In July last year, Paul Miller began his new post as artistic director of the Orange Tree Theatre and found himself dealing with a 100% cut to the venue’s arts council funding.
Just over a year on, he is reflecting on his “tumultuous” first 12 months, during which he has had to cut the number of staff at the venue (from 19 permanent full-time to 12) and programme more co-productions in a bid to make the 163-seat theatre’s money go further.
It hasn’t been the easiest of starts for a man who left the world of freelance directing to lead the Orange Tree, which had been run by Sam Walters for more than 40 years. But if Miller feels any resentment, it certainly doesn’t show.
“I have always sympathised with the arts council. They have been given a really tough job to do in scaling back so dramatically in the last five years,” he says, adding that all eyes are now on the spending review in November, which chancellor George Osborne has warned could mean a cut of up to 40% for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Following last year’s cut, the Orange Tree has been forced, in Miller’s words, to “energise itself in different ways”.
ACE used to award the theatre about £365,000 annually, which amounted to a “quarter of our annual turnover, a quarter of our income and a quarter of our expenditure”, Miller explains.
“Take that away and you’re not getting it back,” he says. “It’s altered our economy considerably. We hope to make our new model work, but it won’t be plain sailing all the way. It relies on us having a dynamic programme of work that people still want to see. There’s certainly less room for catastrophic failure.”
Miller’s first year has been far from a failure, however. One of the shows it produced, Pomona, went on to transfer to the National Theatre. Its director, Ned Bennett, recently won the best director prize at this year’s UK Theatre Awards. During its run at the Orange Tree, the show was a hit with young audiences, with half of the 4,800 who saw the show in Richmond under 30, taking advantage of a discounted ticket scheme.
Theatre, Miller says, needs “constant infusions of new blood”, both on and off stage. His mission, when programming his new, recently announced season, was “to push the conversation forward”, and balance revivals with being a home for new writers. Three of the productions will also be helmed by emerging directors, including Mel Hillyard and Alice Hamilton.
Whereas the in-the-round theatre used to produce all the shows in its season, this new programme will see it stage just three of its own, with the rest being co-productions. By the end of June 2016, there will have been five.
“The Orange Tree, up until this April, produced all its own work,” Miller says. “That was fine when there was funding. And I had wanted us to collaborate more, anyway. It’s nice to be working with different people, as well as different artists and companies.”
The new programme of work will feature co-productions with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester (Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone) and a show with touring theatre company Up in Arms of Robert Holman’s German Skerries. This production will tour the UK, marking the venue’s first tour “in recent history”, according to Miller.
He acknowledges that some people within the industry may view an increased reliance on co-productions as leaving a theatre at risk of losing its own identity. “But I don’t feel that to be a problem with us, and I hope we have a flavour and identity,” he says, adding: “When we have talked and worked with other companies, there has been no sense of that dissolving.”
Ticket prices have had to increase after last year’s cut, with tickets for the under-30s scheme increasing from £10 to £12.
“We were determined to keep it, even though it’s not something we get special funding for,” he says, admitting the venue would like to explore having a sponsor on board for this initiative in the future.
Protecting the content has been a priority for Miller, as well as for the theatre’s own integrity. He says that, whatever happens, he didn’t want the theatre to get into a situation where the venue was “not employing people properly”, and hints of pressure that has come from above.
“An option would have been to abandon using union agreements, becoming a place where we were subsidised by the people working here not being paid properly,” he says. “It was not a serious consideration for me and Sarah Nicholson [executive director], but other people might have decided it was the moment to become a fringe theatre again. For the moment, we have resisted.”
Instead, with his “tighter, leaner team” Miller is looking to the future with a certain amount of confidence and a dash of trepidation. “Anybody who is an artistic director is under huge pressure,” he admits. “If I am conscious of any particular pressure, it’s that there is a lot of effective power in your hands as a gatekeeper, in terms of the decisions you make and how they impact on what work goes ahead, or does not, and what kind of people do what kind of work. A lot of discussions now are about how people use that gatekeeping power.”
On a personal level, Miller will be directing less work this year, partly because of the increase in co-productions at the Orange Tree, but also because he feels he has less to prove.
He adds: “I felt it was important for a theatre that was so identified with one person since its inception, and with such a loyal core audience, to show my hand. I have felt the need to be out front a lot this year. But that will change now.”