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Sarah Frankcom: ‘I’m surprised we don’t fail more often. We should do’

Sarah Frankcom. Photo: Eliza Power Sarah Frankcom. Photo: Eliza Power

Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre began 2016 by being named regional theatre of the year at The Stage Awards. As the citation put it: “This was the year that artistic director Sarah Frankcom really hit her stride at the Royal Exchange… [she] has transformed the theatre into one that nurtures its artists as well as its audiences and is creating work that deserves to be recognised.”

It’s fitting that the theatre’s re-emergence at the top of the regional theatrical tree should have come on the eve of its 40th anniversary, which it marks today – it was officially opened on September 15, 1976 with a ceremony attended by Laurence Olivier.

It is also now 20 years since the theatre was severely damaged when an IRA bomb exploded in Corporation Street less than 50 yards away. The building had also suffered, 56 years earlier – during its first life as a cotton-trading centre – when it took a direct hit from a bomb during a German air raid in the Manchester Blitz of December 1940.

So the building has had a lot of drama off stage as well as on. The glorious, classically pillared and domed 19th-century trading hall it is situated within is stunningly juxtaposed with a modern theatre capsule in the middle, like a glass spacecraft that has somehow landed inside. It’s a unique space in British theatre, and one of the UK’s few completely in-the-round venues.

“There’s nowhere else like it,” says Frankcom, sitting on a sofa in her office a few floors above the theatre. “It also reflects the spirit in which it was created, when its founders walked into an abandoned building that had been mothballed and no one knew what to do with, and decided to turn it into a theatre. It was the first gesture in the regeneration and re-appropriation of industrial spaces.” The phenomenon has stretched out across the city; the latest theatrical example is the Hope Mill Theatre, located in a former cotton mill in Ancoats.

Manchester Royal Exchange interior
Manchester Royal Exchange interior

“It says a lot about Manchester then and now that it went: ‘Yes, of course we’ll put a theatre in there – you tell us what you want it to be and we’ll make it happen.’ And they did it in 18 months.” The 1996 bombing, she goes on, “gave Manchester a chance to rethink itself”, and the theatre a chance to be refurbished – “it was in the process of a capital project at the time, but it absolutely had to be delivered more quickly”.

The theatre not only survived, but also thrived. Frankcom, who has been associated with the theatre since she was appointed its literary manager in 2001, says: “I’m now thinking about what the next 40 years are going to be. It’s 20 years now since its massive refurbishment, and everything is on its last legs.”

She has just been joined by a new executive director, Mark Dobson. Dobson recently took over from Fiona Gasper, who left after five years to be executive director of the Manchester International Festival.

“We’re in the next chapter now and have started to overhaul what we’re doing artistically,” says Frankcom. “We’re a theatre with a clearer sense of purpose about the work we want to make and the kind of relationships we want with audiences. We’re a theatre that’s as interested in the work as we are in how we engage with people: we are a public building that happens to have a theatre at the centre of it. We’re also right at the heart of a huge, vibrant and energetic city, and we’re a local theatre. There’s a real sense, through looking at and talking to our audiences, [of a need] for this building to work much harder for us. In some of those conversations, we can find the inspiration for the work we choose to make.”

She amplifies this change of philosophy: “Fifteen to 20 years ago, the programme was very much set by people sitting in a room thinking about the repertoire. That’s not to say we’re not interested in doing great plays and creating brilliant nights out, but I think there also has be something very unique in our programme that reflects this theatre at this time.

“We’re interested, for example, in making some of our work with non-professionals. We’ve just finished the summer with a brilliant project by artist Mark Storor, who worked with all our making departments – 150 people, who are the Royal Exchange company – and some really interesting community groups, to make an epic work called Little Sister that played in the main house. It was like a massive piece of performance art. But what was exciting was the people who came to see it, who would not normally come up the stairs because they thought it wasn’t for them. But they came because of the people making the work and the issues it was tackling. Some of the community groups included some of the most damaged, vulnerable people who self-identify as survivors – women from hostels or men involved in a drug and rehabilitation project.”

This kind of outreach leads to something remarkable, she says. “Something really exciting happens in this building when people who don’t think it’s for them suddenly discover it. And I’m passionate about this now. It has meant we’ve had to dismantle the traditional regional producing theatre model and look at who is around the table and what our decision-making process is, and how we get artists working and hard-wired into everything that we are and do.”

Her own starting point at the theatre was when she became its literary manager, having begun her professional life as a drama teacher working in schools in London’s East End after studying at Westfield and Goldsmith colleges and developing a sideline in theatre directing. But if she has a long professional history with the company now, she has an even longer personal one: she first came here as a teenager in 1983 to see Hamlet, starring Robert Lindsay.

“I was brought up in Sheffield, and I wish I could say I came to Manchester specially to see it, but I actually came with a friend to go to the record shops, because they were better here. I was studying Hamlet for A level, and I’d already been in a production of it at the Crucible as part of the youth theatre – we were the Players – but I didn’t know anything about the Royal Exchange.

Frankcom directing Maxine Peake in The Skriker last year. Photo:  Jonathan Keenan
Frankcom directing Maxine Peake in The Skriker last year. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

“We wandered up the steps about 20 minutes before the play started, and got tickets for the banquettes right at the front of the stage. It was incredible – totally unlike any theatre I’d seen. The intimacy made me shake with excitement. I felt like I was inside something and part of something, and I loved that I could see the rest of the audience and felt a sense of community. It was also a very good production and made me understand bits of the play I hadn’t before.”

Those cheap front-row seats have remained a major plank of her policy today: 40 such seats go on sale every day. “That was my first experience of this theatre, and there’s something democratising about it and it’s a big driver for my vision here.”

She credits Clare Venables, who ran the Crucible, as her biggest influence: “My first experience of theatre was one run by a female artistic director, and looking at how she worked and her ambition was massively influential. She was incredibly ‘out there’ as an artistic director – she did plays by people like Botho Strauss and Howard Barker.”

Venables was also, significantly, a mother – “and very visibly a mother – her children used to play in the bar. Yet it’s almost impossible to run a building and have kids unless you have an amazingly supportive other parent. There’s still a culture in the theatre where we behave as if life isn’t important – that only theatre is. And that’s why loads of gay men have been significant: they’ve not had families. I wonder whether there’ll be a cultural shift now there are more women running buildings.”


Q&A: Sarah Frankcom

What was your first non-theatre job? I was a drama teacher at a school in the East End.

What was your first professional theatre job? My first paid job as a theatre director was Anorak of Fire, which toured forever and I got a weekly royalty cheque for it, which actually meant I could start doing less supply teaching.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? There’s no point having a plan, so enjoy the moments when they come and stop looking for the next one.

Who or what was your biggest influence? A big range of things, from Pina Bausch to Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Gerhard Richter. But the biggest is Clare Venables, who ran the Crucible in Sheffield where I had my first experiences of theatre.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Be prepared, and know that whomever and whenever I audition, I really want them to be the right thing.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? I’d have carried on being a drama teacher.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No. If I did have any, they’re long gone. I used to make sure I was always reading the next thing I was doing when I opened a show – but actually that’s just crazy, and now I just try to enjoy the experience.

In nearby Liverpool, the Everyman and Playhouse is led by Gemma Bodinetz, while Tamara Harvey recently took over at Theatr Clwyd in Wales. In London, Emma Rice, Josie Rourke and Indhu Rubasingham respectively run Shakespeare’s Globe, Donmar Warehouse and Tricycle, among other female artistic directors in the capital.

If that has been a significant shift in the theatrical ecology, some parts of the Royal Exchange’s own DNA are being rigorously maintained under Frankcom. “The relationship between the new and the old was really strong in the founding gesture of the theatre,” she says. “It’s definitely in the DNA of the company that for every play you revive you also invest in a completely new work. It’s always been a building that believes you can put new plays in a big theatre and audiences will come to them.”

When she first joined as literary manager, one of her jobs was “to identify new writers and grow those writers. Simon Stephens is a great example of that. He was my first writer-in-residence. He wrote a play called Port, and it was staged in the main theatre, where you need audiences of 12,000 or 13,000 or you can’t put them on there.

Frankcom accepting The Stage’s Regional Theatre of the Year award for the Royal Exchange earlier this year with the venue’s former executive director Fiona Gasper. Photo: Alex Brenner
Frankcom accepting The Stage’s Regional Theatre of the Year award for the Royal Exchange earlier this year with the venue’s former executive director Fiona Gasper. Photo: Alex Brenner

“There’s such a joy in seeing plays by writers our audience don’t necessarily know by name but will support because they trust we know what we are doing. They will buy tickets not knowing anything about something, and that’s thanks to a long and painstakingly developed relationship. The great thing about our audiences here is that they will tell you when they don’t like what you are doing. They get particularly upset when they don’t like new plays – if they feel they’ve not understood it, or not been excited by the form of the play, they start to question, and that’s interesting.”

As well as the audience, another key relationship has been with Stephens.

“He’s one of my oldest and greatest friends – I’m going on holiday with him for a week next year,” says Frankcom. “We’re going to take a journey from east coast to west coast through the north of England to work on the next show he’s making with us here. Its starting point was us revisiting and rethinking On the Shore of the Wide World [a play of his that Frankcom directed at the Royal Exchange in 2005 and which subsequently transferred to the National]. We’re interested in trying to define what the north is now – which is particularly interesting post-Brexit. We have some great actors in the north, and we’re going to pull together a group of them and create it through a process where we have to work on the floor and turn it around quite quickly.”

Frankcom joined the artistic directorship of the Royal Exchange in 2008 alongside Braham Murray and Greg Hersov, and became sole artistic director in 2014. Another of the long-standing relationships that have evolved during this period has been with actor Maxine Peake. The autumn season has just opened with Frankcom and Peake reunited on a new production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. This is their sixth collaboration here, following productions of Rutherford and Son, The Children’s Hour, Miss Julie, The Masque of Anarchy, Hamlet and The Skriker.

“I love actors,” she says. “Being in a rehearsal room with actors is my favourite bit of directing. And this space demands actors who can give a certain kind of performance – you can’t hide, so actors need to be fearless and exist in the moment.”

Peake ticks all those boxes. More importantly, she’s happy to be scared. “We’re both quite good at that. If I know how to do something, there’s no point doing it. By the time you get to my age, it’s much easier to do the things you know. But I have to really push myself and reframe the process and work in a different way and not be safe. If I’m safe, everything else becomes safe. In a few hours, I’ll go into tech for a show that I have no idea will work or not. That’s a very interesting feeling to have.”


Sarah Frankcom’s top tips for an aspiring artistic director

• Be as interested in your audience, and your future audience, as in the work you are making and want to programme.

• You need to understand that you’re looking after something for just a little while – you’re only a custodian.

• Make sure that in anything you do, you are outside your comfort zone.

But that, too, is essential, she feels: “That is why people work in the theatre. If you’re not interested in something that may or may not be possible, you shouldn’t be here. There are far too many people coming up behind you that want to live in that place. When we did The Skriker, I really didn’t know if it would work – if people had asked me to bet against it, I would have put quite a considerable amount of money on that. But if it fails, that’s okay. I’m surprised we don’t fail more – we should fail more. You absolutely need to fail sometimes.”

But failure doesn’t seem to be on the cards here, at one of Britain’s most thriving theatres in one of its most buoyant theatrical cities. “Manchester is amazing. I love it, it’s popping. I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world right now. It’s small enough to be able to make things happen quickly, and there are great people leading cultural organisations – that makes you raise your game. If you’re in a class with people who are doing well, you have to do as well and better.”

That cultural landscape includes Home, Contact and the Lowry, as well as the new Hope Mill. “There’s an incredibly fast-moving, ever-changing, ever-growing, resourceful and imaginative culture of artists coming to this city and choosing to set up shop and make their work here. We also have a city council who are amazingly passionate about culture, too. They walk the walk.” As does Frankcom herself.

CV: Sarah Frankcom

Born: 1968, Sheffield
Training: Westfield College, University of London; PGCE at Goldsmith’s College, London
Landmark productions: Confetti (1992, Oval House, London), Anorak of Fire (1993, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Arts Theatre, London and tour), The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder (2007, National Theatre)
At the Royal Exchange, Manchester: Rutherford and Son (2004), Kes (2004), On the Shore of the Wide World (2005, and at National Theatre), The Children’s Hour (2008), Punk Rock (2009, and at Lyric Hammersmith), Miss Julie (2012), Orpheus Descending (2012), The Masque of Anarchy (2013), That Day We Sang (2013), Blindsided (2014), Hamlet (2014), The Skriker (2015)
Agent: Mel Kenyon, Casarotto Ramsay and Associates

A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until October 15

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