A Spotlight on Keith Merrill, Artistic Director of The Salon
Ahead of the script-in-hand staged reading of Ghosts at The Other Palace on the 31st March, Caroline Worswick, Deputy Editor of North West End UK, discusses the upcoming show and what the ethos is behind The Salon. This collaborative support network for upcoming talent also brings the audience a new dimension in theatre entertainment which combines cabaret and theatre for your evening of entertainment.
The Salon in its first few shows has attracted international actors to perform for the company with a range of interesting scripts with unique adaptations.
You created The Salon in a basement in New York in 2012, with a plan to host the best of British theatre in a modern baroque salon. Apart from the pesky COVID, how are your plans for The Salon going so far?
Well, we’ve definitely come a long way since that basement in Queens, New York! To tell you the truth, it was partly COVID that gave me the impetus to restart The Salon. Being stripped of all possibilities, I decided I’d need to create my own as well as to provide some for others. And it’s off to a running start – with our sold-out presentation of Entertaining Mr Sloane starring Harriet Thorpe (Janie Dee performing our signature preshow concert) and our West End premiere with a brand-new Nicky Silver play at our base at The Other Palace starring Sara Kestelman. I’m really happy with the progress so far. I just need to get the word out. So, THANK YOU for helping me!
The Salon performs staged readings rather than fully rehearsed plays, can you explain why you decided on this approach?
Eleanora Duse and Eva Le Gallienne both had visions of a theatre affordable to the people. Eventually, I want my company to do full scale productions but those are, to say the least, pricey. The reading concept allows for a few things: with only a few days rehearsal with top actors I can offer a highly watchable show, which after a few minutes, the audience actually forgets there’s a book in hand, also the low cost of this process means I can charge my audiences much less while offering a regular and more varied diet of repertoire – all the while giving actors, directors and artists more scope and opportunities to be seen and/ or simply to perform interesting work they might never get the chance to get their teeth into. I like to think of The Salon as an adult playground for us all. In our March 31st show, I have a wonderful harpist playing pop music, a sensational rising star dancer doing my preshow act, a stunning visual artist illustrating for us as well as our writer, Nick Beaumont, creating another dramaturgical essay in ‘Nick’s Notes’. I love that the concept can bring so many art forms to one stage.
Can you describe The Salon’s casting policy, which almost seems to have a mentor programme dynamic?
I’m so pleased you picked up on this. As a former actor myself, I never had the right champions behind me. So, I’d like to be that for artists, in my small way. So, I try very hard to find unsung talent. I’ve ‘discovered’ several of our artists performing on train platforms, on the street, working at coffee shops. I take the time to actively find gifted individuals who are not getting the opportunities they deserve, and I offer a chance to work with established artists (often star names) in something they could potentially be seen in by ‘the right people’. I once found a stunning violinist on a NY subway platform, asked him to work with me, invited the associate conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and got him an audition for the Met. I love making those connections. It makes me so happy. I want The Salon to be a bit like Schwabs in old Hollywood. A place where connections are made, and information is shared.
Your career has been a varied one with training in musical theatre, international stage shows and vocal teaching. As Artistic Director, does this varied career path explain your multi-disciplined approach when constructing the programme at The Salon?
It goes back to studying at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. When accepted I was assured that the school with all these wonderful departments worked together on projects. Once there, I quickly realised – they don’t. Since then, I’ve dreamed of a place for all art forms to collide and collaborate. I’m trying to make that happen. I think I’ve definitely spread myself thin over my career but you’re absolutely right – it’s given me a very multi-dimensional discernment.
Your latest London offering Ghosts, has been staged before by The Salon in 2015. You personally adapted Eva Le Gallienne’s version of the original play written by Ibsen. What drew you to this translation of the play?
Eva is my hero. Sarah Bernhardt and Duse were hers. I want to continue passing the baton for these visionaries who truly believed in theatre for the people. I directed her translation in NY with Michael Urie but always felt I’d like to put my stamp on it, somehow. Eva was a brilliant actress who not only idolised Ibsen, but she spoke his language fluently. (She translated all of Ibsen as well as Chekhov and was the first person to introduce America to his work) I think the combination creates the most honest and accurate translation of Ibsen’s poetry. However, as good as she is, it was still written in the early 1900’s. So, I took her brilliant work and gave it a modern voice and some more relevant high stakes for today’s un-shockable generation. I hope she and Ibsen would like it.
For those who do not know this play, can you give a brief outline of the story?
Helen Alving is welcoming home her 23 yr old daughter (in the original a son) after sending her away at 9 to be raised by another family (we later find out the dark reason why). The daughter’s homecoming is for her father’s memorial service and the opening of an orphanage that he built. While there, the harrowing truths about the past, present and the future come to light and some horrifying discoveries are made. The play is about how the ghosts of our past come back to haunt us – the idea that they never really let us go. (Having said that, it’s also really funny too!)
You describe your adaptation of Ghosts as ‘female driven’. Can you expand on why your version of the play has a greater emphasis on women?
I think we men have had our time to take the focus. Especially white men. Ibsen wrote so beautifully for females, and I simply wanted more feminine power in the piece – creating a deeper connection and also offering an interesting gay subplot. (I like the idea that in my Ibsen play homosexuality appears and it’s not even an issue) But the inspiration came from a painting by Munch. The Inheritance. It shows a mother holding her daughter who is covered in syphilis marks. I immediately made the change. I recently adapted a very white breaded Ivor Novello operetta over lockdown and did a similar thing – Sharon D. Clarke, Amara Okereke and Evie Rose Lane were my leading ladies and the men – mere supporting roles.
I think I am correct in saying that your London launch show was Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, swiftly followed by The Einstein Letter. How frequently do you plan to host these shows? And what can we hope to see in future from The Salon?
My aim is to bring a new show every month or two – audience numbers willing! Upcoming: I’m just finishing my adaptation of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, to be directed by Scott Schwartz, Liliom by Molnar (the inspiration for Carousel) as well as an epic Tennyson poem which I’m making into a narrative modern ballet. But my passion is simply excellent writing, so I’m looking forward to doing some musical theatre as well as some Lorca, Havel, Ayckbourn, Stoppard, Tennessee Williams, Albee and of course discovering some more new and worthy voices (I accept unsolicited scripts by the way!).