Rachel Tackley: ‘It’s getting harder to tour plays – especially without star actors’
At English Touring Theatre’s base in Southwark, Rachel Tackley sits opposite me with her feet tucked up in an armchair in her office. The walls are decorated with show posters, and mementos from her time as director of the company are dotted around the room. She is at home here, and she has a right to be.
The first producer to lead a funded touring company, Tackley has more than 20 years’ experience in the industry and the number of productions she has overseen at ETT is now nearing 50.
Less than a week after our meeting, though, she is announced as the new executive director of Chichester Festival Theatre, a move that means she will be giving up her life on the road – and her self-appointed title of “the old woman of touring” – to run a building for the second time in her career. She was previously chief executive of Milton Keynes Theatre.
Everyone likes a challenge, don’t they? Or maybe that’s just me
With eight years leading the charge at ETT under her belt, Tackley is well-versed in the challenges of touring. Logistics, for a start, are infinitely harder, and everything has all got to fit in one van, she explains, down to her ‘one-truck policy’ introduced as part of an environmental commitment.
“Ninety percent of what we do is on a one-truck policy, and it’s hard, there’s always a bloody chandelier or something that we need to take with us. But it’s really important I think, and everyone likes a challenge, don’t they?” She pauses. “Or actually, I think it’s just me.”
She regales, with glee, several stories of the often hair-raising difficulties of carting complex sets around multiple venues. She tells with particular vigour of the time ETT created a moving car for The Grapes of Wrath, one of her first productions with the company. The car could hold the weight of 12 people as it drove through rain and fire.
“How we did it, I do not know. That was definitely not a one-truck tour,” she laughs.
She says she always has to have a “wall to get over, round, under, through” and has constant “itchings” for new challenges. Comfort zones are clearly not her thing.
ETT is currently touring Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed – “the most glorious show” – and is about to start rehearsals for Brideshead Revisited, adapted by Bryony Lavery, which will be the first large-scale stage production of Evelyn Waugh’s novel.
Tackley is well versed in the ups and downs of touring, but she admits that taking on the leadership of the whole company in 2008 was a “huge learning curve”, not least because she is a producer, not a director.
“I was always a risky choice, and they didn’t make it easy for me. Arts Council England knew how to fund buildings and they knew how to fund artists – creative artists that were running companies, like Rupert Goold at Headlong – but they’d never funded a touring company led by a producer.”
She thought the board would give her three years, “to have a go and see if I screwed it up”.
“So I’ve always thought of myself on a three-year rolling plan, I think,” she grins.
Born in Buckinghamshire, but raised in Cheshire – “I think of myself as a northerner” – Tackley didn’t go to the theatre much as a child, and, actually, has no idea why she liked it in the first place.
“Honestly, I don’t know. I didn’t grow up around it, I didn’t really go to the theatre, so it’s a mystery to me,” she says wryly. Aged 18, she left home to study drama and sociology in London, where she soon lost interest in the sociology and refocused her efforts solely on theatre. “My absolute ambition when I was at university was to run the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green. I had seen a Complicite show there and I thought: ‘Oh my God, this is the theatre I have got to run.’”
She jokes about her desperation to work at the Half Moon, but the anecdote is a potent marker of her determination, and discernible skill, seeing as it wasn’t long before she was appointed finance manager at the east London venue, armed with no finance qualifications bar a maths O level. What she didn’t realise upon taking the job was that she was jumping on to a rapidly sinking ship.
“And I jumped with such gusto and such pride,” she laughs. The venue closed in 1989, not long after Tackley joined. “I just looked around at a theatre in collapse. I was there right until the end. I made myself redundant actually, and I met my husband there, so I made him redundant, too.”
Did it put her off?
“Oh, God no,” she says with a smile, “It had the opposite effect, except I stayed away from just doing finance.”
Tackley’s first real introduction to touring came in 1992 when she joined theatre company Shared Experience, which at the time worked mostly internationally. It was a job that kept her rapt for 10 years, and saw her produce and tour shows to every corner of the globe.
“I consider myself phenomenally lucky to have done that. It wasn’t just about visiting places. It’s a different thing, you’re working there. You meet the technicians, the people front of house, you go to their houses and eat with them and drink with them. It was a fabulous joy.”
When her trot around the globe did come to an end, Tackley experienced what she describes as a “poacher turned gamekeeper” scenario when she took on a job as head of programming for Ambassador Theatre Group. It was a leap that saw her move from “an organisation that was so steeped in putting the art first, to an organisation that’s absolutely steeped in putting the money first”.
I ask how she felt about shifting into such an intensely commercial environment.
“I didn’t think I would like it at all to be honest,” she admits. “I thought I was going to be a complete fish out of water. In all honesty, I didn’t think I was going to like the people. I was probably a bit up myself,” she laughs.
Tackley has moved seamlessly between commercial and subsidised theatre throughout her career and reproaches the idea that the two are separate entities. “There isn’t any reason why theatre should be so defined. I don’t think anybody produces theatre for the art without any reference back to the money, and I don’t think a commercial producer produces work just for the money without any sense of care for the art.”
She later admits that she was wrong about ATG, and talks with fondness about her work there, during which time she took over the running of Milton Keynes Theatre. She is honest about her experiences and extraordinarily self-effacing, but there is a quiet determination that clearly paid dividends and has meant she is now one of the most respected figures in the industry. Her presidency of UK Theatre – which she will leave in June when her term ends – is testament to this.
Tackley is an outspoken champion of regional theatre, be it commercial or subsidised, and talks with both enthusiasm and concern for the sector. “There is no question that the funding [between London and the regions] is unequal, but should it be? The huge ambition that London has needs subsidy. But then regional theatre has huge ambition, too, and that also needs subsidy,” she says.
“I have always been a great supporter of regional theatre, it’s just who I am, but not at the expense of London. Does there need to be some rebalancing? Yes, in my view. But should London be maintained as the leading world capital of the arts? Yes.”
A report released at the end of last year by UK Theatre found that overall ticket sales for plays dropped by 278,000 in 2014, while auditoriums were only just half full across the country. The same report revealed a £30 million increase in sales for family musicals.
The results were “shocking”, Tackley says. “We’d all sort of felt it, we’d all seen these massive musicals go on tour, and they were doing incredibly well at the box office and generating millions of pounds of revenue, which is only a good thing. But we had all felt that we were struggling, and it was harder with plays, particularly ones which weren’t driven by named actors,” she says.
What is heartbreaking, Tackley adds, is watching productions fight for audiences, knowing that the addition of a well-known name to the cast could make it sell out – “It doesn’t make it better, it just means more people will see it.”
She does think, though, that there is an argument for celebrity casting, if it makes theatre more accessible. “People that don’t go to the theatre very often, or indeed haven’t been to the theatre at all, might come, and then maybe they’ll come again.”
Diversity of casting is a topic that brings with it an ever-increasing responsibility, Tackley says, adding that she has seen a marked shift since she began her career. “It’s about taking real ownership of what goes on stage, and why it goes on stage, and being responsible for the choices that you make. In my experience, doing that hasn’t ever stifled creativity.”
She adds: “The industry is more grown-up in that sense now, but I don’t think it’s any less exciting as a result. Maybe that’s our challenge: to juggle those things.”
She is “very out” about her desire to see more diversity on our stages and in our organisations. ETT doesn’t have all-male creative teams, nor does it have all-white casts. Tackley’s eyes flick to a cast list on the wall before she quickly adds a disclaimer that the cast of The Herbal Bed is in fact all-white, due to a last-minute change that was “disappointing, but unavoidable”.
“But we absolutely chase that and we put it at the forefront of what we do. Like everything, though, sometimes it doesn’t work out,” she adds.
Q&A: Rachel Tackley
What was your first non-theatre job? A shop assistant at Trueform shoe shop in Northwich.
What was your first professional theatre job? Assistant administrator for Canal Cafe Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? My dad once told me to be nice to people on the way up because you might meet them again on the way back down.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Raising a family.
What’s your best advice for auditions? From a producer’s point of view, casting is crucial; give it the time and space it deserves.
If you hadn’t worked in theatre, what would you have been? I set out to be a drama therapist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? None at all.
Of course, there are shows that don’t always do as well as Tackley had hoped they would, she says, which can be a difficult pill to swallow when her role often means that she has been involved in projects on a strategic level for up to two years.
“I’m constantly beating myself up. I think if you’re ever anxious about a production or it doesn’t quite do as well as you’d hoped, it’s always personal. Although I have genuinely never done anything that I thought was awful or wished I hadn’t done it. Maybe that’s because I force myself to be overly jolly about everything.”
When I meet Tackley she is that, and more, about working at ETT, which she describes as making her “so ridiculously happy”. She is impressively coy about her plans for the future, which a few days later will make themselves into the news.
Speaking again later on the phone – after the news of her Chichester appointment – she says she “can’t wait” to get started in September, joining as part of a new leadership team with Daniel Evans as artistic director – “he was a big influencing factor in my wanting to do the job”. She is good friends with Evans, and the two have worked together many times, including the recently announced co-production of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which forms part of both Tackley and Evans’ final seasons at ETT and Sheffield Theatres respectively.
What she is most looking forward to though, she explains, is having direct access to an audience. “The frustration of touring is that everything you do, you have to do through somebody else. As a touring company, you can never take an audience on a journey with you because you’re only there three or four times a year. I’m really looking forward to working with audiences and having a conversation with them over many years,” she says.
“For me personally, it’s also that thing about working on a bigger canvas. It’s such a well-respected, world-renowned organisation, what’s not to love?”
CV: Rachel Tackley
Born: Buckinghamshire, year undisclosed
Training: University of Roehampton
Landmark productions: Anna Karenina, Shared Experience (1998), Twelfth Night, English Touring Theatre (2014)
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