As she leaves York Theatre Royal, Liz Wilson reflects on a career in theatre that has taken her around the country.
Chief Executive, York Theatre Royal (2009-17)
York Theatre Royal has given me just under eight years of the richest rewards and severest challenges in my career to date.
When you work in a theatre that has been operating since 1744, you don’t just respect the enduring power of storytelling but also the citizens who keep coming back for more. On the flip side, you find yourself searching for ever more ingenious ways of ‘feeding the beast’. Our local authority has all but stopped its revenue funding of culture, so when you have ambitions to do more with less you do have to keep reminding yourself that less can be more.
There have been some very high highs: York Mystery Plays 2012 in a 1,400 seat ‘pop-up’ venue with over 1,500 citizens of York involved in epic theatre-making, The Railway Children steaming into York, London and Toronto, handing over the running of the theatre to inspiring young people each year through the Takeover Festival, and investing £6m in the fabric of a theatre that has been providing a good night out for several centuries.
Working in the arts for this long means you are hardwired to dream first and sort out the details later. It is too easy to plan yourself out of doing anything with ambition and that’s not our business.
Executive Director, Oldham Coliseum Theatre (2003-09)
What can I say about this exceptional theatre? If the ‘marketing men’ ran the stats on Oldham being a viable place to run a producing theatre it wouldn’t exist. Which is why you need to run a theatre with your heart as well as your head.
This great theatre will always have a bit of my heart. It creates unfussy, well-made theatre for audiences who will give it a go, won’t shy away from telling you what they think but don’t hold grudges and are prepared to come back for more. We were the classic theatre family – we had our dysfunctional moments but we always had each other’s back and nobody was too grand to get stuck in to anything when needed.
What did Oldham teach me? Enjoy the audience. You need to lean in and listen when they are your greatest advocates and your greatest critics. They are why you are there and do what you do. There was no question of getting above yourself in Oldham. In fact, there is no call for it anywhere but my years working here just reinforced that.
Officer, Arts Council East and Executive Director, Living East (1997-2003)
These were my institutional years. Maddening because I have a natural inclination to fight the system, but fascinating because I was in the privileged position of working in the arts without having to chase the bottom line.
Arts Council Officers were not artform specific but covered a local authority area. Mine was Cambridge, which offered rich pickings in terms of arts organisations and artists. I had a strategic audience development brief, which was interesting, but I learnt much more from the people who were running world-class orchestras, art galleries and artists’ studios. In those days there was respect between the Arts Council and artists and arts organisations. Support, enable and challenge was how we saw our role.
I followed the Arts Council with a brief time running one of the short-lived Cultural Consortiums set up by the DCMS. Never heard of them? They looked good on paper – bring together the DCMS portfolio regionally to lobby for its importance – and in some regions they did have an impact. I found the thing too slippery to be able to measure whether I was making any difference, and I was hungry to get my hands dirty again.
Head of Marketing, Derby Playhouse (1994-97)
Derby Playhouse was the poor cousin – funding-wise – to its regional neighbours, Nottingham and Leicester. I liked the position of underdog, it made us fight harder and achieve more.
But it had its frustrations: an ambitious programme and large audiences were not enough to get the attention of the national press, who rarely reassess the perceptions that they have or why they have them. It meant that we concentrated on the reason we were making theatre, and that was the citizens of Derby.
I learnt loads from one of the nicest men in regional theatre, David Edwards. It was my first real initiation into the great regional theatre juggling act: never stop giving everything your attention – or you risk dropping one of those balls.
Marketing Officer, Eastern Angles Theatre Company (1990-94)
When people ask me my advice about the best way to start in this business, I always suggest working in a small organisation where you are in touch with everything that goes into making and presenting theatre.
What was great about Eastern Angles? New writing without fuss or pretension, respect for its audience – real audience development before anyone coined the term – and great production values. It was my foundation, alongside John McGrath’s ‘A Good Night Out’. If you haven’t read it, can I suggest that you find a copy.
Liz Wilson was Chief Executive of York Theatre Royal until July 2017. She will be working as a freelancer for a while as she considers what she does next.