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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Stephanie Sirr on The Golden Years of Nottingham Playhouse

16 August 13 interview: Rachel Elderkin
photos: Ralph Barklam

The Nottingham Playhouse celebrates fifty years at Wellington Circus this September. We spoke to Chief Executive Stephanie Sirr about the venue,  their history and their plans to celebrate...

When did you become Chief Executive of The Playhouse?

Since November 2001, so nearly twelve years now – it’s gone very quickly. Previously I had the same role at Blackpool Grand Theatre and an arts centre in Somerset. I’ve worked in theatres since I was about 23.

What’s the working relationship like between you and Giles Croft, the Artistic Director?
There’s a necessary tension there, but that is quite healthy. There are things we would like to do artistically that we can’t justify doing financially and that conflict will always be and has always been there. But the two roles work well together. I have a strong artistic background, so I have empathy for Giles’ role. We have to be pragmatic about a theatre this size; we can’t put on anything that only a few people want to see, however brilliant it may be. I think it’s good to have two separate roles; some places use the same person, which must be a nightmare.

Who are the unsung heroes behind the scenes?
Everyone, it’s the most fantastic team here really. There’s around 120 people who work here in total, including ushers and box office staff. I think the unsung bit would be those backstage, those who create the props and scenery – you see their work but you never see them. At the moment, in a room full of gluey fumes, someone is making something brilliant for our panto…

The first theatre company at The Playhouse turned out to be an all-star cast with Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Michael Crawford and more. It’s amazing to see what they’ve all gone onto. Do you think The Playhouse nurtured their talent or did they just manage to recruit an amazingly talented bunch?
I think it’s both. Talent is a strange one, isn’t it? If you’re not talented to begin with, no amount of experience will make you into a great actor. I think what we’ve always had here is an ability to spot talent. John Neville was Artistic Director in 1963 and was a big name. When he came here it was a big statement and he was able to bring some great talent with him.

Since those days many other famous names have trodden the Playhouse boards. Have you got any good gossip about them?
Hugh Grant was here in 1983 and afterwards he based a character he plays in An Awfully Big Adventure on Richard Digby Day, our former Art Director. He plays a very flamboyant and camp theatre director - they didn’t get on well. I wouldn’t say it was very like Richard, but it was meant to be an impersonation of him. Then there’s the great punch-up. On the opening night of The Playhouse there was a big reception down at the Council house for us. The staff from The Playhouse turned up and thought the dignitaries had eaten all the food and left nothing for the actors, so John Neville punched one of the Councillors. It turned out that the food was in a separate room. We’re thinking of recreating it for our fiftieth anniversary in September.

In 1971 the Playhouse was described in The Sunday Times as the “theatrical capital of England”. Do you feel it still has clout nationally?
It comes and goes; different regional theatres come in and out of fashion. But I do think Nottingham is really punching above its weight culturally. I wouldn’t necessarily say Nottingham Playhouse is the ultimate regional theatre, but I think we are one of the few doing pretty remarkable things in extremely testing circumstances.

Are we going to get a repeat of the 2011 NEAT festival?
We hope so, we hope to do it next May – the only thing standing in our way is about £150,000… are there any rich benefactors reading? We’re hoping to get funding from the Arts Council and City Council as we did last time. But it was a different world financially in 2011 and we put a lot of our own money into it then, which we can’t do now. We’re starting to put together a brilliant programme, but there are so many people and venues involved it takes a lot of planning to get us all together. We’re going to need to fundraise, but it’s going to happen somehow. Thereafter we hope to do it every two years, on the opposite years to NottDance.

There seems to have been a sustained effort over the years at The Playhouse to plug local plays and writers. Do other theatres in other cities do that, or are we lucky to have such an initiative here?
I don’t think they do. It helps that we have a lot of talent in Nottingham; it would be different if we didn’t have any decent playwrights. There are some excellent creative people in the city so we are able to showcase them without compromising on quality. You can only do it in a city where you’ve got such a passionate commitment to culture.

Aside from many great actors, you’ve had some brilliant directors and writers here too. Harold Pinter sticks out for us, but are there any others you’d mention?
It was great to work with William Ivory, writer of Diary of a Football Nobody, and also Steven Berkoff, he’s produced some of his best work for us. We worked with Adrian Noble on Summer and Smoke, which Rosamund Pike was in, and that was fantastic. There’s an awful lot of up-and-coming directors too – we’ve just appointed our new Associate Director, Fiona Buffini. She’s done some amazing work so we’re looking forward to her producing some work for us here.

Kenneth Alan-Taylor’s panto is always a highlight in the season. It’s been running for nearly thirty years now. What will you do after he retires this year?
He’s only retiring as dame, he’ll still be directing I’m sure. He’s hanging his frock up this year but there will still be Kenneth Alan-Taylor pantos. Kenneth is the ultimate dame, but there are other very good ones waiting in the wings. John Alkington and Jeff Longmore are both brilliant too.

So you’ve got the big anniversary season coming up. There are two plays we thought you might particularly want to talk about. Firstly Richard III...
It’s just the most wonderful play. The Richard III Society are very angry at Shakespeare as it’s such a negative portrayal, but in terms of Richard’s role in history and The War Of The Roses, it’s a very important piece of work. It’s a long time since we’ve done that kind of Shakespeare.

Secondly there’s Charlie Peace by local playwright Michael Eaton...
He’s this anti-hero folkloric character, but a real man. We are obsessed with crime and Charlie Peace was the first celebrity villain and a major disguise artist – he knew how to play the system. They had photography but he could completely change the way he looked in a photo. He was a really clever man who used his cleverness for evil, a bit like Richard III. There’s a kind of anti-hero theme to the season, with these complex characters who skirt between good and evil.

In 1995 the Sky Mirror became part of the Nottingham landscape. What are your thoughts on Anish Kapoor’s seminal piece?
It’s amazing. I love that it’s always different; the way that it reflects the different climates, the darkness or lightness of the sky, it’s just beautiful day or night. The great thing is that it’s a symbol of confidence and Anish Kapoor doesn’t create work for just anyone. Loads of people come to see it, particularly in summer.

Is it true that it cost a million pounds?
The whole project cost £1.2 million. It was the infrastructure you had to put in place; the artist’s fee was considerably less. Anish Kapoor was just emerging at the time, so that was a good call. There’s no way we could afford him now.

What about that myth that pigeons get fried by the suns rays hitting the mirror? Can you lay that to rest?
The pigeon myth! I can’t claim any credit for that, it was a bit of a PR spin but it worked. It got the Sky Mirror and Nottingham Playhouse all over the world but it was complete nonsense. No pigeons have been fried in the making of this artwork.

For more information about The Nottingham Playhouse’s birthday season visit their website.

Nottingham Playhouse website

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