SDUK Blog – the JMK AWard

In October last year, a revival of Arinze Kene’s Little Baby Jesus opened at Orange Tree Theatre to rave reviews. Four stars from Time Out and The Arts Desk. Five stars from The Stage. Five stars from The Guardian. The director showered with such praise was Tristian Fynn-Aiduenu, the 2019 recipient of the JMK Award, and the latest addition to a list of winners that includes Thea Sharrock, Polly Findlay, and Roy Alexander Weise. The production was his prize – he progressed through several rounds of judging to earn himself a month-long slot in Richmond.

The JMK Trust – established in memory of director James Menzies-Kitchin, who died unexpectedly at 28 in 1996 – runs directing workshops and awards bursaries across the country, but it’s the annual JMK Young Director Award that it is best known for. Set up by his friends and family, the award aims to find and support emerging directors at similar points in their careers to where Menzies-Kitchin was, and who demonstrate the same potential and talent. The trophy: a £25,000 production, including a £4000 fee. The main conditions of entry: applicants must be under 35 and must have directed no more than three professional productions.

Since 1998 – initially alongside Battersea Arts Centre, then the Young Vic, and now the Orange Tree – The JMK Award has launched the careers of several notable directors, and had a profound impact on British theatre. With applications for the 2020 award currently open, we chatted to four former winners about what the award meant for them.


Orla O’Loughlin won the JMK Award in 2001, before going on to become artistic director of Pentabus Theatre, and subsequently of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, a post she left last year to become vice principal and head of drama at Guildhall. Winning in her late twenties, she says, was “a life-changing moment”.

“I was a secondary school teacher, who’d just finished an MA,” she remembers. “I wasn’t tried and tested, I had no reputation, I wasn’t well connected, and I didn’t come from an industry background. They took a massive risk on me and for that, I will always be hugely grateful. They saw the potential in me, rather than the finished product.”

“It gave me a calling card,” she continues. “As soon as I won that award, my name was out there. I got invited onto the National Theatre Studio’s directors’ program. The Royal Court came to see my show and shortly afterwards invited me to come work there. It was a huge platform for my work. It gave me a very immediate entry point into the industry that it can otherwise take years to find.”


Josh Roche applied for the JMK Award six times before he won it in 2017. For him, already working as an assistant director for several years and frustrated at the lack of headway he was making, the win came at just the right time. Thinking about it still gives him shivers, he says.

“There are so few big victories in theatre, so few sudden moments of success,” he says. “Most of the time you get a sniff that somebody might be interested in your play, but then they don’t reply for a few months and you get impatient. With the award, it’s like the hand of God comes down. There you go. Twenty-five grand and a Young Vic space in seven months’ time. You never get over how lucky you feel.”

For Roche, the opportunity also allowed him to discover more about his own directorial taste. “It’s as if you think you’re a really good racing driver, but you’ve only ever been driving a Vauxhall Corsa,” he explains. “Then suddenly someone gives you a Formula One car, and you can really test how fast you can go round corners.”


Natalie Abrahami was co-artistic director of Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre from 2007 until 2012. Since then, she’s directed at the Young Vic, the Almeida, Chichester Festival Theatre, the RSC, the National and Shakespeare’s Globe, where her production of Ella Hickson’s Swive is currently running. She says that the platform her 2005 JMK Award win afforded her was “phenomenal.”

“For people to give you a job opportunity, they have to have seen your work, and as a theatre director your work is ephemeral,” she explains. “You really do need to have a show on for more than a couple of nights, and that’s what the JMK Award offers – a three week run that you can invite people to.”

“I think what’s really brilliant about the award is that the age limit for applying is 35,” she continues. “That acknowledges that you can be an emerging director beyond your twenties. You could have spent the last ten years being a psychotherapist, and now you want to be a director, and the JMK Award gives you that opportunity.”


Joe Hill-Gibbins is one of the most controversial directors currently working in British theatre, thanks to a series of outlandish takes on classic plays. He won the JMK Award in 2002, while working at the Royal Court as a script reader and assistant director. It gave him his first professional production, a “watershed moment” for him.

“When you start out as a director, you ask a big profound question of yourself, which is “can I do this?”” he says. “To be honest, that’s a question you ask throughout your career, but that question mark looms particularly large when you’re starting out. And you don’t know until you try, and that’s why the JMK Award is so important. You can do all the workshops in the world, but that’s nothing like the pressures and complexities of putting on a show.”

“I remember being at the Royal Court, and Martin Crimp being in the literary office one day and saying that the only play development that really matters is having a production,” he continues. “It’s exactly the same for directors. That’s the only way you really learn. And how many opportunities like that are there? You don’t even need all the fingers of one hand to count them.”

The JMK Award 2020 is open for applications until 11pm on Friday 24th January. For more details,

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