Esther Richardson: ‘You don’t need to be posh in the arts. You just need to be you’
In the face of a technological avalanche, how can we ensure that live theatre doesn’t become obsolete?
One solution, favoured by the innovative touring company Pilot Theatre, is to embrace the digital age in the form of multi-channel live-streaming, by which performances and events can be broadcast live to a worldwide audience on the internet.
Since 1994, when Marcus Romer became Pilot’s artistic director, the company has successfully juggled live performance with online events, aimed at connecting with a young demographic.
In addition to re-imagining classic plays such as Antigone, Romeo and Juliet and Lord of the Flies for a younger audience, Pilot also offers educational projects in the form of workshops and practitioner-led sessions to schools and colleges.
Now Romer has handed the baton to Esther Richardson, a freelance director, film-maker and founder of the Nottingham-based Theatre Writing Partnership, who says she is anxious to continue Pilot’s “brilliant work” in exploring the crossover between theatre, film and digital arts.
“Pilot has always been on my radar,” says Richardson. “I believe having that kind of commitment to the young is so important, both in terms of talent development and in delivering work that reflects what it is like to live in a complex and fast-changing world.”
Richardson’s own theatrical journey began in her home town of Durham in the 1980s with a youth theatre set up by a friend’s mother. She studied English at Bristol University, but says she spent “practically the whole time” acting in and directing plays. “I was an absolutely terrible actress, really loud and unbelievable,” she admits.
One of her university productions, Macbeth, was well reviewed at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, landing her a job directing with a newly formed Edinburgh-based company called Grid Iron at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre.
An MA in theatre arts at Goldsmiths, University of London, included a directing residency at Newcastle’s Live Theatre, and a fruitful encounter with Claire Malcolm, who had recently set up the still thriving New Writing North. “I started to realise I had an aptitude for dramaturgy, working with new writers on new plays,” explains Richardson. “There was a real enthusiasm for new writing at the time, and Arts Council England was supporting the idea of companies having literary managers.”
In 2000, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company as a literary assistant – “a rather lowly position, lots of photocopying” – working under Simon Reade, who she says “liked the fact that I came from the north-east, since the Royal Shakespeare Company was doing a lot of work in the north-east at the time”.
But it was her next job, setting up a new-writing strategy for the East Midlands and working with theatres such as the Nottingham Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate, that proved a real game-changer for Richardson.
“I was effectively creating a job out of nothing, although it was evident there was a huge appetite for new work. It soon evolved into the Theatre Writing Partnership. I became quite skilled at persuading philanthropic organisations to hand over cash to get projects off the ground.”
In 2004, the Theatre Writing Partnership won the Peggy Ramsay award for Momentum, an initiative encouraging young people in education to try their hands at playwriting, culminating in a festival at the Lakeside Arts Centre, where four original plays were produced.
“It was a real privilege to have worked with the young writers and helped them on their way,” she says. “Quite a few of the 30 who took part in the festival have gone on to make careers as writers.”
Fearing that she was morphing into a producer, Richardson parted company with the Theatre Writing Partnership in 2007 after 10 years, in order to return to her first love: directing. “For me, the directing bug had never gone away. I’d felt for a long time that I wanted to work with actors again.”
For the next six years, she worked in association with Derby Live, Nottingham Playhouse, Royal and Derngate, and the Soho Theatre in London on a variety of productions, as well as directing The Glee Club, Richard Cameron’s Doncaster-set play about a 1960s miners’ singing club, the inaugural show at the £22 million Cast Theatre, Doncaster in 2013.
Q&A: Esther Richardson
What was your first non-theatre job? Waitressing at a tea shop in Durham.
What was your first professional theatre job? Directing the Scottish Literary Pub Tour at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It’s all about the long game.
Who or what was your biggest influence?My primary school head teacher in Redcar, Eileen Macdonagh, who was a very theatrical figure and an incredible storyteller. She was my Jean Brodie. She made me feel I could do anything, and that it was normal for a woman to be in a position of authority.
What’s your best advice for auditions? If you really don’t want the job, best to tell your agent. Also, even if you don’t get the job, remember that you learn from the experience.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? Probably a teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? I say a little prayer.
Running parallel to her theatre work, Richardson has made two short films, the first of which, The Cake (2011) was selected as the UK entry for the Women in Film and Television International Showcase.
Film-making is an area she would like to explore more with Pilot, and something she will no doubt be raising at Platform Shift, a pan-European project led by Pilot to share ideas and intelligence about the best ways of formulating new cultural programmes for young people in the digital age.
As an innovative and pioneering company, Pilot is one of the Arts Council’s portfolio clients, receiving £330,000 each year, but the company also generates income from its live-streaming service and other technological expertise. With her reputation for problem-solving, fundraising and thinking outside the box, Richardson is confident she can continue to generate sufficient income to finance ever more ambitious projects.
Richardson says that she is thinking a lot at the moment about “what it means to tour in a digital age”.
She adds: “My sense is that touring is, and will remain to be, absolutely crucial to Pilot’s work, as our primary mission is to open up a cultural space for young adults. Touring enables us to widen access to our work, but it also enables us to start, and be part of, big conversations that can be geographically spread. There are few national portfolio companies like ours, which are dedicated to this age group, so working across the country (and beyond, if possible) is very important. So we can be a voice, and offer a voice, to groups who may not otherwise get heard, and we want our work to have the biggest reach it possibly can.
“Working with others, we can facilitate ideas, provocations and projects, and we can spread important messages, develop talent, and, through our live-streaming, create access to artistic work which we may or may not have made ourselves.”
Having in mind Pilot’s enviable reputation for ethnic diversity and inclusivity, Richardson is keen to stress that she came from humble beginnings in the north-east herself and that she was never part of any academic or theatrical elite.
“Sometimes it pays to be a bit different,” she says. “You don’t need to be posh to get on in the arts. You just need to be you.”
CV: Esther Richardson
Born: 1974, Manchester
Training: Bristol University; Goldsmiths, University of London
Landmark productions: Momentum project and festival (2004), Everything Must Go!, Soho Theatre (2009), Skybus, Derby Live (2011), The Cake (2011), The Glee Club, Cast Theatre, Doncaster (2013)