Derby Theatre: an amazing space
Theatre in Derby is changing. The city’s former Playhouse is not only preparing to stage its own plays alongside touring productions – a new atmosphere is beginning to take hold at Derby Theatre.
If you have visited the building in the past couple of months you might have been accosted by Sarah Brigham, the first artistic director to be appointed by the theatre since the University of Derby took complete control of the venue.
It was part of her strategy which also involved striking up a conversation with people in the Westfield shopping centre to discover what people want from the theatre.
She comes over as confident, friendly and knowledgeable – qualities that have led to her being acknowledged as an up-and-coming talent in British theatre.
“Derby is a beautiful city in a beautiful part of the world” – Sarah Brigham
She comes to Derby from The Point and the Berry Theatre at Eastleigh, Hampshire where she produced innovative productions which toured internationally. Before that she was associate director at Dundee Rep for four years.
She says she was excited by Derby Theatre’s unique position of staging its own productions as well as bringing on the next generation of artists through its university courses.
On top of that “Derby is a beautiful city in a beautiful part of the world.”
While many theatres around the country are struggling for finance because of local authority cuts, Sarah wants to explore the relationship that the theatre and the university have with the city.
“Lots of theatres say they’ve got learning at their heart and I’m really interested in how you offer something that’s different as well. We’re in a unique position in that we’ve got a very strong relationship with the university and I’m really interested in interrogating what that means not only for the students but also for our audience.”
One of her innovations is to train the theatre’s ushers to become “talking programmes”.
“Whenever we’ve got a produced show, they’ll come into our rehearsal room and they’ll meet the designer and the creative team. Actually they’re the people who are our audience.
“I’m here most nights but I’m not here every night and I can’t talk to everyone whereas our ushers genuinely engage with our audience on a nightly basis.
“I want them to be in a situation where they can approach audience members and say ‘is there something you want to know about the show? If I don’t know I can write the question down and I can find out from the artistic director and she’ll reply within so many days’. It’s an interesting concept for us.”
Everything seems so different from the dark days that befell the building not so many years ago.
The former Derby Playhouse Ltd went into administration in 2008 and the venue closed. The following year the University of Derby bought the lease and reopened it with the help of Derby LIVE, the city council’s entertainments division.
After three years the university decided not to renew its agreement with Derby LIVE and applied to the Arts Council for the same amount of funding that had been enjoyed in previous years. But the Arts Council said no. One of the reasons was that the university did not have its own artistic director.
Eventually the Arts Council awarded Derby Theatre £923,000 over three years – less than half the amount that it used to grant Derby Playhouse. On top of that the university is giving the theatre £500,000 a year.
Recently Arts Council regional director Peter Knott said the organisation was impressed with Sarah Brigham and the theatre’s work with the University. Sarah’s vision and philosophy are largely responsible.
“Long gone are the days when someone pays £25, sits in their theatre seat on a Saturday night, goes home and that’s all they know.
“When you see a film now you can watch how the director made it, you can watch what the casting process was like, and Derby Theatre needs to get with the programme a little bit. We can offer that whole plethora of understanding to our audiences as well.”
Sarah feels that in some ways Derby Theatre is similar to The Point at Eastleigh which is the only venue in the UK to have rehearsal studios with living accommodation, allowing it to work with artists of international recognition.
“Derby Theatre has an amazing space – I think this stage is really beautiful and unique. We’ve got the same ability to attract artists of international standing and bring them here.”
Excitement is building now as people anticipate the productions Sarah Brigham will bring to the city.
The first in-house production will be Cooking With Elvis, a comedy written by Lee Hall, best known for penning the script for the film Billy Elliot.
That will be followed by a classic: a new version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, in a co-production with critically acclaimed theatre company Headlong.
Speaking about Cooking With Elvis, Sarah says: “In the summer, audiences want a bright comedy that’s going to be a lot of fun but that’s also going to have real artistic integrity.
“I think this show has that. It’s very funny but it’s also very moving. It ticks the box of being modern, contemporary but also accessible, funny and it’s a great piece of theatre.”
Four years ago Sarah was presented with the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain award for encouraging new writing. She would like to produce new work in Derby although she admits she has to put on what the audience wants.
“I’d like to look at how we can commission new work and ultimately I can do whatever I want. But if there are only two men and a dog in the audience, what’s the point?
“I do think there’s an appetite for new work as much as there is for the classics, so hopefully we can do a bit of both.”
“I’d like us to have a really diverse audience, a really different audience, and a full audience of course.”
Some people may think that Derby Theatre is merely a stop-off for Sarah Brigham on her way to running one of the top venues in the country. But she clearly knows how she would like people to regard the building in a few years’ time.
“I would like to be able to go out into the streets and every single person I stop be able to direct me to where Derby Theatre is, and know that it’s called Derby Theatre and not Derby Playhouse.
“I’d like us to have a really diverse audience, a really different audience, and a full audience of course.
“I’d like our youth theatre to be seen as a training ground for the next generation of artists.
“Some people don’t want to come to the theatre and that’s okay but I’d like those people to see the good that it does for the community.
“I’d like to see some international profile and recognition in terms of the artists that we bring here. Generally, I’d like Derby Theatre to be thriving and successful.”
Dedicated theatregoers may remember with affection artistic directors such as Mark Clements, now resident in the United States, and Christopher Honer for their work on the Derby stage. In years to come Sarah Brigham’s name may evoke similar sentiments.
* This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of Country Images magazine