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Richard Jordan: With a life well-lived in the theatre, James Barber was an inspiration

James Barber. Photo: Bryan Allman James Barber. Photo: Bryan Allman
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James Barber may not be a familiar name to those outside the industry, but he was as great a star as any of those who performed upon his stage at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.

His sudden death a few weeks ago, at just 59-years-old, left a tremendous void at the theatre where he was director for 26 years. His legacy is one of the values and dedication that are the essence to a life well lived in the theatre.

It may be rare to find someone in the next generation of arts leaders who plans to make a career commitment to just one theatre – especially in the regions.

Celebrating 50 years of riverside theatre at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud

Instead, much of the drive and ambition may be to stay for a few years at a regional venue that looks good on the CV, and use it simply as a career stepping-stone.

Barber began his career sweeping the stage of the Yvonne Arnaud (his local theatre) and moved through the ranks to become its director.

Like his record-breaking final Christmas pantomime, Dick Whittington, his career may sound like a rags-to-riches story. But that would do him a tremendous disservice. His talent and commitment ensured the theatre he cared so deeply about remained essential to both the industry and community alike.

He valued his colleagues highly and encouraged them, often sharing sage nuggets of wisdom picked up during his rewarding career. His values are reflected further through the opportunities individuals like him afforded to others.

I believe there are many people working across our industry who grew up in a regional town or city and discovered an interest in the theatre by going to their local playhouse.

They may have come from a family with no theatrical background or any clue how to make a career in the performing arts. Instead, they went to their local theatre and banged down the door.

Growing up in Norwich during the 1980s, the first piece of career advice I was given was in the foyer of Norwich Theatre Royal. Just 11-years-old, I approached its chief executive Dick Condon and told him I wanted to work in the theatre and wondered if there was any advice he could give me.

Today, Condon’s management style may get mocked by some. Nightly, he would be in the foyer on a microphone greeting his audience – often by name – and promoting the following week’s show.

He was accessible and knew his audience well. They saw that he cared passionately about Norwich having a great theatre, and therefore so did they. He made Norwich a vital touring date.

The gratitude of the city was reflected after he died in 1991 where his memorial service at a packed-out Norwich Cathedral saw possibly the only time its organ ever played There’s No Business Like Show Business.
Condon’s reply to the 11-year-old me that night was one of the most important pieces of advice I have ever been given. Mid-flow on his microphone, as the audience poured through the doors, and without missing a beat, he said to me: “Theatres and productions are not run from sitting behind desks.”

In those intervening years, Condon gave me a lot of advice and helped me with some early introductions. Crucially, he was one of the first people who genuinely understood what I wanted to do with my life.

The finest skill of any great arts leader is to have an eye for talent, but close behind is the generosity to want to encourage it.

It’s also a two-way street. The individual needs a burning hunger in wanting to do it, coupled with a deep commitment to working hard. Advice, help or mentorship may open a door but ultimately it’s up to the individual to walk through.

In 2003, I met a new young producer from Newcastle. The head of the city’s Theatre Royal – the late, great Peter Sarah – had recommended he meet a series of producers and I was among them.

That young producer was Michael Harrison who was eighth in this year’s Stage 100. Sarah made the introduction, but after that it was down to Harrison to capitalise on the opportunity afforded to him by his local theatre manager.

Read our interview with Michael Harrison

Barber was of similar stock. I first met him early in my producing career when he took a chance and booked one of my shows for a couple of nights. It subsequently led to various co-productions with the Yvonne Arnaud coupled with a wealth of priceless advice – and I was certainly not alone in this.

Today, someone can hit 25-years-old and say they feel a failure because “they’ve not made it”. This is nonsense.

A life in the theatre should always be a marathon and not a sprint. When you first embark on a theatrical career, there is a honeymoon period where there’s time to enjoy developing your skills. That will hopefully mean that if you subsequently fall off the horse, you’ve will have developed the confidence to get back on and try again.

Throughout our careers there are people who encourage and believe in us. Sometimes you do not realise how important an individual was until many years later, and then it can be too late to say thank you.