When his hopes of becoming a professional athlete were dashed, Stephen Rebbeck signed up to his local college: Rose Bruford. Now RSC technical director, he tells Nick Smurthwaite about working with a young Daniel Day-Lewis, how the company is coping with the coronavirus and why he never tries to tell his team how to do their jobs
Backstage role models don’t come any more fully fledged than Stephen Rebbeck, who has been technical director of the Royal Shakespeare Company since 2015. He manages to combine nuts-and-bolts know-how with wide-ranging experience and enviable people skills.
So relaxed and affable is Rebbeck in person that it’s hard to imagine him leading a team of nearly 200 people in Stratford-upon-Avon, arguably the most challenging technical executive job in the country.
But shortly after talking to Rebbeck about his role and career, the entire theatre landscape shifted with the onset of the coronavirus and the resulting closure of most venues around the country.
“Suffice to say I’ve never known anything like it,” he says when we talk again. “It’s quite extraordinary – pretty much all the theatres, cinemas, football grounds, tennis tournaments and everything else closed and/or cancelled.
“And all of us told to stay indoors. It’s unprecedented, and largely defies contingency planning. We’re taking each day as it comes – you have to when the circumstances change by the hour – and trying to work out how to be ready for the endgame. At the same time realising this thing is so much bigger and more consequential than the RSC being closed. Potentially thousands of deaths. It all puts things into some kind of perspective really.”
People working in theatre are facing huge challenges, and understandably it was hard to get back in touch with Rebbeck. “Along with all theatres everywhere, we closed down last night, so today has been a little testing, not only in the planning, but also in communicating to everyone.”
He continues: “We had two shows playing in London, another about to open, a tour in Newcastle due to go to Blackpool, then the US and East Asia, two productions in the Swan, plus four shows in rehearsal for Stratford. All shut, postponed or cancelled. All workshops and technical departments closed.
“Obviously we’re not entirely surprised, and had contingencies planned, but no one quite knew when it would happen – 6pm on a Monday evening wasn’t really the time we would have chosen.”
Having been, in his time, a sound technician, a stage manager, a company manager, a production manager and a producer, does he ever long to be back in the engine room rather than the meeting room?
“Of course I miss being at the coalface, but it just isn’t feasible for me to be putting on a show as well as doing what this job requires of me,” he says. “However, I can’t say I miss the hours or the weariness. I’m quite good at leaving work at work and not taking it home.”
Given the burdens he is currently shouldering, that’s quite an achievement. Apart from the threat posed by coronavirus, the RSC is in the final stages of its £8.7 million costume department refurbishment (which also incorporates a new entrance to its administration block and a new function room), upgrading the Swan Theatre next year, trying to find new workshop premises in the town to replace the old ones (Rebbeck says they are no longer fit for purpose) and developing immersive performance experiences through its Audience of the Future programme.
Of course I miss being at the coalface, but I can’t say I miss the hours or the weariness
It is also working on something called ‘volumetric capture’, whereby the viewer can see a performance from all angles. There will be a live-streaming demonstration of this in the summer – coronavirus permitting.
Rebbeck is at pains to point out that it is the various senior team leaders who are directly responsible for these projects and developments, rather than himself. And he shows a palpable pride when discussing the merits of the technical and creative talents under his supervision.
“I am in awe of these people,” he says. “I would never dream of telling a costume maker or an automation programmer how to do their job. I try to give them the best environment in which to do the best possible job they can. That’s how I see my role.”
His counterpart at the National Theatre, Paul Handley, believes Rebbeck’s wide experience of production and company management has equipped him to “deal with all types of crisis, artistic temperament, deadline and sky-reaching ambition,” but says he is also someone who appreciates “the need to keep it fun while promoting high professional standards”.
The story of Rebbeck’s theatrical ascent did not have auspicious beginnings. Growing up in a village outside Tunbridge Wells in Kent, he had no interest in, or contact with, the theatre, although as a youngster he did quite like the idea of working in television.
In his teens he wrote to the BBC asking how he could become a TV producer. Someone wrote back telling the young Rebbeck that many started off as an assistant floor manager before working their way up. “We usually take people with theatre experience,” the letter continued.
As a teenager, he was a very good 800-metre runner, one of the top five in the country at one stage, “until I was about 17 when I stopped getting better and my contemporaries didn’t. I was a couple of years younger than the Coe/Ovett axis, and it was a dream that never quite materialised, but I do remember walking/floating down the street once and thinking to myself: ‘Remember what this is like as you’ll never feel so fit again.’ And I was right”.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in the Land Registry office as a clerical assistant. I painted the property boundary lines on a map with red poster paint.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Touring the UK with the contemporary dance company Extemporary Dance.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
How all things digital were going to take over the industry. I spent a lot of time catching up.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Dick Penny, general manager of the Little Theatre in Bristol, and subsequently my great friend. He showed me that you don’t get anywhere without taking a few risks.
What’s your best advice for anyone looking to work in technical theatre?
Remember the audience comes to see the actors, and that everything we do is to support them in telling the story. We are not the story.
If you hadn’t been a technical director, what would you have been?
An athlete, competing against Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. Sadly that didn’t work out, but I reckon they would have made rubbish technical directors.
When he “buggered up” his A levels in 1977, as he puts it, jettisoning his university prospects, Rebbeck somewhat half-heartedly turned to the drama college nearest his home – Rose Bruford in Sidcup – which offered him a place on its newly established technical theatre course.
It took him another year to take up the place because he was initially unable to get a grant. “I had no idea what I was going there to do, but to my surprise I found I’d landed in exactly the right place at the right time. I knew within a couple of months of starting the course that this was what I wanted to do.”
What was it about Rose Bruford and technical training that he felt so comfortable with? “Working together as a team, the camaraderie, being dependent on each other, the need to make quick decisions. I liked the idea of being a cog in the machine that would, ultimately, send an audience away happy. I guess I also liked organising things. Everything in that process clicked for me.”
He found gainful employment even before the course had finished, becoming one of two all-purpose technicians for a touring dance company, Extemporary Dance, in 1980. “I was the sound operator for the shows, and we shared the driving between the UK venues. Then the other technician lost his licence and I finished up doing all the driving.”
He went on to work briefly at London’s Royal Court and the Lyric Hammersmith before landing a deputy stage manager role at the Little Theatre, Bristol, a spin-off from the Bristol Old Vic that included actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite, designer Bob Crowley and administrator Dick Penny, all in their 20s and 30s, setting up on their own.
Rebbeck says: “There was a great egalitarian ethos, everyone was paid the same, everyone mucking in, production meetings in the pub. It was sort of crazy and exhilarating at the same time. The last show we did was an adaptation of When the Wind Blows, the Raymond Briggs book, which transferred to the West End. I stage-managed that and had a walk-on part as a milkman.”
It was the start of a lifelong friendship with Penny, with whom he formed a touring production company in 1996. Among others, they toured the one-man show Scaramouche Jones, in which Postlethwaite played a centenarian looking back on his life, to Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Penny remembers that time with fondness: “Steve always had an engaging, calm, can-do quality. It didn’t matter what was thrown at him, he’d just get on with it. He gets the best from people and he makes everyone feel that anything is possible.
I liked the idea of being a cog in the machine that would, ultimately, send an audience away happy
“In the Little Theatre days, we developed a lot of trust and respect for each other. Later, with the production company, we weren’t setting out to make a fortune, we just wanted to make some interesting theatre happen. We did projects that we both liked in between doing other jobs separately. Steve ended up production-managing some enormous shows in Toronto. He brings the same diligence and high standards to the table, whether it’s a tiny show or one with a budget of millions.”
Rebbeck remained in Bristol, taking the job of company manager at Bristol Old Vic. His predecessor Diana Favell had left to head up the stage management course at RADA and when she left that job, they offered it to the 26-year-old Rebbeck, as well as the role of production manager. “Looking back I was far too young,” he says. “I’d never done teaching before and as soon as I started, I realised how difficult it was.”
Rebbeck returned to Bristol as production manager after two years, at a time when they were doing co-productions with London’s National Theatre – The Misanthrope in 1988 and Long Day’s Journey Into Night three years later.
He recalls: “I got to know some people from the National and when a production manager job came up there I went for it. It was just after Richard Eyre started and it was a really fabulous place to work at that time, intense but satisfying. We had such a lot of fun. I did the first production of Arcadia and I found myself in a room with Tom Stoppard, Trevor Nunn and designer Mark Thompson, telling them they couldn’t afford to do it.”
He was also production manager for Stephen Daldry’s ambitious revival of Machinal in 1994, which he describes with hindsight as “unbelievably exciting and probably the most technically stressful show I’ve done”.
He adds: “It was pre-automation, pre-digital but the technology was just crazy. Luckily the deputy stage manager was a genius.”
The head of his Rose Bruford course had predicted, years earlier, that Rebbeck would finish up as a production manager at the National and with that in mind, he remembers thinking at the time: “Where do I go from here? It suddenly felt as if I had no ambition left.”
As it turned out, he had plenty of ambition left. From 1995, he and Penny ran their touring production company, Rebbeck Penny Ltd, on and off for 10 years, which included production-managing shows such as War Horse and The Lord of the Rings in Canada, before returning to the National in 2012 to become, with Chris Harper, co-managing director of National Theatre Productions, responsible for developing and producing NT hits to go out on tour.
“The problem was always to try to make them fit other theatres,” he says. “Shows were never made with touring in mind. I took The Madness of George III on tour and we’d leave half of the set in the truck. In the Theatre Royal Bath, for example, you could only get a quarter of the original set on the stage. We had to build a whole new set for the tour of Stoppard’s Arcadia – the one for the Lyttelton, where it premiered, was far too big to take on the road.”
By the time he arrived at the RSC in 2015 to take over from Simon Marsden as technical director, Rebbeck was well versed in all aspects of production and technical management, with a contacts book that read like a Who’s Who of the world’s top theatre practitioners. Did he hit the ground running?
“Actually, I took my time because I didn’t know enough about the organisation and you’re working with a bunch of people who know exactly what they’re doing. For the first six months I was trying to find my feet and work out what everyone did. So I walked into the pool and slowly began to swim. I now know what I want to do in terms of organisation, efficiency drives, any changes to the way we do things. Getting there wasn’t always straightforward.”
How would he characterise his progress so far? “In the workshops we’re now taking on work from companies outside the RSC, which we’ve never done before. Traditionally the RSC has always made every single thing, about 90% of what you see on stage, and we are now outsourcing some of the work, such as printed backcloths, because it is more time and cost effective.
“The designers don’t like it, but we now ask for a 35-week process from concept through to production, which allows for some things to be late or for cost considerations to be reviewed. I’ve also created a new post – head of technical resources – who will be looking at our infrastructure, the state and maintenance of our equipment and future refurbishment works. I spend a lot of time talking to the forward planning department asking if we can do this or transfer that.”
He continues: “The new costume department [opening in August] will be much more spacious and user-friendly than it was – the designer Tom Piper knocked himself out twice on the low beams in the old one – allowing us to bring more apprentices into a safe environment. It will also make it easier to show off the fabulous skills of the costume and prop makers to the public on conducted tours. I want to give our makers the opportunity to blossom.”
Like everyone else, I’m thinking a lot about the effects of coronavirus. We have to look out for the staff
In terms of pastoral care, Rebbeck is hands on with any serious issues, be they physical or mental, involving a member of his staff. He says: “Of course people get stressed, and there are a lot of safety nets in place. We have access to a permanent health-line as well as confidential counselling for any mental health issues. Like everyone else, I’m thinking a lot about the effects of coronavirus. We have to look out for the staff. We’re going through all kinds of hypothetical scenarios at the moment.”
The person to whom Rebbeck is directly answerable – artistic director Gregory Doran – clearly commands his respect and affection. He says: “I could not ask for a better person to work with in terms of the support and appreciation I receive. I feel the job would be much less enjoyable without him. In general terms it is the most supportive and embracing company I’ve ever been involved with, and the entire staff is focused to a remarkable degree.”
Born: Kent, 1959
Training: Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance, graduated 1980
• Little Theatre Company, Bristol (1981-83)
• Bristol Old Vic, company and stage manager (1984-1986)
• National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, production manager (1992-96)
• Rebbeck Penny Ltd production company, producer (1996-2003)
• Gainsborough Film Studios, project manager for conversion of buildings into performance space for the Almeida Theatre, London (1998)
• National Theatre Productions, co-managing director (2012-15)
• Royal Shakespeare Company, technical director (2015 onwards)