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Lyn Gardner: Sarah Frankcom’s tenure at the Royal Exchange revitalised Manchester’s theatre scene

Sarah Frankcom. Photo: Eliza Power Sarah Frankcom. Photo: Eliza Power
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Sarah Frankcom’s time at the Royal Exchange in Manchester has been a game-changer. Not just for the theatre itself – which had become a bit staid before Frankcom became solo artistic director in 2014 – but also for Manchester’s thriving cultural sector.

Royal Exchange artistic director Sarah Frankcom to leave after 21 years for top LAMDA job

First of all, Frankcom injected rocket fuel into the programming. She also asked questions about who theatre is for and how a venue, even one with as venerable a history as the Royal Exchange, can re-imagine itself for the 21st century and reach an audience that previously didn’t think theatre was for them. Her work helped revitalise Manchester’s theatre scene. When a great rep theatre fires on all cylinders it encourages other work and helps build creative capacity in a city rather than crushing it.

The Exchange has always had a central role to play in Manchester’s theatregoing culture, but Frankcom has also made it feel as if it has a central place in the community. Through a mix of canny programming and casting – building relationships with actors such as Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh – and initiatives such as You, the Audience, the theatre has created an ongoing dialogue with those it serves and reaches out to those it would like to serve.

 Read our interview with Maxine Peake

It has been nothing short of transformative, as demonstrated by Frankcom’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The production was staged with a professional and community cast in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombings and celebrated the extraordinary in ordinary people’s lives. It was an almost unbearably moving watch, and deservedly won her the best director award at the 2018 UK Theatre Awards.

At a time when British theatre leadership is being shaken up with a remarkable shift in artistic directors, Frankcom’s time at the Royal Exchange is proof that leaders from diverse backgrounds – she is a working-class woman who initially came to theatre directing after some years teaching – change the nature of arts organisations, how they operate and what kind of work that they do.

There is no doubt that the main-stage shows at the Exchange have set a benchmark during Frankcom’s reign – from the mesmerising revival of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker to Hamlet, both starring Maxine Peake. But what has been really intriguing is how she has put the audience at the heart of the experience, engaging directly not just by talking to them, but by making participation the beating heart of the theatre.

The Exchange’s thriving participatory work with both its Elders and Younger Company – the latter won The Stage’s School of the Year award last year – has shown how it can invigorate the artistic life of a building and how that building operates. When award-winning theatremaker Mark Storor arrived for a project with young people, he made it clear he wanted to work with the whole building. Under Frankcom, that was not just possible, it was welcomed.

Running a theatre is not just about changing the cultural life of the local area, it is also about changing the culture of the building itself. Arts institutions quickly become institutionalised – as do the people who work in them – wanting to carry on doing what they have always done. Frankcom has constantly questioned why we are here, why we are doing what we are doing and what we should be doing differently. She did it with an utterly self-effacing grace.

Deciding when to leave the organisation you head is an art in itself

Deciding when to leave the organisation you head is an art in itself. Frankcom has spent 20 years in Manchester, arriving at the Exchange as literary manager at the turn of the century before being appointed joint artistic director in 2008 with Braham Murray and Greg Hersov. Leaving after just five years as sole artistic director not only reflects a lack of ego in the willingness to step aside at the right time (which is much needed in British theatre), but also a keen sense of where she might best put her talents to good use.

Becoming director at LAMDA indicates her awareness that just as our arts institutions need to change, so too do those training the next generations. The Dear White Central campaign reflected the urgent need to dismantle the barriers to training to ensure that the most talented students from the most diverse backgrounds get the opportunity to train as actors, directors and technicians and go out into the industry and shape it.

Who we train and how we train them is at the front line when it comes to kicking British theatre out of its rut. I can’t think of anyone better than Frankcom to take on the challenge.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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