the narrative of our lives, our stories. Arts challenge and inspire, and enable us to see our life in relation to others. They socialise us and make us human and humane. You cut the arts, you cut all this.

One of the big political themes of the last year has been the strength of emotive appeals over objective facts in influencing public opinion. Do you see any implications of this for theatre, and the impact it can have?

Emotive appeals aren’t good theatre. Good theatre always engages your emotion; great theatre makes you think and feel, in that order. Actually there has been a rise in factual-based theatre in the past 10 years – verbatim plays for example, such as the Donmar’s recent programme of plays based on historic events and real people. I sense a return to Brecht coming on: something that will provoke, challenge and delight.  

What was the most disastrous production you have been involved with?

I was assistant director on a community play. It wasn’t a disaster but it had its moments. It had a lot of big scenes in it that were tricky to stage. For example, there was a forklift truck in the show that was so heavy it broke the stage; the Rolls-Royce, which was on loan, got stuck in the backstage doors and was heavily scratched, and at the end of the final show all the sound gear got nicked and we had to ask a member of the cast to negotiate with the local gang to get it back.

What kind of undergraduate were you?

Enthusiastic, passionate about my subject and probably a bit bolshie. [The University of] Bristol had a society for people who came from comprehensive schools – the “Comp Soc”. I didn’t join!

What project would you undertake if money was no issue?

Accommodation for the students so they have the campus near at hand and don’t have to travel – making it cheaper and easier for them.

If you were a prospective university student in England now facing £9,000-plus fees, would you enrol again or go straight into work?

I would go to university again. I wanted to be a director and an artistic director. Reading drama at Bristol, although not a direct route to a job, gave me a breadth of knowledge of plays that meant I could programme a theatre. It was invaluable when I was an artistic director.

What achievement are you most proud of?

Personally, seeing my students reach their fullest potential. Practically, Lamda’s new building. 

If you were the higher education minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce?

I would reduce fees and reinstate the teaching grant.

What is the strangest letter or gift you have ever received?

A letter of complaint that accused me of “Anglo-Saxon, feminist programming”. I was very proud.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Say it and then do. Be confident and tell people what you plan to do. And keep wearing those braces.


Ana Deletic has been appointed pro vice-chancellor (research) at the University of New South Wales. Professor Deletic, who takes up her position in July, joins from Monash University where she is associate dean of research in the faculty of engineering, professor of civil engineering, and director of Monash Infrastructure, an interdisciplinary research institute. She completed her doctorate at the University of Aberdeen and worked there until she joined Monash in 2003. “UNSW is focused on recruiting world-class candidates to become the research leaders of tomorrow,” said Nicholas Fisk, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at UNSW. “Professor Deletic’s track record in research and leadership experience certainly meets all the criteria.”

Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, has been chosen as chair of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading research-intensive universities. He takes up his role in September. A Glasgow alumnus, Professor Muscatelli was principal and vice-chancellor of Heriot-Watt University from 2007 to 2009. “Now, more than ever at this time of uncertainty and change, it is vital that the UK’s leading research-intensive universities have their voices heard and heeded,” Professor Muscatelli said. “I look forward to working with colleagues to ensure this, and to continue promoting Russell Group universities at home and abroad.”

Auburn University has announced Steven Leath as its 19th president. Dr Leath is currently president of Iowa State University.

Pauline Williams, senior vice-president and head of global health R&D at GlaxoSmithKline, and Richard Murley, a vice-chairman of Rothschild, have been appointed to the council of the Medical Research Council.

Keypath Education has appointed Catalina Rossellini as chief operating officer and Vinita Sood as director of student operations and launch.

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