Roxana Silbert uses the word ‘duty’ several times when describing the role of a regional theatre in Britain today. There is a duty to make work that is both excellent and diverse, she explains, a regional theatre “should be constantly evaluating and changing in order to reflect the social and political landscape”.
Silbert, formerly of Paines Plough, is the new artistic director of Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Although her appointment as Rachel Kavanaugh’s successor was announced way back in 2011, she only now takes up the role as the theatre enters its centenary year and her inaugural season will coincide with the reopening of the new Rep building after a lengthy period of renovation.
I hope every child in Birmingham comes into contact with the Rep at some point in their lives
It is Silbert’s aim to honour the Rep’s ambitious and innovative founder Barry Jackson and his belief that theatre should “serve as art instead of making that art serve a commercial purpose”.
The first production under her tenure, a version of Philip Pullman’s I Was A Rat!, co-produced with Nottingham Playhouse, Ipswich New Wolsey Theatre and Teatro Kismet, highlights her other stated aim – to make theatre a vital and central part of the lives of children in the region.To this end, all children born at Birmingham City and Heartlands hospitals during the Rep’s birthday week (February 11-17) will be offered free annual theatre experiences for their first ten years. And Silbert says it is her hope that “every child in Birmingham comes into contact with the Rep at some point in their lives”.
Theatre should be part of the adventure of growing up, a welcoming place, and Silbert hopes the Rep can fulfil that role for young people in the West Midlands. She recognises that pricing plays a large part in this and is committed to keeping ticket prices as low as she possibly can, in order to make the Rep as inclusive and accessible as it can be. There will even be a number of tickets on offer at 1913 prices to illustrate this commitment as well as to further celebrate the connection between the Rep’s past and its present.
The first half of the centenary season will take place in the company’s original home, the Old Rep Theatre in Station Street, while the second half will see a return to the Rep building when it reopens as part of the new Library of Birmingham.
The facade will remain essentially the same as it was (if a bit cleaner), but inside the building the partition walls have been removed to recreate the space as it would have been when it opened in 1971. New rehearsal space, dressing rooms and workshop space have also been created and the foyer has been opened up to connect with the adjoining library building Silbert hopes this new space will become a cultural ‘hub’, library and theatre, feeding into one another both physically – there are no walls or doors to separate the spaces – and in a more general creative sense.
This connection is most strikingly illustrated by the creation of a shared 300-seat studio theatre, which will expand the range of work that the Rep is capable of staging. The new space will be more intimate than the 900-seat main house and will allow The Door, the existing 140-seat studio, to become a dedicated space for artistic development – a site for scratching and shaping new work and for nurturing new talent.
This is important to Silbert as she believes another duty of a regional is to support the creative infrastructure of the region. She recognises that there are comparatively fewer opportunities for developing artists outside of London and believes it is vital that the Rep should “support artists and theatre-makers entering the profession”.
Birmingham is an incredibly culturally diverse city and its audience is hungry for contemporary work
A new initiative, the Rep Foundry, has been created to do just that – to support emerging local companies by offering them development opportunities and mentoring programmes. The scratch process is very much a part of this and there will be a series of scratch nights staged at the theatre throughout its centenary year.
Silbert is clearly acutely aware of the rich and long history of the venue she is taking on, its stories and characters. A Heritage Lottery grant has allowed the theatre’s archive to be opened up for the first time and a series of creative responses are being planned in response to this material. Birmingham-based spoken word artist Polarbear will be among those producing work that draws on this exciting new resource for inspiration.
But as alert to the company’s past as Silbert is, she is also focused on its future. The theatre’s 100-year legacy is to her as a much “a provocation” as an inspiration, a spear to keep questioning what a regional theatre can and should be, to never sit still. Birmingham is an incredibly culturally diverse city and its audience is “hungry for contemporary work, exciting work”, eager to see their lives and experiences on stage.
The theatre is a fundamental part of Birmingham, its cultural landscape, its social history – many of the writers and directors working at the venue today remember the Rep fondly from childhood and had their first experiences of theatre there, creating a sense of continuity and connection – and the city in turn acts as a canvas for those creating work there. As in the case of Heather Gardner, the second new commission in the centenary season, an Ibsen update by local playwright Robin French set in 1960s Edgbaston.
Silbert hopes her first season will allow the spirit of Jackson to live on in the new theatre, honouring his wish to “place artists at the centre of the work”, while also catering to a contemporary audience’s needs and ensuring the theatre remains a bright, beating space at the creative centre of the city.