THE LITTLE BIG TIME
IN PRAISE OF THE THEATRE, CHIPPING NORTON
This article appeared in The Stage, 24 January 2001
Jubilation! This month, The Theatre, Chipping Norton blows the trumpets for a twenty-five year run, with an exhibition, The Little Big Time, telling the story of this 200-seat theatre created from a Salvation Army citadel. Fittingly, the opening of the exhibition was marked by the investiture of the MBE to Tamara Malcolm, on stage. With husband John, she embarked on the spadework from 1973 and, inspired by this cohesive Cotswold community, has served as the theatre’s director all along.
At a time when subsidised institutional theatres display more abrupt changes of management than ever, the case of this unpretentious, forward-looking theatre is an object lesson in theatre management: the antithesis of disorder, loftiness and personal ambition that infiltrates many theatres, ballet companies and opera houses today.
Continuity has never made for dull programming, at Chipping Norton. From the outset, Tamara Malcolm – a professional actress – created a ‘breakthrough venue’: open year round with six performances a week plus matinees, originating its celebrated storybook pantomimes, stimulating many small-scale touring companies and, periodically, producing serious drama. Next week, for example, its commission to Biyi Bandele to adapt Lorca’s Yerma to northern Nigeria opens, before a national tour.
At this time, as in other trades, long-lived continuous management is rare. Tamara Malcolm’s service is probably exceeded only by Braham Murray at the 69 Theatre and Manchester Royal Exchange (from 1968), Sir Alan Ayckbourn at the Library and Stephen Joseph Theatres, Scarborough (1969), Giles Havergal at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow (1969), Warren Smith at Leeds Grand Theatre (1971) and Vivyan Ellacott at the Kenneth More Theatre, Ilford (1972). Other leaders, such as Ann Pierson at the Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal (1977), David Edwards at Derby Playhouse (1978) and Philip Hedley at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East (1979), are also commanding exceptions to prevailing shorter-service. Like Malcolm, they have had a job, not a career.
These directors and managers’ terms were exceeded by several earlier repertorists, such as Maud Carpenter, manager of the Liverpool Playhouse for 50 years to 1962, Hazel Vincent-Wallace at Leatherhead from 1951 to 1980 - who campaigned for its survival until 1997 - and Peter Cheeseman at Stoke-on- Trent, for 36 years to 1998. Their work, and the goals of the entire regional theatre movement, might be said to have sublimated personal ambition and prestige, in preference to making their theatres operate by collective exertion. Unlike the commercial theatre managers, who were often flamboyant impresarios, they worked soberly, mastering a great many technical skills, the most important of which were social, enabling them to maintain close, informal partnerships with artists and the public, at a local level. This is not to suggest that all these entrepreneurs were martyr-like servants of the public. Theatre-making is hardly altruistic, and is often fuelled by jealousy and ego. Yet, recently, there are renewed eruptions of rampant personal ambition in the subsidised theatre, which a theatre’s board of directors might keep an eye on. These are the potentially unhealthy side effects resulting from ‘Networker Syndrome’, when a theatre’s need for intercourse with the funding system turns the politics of subsidy into the be-all and end-all of a manager’s work. The pioneers would doubtless have frowned on this conduct.
As Tamara Malcolm says: ‘There must be an unimpaired link between the art form and money. One cannot live without the other. Alas, too often today arts administration interrupts the sequence, with a vengeance. The demand of running The Theatre, Chipping Norton is to maintain affinity with the public and artists. I live among the audience and have the advantage of listening to them all the time. When they go they love theatre, but it is harder to make it glamorous today, especially when voguish demands from grant agencies conspire to turn managers’ vigilance away from the heart and soul of what we do. Many of the theatres in trouble are in debt because their managers spend so much time on committees, and the result is that their programmes now reflect the aspirations of the funding system, rather than of the theatregoers and artists.’
How commonsensical she is. Managers should not overweigh as a funding junta, especially because our lingua franca is easy to cast in the same mould as that of the well-intentioned officers who serve the committees. Time spent on the arts councils can derange the affairs of real theatre management. There are surely many independent actors, playwrights, designers, critics, scholars, theatregoers and theatre chairmen who, once again, could have the objective edge in the inescapable zone of arts funding, maybe even challenging it about its use of banal and cliché-ridden management-speak?
For the directors and managers who run the subsidised theatres, far better to contribute any spare time to fortifying the Theatrical Management Association to become the primary champion and knowledge bureau for British theatre practice. Alternatively, make a b-line to Chipping Norton, to the little big time, where the welcome is great and they ‘get it right’.
Paul Iles was Company Secretary of The Chipping Norton Theatre Limited.