Director Jonathan Butterell, along with singer-songwriter Dan Gillespie Sells and writer Tom MacRae, is one-third of the core creative team behind a new musical about to premiere at the Crucible Theatre.
But Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the story of a troubled 16-year-old lad from Parson Cross, was his idea.
She taught me the rudiments for which I am forever grateful
Having grown up in Sheffield, Jonathan Butterell identifies with the teenager and his search for identity.
After 10 years as a choreographer and director in New York he returned to the UK and met Sheffield Theatres’ then artistic director Daniel Evans to talk about future projects. Both had just seen a BBC documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.
“It was set in Tyneside but I said I would like to place it in Sheffield and bring it to an audience here,” says Butterell.
He was born at Park Hill Flats – in “pre-neon” days, as he puts it – before the family moved out to a council estate in Loxley: “I was an ordinary, slightly not so ordinary, kid who went to Bradfield School which was quite rough and tough. I had wanted to be an actor ever since I watched old films on my grandad’s telly at Park Hill on a Saturday afternoon but I didn’t really know how.”
He never went to the theatre until at 16 he saw Botho Strauss’s The Park at the Crucible. “I had no clue what I was watching, but I thought it was fantastic
He found prospectuses for drama schools in the Central Library and applied, got into one, but had to wait for a year until he was 18.
He decided he needed to learn to dance and fetched up at the Constance Grant school on Psalter Lane. “This extraordinary woman, Judith Sylvester, met me and said, ‘well you’ll have to join in with the class’. So there was this 17-year-old, dancing with all these little girls.”
She ended up subsidising him to train every day. “She taught me the rudiments of dance in that nine months and I will be forever grateful.”
After drama school he worked as an actor – “I played a string of psychopaths for a while”- until he met Matthew Bourne on Peer Gynt at the RSC and the choreographer recruited him to be his assistant on a production of Oliver! at the London Palladium.
Out of the blue he got a call from Sam Mendes asking him to be choreographer on Company at the Donmar Warehouse with 24 hours notice.
Despite trepidations – “I had never choreographed anything before” - he took the chance which moved him away from acting and into choreography and movement direction and through the Donmar connection found himself in New York where he stayed for 10 years.
“Ultimately I missed home and friends and family and British actors,” he explains.
“It has been extraordinary. I have directed people like Zoë Wanamaker, Simon Russell Beale and Antonio Banderas. But the boy from Sheffield never leaves. In fact in those situations he does well. Being an ordinary Sheffield bloke keeps me grounded.”