Changing of the Guard: Donmar WarehouseDate: 21 July 2003
Our series on theatreland's new artistic directors continues with the Donmar's Michael Grandage, who aims to continue building on the enviable reputation established by Sam Mendes with tours & more European repertoire.
Following his appointment announcement in January 2002 (See News, 22 Jan 2002) and a subsequent six-month handover, Michael Grandage became artistic director of London's Donmar Warehouse in December 2002, succeeding Sam Mendes, who, having relaunched the 250-seat theatre and established its international reputation, stepped down after ten years in the job.
Trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Grandage began his theatre career as an actor and built up an impressive list of credits with the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Almeida Theatre and Manchester's Royal Exchange as well as in the West End and abroad.
It was less than ten years ago, in 1995, that Grandage made his directorial debut, reviving Arthur Miller's The Last Yankee at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester. That was followed by Terrence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea (Mercury), What the Butler Saw and Twelfth Night (Sheffield Crucible), The Jew of Malta and The Doctor's Dilemma (Almeida).
Grandage's 2000 production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, which transferred from Sheffield to London's Lyric Hammersmith, brought wider spread recognition and won him both the Evening Standard and Critics Circle Awards for Best Director as well as a South Bank Show Award.
In 1999, Grandage made his Donmar debut with a revival of CP Taylor's Good, after which he became one of the theatre's associate directors, alongside David Leveaux and John Crowley. He followed that appointment up with three more award-winning productions: Peter Nichols' Passion Play, which transferred to the West End; Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, winner of three Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical; and another Nichols revival, Privates on Parade.
Meanwhile, Grandage has continued his work at Sheffield Crucible. In 2000, he was appointed Sheffield's associate director, in charge of programming and helping to build the national reputation of the theatre, which was singled out in that year's TMA Awards as the UK's Theatre of the Year. Amongst his high-profile Sheffield productions have been: Edward II with Joseph Fiennes, Richard III with Kenneth Branagh and The Tempest, which transferred to the West End with Derek Jacobi.
In his inaugural year as artistic director at the Donmar, Grandage has shifted the theatre's programming focus more towards Europe. The year to date has seen sell-out revivals of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Albert Camus' Caligula, while the autumn brings Patrick Marber's adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie. At the same time, he's maintained some traditions - not least the Donmar's association with Sondheim, whose Pacific Overtures is currently playing - and aimed to reinvent two English stage classics, Noël Coward's The Vortex and John Osborne's The Hotel in Amsterdam.
What made you want to be a theatre director
I became much more interested in the overview of the whole production as opposed to just how I built my own part within it. Unless you have that obsession as an actor, you shouldn't really be doing it. So I decided to put my money where my, well, not my mouth, but where my thoughts were, and once I did it (directing), I realised I never wanted to do anything else.
Prior to your Donmar appointment, what would you view as
I've very much enjoyed contributing towards giving a main regional theatre (Sheffield Crucible) a strong identity and a national profile.
What was the first production you saw at the Donmar Warehouse?
It was before the Donmar was the Donmar. I saw a load of stuff here in the 1980s when it was the Warehouse, a thriving new writing house under the direction of Howard Davies. And then it closed briefly and reopened as the Donmar under Sam Mendes. Then I saw Sam's Assassins and all sorts over the years before I came and directed here myself. So it's been a process with me and the Warehouse which goes right back to when I was first in London in 1979. I remember seeing the original production of Good - directed by Howard Davies with Alan Howard in the old Warehouse - which I then came back and directed myself at the Donmar with Charles Dance. People forget the extraordinary period when this theatre was at the cutting edge of new writing and tend to focus only on the past ten years as being fantastically successful. But, if you're looking at theatre history, if you want to discuss the Donmar and the Warehouse as a whole, as in its contribution to British theatre, you can't do it in just the context of the last ten years. In terms of the space itself, I think it's thrilling and exciting for fairly obvious reasons. It's pretty wonderful to sit so close to the actors, it's an intimate dynamic.
Why did you want the job of artistic director?
I was fortunate that Sam asked me to be an associate director two years before the job came up. I had an opportunity in those two years to focus, not just on the work I did in the auditorium, but also on the way the building was run and the possibilities that one could get from that building and that particular staff. So when the job came up, I knew that I could have a good relationship with the Donmar internally as well, which is a rare and unique position to be in. Normally, when you apply for a job, you don't even know if you're going to feel right in the place, but there was a synergy between me, the building and the staff here. One of the joys of being a building-based director, as opposed to freelance, is that, in addition to engaging with actors, lighting designers, choreographers and the other creative individuals involved with a production, you can engage with all the people who work for the theatre - press, marketing, development, front of house, finance. They are all people who've chosen to work in theatre, who have creative souls. And that excites me, because the whole place becomes a hotbed of creativity. I love the notion of empowering other people and extending the creativity right the way through the workforce.
How would you rate your predecessor's tenure?
Highly. Sam Mendes was pioneering. He took a small studio space and gave it an international reputation. It cannot be underestimated how that affected the whole theatre ecology.
What were your most immediate challenges in the job?
When you inherit a building that already has such a good reputation, it's a bonus because you don't have to concentrate on the reputation. You can develop from a certain level and you can take more risks. Were it not for that, I don't think even I would have been able to risk producing a play like Caligula. It's been a challenge in my first year to have the European repertoire so heavily represented - with Camus, Dario Fo, Strindberg in a version by Patrick Marber - alongside things our audiences have expressed a strong desire in seeing - like Coward, like Stephen Sondheim musicals - but presented in a way they wouldn't see elsewhere in a commercial production.
What is your overriding vision for the Donmar?
I want the Donmar to be a small art house in the heart of London's West End but to have the confidence not to have to duplicate the commercial theatre around it. We want to provide an exciting and daring alternative. I think that's a healthy vision to have.
What are your plans beyond 2003 season?
I'm very aware that, with a 250-seat theatre, sometimes people can't get in to see a show. We need to extend our audience base. I'm keen to take our work out. I hope next year to take one of our plays on tour to smaller theatres on the outskirts of London - north, south and east particularly. Greater London is a vast place. It's not always easy to get into Covent Garden and certainly not if 250 people a night is a pre-sold capacity. So Greater London is the goal in the immediate term and then, maybe eventually in the longer term, we'll take our work out nationally and internationally.
In terms of programming plans, in year two, we want to do some new plays and more European work, and we want to continue to look at what kind of musicals we should do. I also want to broaden our appeal to more of the family. Already our audience is shifting. We remain staunchly supported by our Friends of the Donmar, but we're also seeing more young people coming and, in general, a more diverse audience. This theatre is the perfect space for cabaret. Instead of a whole month, though, as we used to have with Divas, we might have one week of really high quality cabaret between productions, peppering the rest of the programme.
How will you measure success at the end of
I don't think you can measure success over two years, to be perfectly honest. It has to happen over a longer period. Five years is a good cycle. In five years, you have an opportunity to express and execute a vision and move a theatre, whether it's been successful or poor, into a new direction. In five years, you certainly should be able to achieve what you want to achieve.
Success is measured by whether or not we've achieved what we set out to do. The touring will be one measurement. Others will be on a show-by-show basis. With Caligula for instance, we said, 'let's do a Camus play'. But we had no idea if there was an audience for that so we set the box office goal at 60% capacity. In the end, we closed at 100% capacity. So looking back at that, we have already measured a level of success. Doing Camus to 100% capacity in our first year means the sky's our limit. Now let's go on and develop that further. And at the end of the five years, we'll look back, see how far we've come from our starting point and then broaden our depth of vision even further.
How do you balance your Donmar commitments
Quite easily. I'm the artistic director of one theatre and the associate director of the other. Being associate director in Sheffield means we have an executive producer there running the building while I provide the programme and then I go up and do two shows a year. I schedule that into my time at the Donmar and spend most of my time working out of the office here in London. I want to be able to keep the identity of the two theatres very strong and very separate. In Sheffield, we're playing to a real, local community. It's difficult to identify a community in a place like the West End because, though we have a loyal following, there are a lot of tourists and other passing trade. I don't want to start thinking that one can share those audiences. But very occasionally, there will be the opportunity to present work from one theatre in the other and when those opportunities arise - and they are entirely led by the project - we will do so.
What would you say to entice first-time visitors to the Donmar?
If you're interested in the theatre and want to be challenged on a number of levels - by having a visual response to the way a space can work with an audience, by the nature of a specific body of demanding work - then you should come to the Donmar. As a serious theatregoer, you're going to offer yourself an even greater challenge by doing so. That's what we're striving to do here - offer ourselves greater challenges - so, in a way, we're hoping to be able to pass that on.
It's like Whatsonstage.com. What I like about your site is that it has aspirations beyond just the gossipy side of it all. It seems to say "we believe in theatre as a force that can change and engage people, a force that pushes people's boundaries". That's what I want the Donmar to do. And your website reaches out to those people. It's aggressive about theatre and is for people who genuinely want to be serious theatregoers.
Currently at the Donmar Warehouse, Pacific Overtures continues until 6 September. The 2003 season then continues with The Hotel in Amsterdam from 11 September to 15 November and Marber's Strindberg-inspired After Miss Julie from 20 November 2003 to 7 February 2004.