Russia kicks out British Council and ends 60 years cultural exchange

Russia kicks out British Council and ends 60 years cultural exchange

By Simon Tait

Top 10 suffer drop in visitors

Top 10 suffer drop in visitors

London less successful than rest of UK, according to ALVA figures

TaitMail     The enchantment quotient

TaitMail The enchantment quotient

Hooray! Despite everything, Brexit, terror attacks, Southern Rail and London Bridge Station,  the Beast from the East, Russian nerve gas and the Arsenal’s dismal form, tourism is up!

THE WORD     Working to keep playing – vital support our musicians need

THE WORD Working to keep playing – vital support our musicians need

A musician’s career is precarious and its stresses can have a devastating effect on their health and well-being. The charity Help Musicians UK is 100 in 2021 and has increased its impact by 600% in three years. Its chairman, Graham Sheffield, director arts for the British Council, sets out its mission and centenary target

THEATRE    British theatre's unseen East Asian playwrights

THEATRE British theatre's unseen East Asian playwrights

A source of great drama is missing from the British canon. A conference next month aims to open the treasure chest of work by South East Asian playwrights and theatre-makers, as Cheryl Robson, founder of the publisher Aurora Metro, explains

Hull’s cultural explosion seen by 5.3m

Hull’s cultural explosion seen by 5.3m

A total audience of 5.3m went to 2,800 events in Hull during its successful UK City of Culture year in 2012, according to the University of Hull.

Artists back Bradford Odeon venue plan

Culture leaders urge Hancock to use Northern Powerhouse funding

UK soft power exports worth £21bn, £6bn more than official stats

UK soft power exports worth £21bn, £6bn more than official stats

New research published today shows that the value of the UK’s creative digital exports, from video games to the BBC’s Blue Planet - our so-called soft power - is £6bn higher than official figures, at £21bn a year.

THEATRE    Traveller's tales and mission faith with the RSC

THEATRE Traveller's tales and mission faith with the RSC

Erica Whyman, deputy artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is in charge of its touring programme, and as the current tour ends there are some popular myths, she tells Simon Tait, that need to be set right

 We're losing our future music makers!

We're losing our future music makers!

The crisis in music education, with teenagers’ involvement at its lowest level ever, means the next David Bowie, Adele or Ed Sheeran will be lost to the future, unless a new consortium being launched tonight in Shepherds Bush can halt the slide. Simon Tait reports 

Sky man to take over ENO

Sky man to take over ENO

Former television executive Stuart Murphy is to be the new CEO in succession to Cressida Pollock in the latest chapter of English National Opera’s turbulent story.

Teaching the arts to ask for money

Teaching the arts to ask for money

The arts get 2% of charity giving, so free crash courses to learn fundraising are being offered online to tackle the urgent problem of how to fundraise for culture projects. Simon Tait reports

Youth theatre is victim of Scottish cash cuts

Youth theatre is victim of Scottish cash cuts

Scottish Youth Theatre became the latest victim of funding cuts with the announcement that it is to close in July.

Seeing the world - art helping save children's sight

Seeing the world - art helping save children's sight

Artist Tim Benson puts a mirror up to Zambia for Orbis in Mall Galleries exhibition.

Coalfields could become ‘deserts of culture’ says MP

Labour’s John Mann demands action from Arts Council England

Women at War - the untold story is told at last

Women at War - the untold story is told at last

The Imperial War Museum has created an archive dedicated to the key work women did in the First World War, launched tomorrow (March 8) to mark International Women’s Day.

Culture goes digital

The government is opening the way to the latest digital technology for theatres, museums and heritage organisations in a £2m programme, culture secretary Matt Hancock announced today.

Those daring young women…

Those daring young women…

Women’s place under the big top is being celebrated in this year’s Circus 250 programme the launch tomorrow, March 8, of the film Women in Circus, helping to mark International Women’s Day  

AI PROFILE Girl gangs of Hoxton

Karena Johnson, artistic director and chief executive of Hoxton Hall

The true but little told story of the Victorian girl gangs of London will open a unique all-female theatre season in one of the last working music halls, celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage.

Hoxton Hall in East London is to mark the centenary women’s suffrage in 2018 with a season, Female Parts, created and performed entirely by women, devised by the venue’s artistic director, Karena Johnson. It will open on January 20 with Oranges and Elephants, the first musical by the playwright Lil Warren.

Not only is the musical believed to be the first ever to have a wholly female cast, the entire production team, with music by Jo Collins and directed by Susie McKenna, is female – as is this whole three month season. The score follows the music hall genre, complete with a female chair leading the proceedings. 

“We’ve got to 2017 and we still have to make a point to whatever great institution it might be that you’ve announced your new season and there’s not a single woman writer in it” says Johnson. “And people don’t notice the absence of women in things – there’s a strange kind of default to men.


It’s an astonishing fact that most theatre tickets are bought

by women, and they’re buying them to watch men’s stories


“So I wanted the opportunity to say there are amazing creative women and we need to put them out there, not only for their sakes but to make a space for young artists whose role models they can be. It’s an astonishing fact that most theatre tickets are bought by women, and they’re buying them to watch men’s stories.”

Her season, then, is of women telling women’s stories, starting with the musical relating the war between the Forty Elephants of the Elephant & Castle and the Oranges of Stepney, both ruthless gangs of female pocket-pickers and muggers. But there will be stand-up comedy, cabaret, music and a finale of three short plays directed by Johnson herself.

Johnson has another mission, however. It is to bring this unique survival from the heyday of the music hall back into its community with a contemporary audience. “It was built in 1863 by a guy who wanted to create a musical hall for working people behind houses for them to live in, but it was a music hall with a difference - its theme was philanthropy and education, and there was no booze” she says.

It lasted a couple of years when a true music hall impresario bought it and reopened it as MacDonald’s Music Hall attracting audiences twice the size regulations will allow now – in the 1870s there were an estimated 80 music halls in the Hoxton-Shoreditch area alone, she says -  with two balconies on top of which MacDonald wanted to add a third to cram even more in. He was denied planning permission, and after half a dozen years it closed when its licence was not renewed following neighbourhood complaints about noise and bad behaviour.

It was eventually bought by a philanthropist, biscuit heir William Palmer, who turned it into a temperance hall. When he died in 1893 it reverted to the Bedford Institute, a Quaker-run adult education organisation, and it is the Quakers who still own the freehold that have ensured the survival of this extraordinary venue, which now seats just 227.

It became a community centre whose head was still called The Warden, and in the 1970s, was run by May Scott who introduced the arts and performance to her care of local youth. She brought working artists in to teach the kids, one of whom was George Passmore of Gilbert & George. “I taught hooligans in the afternoons and old ladies in the evenings, and by far the more terrifying were the old ladies” he told Johnson recently. In 2015, when she took over as artistic director and chief executive, the Grade II* listed Hoxton Hall reopened after a £2m restoration and refurbishment with generous help from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other trusts and foundations, returning it to its original look complete with high stage, ceiling windows, double balconies and two fireplaces with pier glasses above them.

Karena Johnson is not an East Ender, hailing originally from south of the Thames at Clapham. She got a theatre directing MA at Royal Holloway College and her first job was programming at Oval House in Stockwell, when she also created her own black theatre touring group, Kushite. She went on to run Contact Theatre in Manchester and then artistic director of The Broadway in Barking.

“Quite a journey” she says now. “It was a beautiful building with no audience, the BNP was the official opposition on the council and it was a very political atmosphere. But we built a brilliant programme by developing new plays and embracing entertainment, and attendance grew so that when the council decided to cut funding the people bombarded them and they changed their mind.


When the politics got scary we confronted it through art and by allowing

people who don’t normally speak to each other to occupy the same space


“I felt I'd done my job, because the people now believed it was their place. When the politics got scary we confronted it through art and by allowing people who don’t normally speak to each other to occupy the same space. It was bonkers but it worked.”

At Hoxton, she discovered that for 44 years the hall had been run by women, for no particular reason, but it gave her the idea for her 2018 season. Through the year there are performances, panto, events, and for six days of every week there are well-attended free workshops for seven-to-19-year-olds, with the spring season taking on a theme.

It has not been easy putting together an all-female programme, with designers, lighting and sound engineers being found often by word of mouth. Comedy agents were reluctant to put female comics forward because they felt they wouldn’t be able to fill the hall, until Johnson  tied up with Funny Women which supports and promotes women comics.

Female Parts will continue after Oranges and Elephants with Jazz versus Jukebox featuring poets and musicians; introducing 1930s and 40s lindy hop dancing with Spring Swing; stand-up comedy with Funny Women with which Johnson has recently sealed a partnership for the hall (“they had a try-out here and just fell in love with the place” she says) who will also run a workshop for female comedians; cabaret with Patrizia Paolini’s company; and provocative  comedian Desiree Burch with her solo show Unf*uckable which comes with the strict “Over-18s only” warning.

Johnson will round off the season herself by directing three short lays. The first is a commissioned piece from the award-winning singer, actor and director OneNess Sankara, The Immigrant, which explores the guilt pressures of a successful working mother. The final two are both by Franca Rame and her husband Dario Fo – A Mother is about a woman who discovers from the television news that her son is a terrorist, and The Woman Alone explores how a woman imprisoned by housewifely duties finds means of escape. Johnson believes Rame is an inspiring, witty and thought-provoking voice who, despite his being a left-wing activist, was nevertheless over-shadowed by Fo.

“I hope the season will start to put some of this right, I think it will” Johnson says. “It’s 100 years since the Representation of the People Act gave women the vote, it was such a major moment, but we're still having to fight.

“It’s not that it makes me angry as that it gives me something to kick against, it’s what's interesting about the moment we’re living in. The struggle continues and we’ll be having a debate for young women about political engagement which is being organised by some of our young trainees that come from our community.

“And I hope this season allows more people to discover this amazing place.”



1996 – 1997                         MA Theatre Studies, (Major in theatre directing) at Royal Holloway University of London

1998                       Associate at NOW festival.

1999                       Associate at Nottingham Playhouse

1998 - 2006                          Artistic Director, Kushite Theatre Company (Touring)

1999 - 2000         Associate at Theatre Royal Stratford East,

2000 - 2005         Head of Theatre Programming at Oval House Theatre

2001                                       Directs Under their Influence at Tricycle Theatre and UK tour

2002                                       Directs The Key Game at Riverside Studios 

2003                       Won a Jerwood Young Directors Award.

2004                                       Directs The Oddest Couple at Theatre Royal Stratford East

2005 - 2006         Acting Artistic Director for Contact, Manchester

2006                                       Directs Sweet Yam Kisses at Lyric Hammersmith 

2007                                       Directs Safe at West Yorkshire Playhouse

2009                                       Directs Underneath/ Nothing as Silent as Snow at Black Seas Festival

2009 - 2014         CEO/Artistic Director at The Broadway, Barking

2010                       TMA special award nomination for “theatre with cojones”

2014                                       Directs Forty at Hackney Empire

2015 - present                   Artistic Director & CEO at Hoxton Hall



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