Celebrating Gemma Bodinetz’s 17 years as Artistic Director at Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse Theatres
“In the course of a night watching a play in a theatre you can have a new thought, a new sensitivity to something, and if you change people, you’ll end up changing society.” (Athol Fugard)
For me, aged just three years old when she took up her position, Gemma Bodinetz is synonymous with the Liverpool theatre scene. I have been visiting the Everyman and Playhouse theatres since old enough to sit through a performance. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantomime was my first visit; I was carried back to the car fast asleep, but still clutching my inflatable sax. Since then, due to Gemma’s often progressive programming, I have never been away from the theatres for too long.
From bossing friends around in the playground to a leading figure in regional theatre, Gemma has always exercised her love for human sociology. Inspired after reading Peter Brook’s, The Empty Space age fourteen, she recognised her destiny had a name-theatre director. Subsequently, Gemma was to be acclaimed as best director at the UK Theatre Awards and her company won the innovation award at The Stage Awards in 2017.
Rejecting 1980s consumerism, Gemma temporarily relocated to Ireland to study at Trinity College, Dublin and became heavily involved in the drama society, Players. On her return to the UK, Gemma assisted many esteemed theatre-makers including Max Stafford-Clark and Harold Pinter. She worked as a freelance director before gaining the role of Artistic Director at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.
Upon her arrival, Gemma had been tasked with the job of improving the theatrical offering in Liverpool after the city’s performing arts organisations were named the weakest bid in the winning proposal to European Capital of Culture 2008. Gemma also had the responsibility of responding to a Feasibility Study which declared the two theatres were no longer fit for purpose. Gemma and her team immediately started generating a stream of productions, both classics and new writing in order to regain national recognition. Most importantly, as the only Artistic Director of both the Everyman and the Playhouse to date, Gemma had the ability to satisfy two complementary but discrete audiences, astutely managing by recognising the market. Within constraints she deftly balanced her commitment to innovation with more popular or traditional fare. By maintaining quality as the underpinning common denominator, both theatres were given a future. A shrewd ticket pricing strategy was undoubtedly a contributory factor.
The new Everyman building beat tough competition from the London Aquatics Centre and The Shard, in winning the 2014 RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture and also claimed World Architecture News Best Performance Space 2014. The size of the performance space had its detractors- but Gemma’s determination to follow the design footprint of the chapel originally on site has been exonerated, perhaps an endorsement from a higher authority…
Just as the facade of the new Everyman features laser cuttings of 105 Liverpudlians, Gemma has continually championed inclusivity and democracy. An impromptu stage debut in 2018, standing in for an ill actor, proved Gemma’s sincere love for the theatre and comradeship with all involved. Frequently blurring the boundaries between the professionals and the audience, open days and areas such as the Writer’s Room invite the public to participate. The Open Day gave me the opportunity to tour the backstage “working parts” that are usually hidden, and an insight to the theatre as a place of work, as well as a golden opportunity to see the invention and skills used in the making of the props and fabulous costumes.
Young Everyman Playhouse (YEP), which launched in 2012, has provided multiple opportunities for young people aged 14-25, regardless of their circumstances. Gemma has referred to YEP as, “one of the foundation stones that as an organisation I am so thrilled you know happened in my time” and considers it, “part of that ecology in terms of making theatre.”
Whilst on placement at University, I reviewed many performances at the Everyman and Playhouse theatres. I particularly enjoyed Gemma’s last production, Miracle on 34th Street, which told of faith and true love cutting through the commercialism of Christmas.
Watching Gemma address an audience of young students, she cannot conceal in her earnest, hair-tweaking delivery that she is deeply committed to ensuring live theatre survives and thrives. Gemma, we thank you for how invested you have been in Liverpool’s theatre and people, and send you on your journey with the Irish blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back …”