In Plymouth, the Theatre Royal has just undergone an impressive refurbishment, culminating in the installation of a 23ft-high statue in front of its main entrance. Called The Messenger, it has been the vision of the theatre’s chief executive Adrian Vinken, who has driven this ambitious project from inception to delivery.
The Messenger is a sculpture of actor Nicola Kavanagh, a member of the internationally acclaimed physical theatre company Frantic Assembly, whose work Theatre Royal Plymouth has produced and championed from its earliest productions. It is one of many companies to have grown up on its stages.
But, does such a statue add to the value of a city and its cultural offering – as some critics have questioned?
Seeing the statue in person it’s hard not to be impressed by its scale, or the feelings of ambition and possibility it represents. Ambition must be at the heart of driving creativity at any theatre and, more widely, town or city.
To achieve this, there has to be a feeling of community ownership. Local people must embrace their town or city’s landmarks – whether statue or building, old or new – as part of a proud cultural identity.
As I stood in the street looking at The Messenger, two teenagers pulled up on their bikes. They were talking on their phones arranging to meet their mates and saying they’d meet them “beside The Messenger”.
It sent my mind back to a couple of years ago when I was standing in front of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, Canada. Outside the theatre, is a statue of its founding artistic director John Hirsch. I remember, similarly, how a teenager talking on their phone had caught my attention by specifically referring to meeting by “the Hirsch statue”. I loved the fact that Hirsch’s name had become a natural part of their conversation.
You may not have heard of Hirsch. His journey to Winnipeg began in Hungary where he was born in 1930. He was orphaned when the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust. Miraculously, he survived having been sent away by his family to hide out in Budapest, but the war left him a homeless teenager. He became part of a group of displaced teenage boys and together they walked to Paris. In Paris, Hirsch put on puppet shows to earn money for food and was later found by a Jewish resettlement programme, which offered him the choice of two places to live: Israel or Canada.
Hirsch chose the Great Plains of Canada, which he felt would be safest and moved there to live with an adopted family. He resumed his studies, excelling in the arts and became a director, co-founding in his adopted home city Theatre 77, which would become the Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Today, it is one of Canada’s leading producing theatres. Hirsch enjoyed a prestigious directing career and ran Canada’s Stratford Festival. When he directed plays such as Mother Courage and Her Children and The Dybbuk, audiences could see in his visceral production’s that he had lived and breathed every word of Brecht and Ansky’s writing. Tragically, in 1989, Hirsch died in New York of an Aids-related illness.
The teenager outside the Manitoba Theatre Centre may not have known the full story of John Hirsch, but he certainly knew his name – maybe one day it might compel in him a curiosity to discover more. And too, a teenager in Plymouth who looks up at The Messenger may wonder who she is – and this future could find them watching a Frantic Assembly production.
The statues of both Hirsch and The Messenger are positioned to look outwards from the theatres. Both make a statement of community outreach and of the fact that theatre is not something that can be internalised – regional theatres can hold a society together, or even help form one.
I am not suggesting that every regional theatre needs an elaborate statue in front of its main entrance, but a landmark such as this can demonstrate the connection between a theatre and its city. Its presence can become a visible and indelible part of the local cultural landscape, serving as a magnet that entices potential audiences, eager to find out more about the building behind the statue.
They underline how – beyond staging work that people will pay to see – regional theatres can successfully put themselves in the forefront of residents’ minds and physically embed themselves in the local community.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan