This article was written for Arts Professional, Issue 235, 11 April 2011.
How many theatre managers today, despite some being recognised for their great importance, believe their work is imperfectly understood? Yet our role has been established through centuries of theatrical history as the prior condition for the very existence of that history. To know about past theatre managers and their practice can illuminate the present, making us better equipped to make intelligent decisions about difficult issues today.
LUCIUS AMBIVIUS TURPIO
Turpio (c.200-150 BC) was a celebrated manager and festival promoter in ancient Rome, at the time of the playwright Terence. He often gave the prologue to Terence’s comedies, when he pointed out just how uncertain are the fortunes of the stage, that the only certainty is hard work, declaring his function simply: to suit the desires of spectators to the best of his ability and to make it possible for members of his company to “honour the arts of the stage”.
The fundraiser, impresario and finance manager who was a shrewd theatrical investor, at the Rose Theatre (and adjacent brothel), the Fortune and for the Admiral’s Men. Henslowe (c.1550-1616) represents the manager of the future at an early stage of development. His Diary is worthy of our study, including its account books which are easier to understand than some local authority theatre accounts today.
Wilkinson (1739-1803) was manager of the Theatre Royal at York, with circuit theatres at Wakefield, Leeds, Doncaster, Hull and Pontefract. He wrote eight volumes of memoirs, including The Wandering Patentee. These discuss many issues valid for today – such as casting, co-production arrangements, the tension between London and the provinces, and poster distribution. He often complains about the existence of condescending busybodies who pretended to have entire knowledge of what is good and bad in all matters relating to the stage.
Stoker (1847-1912) was personal assistant to Sir Henry Irving and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, the de facto national theatre. He extended their reputation by producing eight tours of the United States and Canada between 1883 and 1904, for 209 weeks, making a profit of £5.8 million (in today’s money).
2011 is the centenary of Liverpool Playhouse as a building-based producing company. This is where Maud Carpenter (1895-1977) reigned for 51 years as general manager – the longest-serving administrator in the world’s second oldest profession. She enabled the artistic directors and the creative teams to entertain and communicate with theatregoers; as a diplomatic spokesperson, she was valorised as the ‘Lady Mayoress of Liverpool’. I have met several Liverpool theatregoers who recall her welcoming presence in the foyer – how many chief executives stand and greet today?