Jonathan Church: ‘Audiences are like voters – easy to lose, hard to win back’
Dubbed ‘the turnaround king’, the former Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director says he is back where he belongs after a surprisingly short-lived stint with Sydney Theatre Company. As he prepares to launch an inaugural summer season at Theatre Royal Bath, he tells Mark Shenton why everything comes back to the audience.
We are blessed in Britain with any number of talented and inspiring directors. But to be a successful artistic director requires something else: to be able to combine the single-mindedness of a top-flight artist with a spirit of generosity that embraces and promotes good work by others. Perhaps the artistic director with the most outstanding record of selflessly standing in the wings while offering support is the ever-affable, always modest-seeming Jonathan Church, who has completely turned around the fortunes of three major UK theatres: Salisbury Playhouse, Birmingham Rep and Chichester Festival Theatre.
After he announced his intention to step down from Chichester at the end of last year’s season, he initially revealed that he was setting up his own independent production company. But no sooner was that company launched and Church winding down in Chichester, than his talents were sought and won by Sydney Theatre Company, then seeking to replace director and writer Andrew Upton, who was stepping down after a tenure shared with his wife Cate Blanchett before taking up the reins single-handedly.
Church’s first few months as artistic director in Sydney had him dividing his time with his responsibilities for his final Chichester season while also kick-starting his West End production company. This was not an easy task, even for a multi-tasker like Church, and especially not in locations more than 20 hours’ flying time from each other. In the end, Church’s relationship with Sydney was famously short-lived, with his efforts to balance the three roles proving “unsustainable”. Talking to me in London almost exactly a year later, Church is busy rehearsing David Hare’s Racing Demon for Theatre Royal Bath, where it marks the inaugural production of a five-play season that he will preside over as the new artistic director of the theatre’s annual summer season.
Sydney’s loss is clearly Bath’s gain. “What led to this was the little misadventure which was Sydney not happening,” he explains. “I returned to England to continue with the production company I’d set up, and Danny Moar [who runs Theatre Royal Bath] asked if that could work with the summer season at Bath, which indeed it could.”
Church has been working with Bath on and off for 20 years. The theatre is essentially an independent regional touring theatre, programming weekly bookings for most of the year of shows off the touring circuit.
“The hardest part of the year in touring theatres to get an audience is often the summer, so the lightbulb moment Danny had when he arrived there was to have a more specific summer season,” explains Church. This season is produced, or co-produced, by the Theatre Royal and Church was himself involved in the very first iteration of this model. “I was at Salisbury Playhouse then and we co-produced a double bill of As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra with Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington’s English Shakespeare Company with Bath. That was the first attempt at a Bath summer season – I can’t pretend it was completely successful. But then of course Danny persuaded Peter Hall to be a resident there, which was the trigger that a summer season might work. Peter did 10 years and built up an audience for it with Danny. So instead of weekly touring, three or four-week runs became possible.”
Building theatre audiences and spying savvy commercial opportunities, yet also serving a taste for adventurous work, is one of Church’s defining producing skills and trademarks.
When he took over at Chichester, one of the triumvirate of departing artistic directors was administrator Ruth Mackenzie (together with Martin Duncan and the late Steven Pimlott), whom he had previously worked with at Nottingham Playhouse when she was its executive director and he served his first apprenticeship as assistant director and assistant producer. She helped him to see the potential at Chichester.
“I sat with her looking at budgets and she showed me that however tough it was to get an audience in, we looked at those who were coming and what they were paying and she showed me the resources that could be poured into the work. She opened the door to the fact there was a theatre-literate audience there, and the resource to make great work, and that if I could combine the benefit she’d brought to the theatre of it receiving Arts Council funding and increasing the audience, something special could happen.” Church is honest about the challenge he inherited, but he feels it also went further back than Mackenzie, Duncan and Pimlott’s regime.
“They’d failed to increase audiences in the way they hoped, but they had created a programme that the critics had been interested in, and a strong proportion of the audience had been interested in. Not to be critical of the previous management before they took over, but without subsidy some of the choices that had been made were so overtly commercial that it had alienated some of the audience who had been trained to see quality, adventurous work.”
When the theatre first opened in 1962, under Laurence Olivier who formed the first National Theatre company, “it was hardly unambitious in its make-up,” observes Church of a theatre that premiered plays such as Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun and offered unusual classics like John Ford’s The Broken Heart, “supported by the greatest actors of his generation, including him”.
Yet the immediate challenge for Church and executive director Alan Finch – by his side for his entire reign – was to get the audience to come back. As often with Church, it involved “a high-risk strategy”.
Only two more years of Arts Council funding were -guaranteed, and he persuaded the funding body to “be very brave and invest more money in the theatre – but should that not work, we also tacitly agreed that we would use the Arts Council money to wind the company up in the second year”.
Not only did it work, it worked spectacularly: he notes that his first year was budgeted to lose money, an arrangement that the auditors, he says, noted was a realistic proposition. “But we were lucky that for the first time in several years we significantly lifted the audience by about 30,000 people, which was faster than we thought.”
Q&A: Jonathan Church
What was your first job? My very first job is a link back to Chichester – an open-air theatre in Bosham, run by a wonderful couple called the Pollocks, who built an Equity repertory theatre in their back garden. I made the sets and did the sound and lighting when I was 18. I got it through an advert in The Stage for a technical assistant. I was paid £35 a week to do everything.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Great work comes along more rarely than you would wish. Also, a director who was once asked by a journalist how he would define his policy had the wit to say “policy is the people you work with”. That is the truth I wish I had known when I first started, and proved to be the case in over 20 years of running theatres.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My two biggest influences are two people who ran theatres: Richard Eyre, whose Nottingham Playhouse productions I grew up watching, and Clare Venables, whom I worked with and believed that regional theatre could provide the best art for regional audiences and inspired great artists to make great work. They are the blueprints for everything I’ve done. The great thing both had was the ability to invest in other people – that extraordinary generosity to lead a company but also invest in the next generation.
What’s your best advice for auditions? The director sitting there needs desperately to find the right person to cast. They need you more than you need them.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? The only thing I ever considered was law, though I would never have had the academic prowess. On some level, law offers you a platform to explore the world and help people and perhaps perform. There’s a very similar path.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? The only thing I always do is watch the press night, and not all directors do, because I want to see the performance the critics are criticising, to see what they’ve seen. And I will never plot the curtain call until the last dress rehearsal.
Play to the crowd
Not for the first time, Church was the turnaround king. I once remarked in a column that it was a pity that he couldn’t be cloned and parachuted into every failing theatre in the land. “That comment is probably responsible for me getting several jobs,” he jokes today.
He honestly and promptly confirms, too, that he did indeed apply and was interviewed for the National Theatre directorship to follow Nicholas Hytner during the recruitment round for the post in 2015. But he’s modest enough merely to reflect that – for someone whose only academic qualification for theatre was an A level in theatre decor – he didn’t do badly to get that far.
“I felt very blessed to be in a position to be interviewed for it. But Rufus Norris’ appointment was the right decision made at the right time, and ultimately the right team has been formed. I wouldn’t necessarily have had the right solution for what the National needed to do after Nick.”
He is also now the king of the rebound, after the misstep of Sydney. “Bath is so welcome,” he says. “At a moment when I had Sydney not work out, it’s great to have something I care about instead. I’m a regional boy, and I’m as passionate about delivering to regional audiences as I have ever been.”
Bath also operates in the new commercially driven territory that Church now works in. “Bath is not subsidised at all – it’s completely commercial. In the modern world, where the division between the subsidised and commercial worlds is narrowing, what has amazed me about Danny’s time there is that he also manages to run an education department and a dedicated theatre for young people and a studio that is doing incredible work under [its artistic director] Laurence Boswell. The commercial shrewdness with which Danny runs the theatre and its production arm is able to deliver money to subsidise those other elements, including the summer season.”
Part of that is driven by serving the audience with what it wants – but also with what it doesn’t yet know it wants.
“One thing I’ve always felt as an artistic director is you have to serve your audience and their taste; of course you also have to challenge them and give them the unexpected and the new, but you have to play to what it is they believe they want,” he says. “The similarity between the Chichester and Bath audiences is huge; it’s not a surprise that the type of work and actors and creative artists are not going to be that dissimilar.”
So it is that his first Bath season includes revivals of plays by Chichester regulars such as Hare and Alan Bennett (The Lady in the Van) and a new play by Hugh Whitemore (The Sand in the Sandwiches, originally given a reading at Chichester but since developed commercially in a production that has already visited Chichester and had a short season at London’s Haymarket). But Church has always stretched the artistic canvas, programming new and/or unfamiliar work alongside the tried and tested.
At Bath, he is drawing on his recent experiences of working in Australia to bring over a production he first saw in Melbourne: “What one does as an artistic director is follow people you believe in and work you care about. There was this extraordinary stage production of the Hitchcock film North by Northwest, created at Melbourne Theatre Company by Simon Phillips, whose work I’ve known for four or five years.
“It takes a really inventive approach to how you tell a filmic story and the really brilliant gimmick of this, apart from multi-role playing, is its filmic element in which a lot of video work is created live by the company. Where in the film you see a crop duster flying over Cary Grant’s head, here it’s an actor with a model on a video camera, but merged on to a film screen. I fell in love with it, and to be able to introduce it to Bath audiences is a gift.”
He has a particular knack for the popular, and the place where high art can meet it and also be celebrated. As Peter Craven wrote in 2016 in the Australian: “Church has an extraordinarily dynamic sense of the relationship between theatre in the high and mighty artistic sense and theatre as showbusiness. He will do a musical such as Sweeney Todd and he will stage Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein, a classic of the German stage, virtually unknown to the English language theatre.”
Wearing his own, newly acquired commercial hat is only a leap forward from the co-production model he regularly used at Chichester. “It’s not a new idea. In these days when subsidy represents a smaller and smaller part of any company’s turnover, co-production commercial arrangements are vital, and what’s interesting is that Chichester and Bath, with a loyal, theatre literate and relatively well-heeled audience, are a great catalyst for making that model very fruitful for creating work.” At Chichester, this meant for example that his own -production of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, with Henry Goodman in the title role, transferred to the West End – as did his exuberant (and splashy, in every sense) production of Singin’ in the Rain, a combination that again shows his eclectic tastes.
But he also admits that Chichester shares with Bath similar tastes and sensibilities – “the rump of the audience there is fairly similar, and so much easier to predict”.
That was completely different to his experience at Birmingham, a city he says that’s “at the coalface of regional theatre, dealing with disparate, complicated, multiple audiences. So what we did was fragment the programme deliberately – we did shorter runs so that we could appear to more different audiences more regularly”.
That led to occasional misunderstandings and/or unwanted controversies, most famously the sudden cancellation of the run of a play called Behzti, written by the British Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, following an orchestrated protest in 2004 after the run had already begun.
“That was not our finest hour,” he says today. “Our intention to produce a piece of work by a young, female Asian writer who was trying to tackle an issue she saw in her community led to an extraordinary outpouring of emotion.
“The subject of those protests and who drummed them up could be the subject of a whole other interview. Through a level of consultation we did try to make sure we weren’t inflammatory, but we triggered the very thing we were trying to avoid.
“And we also had to think about the safety of the audience who were seeing the main house Christmas show, and the lack of desire of the police, who manage football matches in the city, to ensure public safety in such circumstances.”
He still sounds disappointed. “It was bruising for everyone, not least the writer and the cast, of what was a very good play.” But he is now sanguine: “Those moments of controversy are inevitable in what we do – and just occasionally, isn’t it nice to be reminded that what we do, which is sometimes seen as a fringe and lunatic activity, can have the power to ignite those questions. It is only sad that it became a very polarised debate about belief, when actually it should have been a broader debate about freedom of speech.”
Speaking more generally about audiences, he reflects how knowing you have a ready audience is all well and good, but it’s also easy to squander them. “It’s like a government and its voters, however apparently loyal, who find that it doesn’t take much to lose them, but that it takes a lot to win them back; that’s a great truth. But the gift of Bath and Chichester is that the audience is there and want it to work, which is not true of every city.”
Church is, above all, a pragmatist and a true practical man of the theatre. He came to directing via roles as a stage electrician and stage manager at Sheffield’s Crucible and Nottingham Playhouse, not a university training.
Jonathan Church’s top tips for aspiring directors
• Whatever your route, find a way to make it work. However you’re training or whoever you are assisting, make your own work to discover what it is and how it is you do it.
• Almost every director trains as an assistant, and you often end up working with whoever you are placed with, rather than the people whose work you are passionate about. So try to get in a room with the people whose work you really admire and want to emulate.
• Pitching shows to artistic directors: I remember pitching my Bulgakov and Chekhov and Shakespeare to Matthew Francis and he gave me a note. He said that as a young aspiring director, I needed to develop a burning passion to direct six-handed comedies that the artistic director would never want to direct. It was the greatest note any director gave me. The first two main house plays I directed at Derby were Absurd Person Singular and The Importance of Being Earnest, for exactly those reasons.
He grew up in Nottingham on the same street as outgoing Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director Emma Rice. They were both taught at school by Church’s actor-turned-teacher mother. Recalling his A-level stage decor days, he says: “It was drama for dummies. Emma and I both did it. You got points for designing shows or switching on lights or hammering a nail into a block of wood.”
But it also set him on his path. “My route into theatre was very practical, which is interesting as you go into a rehearsal. I like making things and the nuts and bolts of how you put things together. For me, directing is a practical craft, combined with an academic and intellectual pursuit.
“As actors occasionally remind you, directors are quite a recent invention in the scheme of theatre history. Actors and writers and stage managers used to quite happily put on plays before directors were invented.”
He happily chalks his Sydney experience down to pragmatism too. When I ask him to clarify just why his time there was so brief, he says: “It’s not sensitive but it is complicated. I’d not started my full tenure there yet, and the reality of being able to keep both the work there and my interests here running, as we both stared at it in the face, we realised it wouldn’t work for either of us.
“It was a good call for both to make; it could have been disastrous for everybody had I tried to carry on and the unpicking of it would have been even harder.
“It has worked out incredibly well for Sydney: Kip Williams has now taken over, and he’s what I’d call the Rupert Goold or Robert Icke of Australian theatre, a brilliant man and a brilliant director and it’s a brilliant, bold Australian appointment.
“As for me, having run buildings for 20 years and been in them for 30 years, I thought Sydney was going to be another, but that moment has passed. I now have this opportunity in Bath and an office in St Martin’s Lane, so I’m feeling very blessed.”
CV: Jonathan Church
Born: 1967, Nottingham
Training: “I did an A level called stage decor – basically drama for dummies. But then I learned on the job.”
As artistic director: Salisbury Playhouse (1995-1999), Birmingham Rep (2001-2005), Chichester Festival Theatre (2006-2016), Bath Theatre Royal summer season (2017-)
Landmark productions: Singin’ in the Rain, Chichester Festival Theatre (2011) and Palace Theatre, London (2012), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Chichester (2012) and Duchess Theatre, London (2013), Taken at Midnight, Chichester (2014) and Theatre Royal Haymarket, London (2015)
Awards: CBE for services to theatre, 2015
Agent: “I don’t have one. Both the ones I had retired. I was originally with Nathan Joseph and then Jeremy Conway. I’ve now taken matters into my office’s hands.
Racing Demon runs at Theatre Royal Bath from June 21-July 8