Giles Croft: ‘Running a theatre is much more complex than it used to be’
In the ebb and flow of British theatre life, artistic directors are usually a bit like prime ministers; they come, make their mark (or not), and move on again after a tenure that’s typically somewhere between five and 10 years.
Some, of course, go faster, such as Emma Rice, who is departing Shakespeare’s Globe after only her second season, or Laurie Sansom, who left the National Theatre of Scotland after just three years. But a few artistic directors plant their feet in the soil where they find themselves and become fixtures. Sam Walters founded and then ran the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond for more than 40 years, Paul Kerryson was at Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre and then Curve Theatre for 22 years, and Giles Croft has been at Nottingham Playhouse for 18 years.
Walters left the Orange Tree in 2014 and, in the same year, Kerryson departed Curve, declaring in one interview with the local Leicester Mercury: “I feel like it’s definitely time to leave, while the theatre is thriving. It’s always good to go when the organisation is on a high.”
Now Croft is departing from Nottingham Playhouse at the end of 2017, and – with a West End transfer that opened this week for his hit production of The Kite Runner, first seen at Nottingham in 2013 – he could say the same thing.
Yet he told his own local paper, the Nottingham Post, in 2014: “I don’t have any plans to leave the Playhouse just yet, but there will come a point when I will move on. For now, I’m very happy and I’d like to continue at the theatre for a long time.”
Today, meeting in the slightly incongruous surroundings of an industrial warehouse located beside the North Circular Road in Neasden in north London where he is re-rehearsing his production of The Kite Runner for its West End outing, he admits frankly: “I had already told the theatre I was leaving by the time I did that interview, but it wasn’t public. So when that question was asked, I was a bit unsure and I thought the best thing was just to lie.”
He may have lied, but he is at least refreshingly honest about having done so. He continues: “On the previous round of Arts Council England national portfolio organisation grant applications, I made a commitment to stay to the end of this period; I didn’t specifically say I’d leave then. But it became clear that it would be a good time to move on, partly because I’ve been here for a long time and there is a point where you ask yourself, do I have sufficient new ideas or the right new ones, to carry on? Also, this next application period runs for four years, not three, and I’ll be 60 by the time I leave; it gives me a little bit of time, fingers crossed, to do something else.”
Today, he reveals that one of those things will be acting again: “I’ll be performing in a one-man show I’ve written about a Glaswegian channel swimmer who tried to swim the channel 21 times but never made it.”
Clearly, he identifies with that sense of persistence; when I ask him what kept him at Nottingham so long, he replies: “There was never a point at which it felt as though the challenges were too great or insufficient. In every job there are frustrations, but it always felt like there were new opportunities and good work to do, and as the changes came, there was also a thing that Stephanie [Sirr, the theatre’s chief executive] and I brought to it, which was our experience to manage change. And there’s been a lot of change.”
He amplifies some of this: “All sorts of things are new,” he says, speaking of the responsibilities of meeting Arts Council funding criteria (including new commitments to demonstrate diversity and digital engagement). “You also have your local authority responsibilities, as well as the ones you create yourself. So it’s a complex environment, much more than it used to be.”
He’s worked over the years in many different arenas, so is used to negotiating different and difficult challenges. His first high-profile job was running the Gate Theatre in London for five years from 1985 to 1990, after taking over from founding artistic director Lou Stein and before passing it on to Stephen Daldry in his first major job; he then joined Richard Eyre’s National Theatre for a five-and-a-half-year stint as literary manager. Why did he leave the National?
“When I went there, I wasn’t directing, and though I knew that didn’t go with that job, I hadn’t made up my mind if I would ever direct again. I directed a few readings and a radio play, and I was beginning to feel impatient. I realised I wanted to return to the rehearsal room. Then Richard announced internally he was going to leave. As a literary manager, you’re closely connected to the artistic director; so I felt that would be the right time to leave, too.”
Q&A: Giles Croft
What was your first non-theatre job? Running a newsagent in my holidays at college opposite City of Bath technical college; then, after I left college, working in an office supplies shop in Bath.
What was your first professional theatre job? Youth worker for Bath Young People’s Theatre Company.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? How long I’d have a career.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My uncle Neville Croft, who had been a playwright and actor and encouraged me to try the theatre.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Connect with the director. Look them in the eye and talk to them. Too often people come into auditions and act with someone imaginary or they don’t look up from a piece of paper, so you have no sense of who the person is. I’d rather they stumbled a bit on what they were doing, and I got a sense of who they were, than being given a finished performance.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? I’d like to have been a blues guitarist. I have a lot of guitars that I can’t play well.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? None at all. But I respect other people’s – if someone is anxious about whistling, I won’t do it. I’m not here to upset people. But if I’m on my own, I’ll whistle as I wish.
He went next to head up Watford’s Palace Theatre, which he did for another five years, before leaving that post to go to Nottingham Playhouse – a theatre that Eyre had once led, so there was a kind of symmetry.
He’s been at the helm of a number of important initiatives there and conversations that have led to major changes, well ahead of the current ones being explored in regional theatre. For instance, there’s his significant contribution to the diversity debate. When he first joined Nottingham, the executive director was Venu Dhupa, whom he had already worked with at the National.
“Quite early on, we held a meeting in Nottingham between a number of black administrators and artists, and out of that meeting came an idea for Eclipse Theatre. So we approached the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, Bristol Old Vic and a couple of other theatres and the Arts Council and proposed the idea of forming Eclipse, which everyone bought into. It was a very exciting time, and a real opportunity. We made some good pieces of work, and two of the shows opened in Nottingham – the first show, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, and a production of Mother Courage. But the intention was always about providing opportunities for black directors, writers and artists on the middle scale, and to bring in a diverse audience.”
It was, he says, “successful in many ways”. But not all ways, he concedes. “There were two things we didn’t get right – one was that we didn’t think about how it could be sustained, and it reached a point where it could no longer be managed among ourselves and had to become independent. And we didn’t plan for what happened once Eclipse became independent. We all struggled to maintain the commitment, and some achieved it better than others. But Ramps on the Moon, a more recent project founded on the same model, has future-proof planning built into it.” Initiated by the New Wolsey Theatre with Graeae, Nottingham was an early and continuing partner.
This isn’t the only co-production initiative Nottingham has been involved in. During Croft’s tenure, other regular partners have included Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Headlong, Shared Experience, Birmingham Rep and Edinburgh’s Lyceum.
“At the moment we are doing a lot of work with Northern Stage and Nuffield in Southampton, as well as Ramps on the Moon.” This shift – towards collaboration and shared risk between theatres – has been another sea-change during Croft’s time. “In the earlier years of co-producing, partners were sometimes very protective and suspicious, but we also didn’t quite know what we were trying to get from it beyond money; what we’ve learnt over the years now is that there are ways of sharing discussions about programming and policy so that co-productions are, on the whole, more in line with your policy choices than was once the case. That’s not to say it’s without complications – there are still tensions and tussles over who might be leading on a project, but they’re resolved more easily now.”
He cites the example of the Nottingham Playhouse co-production with Headlong of George Orwell’s 1984 that has gone on to several West End runs as an example of how co-productions can lead to good results. “We’d worked with Robert Icke and Headlong on Romeo and Juliet, and once that happened, we sat down and talked about what we might do next. Rupert [Goold], Robert and I agreed that 1984 was an obvious next step. If you’ve got the right relationship, a co-production becomes a conversation and 1984 was a result of conversations and shared enthusiasms.”
Part of the reason for the pervasive increase in co-productions is the funding difficulties all theatres are facing.
“We lost all of our county funding about three or four years ago; our local authority funding has been reducing over the last five or six years significantly, too, though to counter that they’ve been very supportive to find other ways to help us that don’t necessarily involve cash.”
He’s pragmatic about the challenges of having to balance the books: “It comes with the job, it seems to me. We’re fortunate in that we have balanced the books over the years. I won’t be handing over a deficit.”
He credits his executive director with her efforts at diversifying the programme and introducing new revenue streams. On average, the venue sells 60-65% of its seats across the year, he says. “That includes panto, which pushes up the average a bit. Kenneth Alan Taylor is no longer the dame, but he still writes and directs our pantos; this was his 33rd year. They’re hugely popular and we’re very proud of them. And the most diverse audience we get is for pantomime.”
He rises to the theme: “On the whole, regional theatres are probably more diverse in their audiences than the West End, but it’s still far off what we should be getting.”
And that has been the particular triumph of The Kite Runner, a play based on Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel about friendship and betrayal between two young boys in Afghanistan. “When you find something that draws in such a wide, diverse group of people, it’s very pleasing; they don’t come along very often and this is one of them.”
Giles Croft’s three top tips for an aspiring director
• See shows.
• Think differently – think about what makes you different and special from other people, not the same.
• If you’re pitching an idea, remember everyone wants to do Shakespeare and everyone suggests Chekhov. You want the person you’re meeting to remember you – they don’t have to give you the job, but if you say you want to do a five-person version of Popeye, they’re going to remember that.
Croft first directed and produced it at Nottingham in 2013, after chancing upon a theatrical adaptation in the programme of a theatre in Alberta, Canada, that he visited by chance in 2009 on a personal pilgrimage to the theatres that Nottingham’s founding artistic director John Neville had gone on to run. “That’s how I found out about it – it was like a gift from him. Then I went to see a production of it in Boston, and met Matthew Spangler, who had adapted it. There were a number of changes I felt I wanted him to do, mostly small cuts and adjustments, but there was one major change. In the original production, the narrator Amir is an adult, and his younger self was played by a young actor. But I said I wanted Amir to play himself as a boy, moving between the worlds so you could get a dislocation between them and play with guilt and uncertainty. He agreed to do that, and it has made quite a significant difference to the way the story is told and its complexity as a piece of theatre.”
It’s one of the reasons he feels that it has resonated so well. “The adaptation is sufficiently true to the original for people who have read it not to feel disappointed, but also sufficiently theatrical to make it a very powerful live experience. And what then happened was that those people who expected to be disappointed came out telling friends – it has had incredibly powerful word of mouth. And for all that is going on around us, people are drawn to what is a sympathetic portrayal of Afghanistan and the Muslim faith. It is redressing the balance, which is partly what the novel does.”
It provokes very powerful responses. On the night I saw it, many in the audience – myself included – were in tears. And Croft tells me: “There’s a point at the end when Amir starts praying, and some nights we have members of the audience, in a wholly positive way, joining in his prayers. It’s not a play about faith as such, but it’s a recognition of an honest, open portrayal of faith on stage.”
It’s also a powerful story of redemption and forgiveness – “and it has kites – kites are good!” He is particularly proud of them: “One of the issues at the beginning was how we were going to represent them. Some of it is the imagination, but you also actually see kites flying indoors. I can take no credit for them, it’s a combination of the designer [Barney George] and the movement director [Kitty Winter] who came up with the kite tournament, and the sound design [Drew Baumohl], projections [William Simpson], lighting [Charles Balfour] and music [Jonathan Girling] that’s thrilling.”
The result is a show that takes flight in every sense. And so is Croft now, as he prepares to leave the Playhouse after nearly two decades.
What, finally, does the future hold for him? “I’m a restless spirit, and one of the reasons I wanted to be an artistic director was that I like to make things happen. That’s not going to go away; I’ll be trying to make them happen for me.”
CV: Giles Croft
Born: 1957, Bath
Training: I didn’t. I left school at 16 to go to a technical college for A levels, which I failed.
As director at Nottingham Playhouse: Polygraph by Robert Lepage (2001), The Kite Runner (2013), Any Means Necessary (2016)
As artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse: Programming On the Waterfront (2008), Co-producing 1984 (2013), Regional premiere of Posh (2015), Producing more than 50 new plays
The Kite Runner is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until March 11
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