Matt Trueman: Theatres have every right to trash legacies and embrace change
“Change is uncomfortable,” Nadia Fall tells me in this week’s big interview. She’s overseen quite a shake-up at Theatre Royal Stratford East. The theatre’s had a facelift, several schemes and spaces have shut down and the programming’s gone through a total about-turn. It’s a bold move, but the truth is that something had to give. The venue was struggling: audiences were falling away and reserves perilously low. Fall was facing problems that had to be fixed.
Even so, since arriving at Stratford East, she’s faced a bit of a backlash. A news story about staff turnover at the theatre quoted an anonymous source who accused her of betraying its past, before the theatre’s former press agent Mark Borkowski echoed the sentiment, arguing that Fall had undone “45 years of groundbreaking work” in her first public interview.
Over in Kilburn, the story’s the same. This time, the big change is merely a new name: the Tricycle’s metamorphosis into the Kiln. In the week of its reopening, after a welcome and wide-reaching refurb, a gaggle of old Trike grandees, including its long-serving former artistic director Nicolas Kent, wrote a public letter opposing the new name. It was, they said, too big a break with the past, an erasure of everything the theatre has done to date.
Frankly, that’s rubbish. Change doesn’t negate the past; it negotiates the present with an eye on the future. It is not an underhand criticism of what came before but a recognition that theatres – and the industry as a whole – need to evolve. That’s what art does best: it challenges, it questions, it seeks new alternatives and, yes, it makes change. To do so, it must first look to itself. Be the change you want to see, as they say.
British theatre is not where it was. How could it be? Eight years of austerity and rounds of funding cuts have left organisations faced with no choice but to change. Society has shifted too. Perfectly reasonable pricing models have become unworkable. Theatres must now play a role beyond art and it’s imperative that we find ways to open our arts organisations up – to all sorts of audiences and all sorts of artists. That means new models, new voices and new priorities – all change.
With so many leadership roles newly vacant, theatre has a big chance to change. New leaders, inevitably, bring new approaches – not just to put their stamp on a building, but to examine what works and what doesn’t, what needs to change. One sitting artistic director told me he’d be disappointed if his successor didn’t “trash my legacy”. Art has to evolve.
Turnover at the top has always been one of British theatre’s great strengths. America’s artistic directors, like those at Europe’s publicly funded theatres, stay put for decades. Too often the result is stagnation. Instead of carping from the sidelines, former arts leaders should be giving their successors the support they need. Change might be uncomfortable, but it is necessary – and now more than ever.