With only two months to go in Manchester's Royal Exchange's 25th anniversary season, the theatre has declared it one of its most successful years ever, averaging over 90% attendance. However, that success hasn't bred complacency with regards to programming for the Exchanges 2002/2003 season, the first half of which was unveiled at a press conference today in London.

Combatting a Drop in Audiences

Speaking at the event at Frederick's in Islington, joint artistic director Braham Murray acknowledged a crisis in theatre across the country, with an average drop in attendance of some 20% over the past decade. He attributes this to two main trends - first, that young people are no longer coming as drama becomes less central to the school curriculum so that a "whole generation are growing up frightened of theatre"; and second, a "general dumbing down of culture" in which theatre is now viewed as "a difficult option".

The solution, according to Murray, is to entice a mix of audiences in with a combination of old and new works, more tightly integrated and thematic programming across its two auditoria and, eventually, a return to repertory values and longer runs. The six months of the autumn/winter programme reflects the first two of these with major new productions of Shakespeare's Othello and Lorca's Yerma playing alongside two world premieres and four UK premieres.

Shakespeare Meets South Africa

The Main House schedule opens with Murray's production of Othello, starring Paterson Joseph (last year's TMA Best Actor winner for Les Blancs at the Exchange) as Othello and Andy Serkis (last seen in A Lie of the Mind at the Donmar) as Iago. It runs from 11 September to 2 November 2002.

At the same time, running in repertory from 2 to 26 October in the Studio, two new South African plays - first seen at Johannesburg's Market Theatre and now receiving their UK premieres - will explore similar themes of jealousy, racial politics and passion. Paul Herzberg's The Dead Wait (directed by Jacob Murray) is based on the true story of an athlete conscripted to fight in the Angolan War of 1980 while Aubrey Sekhabi's On My Birthday (directed by Michael Bufffong) follows a young township couple under the new ANC regime.

Two World Premieres

The Main House programme continues from 6 to 30 November with the world premiere of Port by Simon Stephens, recently nominated for an Olivier for Most Promising Playwright following Herons at the Royal Court. Directed by Marianne Elliott, Port takes place over 14 years in the life of a girl growing up in Stockport. Running in parallel, from 12 to 30 November in the Studio, the UK premiere of Habitat - written by Canadian writer Judith Thompson and directed by Sarah Frankcom - also involves a young female protagonist in the story about a care home for disturbed teenagers and its impact on the surrounding middle-class neighbourhood.

The Christmas show in the Main House will be the world premiere stage adaptation of David Almond's new children's novel Secret Heart, about how a travelling circus and its tiger affect a shy introverted boy. Adapted by Amanda Dalton and directed by Wils Wilson, it runs from 4 December 2002 to 18 January 2003.

Lorca & Repertory Firsts for 2003

The new year opens in the Main House with the first Lorca ever presented at the Royal Exchange. Yerma, in a new translation by Pam Gems directed by Helena Kaut-Howson, follows a passionate but infertile woman's quest for a child. Starring Denise Black (last seen at the Exchange two years ago in an acclaimed revival of Mrs Warren's Profession), it will run from 22 January to 22 February, while the UK premiere of Owen McCafferty's unlikely Belfast heist drama, Shoot the Crow, plays in parallel in the Studio from 5 to 22 February.

Details are still being finalised for the first of the Main House's repertory special projects, which will launch in spring 2003 with a two-month mixed double bill of classic and contemporary - the world premiere of Brad Fraser's Cold Meat Party, directed by Murray, and a revival of Chekhov's The Seagull, directed joint artistic director Gregory Hersov.

In the meantime, the current 25th anniversary season in Manchester continues now with Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro, running until 22 June 2002, and concludes with a revival of Noel Coward's Design for Living, from 26 June to 3 August 2002.

- by Terri Paddock