How did Robert Sanderson turn an overspending council-run facility into a theatre and concert hall thriving without subsidy? Erik Peterson tells the story.

Image of Nottingham's Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall

When Robert Sanderson arrived at Nottingham's Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall in January 2009, the future looked bleak. The Nottingham City Council-owned and operated Victorian theatre and adjacent modern concert hall were in some difficulty. The range and quality of shows in both venues were patchy and, even more troubling for the council, the places were costing them a lot of money. When he first arrived Robert met a top council member who said: “Oh, you're the place that always overspends by £300,000 a year.” That did not bode well.

Not that Robert needed to worry too much. After a career spent in theatre management, ranging from marketing an 80-seat arts centre to programming the country’s sixth largest arena, he had set up Arts Portfolio and gone into arts management consultancy. When he arrived in Nottingham, it was only to be interim managing director and then only for a few days a week for a few months. “I had sworn never to run another venue,” he remembers.

There's a Polish saying that means “Not my problem” and translates as “Not my circus, not my monkeys”. Robert wanted to help the theatre and concert hall if he could, but they were neither his circus nor his monkeys.

Two buildings like this cannot just be a profit-and-loss account and a balance sheet, they have to have a beating heart

But five years later, he is still there, and as the name on the door of the corner office indicates, there is nothing temporary about his position now. He still hears from city council leaders, but now they like to bring in representatives from other councils to hear about how you can turn a loss-making venue owned by a local authority into a thriving organisation that makes a surplus. They want to hear about how a theatre and a concert hall can thrive without subsidy.

In five years the theatre and concert hall have gone from something that, as that council member indicated, cost well over £600,000 a year to something that generates an annual trading surplus of upwards of £400,000 a year. It is a rare night when both venues are dark, and there is an emphasis on quality productions. And the venues employ more people now than when Robert took over. He had figured out how to feed the monkeys and turn around the circus.

A natural raconteur, Robert makes the explanation of how he did it sound deceptively simple. “Shows come in the back door and you put them on stage, as best you can,” while “audiences come in the front door and you look after them, as best you can.” Oh, and one more thing: “Marketing, as best you can.” Always marketing. “Running a venue is at the end of the day a marketing operation − you are presenting your product to the public. We became a marketing-driven and marketing-focussed organisation and we also aim to do everything we present as best we can.”

Early on in his tenure, Robert told his marketing manager he would never book a show without asking him first. This was new for the marketing man, who had previously known what he would be marketing when he was handed the next season’s programme. That was hardly the only change Robert made when he first came in. First, there were a handful of redundancies and a lot of restructuring. “Some of the old guard left,” he said. “That's when Jonathan and Kate moved up.” Jonathan is Jonathan Saville, now Director of Sales, Marketing and Development, and Kate is Kate Collins, now Operations Director.

When Robert arrived he found talented people like them languishing in need of promotion and direction. There was little in the way of management structure; jobs and responsibilities were divvied up in an ad hoc way. He created a new ‘family tree’, with new job descriptions and more delegated responsibilities, with the intention of then stepping back and letting his talented staff get on with the job. “My aim was to point them in the right direction, give them the right support, and put to use the best of what I’d learnt over the years as a theatre manager and as a consultant.”

Then there were the buildings and their marketing profile. Robert saw what they stood for in the community, and he didn't like it. Of the two buildings, the concert hall had the bigger problem. When it opened in the early 1980s with a sold-out Elton John show, it was the UK's first state-of-the-art modern regional concert hall. But in the intervening years it had lost its way. Symphony Hall and Bridgewater Hall were built, and the notion of such a place outside London stopped seeming so remarkable. Robert reckons it was not helped by the fact that his predecessors were a series of theatre men – concert halls were not really their thing. By the time he came in, it was little more than a hall for hire.

The theatre was on firmer footing, but it was still hard to tell exactly what it stood for. Robert started by setting a quality threshold and getting rid of some bookings. It was also time to rebrand the place. A marker was put down in 2010, when they brought in a production of Hedda Gabler. It starred Rosamund Pike, so it did not seem entirely impossible to market. But still, if you are a theatre executive looking for something low-risk and bankable, the Nordic show you want is Sing-a-long-a Abba, not Ibsen. “I was nervous,” Robert said. “I thought no, I really don't think I can.” Jonathan urged him to do it. It wasn't a massively profitable show, but it did well. And more importantly for Robert and the team it helped define what the Theatre Royal would now be about. It put down a marker for quality.

Looking back over the last five years, he cites Hedda Gabler as one of three cultural highlights at the theatre. The other two are a Cheek by Jowl Russian-language production of Three Sisters for the 2011 Neat11 Festival‎, and a 2012 production of Long Day's Journey Into Night starring David Suchet. Matthew Bourne productions are also regular visitors, as are Opera North, Northern Ballet Theatre, National Theatre, RSC and Propeller.

In the Royal Concert Hall, the 14 concert classical season draws an average attendance of 1,800 and runs in the black. Read that again, slowly. A 14-concert classical music season in a mid-sized regional city that draws an average audience of nearly 2,000 and makes a modest surplus. The most obvious question is how? “It's having someone who’s running it who's enthusiastic,” Robert said, referring to Neil Bennison, the venue’s ebullient music programme manager who programmes the classical season. “You give him your 100% backing and you tell him it's not the end of the world when you have no subsidy.” Oh, and you tell him it's okay to negotiate sharper deals with symphony orchestras, even if they are not always used to working that way.

It's not all high culture in Nottingham – this year's panto was helped to record-breaking heights by the presence of David Hasselhoff. But skim the schedule and you will find a large chunk of the year's programme is made up of works with cultural merit.

Part of this is a straightforward business decision – the VAT exemption on cultural services means the venue takes home a bigger cut for every ticket sold for the Hallé than for David Hasselhoff. But part of it is marketing and profile. Part of it is taking a risk to create the sort of venues Robert wants to create – both on the stage, and in the end-of-year figures.

“My job is to put my head on the block,” he said, “to be right more often than wrong. But you have to define what you mean by wrong.” Robert believes the Theatre Royal has become a successful theatre in part because it puts on works such as The Three Sisters. But The Three Sisters lost money. Those shows – as well as the venues' robust education and community programmes which range from the Beanbag Music Club for the under-sevens to a range of activities for the Over 55s – can lose money. And that's okay. “They are helping to define what we stand for internally and outside,” Robert said. “Two buildings like this cannot just be a profit-and-loss account and a balance sheet, they have to have a beating heart.”

Although, funny thing: Robert’s beating-heart buildings also look pretty good on the balance sheet. The proof that all this works is in the current and future plans. While other theatres and concert halls are trying to figure out how to stop losing money, the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall are ploughing money back into improvements. Two new lifts for the concert hall, which has always had one original (and often breaking) lift and one empty shaft. A lift for the Theatre Royal which has never had one. (Robert, who has mobility issues, has never seen the balcony.) New toilet facilities throughout. 2,400 new seats for the Royal Concert Hall. “All of the work that's been done over the last few years has been paid for out of our own trading surpluses.”

Beyond that, Robert is thinking even bigger. The city centre has changed in the more than three decades since the Royal Centre opened. The largely closed-off end of the concert hall that once faced grey office space now faces a lively pedestrianised area with a large, modern, dining-and-cinema complex. Robert envisions a welcoming, remodelled side of the concert hall with outdoor performance and cafe space, rehearsal spaces, new meeting rooms, roof gardens, and more. That's not the sort of thing you can do solely with surpluses – if the concert hall is successful with a £1.5m Arts Council England Capital bid, then Nottingham City Council has agreed to match fund that 50/50.

It's not the sort of deal the council would have entertained five years ago. But the grand old theatre and gleaming modern concert hall are no longer viewed in council offices as a basket case. They are a success story – and proof that with the right plan and a committed vision, you can succeed and thrive without subsidy.

Erik Petersen is a freelance journalist based in Nottingham.

Robert Sanderson is Managing Director of Nottigham's Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall.

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Image of Robert Sanderson