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Introducing THE PITMEN PAINTERS: Ian Kelly


The Pitmen Painters recently concluded an acclaimed run at London's Royal National Theatre. Inspired by a book by William Feaver, and hailed by London critics as "a glorious instant classic" (Evening Standard), "a wonderful piece of theatre" (Financial Times) "a beautiful work of art that everybody should see" (The Times of London), and "a superb piece of work; warm, funny, sad, and thought-provoking" (The Daily Telegraph), the play tells the story of the Ashington Group - miners from Northumberland who became celebrated painters. THE PITMEN PAINTERS was named Best Play at the 2008 Evening Standard Awards.Max Roberts directs the British cast, which will include Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly, Brian Lonsdale, Lisa McGrillis, Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker and Phillippa Wilson. The play begins previews Sept. 14 and opens Sept. 30 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. is excited to present a new series where each day we'll introduce a new member of the cast.

Third member up: Ian Kelly

What is your hometown? How long did you live there?

I'm British but grew up partly in Philadelphia (Chestnut Hill) - my dad taught at the University of Pennsylvania. My parents moved the family back to England when I was a child - to Bristol and then Liverpool, which is where they still live...and by coincidence, where Robert Lyon came from...

Where did you go to school and/or study and what did you study?

I was at Cambridge University (Trinity Hall), and then at UCLA Film School. I went to Cambridge to study History, which has informed my writing ever since, but Cambridge was also where I began my acting career. There is a long-standing tradition of student-drama at Cambridge, though it is not on the syllabus as such. I became friends there with Lee (Hall) through our shared interest in careers in the theatre. I won a scholarship after I graduated from Cambridge, through the Fulbright organization, to go to UCLA, to the Film School there, and took an MA in Theater/Film/Television.

Do you have any interesting hobbies, charity work interest, etc.?

I'm pretty obsessed with cooking - even before I wrote a book about it. I love food-history, but also cooking for friends - on Sundays in particular. So my main charity is that - feeding my friends and family. Though I also work in a night shelter in London each winter doing the same...

Do you have a personal website, blog, public Facebook or Twitter page? - a work in progress....

Were you aware of the Ashington Group's story before your involvement with The Pitmen Painters?

Yes, but not in any depth - I had heard of them and had some image of their ‘Outsider Art' work. We have been fortunate enough to visit all the sites of the play (Ashington, Rock Hall, Lyon's studio). It all still exists, though the mine is now a museum...with the paintings in a special gallery...).

You began your journey with the show back in 2007, how has your performance evolved?

Well, the sketch has got a lot better! Or more impressionistic and freer anyway (I recreate a Lyon original charcoal and chalk sketch of another character on stage in the penultimate scene of the play...) and perforce a lot faster, as Lee has cut a lot from the second half!...I've come to know Lyon's family, his grandchildren who are all painters, quite well, so I inform some aspects of the character now with more of what I know about his background and passions, such that I am, I hope, a little more dignified and less defensive with the role - some people love him, some don't. It's still funny, I hope, his floundering misunderstanding of the miners, but I think it's more rounded now. I feel I know better now why he did what he did, and it's for the audience to appreciate, evaluate, judge even and have their own reactions to quite a complex man. Often, now, I find he is understood differently depending on an audience member's own memories of being taught, or feelings about teachers...

What are you most looking forward to about bringing the show to New York/Broadway?

New York is the art capital of the world - and the world's other theatre capital along with London, so a play like Pitmen - about art and about theatre and about aspiration, might hopefully speak to New Yorkers...more than that, I have a longstanding love affair with New York - I lived in Manhattan for a year before Cambridge, teaching kindergarten in the Upper West Side (as an assistant that is) and living between two galleries in the East Village and have been back and forth whenever I can ever since! So my education, in all the real senses (art, love - that sort of thing!) really began in New York. There was also a wonderful old art teacher at the school I taught at, Stephanie Connell, who taught me a lot about art and about New York - she had been great friends with ‘Bobby' de Niro and his artist parents back in the middle of the 20th century, and very political with them. I hope she sees's her era of art - and politics. And I often think of her, playing an art teacher. I remember she said to me ‘never interfere with a kid's own creativity' (I was trying to show them how to paint!) New York friends who have seen Pitmen in London have adored I am very excited about returning to NYC with this project....

What do you hope Broadway audiences take away from this production?

I love it most when I meet audience after the show and they say ‘I used to paint, I'm going to again' or just ‘I'm going to go to an art gallery now and with a different eye' that sort of thing. It's great that they also say they've had the best time in the theatre they can remember, have laughed themselves sore and didn't want it to end - but the art thing is nice too!

What quintessential New York experience are you most looking forward to?

Some of my very first memories are of New York when I was small and we would visit from Philly - being taken up the Empire State Building as a child by my parents - getting on the QE2 to go back to England (where I had never been....) My kids are 7 and 4 now and are coming over: I can't wait to do the same, and take them for real New York pizza!

Do you have any painting talent of your own?

Talent I don't know, but I have always painted and sketched. I once had a theatre landlady who I paid rent to in paintings. I did a lot of landscape at one stage, but am now more into the human form. Pitmen was an excuse to start going again to life classes, and, as an exercise, to try to learn a little of how Robert Lyon painted. He was enormously adept: won the Prix de Rome jointly with Henry Moore, and has works in the National Portrait Gallery in London, but gave it all up, largely, to teach....the paintings of his you see me working on onstage I painted myself, based on Lyon originals....

Top three songs that are most played on your iTunes/iPod right now (or name the three songs you always find yourself listening to).

Robin Skye's new album - New York singer-songwriter, Broadway sass meets Country soul...

Sondheim's Sweeney Todd - I was blown away by his 80th birthday celebrations so have been listening to a lot of original cast recordings.

I was given Sinatra's Songs for Swingin' Lovers the other day - playing that a lot, not least as it puts me in mind of Sunday brunches in New York...

Name the three TV Shows that are the highest priority on your DVR (or name three television shows on "your must" watch list)?

Mad Men - I'm nuts for it. I want to live in New York - but 30 years ago

The West Wing (old news your side, I know, but I'm still working through the box sets!)

The Wire - how did Dominic West get to do that? He's not from Baltimore, he's an Etonian!

What are the next three movies in your Netflix/Blockbuster queue (or name the last three movies you watched at home)?

I have small children: it has to be Toy Story 3, the new Shrek - and, for me, Kristin Scott Thomas in Partir.

What website is your current online addiction?

To be honest, writing about 18th century crime and theatre at the moment, it's the Old Bailey Trial Records Online: like The Wire meets Moll Flanders...

What's the last book you purchased for yourself to read?

Caravaggio by Andrew Graham Dixon - kind of homework for Pitmen (I read his Sistine Chapel backstage - also excellent - Robert Lyon's exercises for the miners ‘The Deluge' etc were based on the panels of the Sistine Chapel....), Wendy Moore's Wedlock (see above) and Barbara Trapido's Brother of the more Famous Jack.

Name the place you hope to visit when you go on your next vacation.

I'm an actor and writer. My life is a vacation...or I never have vacations...whichever way you look at it...

Favorite show on Broadway right now, or theatrical event?

Pitmen Painters rocks. Apart from that, see anything with Mark Rylance

What is the one role (musical theatre, straight play, television, film, opera, ballet) you MUST play before you die?

This one.

Name one thing you want to accomplish in the next six months.

A triumphant run of my old pal Lee Hall's genius play on Broadway...


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