Leicester Curve’s Chris Stafford: ‘Arts cuts are coming, but we can’t just hike up prices’
For Chris Stafford, chief executive of Leicester’s Curve, the ever-open door to the rehearsal room epitomises why he enjoys working with the theatre’s artistic director, Nikolai Foster. “His ethic is that every member of staff can go into that room whenever they like,” he explains. “Nik’s approach is that we’re in it together. And that’s very much how I lead this theatre. We all play our valuable part.”
His passion is clear. “I was here yesterday, in our foyer, and it was just brilliantly bonkers,” he says. As well as staff getting ready for the opening of Foster’s revival of Leicester-born Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, school groups were gearing up to perform poetry in the theatre’s 300-seat studio space, resident director Julia Thomas was preparing Orton-themed work with local artists and community organisations were celebrating International Women’s Day.
Everyone in this building – every artist, every child – truly owns Curve
“Everyone in this building – every artist, every child – truly owns Curve,” Stafford enthuses.
And that ethos certainly seems to be paying off. Stafford took up his position in the autumn of 2015, shortly after Foster’s appointment in January that year. He had previously been executive producer at Curve. Since then, the theatre has developed a touring arm, raising its profile nationally. In August 2016, it announced a record turnover of £10.2 million. Of this, ticket sales had grown by 8% on the previous year.
It’s an impressive achievement for someone who didn’t grow up with theatre: “It wasn’t part of my diet – once a year, and that was about it.” Stafford’s appreciation of theatre as a community-embedded institution and the value of partnership began at Shakespeare’s Globe. After training at Central School of Speech and Drama in theatre and education, his first role was as projects assistant in the education department.
“I was very lucky that was my first job,” reflects Stafford. “I could see first-hand what arts organisations can truly do.” In particular, it kick-started his ambition to run a building. It inculcated in him a belief that “they can create community cohesion and help shape a society”. He was also gaining experience in other areas, including the financial side of cultural outreach, such as fundraising. He helped to secure the Globe’s biggest revenue grant from Deutsche Bank.
Next, he was awarded a Clore Fellowship. “It encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone,” he says. As part of the fellowship, he undertook a secondment to the fundraising department of Bristol Old Vic. Although it was another building, he quickly discovered the difference in working at a regional theatre: “Your civic responsibilities are greater, especially somewhere like Bristol.”
His time at Bristol Old Vic also helped to lay the groundwork for his relationship with Foster, as he watched Emma Stenning and Tom Morris – only a year into their roles – collaborate across the executive and artistic divide. Stafford was “fuelled by their vision”. He also admired the way they were winning the trust of the city in the theatre at its heart.
Meanwhile, Stafford continued to apply for jobs. “It’s really important to me that there’s risk,” he reflects. “There shouldn’t always be certainty.” In December 2011, he became executive director of the Brighton-based, immersive-theatre touring company Dreamthinkspeak. “I knew I had the skills, but I’d never been at director level before,” Stafford says, “so it was a brilliant next step, career-wise.”
For someone keen to run a building, a role at a touring company might seem a strange move. But, for Stafford, it was about keeping up the momentum. His first show for the company, the Hamlet-inspired The Rest Is Silence, staged in a Shoreham warehouse, was an insight into “how you pop up in communities and make that mean something”, bringing in local volunteers. Tristan Sharps, Dreamspeakthink’s artistic director, “would spend months getting to know a place”, he says.
Stafford enjoyed the multitasking that came with working for a smaller organisation. “I was the executive director, but actually I was the finance director, the communications director – the coffee-maker, sometimes.” He laughs. “It was an incredible experience to get more strings to my bow.”
His time at Dreamthinkspeak also confirmed Stafford’s belief in the importance of long-term planning, as the company had become an Arts Council England national portfolio organisation just before he arrived.
He says: “We put in place the structures that would enable it to continue to grow and develop.” Stafford identifies his biggest achievement at Dreamthinkspeak as helping to turn a project-led entity into an arts organisation.
Q&A: Chris Stafford
What was your first non-theatre job? When I was at school, my Saturday job was to marshal the trolleys at B and M Bargains in Southport.
What was your first professional theatre job? Learning projects assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Everyone suffers from imposter syndrome.
Who or what was your biggest influence? It’s a cliche, but it’s audiences; everything I do is influenced by audiences.
If you hadn’t been a theatre executive, what would you have been? A teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No.
Fast-forward three and a half years and the impact of these formative experiences ripples through Stafford’s management of the Curve. “As executive producer at the theatre, I already had lots of insider knowledge about our city, how we operate and the challenges,” he says. He praises the achievements of Fiona Allan, his predecessor, as “incredible”. Stafford’s goal was to capitalise on Curve’s strength – its audience engagement.
He introduced a new ticketing model, increasing upper-band prices while making the cheapest seats cheaper. “When you simply hike up prices, that might work for a year or two,” Stafford explains. “But people start to go elsewhere.”
To ensure that the theatre remains accessible, £10 tickets are available for most shows. This also encourages Curve audiences to try new or unfamiliar work.
Stafford has also brought Curve’s artistic and events teams into closer alignment, to “look at how we maximise the use of our assets”. He believes that exploring how Curve’s facilities, events, hospitality and artistic programming can aid each other – and help stimulate local commerce – is key to the theatre’s growth as an arts business.
Elsewhere, Stafford chairs Leicester’s Business Improvement District steering committee. A BID is designed to galvanise local businesses into reinvesting in their area. “It’s about ring-fencing some money,” Stafford explains, “to make real change happen in this city. And we get to decide what we’re changing. I’m excited to be part of it.”
Stafford has a strong sense of civic responsibility. In late 2015, he turned down a £500,000 capital grant from the Arts Council to refurbish Curve’s cafe and install a brasserie. Even though it was “a brilliant opportunity”, he felt strongly that, at that point, the return on taxpayers’ money wasn’t there. There could be a new brasserie in a few years, Stafford hopes, but it’s about making gradual changes. “We’ve got to feel that we’re delivering what we say we will,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest development Stafford has pushed is Curve’s emergence as a key venue in the UK touring network. Since 2015, it has, among other shows, launched a new tour of Hairspray and partnered on Sister Act with commercial producer Jamie Wilson. “That’s been selling out theatres,” Stafford says. “Curve’s name is on every brochure and poster. Our brand recognition is there.”
Commercial producers benefit from Curve’s state-of-the-art facilities, says Stafford, while enabling the tour of “something like Sister Act, which a theatre like Curve could never afford to do ourselves”. Opening a big title is “a great marketing tool” for attracting more co-producers, including artistically like-minded regional venues looking to share costs.
Touring has raised the theatre’s profile nationally and overseas: as we speak, Curve’s production of Grease is rehearsing for a stint in Dubai. The UK tour of Cameron Mackintosh’s Miss Saigon will start at Curve in July. It creates a buzz around the venue and Leicester itself.
Stafford’s blending of artistic and business goals in comprehensive planning is about protecting Curve’s future amid funding cuts to local authorities around the country. “There’s no point in putting my head in the sand about that,” he says. “All cuts will be felt, because we need public investment to be a producing theatre. My job is to ensure that we find ways to replace that funding, so the impact is less.”
CV: Chris Stafford
Born: Southport, 1980
Training: Central School of Speech and Drama
Landmark productions: Riff Raff, Arcola Theatre (2010), The Rest Is Silence, Brighton Festival (2012), The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, Curve, Leicester (2015), Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Curve (2016)
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