Changing of the Guard: Bristol & LeedsDate: 17 February 2003
At the start of 2003, new artistic directorships are all the rage - at theatres both in London & around the country. As part of our new 'Changing of the Guard' series, Mark Shenton speaks to new bosses at Bristol & Leeds about their plans.
Not only is there theatre life beyond London, but there's also new life in it. While much of the media attention over the last year has focused on the changing faces amongst the leading figures running several of London's major producing theatres including the National, RSC, Donmar Warehouse, Almeida and Hampstead Theatres, there have also been significant changes at theatres outside London.
In beginning this new occasional series looking at the people and policy behind some of Britain's leading regional theatres - as well as a "Changing of the Guard" series on new artistic directors - I interviewed two of the regional newcomers: Simon Reade, whose first season as joint artistic director with David Farr of the Bristol Old Vic kicks off next month, and Ian Brown, who took over from Jude Kelly at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds last July (after 18 months as working there as associate artistic director) and whose first production of Pretending to Be Me transfers to the West End this week.
"Because I've never been a director and there's this tyranny of directors running buildings, I thought I'd probably never become an artistic director," says Simon Reade, the dynamic former literary manager of the RSC who is currently represented in London by his collaboration on the adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children for the RSC, together with Rushdie himself and the show's director, Tim Supple. "But I'd watched a lot of artistic directors close at hand like Stephen Daldry, Laurence Boswell and Adrian Noble," he goes on, referring to people he worked with at both the Gate Theatre (where his career began) and the RSC.
"I thought that whatever your team is like around you, it can be a lonely job if you're doing it alone. David and I had worked together a lot throughout the 90s, and we had a really good relationship where we didn't clash as egos. He's a director and I'm a producer, and we're both writers, but I don't tend to do original writing like he does. We thought what a brilliant thing it would be for two people to run a theatre. Artistically and financially the Old Vic has been in the doldrums and disappeared off the theatrical radar; so what we are doing is completely reinventing its look, its feel, its style, the calibre of work and the kinds of people we are bringing down to work there."
He learnt a lot at the Gate. What Daldry, in particular, taught him, he says, "is that if someone says this is impossible to achieve, you say, 'that's impossible - let's try it'. As opposed to what happens when you get into the big institutions, like the BBC and RSC that I later went to, where there are too many people around ready to say, 'no, that's impossible, we tried that already'. The point about any theatrical company is that it's only ever really the size of the Gate in terms of its dream and ambition. Anything is possible in theatre, and you just have to have that positive approach. That's what David and I are taking to the Old Vic."
The new energy that they are seeking to bring to Bristol tallies with a new release of energy (and crucially, funding) in a number of flagship venues around the country. While this has meant that the circuit of old-style regional reps has largely been dismantled, Reade speaks enthusiastically of "a network of national theatres throughout the country" taking their place, "from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, as well as the Almeida, Lyric Hammersmith and Young Vic in London".
More resources are going to fewer places, which are now set to become, Reade hopes, "the hub of the wheel" in the cultural renaissance of the places they're in. Bristol has a thriving artistic community, but the Old Vic needs to offer something different to the other things that are going on: "to do really good classical based repertoire on a main stage to really high standards of excellence."
To do so, they're paring down on administrative expenses and concentrating on spending money on the stage: "We're leading with the art". But putting art first meant thinking of money differently. "David and I did an exercise where we said, let's forget about the figures, let's start with the plays we want to do: don't let's start with the money, but start with the art. So we came up with the directors we wanted to work with, the stories we wanted to tell, and the designers we wanted to attract, and from that, came up with a season that in terms of actor-weeks we could afford."
They discovered that this way they could budget for more productions, not less: there'll be three main house shows this spring and another three in the autumn. "We're taking more risks in terms of repertoire choices; there's a faster turn over that keeps the momentum; we're on our toes, having to build an extra set and sell an extra show."
For their opening season, actor Sam West has been invited to turn director to stage a new production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (from 13 March to 5 April), then Farr has adapted Great Expectations (from 10 April to 3 May) for a new production by Gordon Anderson, and Farr will direct A Midsummer Night's Dream (8 May to 7 June). In the theatre's Studio, meanwhile, productions will include Reade's new dramatisation of a children's story, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark (2 to 26 April).
Leeds in the limelight
At Leeds, meanwhile, Ian Brown is seeking to keep the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the sort of limelight that it regularly enjoyed when his predecessor Jude Kelly was at the helm and who was a serious contender for the artistic directorship of the National Theatre when that became vacant last year.
Brown is used to being in the spotlight, having run Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre for eight years where he found himself, midway through his tenure there, leading the company into the new purpose-built theatre they have now occupied for the last decade: "That building is my legacy, it is as near as dammit as I could get to building the ideal theatre in that space!"
Why did he leave? "I'd done my bit, really. The relentlessness of the pressure of the festival gets to you after a while - I did eight of them, and I was ready to move on. You have to come up with at least one new hit play every festival."
After a spell as a freelance, during which time he worked for the RSC and even did a short stint as a television director on EastEnders, he was lured back to the theatre by Kelly: "She'd seen something in me that she thought clicked with the building, and it's still relatively hard to find people who want to run buildings and take on that responsibility. It took a lot of thought, as I'd been freelancing and I wanted to retain some freedom and not get tied down, but having got the job and doing it again now, I absolutely feel complete again - like Sweeney Todd!", he says, making a reference to the moment in the musical when Sweeney gets his razors back.
"It does suit me very well, which always surprises me - I don't feel I'm that kind of person in many ways, but I love the idea of having overall control." At Leeds, he is chief executive as well as artistic director, and he says, "I do believe these buildings should be artistically led. I don't have a problem with my artistic ambitions and trying to get the books to balance - that's the way not-for-profit organisations ought to run".
It's a tough job, though - he has 1,000 seats a night to fill in two theatres, in a fairly small city, and 12 in-house shows a year to produce. He's tackling the former challenge by making the theatre a lot more accessible: "Something I started when I was an associate is to introduce a £3 ticket for those under 26, that can be booked a week in advance for Monday to Wednesday evenings. That's made a huge difference to the age of the audience, and enables us to take a bit more of a risk on some of the more on-the-edge stuff. It gets everything off to a very good start at the beginning of the week, and then by the end of the week, you're getting full-price audiences coming in. I really hate seeing empty seats - I'd rather people were in paying £3 than not at all. If you've got excess capacity, it makes sense to fill them."
As for the repertoire, it combines classics like Hamlet (which he directed starring Christopher Eccleston in the title role) and an annual musical (most recently Little Shop of Horrors) with more adventurous work. "We're working with touring companies like Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh Theatre Company and Improbable to build a relationship between us and them, so that they open their shows here."
Last year, he also brought the New York hit Dirty Blonde here with its original Broadway cast that he still hopes may be revived for the West End - "it was an amazing thing for us to do and I'm really proud that we did it. It wouldn't have happened in Britain if we hadn't done all the deals to bring those people to Leeds. And now that they've tried it here, they know it can work in Britain." And this week, Brown's own production of Pretending to Be Me, a one-man play about Philip Larkin starring Tom Courtenay, is being revived at the West End's Comedy Theatre.