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Mark Shenton: Artistic director merry-go-round provides a chance for positive change

Clockwise from top left: Rachel O'Riordan, Madani Younis, Ed Hall and Sean Holmes. Photos: David Tett/Richard Davenport/Helen Maybanks

In the constantly shifting tectonic plates of theatre land, we are seeing the biggest upheaval in some time.

Not one or two, but three prominent London theatres have come up for grabs at the same time. Outside London, there are vacancies at Manchester’s Home, Edinburgh’s Traverse and the HighTide new-writing Festival in Suffolk.

We’ve also recently seen Kwame Kwei-Armah and Nadia Fall [1] take over at the Young Vic and Theatre Royal Stratford East respectively (from David Lan and Kerry Michael) and the imminent replacement of Josie Rourke with Michael Longhurst at the Donmar Warehouse.

Also soon to depart are Sean Holmes and Ed Hall from the Lyric Hammersmith and Hampstead. In all these cases, we don’t know where those departing are going to. But this week’s announcement that Madani Younis [2] is to assume the new role of creative director at Southbank Centre came at the same time as the announcement of his Bush departure, while we have also just learned that Rachel O’Riordan will replace Holmes at the Lyric [3].

These are incredibly challenging times to be running theatres, with deep cuts to public funding both on the national and local fronts. But change at the top can provide an impetus for renewal and revitalisation, as Paul Miller has shown at the Orange Tree [4].

That theatre lost its entire Arts Council funding of £363,695 a year on the day Miller took over, yet it did not curb the theatre’s ambition but drove its mission even harder.

Since that loss of funding, the Orange Tree has transferred a show to the National (An Octoroon) and become one of the most excitingly programmed venues in London. As Daniel Evans, artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, told the Evening Standard’s Fiona Mountford back in May [5]: ”I look at his work at the Orange Tree with awe. What’s happening in Richmond is nothing short of a revolution.”

And that revolution may now start percolating through the other theatres that will be given a new opportunity for reinvention under new leadership.

I had more or less stopped going to Lyric Hammersmith and Hampstead in recent years; though Holmes oversaw a welcome transformation of the physical spaces around Hammersmith with new rehearsal and education wings, and Hall brought the Downstairs studio space into play, they’d both largely fallen off my personal radar.

My colleague Andrzej Lukowski has written eloquently of Hall’s achievements in stabilising Hampstead [6], even if it has not always been the most fashionable venue in town.

The Bush has always been a more dynamic space than either, and with Younis continuing the work that Josie Rourke had begun in relocating the theatre to its new premises inside a former library building to make it feel even more welcoming, it is also spawning new shows like this week’s transfer of Misty [7] to Trafalgar Studios that will see it reaching an even bigger audience.

But now a new generation of artistic leaders will be given the chance to reinvent each of these spaces in their own images.

As Lyn Gardner wrote earlier this week [8]: “Younis himself is the best advertisement of how bold appointments bring bold change. He was an unexpected choice when he joined the Bush. And look what a great success he made of it. There are others who are ready too. Let them prove themselves, just as Younis has done.”

At this moment, there’s an unrivalled opportunity for a new theatrical order and identity to be forged. Let’s hope that diversity – of all types – continues to shake up these theatres.