Nottingham Playhouse is 50 this year – but as special birthdays go, it hasn’t been a great one for the venue. Thanks to an unexpected subsidy cut from the city council for 2013/14, it is £56,000 worse off.
But artistic director Giles Croft hasn’t lasted in the job for 14 years by letting random funding losses get him down. “It knocked us back a bit but we’ve been able to absorb it,” he says with admirable stoicism.
By far the theatre’s longest-serving artistic director, Croft has evidently built a strong relationship with the city council, reflected in its largely solid support for the Playhouse in recent years.
“They have been pretty consistent in the level of subsidy over the years, and supportive in a number of different ways,” says the former National Theatre dramaturg. “They believe in the arts in Nottingham, they see the value of it. They come to the theatre, they see the work. By and large it is a very good relationship, and we’re talking to them about other means by which we can be supported.
“The position we’re in at the moment is that we’ve had to make some adjustments to the way we work, put more emphasis on finding new partners for projects, explore new income streams, and reduce the number of commissions of new work.
With each funding change there has been a new set of challenges, and that’s kept it interesting for me. It is all about that fight
“We’ve been able to balance the budget for next year even with these cuts,” he says. “But if it gets any worse it will become really problematic. There is a limit, and we’ll find out quite soon what that limit is.”
Looking back to the Playhouse’s inauguration in 1963, one finds that, if anything, the city council was a lot less enamoured of the new theatre than it is today. It gave the new building the go-ahead by a majority of just one, and that turned out to be the mayor’s casting vote.
The bad feeling between management and council came to a dramatic head at the opening-night party when the Playhouse company, then led by John Neville and Tyrone Guthrie, turned up to find the food had already been scoffed by the local dignitaries.
One version of the story goes that Neville was so incensed by this that he punched the town clerk, another that it was actually Guthrie who threw the first punch. A third version has it that there was in fact food for the actors, but that it had been put in a separate room, and the whole thing was a misunderstanding. Whichever was true, the story of Nottingham’s opening-night brawl is now part of British theatrical folklore.
Along with Chichester Festival Theatre, the building of Nottingham Playhouse was the most exciting cultural event in the theatrical community since the Second World War. This was not only due to the building itself – designed by Peter Moro – but also because of the triumvirate in charge of its artistic direction – Neville, Frank Dunlop and Peter Ustinov.
The theatre, meanwhile, borders two sides of a paved pedestrian square, providing plenty of outdoor space for eating, meeting and greeting, both inside and out.
The Playhouse was one of the earliest theatres to be adaptable either as a proscenium or peninsular stage, projecting forward. Now there is also the Neville Studio, which seats 90 people and is converted from what was a rehearsal space.
Under successive artistic directors such as Stuart Burge, Richard Eyre, Pip Broughton, Martin Duncan and Richard Digby Day, it has maintained a reputation for producing new work as well as time-honoured classics, and for attracting the country’s best acting talent.
Croft is quick to point out that one of Nottingham’s great strengths has always been a strong identification with the city and the county, allied to an international reputation for the quality of its work.
He boasts of the fact that a third of the Playhouse audience is aged 26 or younger, “keeping the energy level high”. True to that youthful outlook, earlier this year Croft directed the UK premiere of The Kite Runner, on tour until July 6, which inevitably brought in a young audience since the theatre’s education department organised school workshops and study groups around the production.
As part of the Playhouse’s birthday celebrations, the venue initiated the Neville Prize, a playwriting competition named after the theatre’s founding artistic director, who died in 2011. To Croft’s amazement, 71 entries were received. “I read them all. There wasn’t one you couldn’t produce,” he says proudly. “I was delighted and surprised. I was expecting about half a dozen.”
The winning play, Provenance by Clare Cole, was produced as part of the Lost Plays Revue, a celebration of Nottingham’s past, present and future, held in May. The revue also included works by writers such as NF Simpson, Shelagh Delaney, John Mortimer and Emrys Bryson.
The birthday season also features the world premiere of a new play by local author Michael Eaton, entitled Charlie Peace – His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend. A musical melodrama, it portrays the real-life Victorian villain who went to ground in Nottingham’s Narrow Marsh, having killed his lover’s husband.
From the packed and ambitious 50th season, you’d never guess the Playhouse’s budget was being stretched to its limit. Having weathered many funding storms in his 14 years, Croft seems more determined than ever to put up ‘business as usual’ signs, whatever the financial future holds.
“Ambition and aspiration is the thing we’ve held on to, and the challenge for us is to retain that,” he says. “We haven’t significantly reduced the number of productions. We still do ten to 12 productions a year, and tour the work. We haven’t scaled down our production facility.
“We have a really vibrant artistic community here – a lot of actors, designers, writers, video artists and poets, who are part of our daily life. I was at the National for six years, but the NT never had that relationship with its community that we have here.
“Another important thing we do, in the new Neville Studio, is to allow our technical staff to work creatively with emerging artists. A lot of artists who had nowhere to perform in the city now have somewhere to go, and [can work with] people with the technical know-how to facilitate them.”
The challenge ahead for Croft and his team is immense. Ten years ago, Nottingham’s ratio was 60% subsidy, 40% earned income. That statistic has now been reversed, so there is huge pressure to put bums on seats.
A recent audience research project, showing a disconnect between what the Playhouse was offering and the public perception of it, has resulted in major changes to presentation and marketing, and a big increase in box-office revenue.
Clearly, Croft feels no loss of appetite for the fight for survival. “At the heart of it has been this shared belief within the organisation that what we have to retain at all costs is a fully functional producing theatre,” he says. “With each funding change there has been a new set of challenges, and that’s kept it interesting for me. It is all about that fight.”
For further details of Nottingham Playhouse’s 50th anniversary season, see www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk
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