Since it opened two years ago, Chester’s Storyhouse has forged a reputation as a local cultural hub. Its chief executive Andrew Bentley and artistic director Alex Clifton tell Catherine Jones about their ambitious plans to boost the number of in-house shows and become a producing powerhouse
When Storyhouse opened its new £37 million home in 2017, its ambition was to become a cultural centre for the people of Chester. As it prepares to celebrate its second birthday, and with more than one million visitors having passed through its doors, the organisation has its sights on its next goal: to become one of the UK’s leading theatre producers.
Heading up the drive are Alex Clifton and Andrew Bentley, who describe their working relationship as “the closest artistic director and chief executive in the country”. This summer marks the 10th season of their professional partnership.
Storyhouse itself emerged from Chester Performs, an arts organisation originally formed in 2007 that created, produced and staged site-specific performances and events in the city.
When the pair joined forces to launch Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in 2010, Chester-raised Clifton was an acting tutor at RADA and had previously worked at English National Opera and as artistic director of Pursued by a Bear.
Bentley, already chief executive of Chester Performs, had enjoyed a varied career, which included being director of Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall, and saving Liverpool Playhouse from closure 20 years ago, as well as a decade creating and running marketing and leisure businesses.
Grosvenor Park was founded under the wider Chester Performs producing umbrella, in part to fill a gap left by the closure of the city’s Gateway venue. But a temporary solution has become a permanent fixture, and over the past decade the open-air theatre has established its place as a key part of the city’s cultural year, staging two Shakespeare plays and a family-friendly production each season.
Clifton was appointed artistic director of Chester Performs in 2015, ahead of the move into its new home with its new identity as Storyhouse. As the new venue itself became established, there were plans to send the outdoor work indoors, but such is the popularity of Grosvenor Park, which runs at 94% capacity, that the idea has now been shelved.
“By a mixture of accident and design, you’ve got yourself an absolutely beautiful theatre space, and a loyal and proud audience who love the work and feel that they own it,” Clifton says of Grosvenor Park. “It’s not really ours any more so we can’t shut it because we simply don’t have that agency or authority over the space.”
Bentley adds: “One of our customers said to us: ‘I see Storyhouse has got its hands on the open-air theatre. They better not ruin it. It’s the best thing we’ve got in the city.’ And I 100% agree with them.”
While Storyhouse, which is both the name of the organisation and of its Hunter Street home, might have superseded Chester Performs, the pair are keen to point out it retains the same values of being a site-specific, combined arts organisation.
Chief executive: Andrew Bentley
Artistic director: Alex Clifton
Number of performances for Made by Storyhouse productions (2018/19): 149
Audience figures for Made by Storyhouse productions (2018/19): 62,000
Number of employees: 113, plus 115 volunteers
Turnover: £6.8 million
Key contacts: Kay Magson, casting director: email@example.com
The complex, created within both the shell of a grade II-listed former cinema and a new-build in steel and glass, includes the city’s library and a cinema. It also has an 850-seat auditorium, which can be reconfigured as a 500-seat thrust stage space with what Clifton calls an “Off-Off-Broadway” feel. There is also a separate 150-capacity studio theatre.
The theatre spaces play host to a mixture of touring plays and musicals, comedy, dance, music and the spoken word, as well as Storyhouse’s homegrown productions.
In its first year, the company produced five shows. Last season it was six and in 2019/20 that figure rises to 10 – albeit with a slightly different shape to the season. “We’re a dynamic organisation,” says Clifton. “That dynamism is critical to our ability to operate and our ability to grow. We’re not tied to an operating model that means once we’ve had an idea, we have to repeat it every year.”
Bentley puts that flexibility in the theatre model down to the organisation’s lean operating structure and small core team, which, he says, means they can “change quite quickly and we don’t have to take more people with us”.
He adds: “We’ll continue to grow and stage as much theatre as we can afford to do. And that growth is just simply in tune with the audience demand. We have to follow demand because we have no other route available to us.”
While Storyhouse is an Arts Council England national portfolio organisation, that funding is targeted in other areas, leaving it to follow a commercial theatre production model. Within that model, however, the team remains committed to what Clifton describes as “work clearly made in the city, as far as possible involving, and by, the city’s residents and communities”.
The ongoing increase in output is all part of a longer-term plan to cement Storyhouse’s place as one of the UK’s foremost regional producing houses. But while Clifton readily admits the ambition, he strongly objects to the word ‘regional’. “It immediately puts it in a dynamic relationship with London, and there’s an embedded, implicit hierarchy there which is unavoidable and poisonous,” he says.
He prefers the term ‘community theatres’, saying: “Every theatre is a community theatre – you’re just dealing with different communities. The Arcola is a community theatre, the Donmar is a community theatre.”
Warming to the theme, Clifton adds: “We want to be a leading theatre producer and recognised as such. Actually, I don’t care about being recognised as such – I just want to do it. I just want to make a load of shows and make a load of people happy.”
The ambition is to fill the stage with Chester’s communities, to make more opportunities for its young people to train and join its technician and actors’ schemes. “We want to make more opportunities for local charities and organisations to get involved and write their own pieces that speak to their own experiences directly on our stages. That’s an ambition.”
1. Storyhouse opened its doors in May 2017 and received one million visitors in its first year – including the Queen and the Duchess of Sussex, who officially opened the venue.
2. The organisation and its previous incarnation Chester Performs have operated 50/50 gender casting since 2011, and in addition every acting company has at least two paid trainee performers/artists, recruited from its Young Company and local communities.
3. Storyhouse runs MA drama, MRes storytelling and MA creative practices in education programmes in partnership with the University of Chester.
4. The venue operates without a physical on-site box office and has a policy of dynamic pricing. It has sold 121,000 tickets for Made by Storyhouse productions in the past two years from a total of 433,489 for all shows and events.
5. It used to take the technical team a week to convert the proscenium arch auditorium into a 480-seat thrust configuration. Now they can do it in two or three days, increasing the venue’s flexibility.
Last year the programme opened with a rep season of shows. The 2019/20 season will be launched with a single production – Little Shop of Horrors – directed by Stephen Mears and opening on the venue’s thrust stage on May 10.
The focus then moves outdoors as the organisation decamps to Grosvenor Park where the 10th-anniversary programme features Henry V, with husband and wife Joseph Millson and Sarah-Jane Potts playing Henry and Katharine, Twelfth Night, and children’s favourite The Borrowers in a new version by Bryony Lavery.
An autumn production of Jekyll and Hyde, which is aimed at a schools’ audience, is being created in partnership with Fallen Angels – a resident dance company that works with adults recovering from addiction.
And the producing programme also includes a return to repertory in spring 2020, with an overarching theme looking at poverty and wealth within Chester. This includes a production of Hedda Gabler, a documentary play created in conjunction with a food poverty charity and a new musical version of Brewster’s Millions. A Christmas Peter Pan and a further summer musical complete the line-up.
While the number of Storyhouse generated productions is rising, Clifton is stepping back from directing, saying it will “give more opportunities for more diverse voices” to be heard within the building.
However, he and Bentley together retain a firm hold on the Storyhouse reins. “There’s a perception in a lot of regional theatres that with the executive director and artistic director, one of them does the finance and the other does the programme,” Bentley says.
“Alex and I produce all our shows. It’s a team effort. And it’s the same with the building. One of the nice things about us coming in from the park is that we’ve just carried on the way we always did. We put on shows together, and now we run a building together.”
See Storyhouse’s website for further details