Is it daunting or exciting to take over from Braham Murray?
I am a tiny bit daunted but there’s no point looking back at what has already been achieved. I am more excited and energised by the artistic opportunities open to the Royal Exchange moving forward both as a major producing theatre and as a key part of Manchester's cultural life.
Did he give you any advice before he left?
Not specifically. Just to not forget that the company was founded by artists and that artists have always been at the centre of everything the company has done.
Have you taken an ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it’ approach to the new season? If not, how do you devise a new season?
Not at all. There's plenty that needs to be re-imagined and revitalised. The work on our stages has often been the expression of a few imaginations. I think it's time to open up our extraordinary spaces and resources to a wider range of artists and types of work. In the next season 4 of the most exciting emerging directing talents are making large scale work for us. I want us to be a theatre that works with all sorts of artists in different ways making relevant work that not only speaks to audiences but develops theatre as an art form.
You have a great reputation as a director. Does that inspire you, or is it a great deal to live up to?
Goodness. I think that every production I make is different and nothing I've done before it counts. It's really important to me to keep learning as a director and challenging myself. I think I'm a bit addicted to doing things I'm not sure I can bring off. I'm doing a site specific piece and a musical later this year; both absolutely terrify me.
Many regional theatres struggle with funding. How has the Royal Exchange managed to survive and what's the strategy for the future?
The Exchange is a much loved Manchester institution. I think it has survived because its audience has always felt a huge ownership of the building and love the intimacy and uniqueness of its spaces. The theatre has always generated a significant amount of box office income and has been very good at taking its audience on a journey with its work. The audience trust the RET brand and over the last 5 years or so our audience has become more interested in supporting new work.
Our strategy going forward is to build on this in order to attract new and more diverse audiences who maybe have previously thought the Exchange is not for them, getting them excited by original work that takes risks.
Are there any plays you look at that you feel would not work in the round or do you adapt the play to suit the space regardless?
Our space means that every play has to be re-imagined. I genuinely think that most plays can work if there is a unique vision for it. In some ways the question we ask more now is “How relevant is this play to our audience and Manchester now?” We are commissioning and developing a lot more new work that is bespoke to our space and explores the relationship between the epic and the intimate.
Which plays are you particularly looking forward too and why?
All of them for different reasons. But if I had to pick one, it would be Cannibals - a new play by Rory Malarkey. He grew up in Manchester and was our Pearson writer in residence last year. He has really embraced the challenge of writing a play which explodes with big ideas and has a great sense of what theatre can do as a live medium. There’s nothing more exciting than producing a first play and I am very excited by Rory's potential as a playwright. It’s a great example of the kind of work we will be doing more of. I can't wait to see Mike Longhurst's production having been a big fan of his production of Constellations last year.
What would you like to achieve with your new role?
To have delivered some great nights out for our audiences. For the Royal Exchange to have a reputation for doing the unexpected, and to have brought some distinctive collaborations and artists to Manchester and to have genuinely opened our building up to emerging artists from the North and beyond.
In the future do you still hope to stage work at other venues and what does the RET gain by doing this?
It’s really important that our work is seen by as many different audiences as possible. We gain an enormous amount from working in artistic partnership. Our productions of the two Bruntwood prize winners this season are being made in association with the Bush and Live Theatre. We are also co-producing with Manchester International Festival and working with Told by An Idiot as well as developing exciting co commissions with Clean Break and Paines Plough for next year. I am also really keen we start to make work and curate events outside of our building in Manchester and beyond.
Sarah Frankcom was speaking to Glenn Meads
The Royal Exchange New Season opens with To Kill a Mockingbird (Main Stage) on 20 February and Three Birds (The Studio) on 27 February.