Sheffield Theatres’ Robert Hastie: ‘We belong to this city. We must look like it – on stage and off’
Six years after directing his first play, Robert Hastie has already come full circle as he takes the reins as artistic director at the Crucible Theatre where he made his acting debut. He tells Tom Wicker of the debt he owes his Donmar Warehouse mentor Josie Rourke and how he plans to engage the people of Sheffield and beyond…
I first glimpse Robert Hastie sprinting across a public space outside the Crucible Theatre. It is adorned with giant snooker balls and thronging with avid snooker fans. Like every year since 1977, the Crucible is hosting the game’s World Championship when Hastie and I meet in the adjacent cafe. Sheffield Theatres’ newest artistic director – succeeding Daniel Evans – has dashed over from rehearsing his first season’s inaugural production, Julius Caesar.
“Sheffield Hallam University has just published a study of the economic impact on Sheffield of the snooker over the 40 years,” Hastie says. “I can’t remember the exact figure, but it’s vast.”
Although he shares a birth year with the event, he confesses he hasn’t previously been a snooker fan. However, he reveals that Samuel West, a former Sheffield artistic director who is playing Brutus in Hastie’s Julius Caesar, is. “He’s got a good bit on how watching snooker is like -watching theatre.”
Sheffield is Hastie’s first artistic directorship. After switching from acting to directing in 2011, he drew attention with his acclaimed revival at the Finborough Theatre of John McGrath’s Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun. This was followed by a tenure as associate director at the Donmar Warehouse, during which time his production of Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg transferred to the West End. His staging of Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code won best production at the Manchester Theatre Awards 2016.
‘I wanted to build the season from things that felt important to me and I wanted to do a play about a city or a community’
There was, Hastie says, no single Damascene moment of realisation that he wanted to be a director more than an actor. “I probably should have listened sooner to that voice in the back of my head saying, ‘I think you should be standing over there’.”
A number of moments tipped the balance, notably watching a friend’s rehearsal of The History Boys in Los Angeles. “I remember walking into this huge theatre and going: ‘If I could choose where to be working in this room, I don’t think it would be on the stage.’ ”
However, it would still be a while before Hastie would take the plunge – on the advice of the director he was working with at the time. He told Hastie to wait a few more years, because “I’d be more likely to get into a room with people I could learn from, as an actor, than by competing with people coming out of university, all vying for assistant director jobs”.
Hastie followed this advice. When he did start directing, “it immediately felt right”. This feeling intensified when a former teacher gave him back some old GCSE coursework, about an imaginary production of The Tempest. “Reading through the naivety of it, it was all about making directorial rather than acting choices,” says Hastie. He’d even started a school theatre company with a friend, Oliver Herford, son of Woman in Black director Robin. “But when you’re younger, seeing actors on stage, that’s what you think theatre is.”
Learning curves and snooker cues
For Hastie, directing is about “staying on the balls of your feet”. Being able to react in the moment is crucial, “which is one of the reasons why I wasn’t a terribly good actor,” he says. He found being ‘present’ on stage difficult. “I was too busy thinking about the research I’d done, or second-guessing where I should be.” As a director, it pays to be prepared, he insists, but being responsive to the dynamics of a rehearsal room is what matters.
Six years from directing your first show to programming a building seems very quick, I suggest. Hastie points out that, while the Donmar is a very different theatre to Sheffield, he was there for three years. He learned a lot.
“And being around that set-up confirmed to me what I suppose I’d always felt,” he says, “that while running a building is many other things as well, it’s also a creative act.” Shaping a theatre’s work and managing a team were, he muses, all aspects of the director he wanted to be.
Initially joining her as an associate director on her West End production of Much Ado About Nothing, Hastie will always be “profoundly grateful” to Josie Rourke, the Donmar’s artistic director. “She gave me a crash course. As an actor I had a pretty good idea of what a director did in the rehearsal room,” he says. But watching Rourke (at the Bush Theatre and then the Donmar) showed him “all the other bits”, from how to talk to designers to managing production schedules.
CV Robert Hastie
Born: 1977, Scarborough
Training: Cambridge University; RADA
• Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun, Finborough Theatre, London (2012)
• My Night With Reg, Donmar Warehouse, London (2014)
• Splendour, Donmar Warehouse, London (2015)
• Henry V, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London (2016)
• Breaking the Code, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (2016)
• Manchester Theatre Awards – best production for Breaking the Code (2016)
Fay Davies, the Agency
Hastie’s work is marked by a nuance and thoroughness that is reflected in the way he speaks. He’s interested in people, in conversation. He spent hours talking to Elyot before directing My Night With Reg.
Now, he has come to realise just how much of being an artistic director – particularly outside of London – “is about entering into a conversation with an audience”, sometimes a vocal one. “People I talk to in the foyer will tell me when they like something and when they don’t,” he says. He relishes this. “You’re consistently able to get a barometer of the work.”
Hastie is also enjoying being in conversation with the team at Sheffield Theatres – the writers, directors and actors in his orbit and the wider theatre industry. He’s also conscious about sustaining a dialogue with “the rich and proud tradition of theatre in Sheffield, particularly in these buildings”. An impressive history of Shakespeare productions has influenced his own choices. He decided not to stage Richard III, for example, because of Kenneth Branagh’s 2002 version at the Crucible. “Audiences here have a long memory,” he says. “It would feel too soon.”
Engaging with audiences is very much on Hastie’s mind. The importance of the Snooker World Championship to Sheffield’s civic life illustrates the many ways a theatre can sit within a community. Going into the Crucible after the tables had been set up, Hastie was fascinated by how new and unusual the space felt. “For a lot of people, walking into a theatre can be alienating,” he says. “So, putting myself in the position of walking into that space for the first time, how do you nurture the excitement that can give you?”
Art mirroring life
And that’s key in an increasingly grim economic funding environment for the arts. Attracting new audiences has never been more important for theatres outside London. Sheffield Theatres has, Hastie says, “a really brilliant relationship” with the city council, “who’ve worked very hard to maintain a level of funding”. Nevertheless, since 2010, the contribution of public subsidy to turnover across Sheffield Theatres’ venues – the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum – has fallen from 22% to 14%.
For Hastie, theatre is something at the centre of a community. To this end, he believes that it makes both financial as well as social and artistic sense to try to remove whatever obstacles are preventing people from feeling like it is. For example, when he announced his first season, he revealed that he’d be cutting ticket-booking fees. This isn’t cushioned by extra funding. “We’ve had to look to our budgets and find ways of absorbing those costs,” he says. “But these buildings belong to the city and you shouldn’t feel that you have to pay just to come through the door.”
Making Sheffield Theatres as welcoming and inclusive as possible has also informed his programming. It’s a mix of canon heavyweights such as Julius Caesar and new work such as Chris Thompson’s Of Kith and Kin, about a gay couple who father a child. “Without wanting to outline any kind of manifesto,” says Hastie, “it felt important to build the season from things that felt important to me, and which might point to the kind of work people can expect.”
Perfect for big, classical plays, the Crucible’s atmosphere – part arena, part forum – felt exactly right for Julius Caesar. “And I wanted to do a play about a city or a community,” Hastie continues. It was intended to open to coincide with Sheffield’s mayoral election, which, in the event, was postponed following Theresa May’s surprise announcement of a June general election.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Delivering posters for the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
What was your first professional theatre job?
As an actor, appearing in Edward Bond’s Lear at the Sheffield Crucible in 2005. As a director, 66 Books at the Bush Theatre in 2011.
What is your next job?
Directing Chris Thompson’s Of Kith and Kin as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Learn from the lives and work of others, but never mistake the map that worked for them for one that will work for you.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Usually, the people I’m working with at the moment. But two old friends have always inspired me with their tenacity, wit and work ethic: the academic and writer Oliver Herford and the TV director Ben Taylor.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
If you want another go at something, don’t be afraid to ask, and don’t be offended if time doesn’t allow.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
Whatever it is, I like to think it’s not too late.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Hastie cites his modern-dress staging of Henry V, last year in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, as an example of how a production can shift according to world events. Initially intended as a study of gender roles, it went on to absorb the Chilcot Inquiry, the EU referendum and Jeremy Deller’s work with the National’s artistic director Rufus Norris on First World War commemoration We’re Here Because We’re Here. “The play subtly shifted its meaning with each of those,” says Hastie.
In terms of Julius Caesar, the play’s bloody politicking is arguably even more topical now. “Our first day of rehearsals started that Tuesday, at 11:15am, the point at which May stepped out and gave her press conference,” says Hastie. “In a play about omens, as far as omens go, that’s quite a big one.” He smiles wryly. “I see your mayoral election, and raise you a general election.”
Where the Donmar’s “particular alchemy,” says Hastie, “is that it’s an intimate space that can contain the epic, the Crucible is an epic space that can hold the intimate beautifully”. Its thrust stage resonates with his earliest memories of auditoria, growing up in Scarborough and going to the in-the-round Stephen Joseph Theatre. “Theatre, for me, was never about proscenium arch,” he reflects. “It meant being in the same room as the actors.”
Inhabiting the spaces
Hastie has loved the Crucible since performing there in Edward Bond’s Lear – his first big acting job after drama school – in 2005. “I’ve never forgotten the first time I walked through those big central doors,” he says, smiling. That “sense of event”, the “excitement and expectation” generated by being in the Crucible, is what he wants to channel now. His staging of Julius Caesar will use the whole of the theatre, including the audience. “I wanted do something that really felt like we’re all in the same room.”
Hastie is excited by the opportunities afforded by all three of Sheffield Theatres’ performance spaces. From the Crucible’s scale to the intimacy of the Studio, “that’s many different canvases,” he enthuses. As artistic director, it’s why he wanted to make sure, for his first season, that he would be directing in both the Crucible (where he’s only acted before) and the Studio. “I’m most use to other directors if I’ve worked in those spaces,” he explains. “What those spaces do in relation to each other, and discovering how expectations of them are different, has been part of the joy of the conversation I’ve been talking about.”
The use of these different venues to showcase a variety of voices and types of work feeds into a broader outlook for Hastie. “Having so many glorious theatre spaces to work in means that we can tell a multitude of stories,” he says. “These buildings belong to the city, so they should look like the city, on stage and off.” His Julius Caesar will have a diverse and gender-balanced cast, and he’s committed to gender parity throughout his season.
‘Having so many glorious theatre spaces to work in means we can tell a multitude of stories’
“The fact that diversity has achieved a kind of currency now is a good thing, but let’s not pretend that people haven’t been saying for a long while that our theatre wasn’t truly representative,” Hastie points out. He’s quick to dismiss counter-arguments about historical authenticity when it comes to diversely casting Shakespeare. “Shakespeare wasn’t interested in ‘historical authenticity’,” he says dryly. “And if he wasn’t, then we shouldn’t be either.”
Hastie counts himself lucky to have been at the Donmar when Rourke and Phyllida Lloyd began discussing Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy. “The argument was very much that these plays might prove to be the finest collection of dramatic works the human race ever achieves,” he says. “We understand that the historical moment of their writing precluded women from being in them. But we’re in the 21st century, now, and it’s just not good enough.”
His tone is (as always) calm and considered, but there’s no mistaking the passion in his voice when he argues that places like Sheffield Theatres also “have a duty to be generators of new work”. Writers should “be able to trust that they could find a home here,” he states. He wants to “champion writers from the area, make new plays sit alongside old plays and feed the repertoire with new work”.
Hastie’s belief that theatres such as his can, and should, be important engines of social change helps to explain why he dislikes the word ‘regional’, which so often prefaces discussions about venues outside London.
Robert Hastie’s top tips for aspiring directors
• You will occasionally meet people who get ahead despite, or even because of, being unpleasant. Don’t be tempted to emulate them.
• Watch others working and steal shamelessly from what works. We’ve all been training each other since theatre began.
• Directing is, relatively speaking, a new job. We may hold most of the power, but we are here at the invitation of writers, actors and audiences. Something to say, someone to say it and someone to watch it are what makes theatre happen; someone to shape it is useful, and hopefully improving, but not essential.
In Scarborough, his first paid job was delivering posters for the Stephen Joseph Theatre. “As a proud northerner, it’s difficult to talk about this without sounding chippy,” he says lightly, “but ‘regional’ is usually deployed in a sentence implying there’s ‘theatre’ and then ‘regional’ theatre.”
He doesn’t accept that. Of Kith and Kin, for example, is a co-production with London’s Bush Theatre. “We’re at the centre of our community,” he says, “but where the edges of that community expand and contract depending on the work we’re presenting.”
Hastie is a fan of co-producing “because we can do something together better than we can do it apart”. It’s financially beneficial, he acknowledges, “but it’s also artistic – and about the reach of the work. Who doesn’t want their shows seen by more people?”
Hastie has little time for siloed discussions about theatre. As a freelance director, he staged work across the UK – from Breaking the Code at the Manchester Royal Exchange to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Theatre Clwyd in Wales. This is “a really small country,” he says. “Within three hours of this table, we can be at any one of 500 amazing theatres. That’s not true of any other English-speaking country where theatre occupies the same cultural place.”
Robert Hastie on…
… being an artistic director
The jigsaw puzzle of being artistic director has been one of the not-unexpected, but definite, pleasures. When I got the job, people were like, “Oh, that’s great. You can do whatever you want.” But once you’ve factored in what’s been done before, what rights are available, who’s going to do it and how many things you can do in the space of a year, that is absolutely not the case.
New writing is important. And that’s why it’s important to have – and to maintain – relationships with writers. That way, you’re not just turning the classics to contemporary life, but reflecting the things that people are thinking about beyond the theatre.
But, he reflects, post-referendum, “we’re realising that we’re both very small and very diverse. We’re close together and far apart.” Theatre can help bridge such divides, but it needs to feel accessible – and relevant – to people. That’s why Sheffield Theatres has lowered its cheapest ticket prices, but it needs to start earlier on, argues Hastie. And “the legitimacy of culture as a component of our education system is, to put it mildly, in question,” he says.
To this end, he’s launched Ignite, a scheme providing young people studying drama and the performing arts in Sheffield with a free ticket to Crucible productions. His hope is that this will help to give the stage a real place in their lives. “We also want to be make a statement of support for young people and the schools that offer them the opportunity to get excited about theatre,” he says.
While he’s been rehearsing Julius Caesar, Hastie has been remembering the artistic directors who made an impact on him while he was still acting and still inspire him now. Aptly, this includes Michael Grandage – also Rourke’s predecessor at the Donmar – when he was in charge of Sheffield Theatres. “I remember Michael really clearly,” says Hastie, “the loyalty he had and the connection he made with everybody that was coming into his building.”
So, with Julius Caesar’s opening night on the horizon, a year after his appointment was announced, how is Hastie feeling about finally embarking on his first season as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres?
“I don’t know how to answer that,” he says and laughs. A lengthy pause follows as he gives it some thought. “I feel like… I’m coming into land.”