An Object Lesson in Enterprise

There is no more distinctive, or arguably more distinguished, regional theatre in the UK than Manchester's Royal Exchange. Distinctive, partly because of its theatre-in-the-round configuration (itself rare and therefore still exciting amongst British theatres) but mainly because of its unique juxtaposition of old and new. Even the theatre 'module' resembles a spacecraft that has landed within the classical walls of the Great Hall that used to house Manchester's cotton exchange, all of which gives every visit to it a special sense of occasion. Distinguished, because of an artistic policy that sees it combining classical and contemporary work - those juxtapositions again - and means that it operates as the hub of a thriving artistic city.

Groundbreaking theatre

The theatre’s 25th anniversary season begins this week with Tom Courtenay, who appeared in the theatre's inaugural productions of The Rivals and Prince of Homburg, returning to star in the title role of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. It seems a good time to focus on the theatre's achievements so far and its future prospects, which include (from 2003) an annual London residency.

Vanya, in fact, was a play that also featured in the theatre's opening season. Its author has become one of the company's house playwrights, second only to Shakespeare in the number of productions staged, so is the perfect place to begin as we look both forwards and back over a quarter of a century of memorable, ground-breaking theatre - literally so in 1996 when an IRA bomb almost destroyed it.

But even that horrible event saw it down but far from out: using its mobile theatre facility - which replicates the theatre's footprint for the regional tours it used to undertake annually - it set up a temporary home elsewhere in the city while reconstruction took place. During the process it became what the theatre itself refers to as a “potent symbol of the revival of Manchester", and showed the depth of feeling for the theatre among audiences and the local population. In the words of Sunday Times journalist Hugh Pearman, in 1998: "Psychologically, the re-opening of the famous Royal Exchange Theatre is an enormous boost. When it first opened more than twenty years ago, it symbolised the start of the regeneration of the old commercial district. Today it is repeating that role."

A happening rather than a peephole

The theatre's work has always been informed by its physical space. In the words of the late Michael Elliott, one of the company's founding artistic directors, "Why are we in the round? Because we believe that theatre is a happening and that what happens among people has more effect than what happens the other side of a peep-hole. Why are we in Manchester? Because we want the theatre to be rooted in a community, and serve it." The repertoire that has emerged in over 220 productions that have been staged there since it opened in 1976 have proved that it offers that community both a reflection of itself, and a window onto other worlds.

Artistic partnerships

Braham Murray, the only surviving founding Artistic Director, explains proudly about the space, "We were in a unique situation in that we were allowed to design our own theatre, so we specifically chose this particular shape; whereas usually it's a town council who build a civic space and then find someone to put in it."

And though the company was formally established in its current location 25 years ago, its foundations go back to a group of people who first started working together in 1956. As Murray points out, it is therefore one of the longest-established group theatres in the world.

It continues to operate its artistic policy by way of a group of Artistic Directors working together, rather than purely offering the vision of one: "We felt that Artistic Directors usually don't last very long. They get burnt out and go work for the BBC, but if you're like-minded, which we were and are, we make up a group so that while one is directing, the others can take the brunt of the administration." (The only other comparable example of this is at Glasgow Citizens', but the National Theatre might well heed these words as they look for a successor to Trevor Nunn).

As well as Murray, the others currently are Greg Hersov and Marianne Elliott. From time to time, Associate Artistic Directors have complemented them: over the years, these have included Nicholas Hytner (now in the running to take over the National), Ian McDiarmid (co-artistic director of the Almeida) and Phyllida Lloyd. "We are constantly reinventing ourselves for a new generation," says Murray.

London Calling

The latest move in that direction is to finally find a regular London outlet for their work. Though numerous productions such as Murray's Lady Windermere's Fan have transferred to West End proscenium houses, they are looking for the opportunity to replicate the arrangement they formerly had at London's Roundhouse in the early 1980s, so that productions could be transferred to a comparable configuration. Now, confirms Murray, they've got it: "From 2003, we will be using the new Collins Theatre in London to bring down the best of our season every year as we used to do to the Roundhouse."

Freed of history to make history

For Greg Hersov, the theatre is ideal for approaching classical plays anew: "When you do Uncle Vanya there have been thousands of productions in a proscenium theatre before you, but with the Royal Exchange, that aggregate of stage history drifts away. The doors and windows and walls and ceilings aren't there anymore, so doing a great play is a very fresh experience and you don't relate it to proscenium imagery, but experience the play in a totally different way. And that goes for the actors as well."

But the theatre is also rigorously committed to new work - it has offered some 77 world premieres and another dozen British or European premieres - and now has a new studio, formed out of the theatre's old workshop, for small-scale work. But part of the attraction of the theatre is to offer a comparatively large platform - 700 seats - for new work. Hersov, who re-staged his Manchester production of Look Back in Anger at the National Theatre, rarely works elsewhere: "I take a long time to choose a play I want to do, and I always think of the Exchange when I do because that's the most exciting place to do it."