Mark Shenton: Fresh blood keeps our theatres great
What do the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Donmar Warehouse, Almeida, Chichester Festival Theatre and Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre all have in common, besides being each outstanding theatres in their sectors?
One is that they have, in the 15 years since the turn of this century, each been served by three artistic directors or artistic teams so far. At the National, we’ve seen Trevor Nunn, Nicholas Hytner and now Rufus Norris at the helm; at the RSC, Adrian Noble, Michael Boyd and now Gregory Doran; at the Donmar, Sam Mendes, Michael Grandage and now Josie Rourke; at the Almeida, the duo of Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent, then Michael Attenborough and now Rupert Goold; at Chichester, Andrew Welch, the triumvirate of Martin Duncan, Ruth Mackenzie and the late Steven Pimlott, and now Jonathan Church; and at Sheffield, Michael Grandage, Samuel West and Daniel Evans.
Another is that all of them have undergone major refurbishment projects across that same period, or, in the case of the Donmar, acquired ownership of its own freehold as well as a set of lavishly appointed rehearsal studios and offices nearby. These huge capital projects were overseen administratively by the theatre’s executive directors at the time: Nick Starr (with Lisa Burger), Vikki Heywood, James Bierman, Sarah Weir (with Neil Constable in last six months of the project), Alan Finch and Dan Bates respectively.
Not that the theatres have necessarily been without their own crises – Noble left the RSC in serious disarray, having removed the company from its permanent London home at the Barbican (which had been built to the company’s own specifications), leaving it peripatetic for most of the last decade and a half, before Doran returned it to that original home; and Chichester went through a critical period of losing a lot of its core, loyal audience under the triumvirate who ran it between 2003 and 2005.
The churn of artistic directors offers a chance for theatres to constantly reinvent themselves
When Church was appointed at Chichester, he told the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer of the challenges he faced in a 2006 interview. “Chichester is a town of 20,000 people, and you need 200,000 to really make the theatre tick. You’ve got to persuade people to make the pilgrimage, and the quality of the theatre alone hasn’t done that in the past three years. And there comes a point for me where, if something isn’t relevant to a community, it’s not worth going on. We have to make this theatre relevant to people. We have got to turn the corner and get the audience figures up. It’s the only thing that matters. Six years of decline is frightening.”
Church certainly turned it around and reversed that decline: it is now surely the foremost regional subsidised theatre, at least in terms of commercial success in feeding a seemingly endless stream of shows to the West End (its production of Gypsy, which closed last month and was filmed for a BBC4 transmission on December 24, has now been followed into the Savoy Theatre by the Chichester production of Guys and Dolls, now previewing ahead of an official opening on January 6).
There’s been a similar turnaround story at the Almeida, where Attenborough’s mostly safe, unadventurous programming has been replaced by Goold’s supercharged vision that has turned it into one of London’s most essential theatres. Its repertoire this year, of plays such as Simon Stephens’ Carmen Disruption, Mike Bartlett’s Game and the three-play cycle of Greek plays that included an Oresteia that transferred to the West End, may have sometimes been theatrical marmite, but boy, did they shake things up. And in associate director Robert Icke – who directed Oresteia – the theatre has one of the names of the future.
At the Donmar, meanwhile, Mendes may have been a tough act to follow, but Grandage ably filled his shoes, expanding the company’s remit to include a particular emphasis on European drama, and taking it outside of its home base not just into transfers, but also a contemporaneous year-long residency at a West End theatre and an annual studio season at the Trafalgar Studios to showcase the work of former Donmar-trained resident assistant directors. Now Rourke has again remoulded the theatre, with initiatives such as her all-women Shakespeares (the second of which, Henry IV, has just ended a New York transfer run at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn), and this summer’s live recreation of a general election night in James Graham’s The Vote that culminated in a live telecast of the play on election night, playing across the same last 90 minutes before the polls closed.
Sheffield’s three-theatre complex of the Crucible, Studio and Lyceum has, for two years running, been named The Stage’s regional theatre of the year under Evans, and seen its shows transfer to the West End and Off-West End (including the current production of Bull at the Young Vic) and tour regionally. Evans, of course, was recently announced to take over as artistic director at Chichester after Church departs for Australia (where he is to take over Sydney Theatre Company) after next year’s summer season.
In a recent interview with Dominic Maxwell for The Times, Evans was asked why he was moving on, and Maxwell reports him pointing out that a stint of seven years, which is what his time in Sheffield will add up to when he moves south next summer, is a long one for an artistic director. He then quotes Evans saying: “And I’m someone who loves new challenges. It was maybe time to move on and indeed give the theatre a chance to get some new blood. Not that my blood was running dry, it just seemed an amazing opportunity. New teams bring new energy, new challenges.”
Dominic Dromgoole, who is also on the homestretch of his run as artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe, which he hands on to Emma Rice next year, told me when I interviewed him for The Stage after he announced his resignation last year that doing the job was a privilege, but that it wasn’t fair to monopolise it:
You have to go. It’s a good part of our theatre tradition. You don’t have it in the States, where they stay forever. But you have to admire the principle that it is not right that something as wonderful as this reflects one person’s tastes for too long. It’s right that even if it means choppy seas – which I don’t think it will here, but it occasionally does in other places – it means you’re refreshing the institution properly and eventually giving it more life.
He’s dead right about how American artistic directors tend to linger. Lynn Meadow has been artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club since 1972, a run of 43 years and counting; Todd Haimes has been at Roundabout Theatre Company since 1983, first as executive director, then as artistic director since 1990; and Andre Bishop has been artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater since 1992, after 16 years at Playwrights Horizons, first as literary manager then artistic director.
But the churn of artistic directors over here, by contrast, offers a chance for theatres – and the artistic directors who lead them – to constantly reinvent themselves. Sheffield will be a highly sought-after post and it will be interesting to see who gets it. The board there has certainly made some interesting appointments in the past: the last three directors have, in each of their ways, been a wild-card, each of them actors-turned-directors: Michael Grandage (whose first theatre it was, just three years after he’d left behind acting to concentrate on directing full-time), Samuel West and then Daniel Evans, the latter two of whom also continued to act.
I wonder whether another actor with directing ambitions could be next for Sheffield, too. One name that comes to mind is Jamie Glover, who directed Chichester’s double bill of Miss Julie and Black Comedy in 2014 and has appeared there in both The Rehearsal this year and An Ideal Husband last. Another is Jamie Parker, who it was recently revealed in an interview in the Evening Standard was shortlisted for the Globe job (“I didn’t expect to get to the final round,” he told Fiona Mountford. “That entire experience was the most unremittingly positive one of my entire working life.”)
There are also several directors on the rise, such as the aforementioned Icke, Donmar Warehouse associate Robert Hastie (another former actor) or the ever-impressive Blanche McIntyre, who may be ready for the next challenge of running their own theatres. Whoever gets the job, they will inherite a theatre that has firmly been placed on the national map.
And the renewal process of the theatre will begin again.
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