Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse artistic director Gemma Bodinetz has spoken for the first time at length about the challenges she faced when the venue dropped out of Arts Council England’s national portfolio in 2018.
Bodinetz said she and the theatre had been in a “dark place” when the organisation took itself out of the funding portfolio following the failure of its repertory project, but said despite the difficulties, the past year’s experience had given the organisation renewed vigour.
The theatre now has a head of new works and is refreshing its strategies to improve gender representation, as well as introducing new schemes such as a programme that uses the Playhouse in the daytime as a social hub for marginalised and isolated adults.
Speaking at Sphinx Theatre’s Women in Theatre forum in London this week, Bodinetz said: “For many reasons, we’re on a very very tight budget at the moment, but we’re seeing the light and it’s been very exciting to look at how we can be the theatre we want to be, and to some degree have been, in this new climate.”
She said the experience had forced her to realise that “everything [in theatre] has to shift; how you read a play, the sort of work you make”.
“That’s exciting and frightening,” she said.
Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse requested to leave ACE’s portfolio in December 2018, claiming its project to restart a repertory company had pushed it to “tipping point”.
The return of the theatre’s in-house company in 2016, which won The Stage’s innovation award the following year, was hailed by many as a long-awaited return to rep theatre. However, the project’s expense contributed to existing financial difficulty, Bodinetz said.
She went on to say that despite going through a “very difficult time, with quite a lot of self-flagellation”, she felt the organisation was moving forward and had “wind in its sails”.
The theatre now has a member of staff dedicated to engaging with Liverpool communities about the stories they want told, while also being more proactive about improving representation among writers.
“We have a really tiny budget but we’re holding scratch nights, and plays are being developed, and we have a really huge desire to bring new voices, new female voices and non-binary voices into the organisation,” Bodinetz said.
The Life Rooms project, launched in partnership with Mersey Care last month, offers free arts activities at the Playhouse to people with experience of mental health issues to help improve well-being, skills and self-esteem.
Bodinetz said her recent experiences had also forced her to think about her own approach to leadership.
“I always had a huge desire to reach out to all these disparate groups, but it can’t just be that. It was my ideas: me intuiting what I thought the city wanted, trying to find writers via the pathways I knew to find writers.
“[We talk] about offering keys to people that don’t have keys. That’s become an organisational change to the point that we now have a role called our community catalyst, and that is just listening. Really listening to the stories that [communities] want told, in the way they like them told.”
Further details of theatre’s future plans will be announced in the coming months.
The Everyman and Playhouse continues to receive its Arts Council NPO funding, of £1.65 million per year, with the aim of returning to the portfolio in the next round, which begins in 2022.