Stepping into the shoes of an artistic director at any venue is always daunting, but to then have your best laid plans disrupted by a mass pandemic adds a few dollops of pressure to the mix. That's what happened to the Rose Theatre's Christopher Haydon who, less than two months after starting at the major Kingston venue, saw everything put on ice thanks to lockdown.
It was slightly strange, under the circumstances, Haydon explains: "I was only really beginning to find my feet, meet everyone and get acquainted with the shows at the Rose – we have a lot of drama, a lot of family work, comedy, speakers – I wanted to see all the strands. But that wasn't possible. The closing down of the theatre – for me, having been there for so little time, was a bit unusual. But the managing team did a brilliant job – we didn't have to make any redundancies – staff welfare was at the top of the priority list."
This isn't the first time Haydon has stepped into the role of artistic director at a new venue, following his tenure at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill from 2011. So coming back after lockdowns had a semblance of familiarity: "Reopening, for me, was like launching my first season at the Gate – it was all new and I was still sort of finding your way. You can read the box office data and speak to staff, but in the end you don't really know how the work is going to be received until you're in the room with an audience. So we're very much interested in what the responses will be. The space can throw up practical challenges and that's a crash course you have to have."
That's not to say the Rose and the Gate don't offer very different challenges, Haydon explains: "You have to think about the audience a lot more at the Rose than at the Gate. At the Gate, if the show is good it will find an audience and, because it's so much more intimate, it will sell out.
"Here, we're an 800-seat venue in an outer London borough, so we have to think about the audience appetite – what do they want. You can have a brilliant show that just doesn't appeal to the local audience. So I'm always looking for the overlaps between what I am interested in and what they're interested in.
"In the longer term, you then have to be in a place where you can encourage audiences to take more risks, while the artists here also have the space to try new things. So there are both sides reaching towards one another."
The 2021 season launched with Alys Metcalf's new drama Leopards, followed by The Seven Pomegranate Seeds, starring venue favourite Niamh Cusack. The Rose is now treading more familiar ground with its festive show – Beauty and the Beast.
2022 has some exciting plans in store – with Jeff James' modern version of Persuasion, co-produced with Alexandra Palace Theatre in association with Oxford Playhouse, as well as a new take on Brecht's The Caucasion Chalk Circle, with Haydon himself at the helm.
"My focus has been on – 'what are our values? What do we exist to do in terms of the work we put on, in terms of being placed in Kingston, and what are our ambitions within the industry?' I'd love to create a sense of cohesion and coherence to each season – with a clear direction going forwards. One of my aims is to take stories we think we know and make them feel box-fresh. Like what we're doing with Persuasion – set in a 21st-century nightclub. It's all about reinventing what people think they know."