In Conversation With…Phil McCormack and Craig Gilbert, Donmar Warehouse

October 2023

Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Jamie Parker, Trevor Dion Nicholas, Caissie Levy, Jack Wolfe, Jack Ofrecio in NEXT TO NORMAL – Donmar Warehouse – photo by Marc Brenner

As teenagers, Craig and Phil both dreamt of becoming actors. Aged 18, Craig joined an open-air touring production around the UK in which he played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet: “I fell hopelessly in love with the actress playing Lady Capulet. She was Canadian so she couldn’t stay; I decided to follow her to Canada where we got married and I worked in television.” But much like the play, “it all fell apart”. He returned to the UK where he pursued his love of theatre but this time in directing which led him to his role of Literary Manager at the Donmar Warehouse. “My role is to work with writers on the development of plays and with the artistic directors on the production ideas and concepts. At the moment I am working on a Macbeth revival with David Tennant so we have been talking about the aspects of the play we want to highlight, including a new technological intervention, yet to be announced…”

Craig Gilbert, Literary Manager at the Donmar Warehouse

Phil’s story is a little less dramatic. His acting mentor advised him: “don’t become an actor, you’re good but you will struggle.” Following this advice, he studied Contemporary Theatre Practice in Glasgow and went on to join the National Theatre of Scotland on their shows touring the country. “When I was offered a role in the Participation department of the Donmar Warehouse, I had no real desire to work permanently within a building-based theatre. I quickly realised how much I loved it as there was endless creative potential, and how essential it was for the Donmar to make an impact with schools and communities.  This was 6 years ago, and now I am the strategic lead on schools, community, and talent. During that time, we’ve set up Donmar Local and now even work on main-stage projects.

Phil McCormack is the Director of Participation at the Donmar Warehouse

It’s impossible to think about the theatre today and ignore the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the performing arts. Phil notes: “We dug deep instead of falling back. We opened our rehearsal site to host communities that needed the space. With local young artists, we created productions including the film ‘Monuments’ made in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It highlighted the value of engaging art for well-being.”

Craig and Phil report that there has been a decrease in online engagement since things have returned to normal: “There’s something so special about the live act. In the last few years, we’ve seen the doors of our theatre flung open and people have engaged in our conversation.” On the rise of cancel culture and subject sensitivity, Craig further notes: “Theatre doesn’t cope well when it’s didactic. In fact, going to the theatre makes you a better citizen because it invites you into the company of people you don’t know. The Donmar Warehouse is unlike anywhere else, it is the most demographic auditorium in London with just 251 seats and an audience on three sides of the stage.”

Of the many performances Craig has witnessed, Old Times, one of the first shows he saw at the Donmar when he was just sixteen remains the most memorable. For Phil, the recent Next to Normal production stands out: “It challenged the perception of what a musical was. In collaboration with the play, we were doing work around well-being and mental health with A-level students, and they were being so open and generous to each other about their own mental health. It shows theatre is a catalyst for change, not just ‘jazz hands.’”

In fact, the Donmar recently expanded the age range of students they work with to address the diminishing presence of art courses offered in schools and universities: “We believe talent development starts in schools.” With the Arts Council England’s funding cuts and cost-of-living crisis, philanthropy is more crucial than ever: “Philanthropy is key. It gives us the ability to plan. We want to do everything in a way that’s strategic, long term and that has a clear legacy, whether it’s for our shows or through the work we do with young people. Additionally, it helps us go beyond what the market wants, push boundaries, and bring in a bigger number of voices together.”

The Huo Family Foundation currently supports the Donmar Warehouse with a multi-year grant of £200,000 towards its 2023 and 2024 productions.