As Hull’s official tenure as UK City of Culture 2017 draws to a close, Hull Truck Theatre’s artistic director Mark Babych tells Giverny Masso why he chose to get involved and why it will leave a lasting legacy
What changes to the theatre did you choose to make when Hull became City of Culture?
We always wanted to be ambitious, we wanted to be diverse and give a flavour of what Hull Truck Theatre is in 2017. Obviously it has had a rich, illustrious history – with a few bumps on the way – and we wanted to come out the traps flying. City of Culture fast-tracked the transformation of the company into exciting times and artistically the work is diverse. We’re able to dream bigger and it’s not always about the scale, but the stories that we can tell.
How has City of Culture affected your audiences?
Audiences have grown. People have come back to the building and been more confident culturally. We didn’t want the curtain to come down on December 31 and that’s why James Graham’s project is in January, because the journey doesn’t stop. It’s important it wasn’t just bound up in one year.
Do you think other parts of the country have misconceptions about Hull?
When I first made it to the city people said to me ‘it’s the end of the line’, and my gut response to that, which I tried to instil in us as a company, was: yes, but we’re also the beginning of the line. There was a perception for a long time that Hull was the end of the road, the death of ambition. It had been subjected to the most difficult times when it was robbed of its fishing industry, people struggled, there was low attainment, low ambition, but the spirit of these people continues and it was ignored. There was a perception of it being a crap town. When I first got the job, my friends in Manchester said: ‘Why are you moving there?’
Why did you move to Hull?
I saw ambition. In 2013, the city had been shortlisted [for City of Culture], and I was invited to be part of the bid team. I thought it was incredibly ambitious. For a couple of years before I joined the company I had been interested in culture and placemaking and how art and culture can transform a city. The conditions felt to me to be right for this to happen here.
How has City of Culture physically transformed the city?
Many things have changed. The look of the city has changed, so the public realm works have cemented the idea of a modern city, not a city that has died. This is a city that has not only come back to life, it’s pumping with life. There’s so much going on that you can blink and miss it. The word is getting out and I hope the city retains its special character, its unique voice and spirit. There’s confidence here. All of us are aware of the joke – ‘Hull City of Culture – really?’ And there are still those little rumblings, but they’re not dominant voices anymore.
How else does culture create a sense of place?
Great ideas do not solely happen in London. I love these great cities, but there are cities all over the UK that are great places to live, work, have relationships and be happy in. The art and culture is not just in the city centre, it is not a building-based festival, it [City of Culture] has gone into nooks and crannies. We try to find out what the barriers are to engagement in the arts. We can’t make everybody a theatregoer, but some contact with the arts and culture might help open people’s minds and ways of seeing the world. So maybe that makes you a better teacher, a better doctor, a better care worker, or whatever your role is.
Has City of Culture brought many new audiences into the Hull Truck?
Yes, but we’ve always wanted to do that. It was always in our DNA. City of Culture has enabled us to reach more people. So our pay-what-you-can nights, for example, bring a new audience, a lot of people for whom the cost, or transport, or for whom a family situation, might have been a barrier.
What other barriers do people face?
It’s not just economic, we try hard to seek ways to overcome barriers. We’ve even changed the language we’ve used. For example, some people wouldn’t know what a box office was, so we say ticket office. Some people would leave at an interval because they thought the show was over, so that teaches us our theatre behaviours need to change. Foyer – for example, these words and things we’ve taken for granted can be barriers. So we have learnt that we as an organisation need to adapt.
Do you think City of Culture is encouraging more world-class artists to visit Hull?
It has been a great opportunity. We have worked with a world-class playwright [Graham] who is hot property at the moment and the nicest guy in showbiz. It’s been fantastic building the relationship with Graham; he said yes immediately without even thinking about what it might be. World-class artists will come and work and be inspired by a place outside of London, if the idea and its effect is of a certain substance.
Do you think City of Culture will leave a lasting cultural legacy?
One is encouraged to believe so and I have no reason to doubt it. None of this is possible without investment. It is fantastic that Hull City Council has publicly said it won’t cut culture, which in this day and age is extraordinary. I will champion [funding for the arts] till the day I leave this mortal coil, but while it’s important for people like me to say it, it’s more important for other people to believe it and experience it and to see and feel the value and effect it has on their lives.
Hull is UK City of Culture, but what do you make of the European Commission’s decision to block UK cities from becoming European Capital of Culture?
I know first-hand how much passion, thought and planning goes into preparing a bid, alongside the potential for real and lasting change that holding the title will give a city. We can only imagine the disappointment of the teams from the bidding cities. I hope they can continue to deliver some of their ambitions with the support of government.