From a member of Haymarket Theatre’s youth theatre to Artistic Director of The Dukes, Lancaster, Sarah Punshon reveals the details of her career so far. 

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Artistic Director, The Dukes, Lancaster (May 2017-present)

Since I moved to Lancaster eight weeks ago, I can’t tell you the number of times that a stranger has said: “The Dukes? Oh, I love The Dukes.”

We’re a producing theatre, but also an art-house cinema, an art gallery, and a creator of innovative site-specific work. We’re celebrating 30 years of our promenade outdoor show, which takes over Williamson Park every summer with an epic family adventure. I know memories of these shows last a lifetime, because people keep telling me about their favourite Park show five, ten, twenty or thirty years ago.

It’s a privilege to be responsible for such a well-loved organisation. One of my first aims is to throw the doors open and invite in fresh voices. This summer, theatre-makers from the North West will take over the building for our ‘Summer Open Space’, and we’ll be welcoming a new Associate Producer as part of a partnership with Tamasha Theatre Company, who’ll focus on developing our work with Black, Asian and minority ethnic artists and audiences.

I want us to nurture talent and build on our incredible tradition of breaking down barriers to artistic involvement. Our D/deaf drama group and our group for people with experience of homelessness, for example, both recently toured their new shows. We’re a sector leader in creating dementia-friendly cinema screenings and participatory arts. Young people flood into the youth theatres every week, and our staff head out every day to create inspiring projects with groups across the district, including via an award-winning partnership with Lancaster University aimed at widening participation to higher education.

Artistic Director, One Tenth Human Ltd (2015-17)

After more than ten years’ freelancing I set up my own company. The idea was to commit to the new way of working I’d created via my Clore Fellowship: creating innovative research-inspired theatre and live events, collaborating with scientists, artists and participants to playfully investigate important ideas. One Tenth Human gave this strand of my work a name and an identity.

Our debut project was 'We’re Stuck!’, an interactive adventure featuring maths puzzles and killer robots, developed with experts in the neuroscience of learning. We also created a night of gender-bending performance and science at the Wellcome Collection, a choral epic at Somerset House and another show for families, ‘The Astonishing Vacuum Cleaner Adventure’.

Clore Leadership Fellow / Performing Arts Curator, Natural History Museum (2010-13)

After my Clore secondment at the Natural History Museum, they invited me to spend a year curating a pilot programme of live events for families. It was a wonderful opportunity to shape a programme and be responsible for a significant budget. I learned a lot, fast!

We created nearly 30 artistic commissions in collaboration with museum scientists, reaching more than 22,000 visitors. It was an introduction to art forms and artists I’d never worked with before: games designers, quirky blindfold walking tours, interactive experiences in tents. It expanded my understanding of what theatre-making could be, and equipped me to create quirkier projects of my own after I left.

Freelance theatre and television director (2005-17)

Having gone to university thinking I wanted to be an archaeologist, I discovered via student drama that a live audience was more fun than dry relics. After training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and then on the Regional Theatres Young Directors Scheme at West Yorkshire Playhouse, I directed across the country for theatres including Salisbury Playhouse, Watermill Theatre and the New Vic.

I also trained as a TV director with the BBC – directing my first episode of EastEnders at 26, and directing more than 30 hours of popular drama over the years since then. There’s nothing more exciting than sharing a good story.

Youth Theatre Member, Haymarket Theatre, Leicester (1993-95)

I wouldn’t have had any of these jobs if it wasn’t for the Haymarket Youth Theatre, run at the time by Ashley Christmas and Andy Burden. My two years there were life-changing.

I went to a comprehensive school and to university on a partial grant as my Mum was on benefits. I never seriously considered theatre as a career until I joined the youth theatre – people from my family did proper jobs. But Ashley and Andy stoked my passion for theatre, and I was incredibly lucky to be at Cambridge University, to be white, straight, and able-bodied.

There are so many potential artistic directors out there who didn’t get all the breaks I got. I know that here at The Dukes we can create opportunities for people facing far more serious barriers than I ever did. It’s thrilling to be handed this vital resource, and to get to look after it for a while.

Sarah Punshon is Artistic Director of The Dukes Lancaster.

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Photo of Sarah Punshon