Manchester Royal Exchange unveils ‘step-change’ in artistic policy

(l-r) Executive director Fiona Gasper with Sarah Frankcom and Greg Hersov (joint artistic directors). Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre has announced a senior management restructure and a revamped artistic policy with an increased focus on new work and opportunities for emerging theatre practitioners.

Sarah Frankcom and Greg Hersov will continue as joint artistic directors, following the departure of founding artistic director Braham Murray earlier this year. But, despite the lack of changes to senior personnel, Frankcom insisted that the overhaul will represent a “step-change” in the way the building is run.

“The work will feel different,” she told The Stage. “Up until this reorganisation and step-change in artistic direction, the work that has been made has been a reflection of a few theatre imaginations. There’s now a very conscious desire to open up the doors to a whole generation of directors, makers, writers, theatre artists, from the UK and further afield and create opportunities for them to respond to the uniqueness of our iconic space.”

Under the new structure, Frankcom and Hersov will both have clearly defined roles looking after different parts of the Royal Exchange’s operation. Frankcom will be responsible for building relationships with artists and companies from outside the Royal Exchange, while Hersov will oversee the inner workings of the theatre and its artistic programme.

Frankcom emphasised that the programme itself would be very different, with a focus on new work and emerging artists, which she said the theatre’s Manchester audience had developed an appetite for.

“We’ve felt there’s a massive interest about new work from our audience,” she said. “The programming of a first play by a playwright who no one has heard of in a 750-seat theatre... our audiences are really up for it, they are excited by the unexpected. With shows like Mogadishu and Punk Rock, they’ve given us a real mandate to be bold.

“It feels as though there has been a huge shift in the way that theatre is being made in this country in the last ten years. The way that we have been programmed and used our resources [until now] has not had the flexibility to be able to respond to some of the different ways and the different kinds of work that are right at the cutting edge of 21st-century theatre.”

The first season programmed under the new artistic direction will be the spring/summer 2013 season. The 700-seat in-the-round main stage will feature Max Webster, a graduate of the Regional Theatre Young Director’s Scheme in 2011, directing a revival of Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. This will be followed by the world premiere of Cannibals by Rory Mullarky, the Royal Exchange’s 2011 Pearson Playwright in Residence. It will be directed by Michael Longhurst. Hersov will then direct Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of A Doll’s House, which will be followed by a revival of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, directed by Blanche McIntyre, who won the Critics’ Circle’s most promising newcomer award last year. The main stage season will close with a co-production with Told by an Idiot – Too Clever by Half by Alexandr Ostrovsky, directed by Paul Hunter.

The theatre’s studio will stage Three Birds by Janice Okoh, the winner of the 2011 Bruntwood Prize. It will be directed by Frankcom. The space will also host a co-production with Live Theatre Newcastle, as well as visiting work from companies such as Fuel and Improbable.

Executive director Fiona Gasper said that Murray’s departure had been the catalyst for the change, with the board asking Hersov and Frankcom to develop a new vision for the theatre’s future. She added that the developments at the Exchange were part of a wider trend within regional theatre. “What’s interesting is that when I started there was one model of what a regional theatre should be,” she said. “What I see now is that the ones that are going to succeed are the ones who develop their own models, which respond to their communities, their location and their strengths. That’s exciting – it means that it isn’t one-size-fits-all anymore.”