Taking over a theatre building for the first time can come as a shock for artistic directors and they soon learn that being creative is only one part of the job. Lyn Gardner talks to those in the know and finds they all agree the overall experience of an audience is as important as the plays they stage
When Ellen McDougall was an associate artist at the Gate Theatre, she never had an opinion on the bins in the foyer. She barely even noticed them. But now she is artistic director of the Notting Hill venue, she is surprised to discover that she feels quite passionately about them “because the bins are all part of the audience experience”.
McDougall is not alone in getting worked up over rubbish disposal. When Nicholas Hytner was running the National Theatre, he was so exasperated that the 17 million members of the public walking along the river frontage were presented with the NT’s extensive bin collection that their removal was one of the impetuses behind the £80 million redevelopment of the building. Now, there’s not a bin in sight.
If McDougall and Hytner focus on the bins, David Greig, who runs the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, says he is “haunted by the toilets”, which are Victorian and unloved by the audience. “But it would cost such a lot to modernise them, and there’s not the money,” he says ruefully.
Anthony Biggs, co-artistic director at the Playground Theatre in west London, also worries about the toilets, as well as keeping the over-friendly rodents that live on the nearby railway well away from the building.
Meanwhile, Mike Tweddle, just two years into the job at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, admits to being obsessed with how he can get people to their beer quicker during the interval. “It makes a difference to how they feel going back in for the second half,” he says.
One of the very first things that Rachel O’Riordan did on arriving at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff was not a radical programming decision but insisting that ineffective fridges in the bar were replaced so the white wine served to audiences was properly cold.
“You might not think that would be near the top of the list for an incoming artistic director,” says O’Riordan. “Perhaps it wasn’t at the very top of the list, but it was pretty near the top, and that’s because the comfort and overall experience of an audience at the Sherman is as much part of my job as the plays we stage. For them, it’s a night out – so the whole package is important. And that includes serving them a chilled glass of wine or a good cup of coffee.”
The Traverse’s Orla O’Loughlin agrees: “The welcome you give an audience and what beer you serve and the food on the menu are as much part of the personality of a theatre as the plays you stage. You have to craft that personality.”
In Balancing Acts, his award-winning account of his time at the National Theatre, Hytner rather mournfully observes that when he met members of the public they rarely wanted to talk to him about the plays. But they did want to talk about the restaurant or the parking. One delighted punter enthused: “There’s nowhere like the National. Superb underground car park.”
Hytner eventually came to appreciate that “packing them in makes you responsible for what happens to them before and after the show, so I learned to be as happy to hear about interval activity in the women’s toilets as I was to hear about the play”. Or as O’Loughlin puts it: “Sometimes I feel the artist in me has to get over herself a little.”
Most UK theatres are run by people with the title of ‘artistic director’. But many taking over a building for the first time, even if they are not doing the job of chief executive as well, very quickly understand that being artistic is only one part of the job. The director character in Ella Hickson’s The Writer may be a cynic, but there is some truth in his declaration that running a building is “90% donor dinners, budget sheets and discussions about the toilets”.
Greig says: “There is a lot of standing up in rooms, pinging a glass and making a speech. There is a ceremonial function to being an artistic director.”
One of the things that has surprised him is how much time he spends talking. “Some days it feels as if I have been in meetings talking from 9am to 7pm,” he says.
But all that talking is crucial. “The task of an artistic director,” says Sheffield Theatres’ Robert Hastie, “is to keep the creativity running through all the theatre’s conversations.”
Theresa Heskins, artistic director at the New Vic in Newcastle- under-Lyme, agrees and says she spends about a third of her time making art and two-thirds creating the conditions in which the art can be made and enjoyed. That is an art in itself.
Although programming and creative decision-making are fundamental parts of the job, in an era when theatres must make every penny count and look to generate ever more income, running a theatre requires artistic directors who are as clued up about running bars, cafes and a business as they are at spotting a great new script. And that’s even if they have a chief executive or share that role.
“I do sometimes wonder whether I should have done an MBA [Master of Business Administration degree],” says O’Riordan.
There is a good reason why it is called showbusiness. So, what makes us think that people who are good at directing plays might also be good at running theatres?
When Michael Longhurst was appointed artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse last month, there was much cheering. But are good directors necessarily equipped to run buildings?
Adam Penford, halfway through his first season as artistic director at Nottingham Playhouse, thinks that they are: “Being a theatre director is largely about people management and guiding people through a process of fulfilling a vision. Running a building is the same.”
Still, taking over a theatre for the first time can come as a shock, particularly to those used to being freelance and working as a jobbing director. Arriving as artistic director at Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse 15 years ago, Gemma Bodinetz found herself rushing away after one of her first meetings to read up on governance, something she hadn’t previously had to consider as a freelance director.
After six months in the job, Hastie – who took over at Sheffield in 2016 – had to call an amnesty on acronyms used within the organisation and admit that he had no idea what some of them meant. Management speak is a particular bugbear of many first-time artistic directors.
Tweddle found himself having to learn how to use Outlook and simultaneously grapple with building plans for a capital project, while Greig, whose only previous job in theatre was as a playwright, was so unused to being in an office that for a period he wondered whether he should be clocking in and out. “Office life was completely alien to me,” he says.
There can be other shocks too when you find yourself in a building rather than outside of it. Greig admits that “the coldest splash of all was the brutality of the economics of running a theatre”. He adds: “There is a difference to being on the inside than being on the outside. When I was on the outside, I used to say: ‘Why don’t you do a Jon Fosse play?’. Now I know that putting on an unknown foreign play with a title like Misery is not going to happen unless you can co-produce with a big London theatre and get a star director and star casting.”
That does mean you sometimes have to compromise, but according to Greig, the trick is “finding the hills you are prepared to die on, because if you only compromise and always surrender to the economics then you quickly slide off a cliff”. He adds: “I think that attack is the best form of defence.”
For others, it is uncomfortable to find themselves suddenly in a position where they are now the person who directors and writers outside of the building all want to talk to. With brutal honesty, Hastie says: “I hadn’t realised how much of my time I would spend saying ‘no’ to people and working out clear and sympathetic ways to say it. You want your creative life to be driven by saying ‘yes’, but when you have limited time, space and money, and there are so many directors and writers who want to work, saying ‘no’ is pretty much a daily task.”
Practically every first-time artistic director I spoke to talked about being overwhelmed by the volume of emails they had to deal with, and felt particularly guilty about failures to respond to other artists because they all knew what it was like to be the one sending the email pleading for a meeting.
“I used to get so exasperated about artistic directors not responding to emails, but now I am one, I understand,” says Penford. “Even if I worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, I’d never get around to answering them all. So, you have to put new structures in place and bring in new ways of dealing with them.”
Arriving as a new artistic director is an opportunity to instigate change in an organisation. But it can also feel like trying to turn an oil tanker around. Penford says he came into an organisation where many wanted “a degree of change”, but adds ruefully: “Of course, what you discover is that every department thinks it’s other departments that need to change and not their own. You have to manage that carefully or you end up either with a situation where nothing ever changes or what you implement is so radical that you scare the horses.”
New artistic directors should remember they are appointed to the job in recognition by the board that change is necessary, Greig says. In the early days, he was trying to tread a fine line between “a willingness to find out how the building currently works” and “a resistance to just accepting that way of working”. He thinks you have to throw in a few artistic grenades as a statement of intent: “Your first year’s programme should be overambitious. If it’s not, why are you there?”
Penford admits to having a secret list of “big things” that he would like to change or achieve during his time at Nottingham. “If I’m still here in seven or 10 years’ time and I’ve achieved three things on the list, I’ll be proud. But I keep the list with me always so that when I get bogged down in the day to day of the job and all the short-term, immediate concerns that can be overwhelming, it’s there to remind me of what I want to do, rather than simply accept that these things are unachievable.”
By 3pm on the day we speak, Penford has already had a meeting with the Playhouse’s elders’ group, Encore, which complained about the size of the flapjacks (too big it says), replied to emails from audience members, been in meetings about refurbishing the green room, another about catering and another with the props department. “And I had hoped to think around some of the programming for 2019/20, but I haven’t had time.”
Not having enough time was the constant refrain, although most get better at managing time after an initial period in the job, eventually finding ways to carve out moments to programme, dream and think strategically.
“When I first started,” Bodinetz says, “I was micromanaging everything. I had to stop for my own sanity but also because I realised that other people knew their jobs better than me. I had to learn to let go so I could do my own job properly.” Which for most building-based artistic directors doesn’t just mean making sure the building runs smoothly but also means prepping for and directing their own projects.
O’Riordan says that, when running a building, there is something magical about the time spent in the rehearsal room. “When you are actually making theatre, it reminds the rest of the building that’s what you do and why we are all here. It’s also lovely, because the whole building is behind you. They want you to succeed,” she says.
For McDougall, the play is always the thing. The bins, notwithstanding, the nature of the building and its lack of a cafe or bar mean that people go for the show and not for the ambience of the virtually non-existent foyer.
“At the Gate, for it not to be about the show is quite hard,” says McDougall, who admits that she envies theatres that have the potential to be community spaces in a way that is not feasible at hers. But while she can’t expand the foyer, she can ensure a warm welcome to everyone who passes through the door. The Gate is one of the few theatres where you might hand over your ticket to the artistic director as you enter the auditorium. Wherever the building, and its size and location, the welcome is key.
“It’s not just about the work – important though that is – it’s always also about the welcome, how prepared we are to meet people and keep asking: who are we for and why are we here?” says O’Loughlin. “If we want to survive, we have to change and rethink our civic role and that means being in partnership with our audiences. They are our main stakeholder.”
O’Riordan adds: “I don’t mind if audiences don’t like a show, as long as it was of good quality. One of the things I’ve learned is that an audience is more forgiving of an artistic endeavour they don’t like than they are of a stale sandwich. We aren’t just offering art, we are selling a whole package, of which the show is just one part.”
Nowhere is that truer than at the New Vic, where ease of parking, a reasonably priced meal and a show are all bound together. Heskins says she has come to see the building as “an audience centre, where we are cultivating theatre audiences by creating a relationship with them”.
She adds: “Lots of people come here just for lunch, and that is fine because it means we already have a relationship with them, and it’s as much my job to make sure they enjoy their lunch as it is to make sure that those who have bought a ticket enjoy the show. It’s about giving everyone who comes into the building a good time.”
‘People stop me in Marks and Spencer to tell me what they thought of a show. I like it. It’s part of the conversation. As an artistic director, it’s useful to know’ – Robert Hastie
‘Some days I just have back-to-back meetings. One of the things I’ve learned is to block out periods of time when I say: ‘No meetings’’ – Ellen McDougall
‘At the centre of a good theatre is a strong artist’ – Gemma Bodinetz, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
‘Going to the theatre is like hill walking in Scotland. If you are going for the view, you will probably be disappointed because the mist obscures it. But if you are going for convivial company, you will have a really good time’ – David Greig
‘When I ran Jermyn Street, some people complained the bar was too small. I didn’t have an answer, except what did they expect? It’s a cupboard’ – Anthony Biggs
‘You want to make change when you start as an artistic director. But it’s like moving into a house. It’s good to spend time in it and work out how the sun comes in the window’ – Mike Tweddle
‘There are three pinch points for an artistic director: Making change when you arrive; not getting complacent when you’ve made some change, or you just start coasting; and deciding when to leave’ – Rachel O’Riordan