Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Ken Alexander - From Byre to Court


Ken Alexander is used to turning theatres on their head. When the newly 
appointed – and first ever – artistic director of the Royal Court 
theatre in Liverpool was in charge of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, 
he initiated touring and outreach programmes while at the same time 
overseeing the in-house company’s move from its old premises to its new 
lottery-funded state of the art home. Once in the new building, 
Alexander increased production from five shows a year to eight, a 
remarkable feat that paid dividends in both attendance and quality.
When Alexander took over Perth Theatre, where his career had begun as a 
trainee director under theatrical legends Joan Knight and Clive Perry, 
during his year-long tenure he re-established the venue as a producing 
house and increased audiences.

Given the tragic closure of the Byre two weeks ago following the 
company’s insolvency several years after its Scottish Arts Council 
funding cut caused its production arm to be scrapped outside of 
pantomime season, and  someone with Alexander’s commercial and artistic 
savvy is much needed. In that absence, however, given his central role 
in the Byre’s former glory, Alexander is both mournful and angry.

“I feel pretty angry about the staff who’ve been with the company since 
before the new theatre was built being laid off the way they have,” he 
says. “But I think once the SAC removed core funding from the Byre, that 
this was inevitable. The Byre was designed to be a producing theatre, 
so after core funding was removed it was a no-brainer that something 
was going to go horribly wrong.”

Alexander is speaking just days before a summit meeting between Fife 
Council, Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government was held to try 
and save the Byre. Whatever happens next, all parties might do well to 
listen to Alexander’s experience.

“When I was at the Byre, we really had to fight hard to get the funding 
that we did, and to convince the SAC that Fife was a place deserving of 
producing work in its own right,” he says. “The SAC never regarded St 
Andrews as strategically important, but to think that St Andrews can be 
serviced by theatres in Dundee and Edinburgh is a big mistake and a 
serious misjudgement. I’d really like the Byre to go back to being a 
producing house, but you need the will of a strong management to 
achieve that.”

It is Liverpool, however, where Alexander’s energies will be channeled 
over the next few years, in a building which seems tailor-made for his 
talents. For the last thirty years, the Royal Court was a music venue 
before returning to its theatrical roots several years ago by way of a 
series of commercial comedies served up in a Scouse demotic. Alexander 
has already directed several shows there, including A Nightmare on Lime 
Street and Dirty Dusting, and has plans for more ambitious fare.

“It’s a job that’s going to have its challenges,” Alexander admits. 
“The Royal Court as a production company has only existed for six or 
seven years, and so far its been done on a commercial basis, with shows 
being paid for by the last thing that was done. Part of my remit is to 
develop and expand the programme, and we’re at the first stage of a 
four stage development. A lot of the plays that go on are by writers in 
the Liverpool area. There’s a really strong sense that the theatre is 
tapping into working class Liverpool voices, and I’m really interesting 
in developing that, and finding new Liverpool talent.

“I’m also interested in taking some of the shows out on tour. Most of 
the number one venues say they can’t find enough drama to puyt on, so 
I’ll be looking to making links with various consortiums to try and 
work out how we can do that.”

The Royal Court seats 1200, with cabaret style tables filling the 
stalls where audiences can have a meal before the show. This speak-easy 
vibe fits in perfectly with Liverpool’s strong theatrical history, both 
with the Everyman, currently being rebuilt, and the 700-seat Liverpool 
Playhouse. There is also the 2000 seat Liverpool Empire a stone’s throw 
from the Royal Court.

“A lot of the top quality touring work that does exist tends to bypass 
Liverpool and goes to Manchester,” Alexander observes, “so we’ll also 
be looking at bringing some of that in, and looking at some kind of 
possible relationship between the Royal Court and the Empire. It’s 
important that what we do compliments what’s already there rather than 
goes up against it, and I’d like to see us share work and resources 
with the other theatres here.”

With plans to expand the theatre’s community and outreach work, 
Alexander’s ambitious plans following his appointment comes at a 
particularly fecund time for Scottish and Scotland-based directors 
spreading their artistic wings. Former Dundee Rep director James 
Brining is already in post heading up West Yorkshire Playhouse in 
Leeds, while outgoing National Theatre of Scotland head Vicky 
Featherstone is about to take charge of the more familiar Royal Court 
in London.  Only last week, Lorne Campbell, previously associate 
director at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, was announced as the new 
artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, a city with its own 
set of funding problems since the local authority scrapped it by 100 
per cent.

While this is clear vindication for directing talent sired and nurtured 
in Scotland, Alexander also points to other reasons for this trend.

“There’s not as much going on in buildings in terms of producing in 
Scotland anymore,” he says. “That’s partly why I wanted to spread my 
wings. I certainly learnt a lot in Scottish theatres, and was lucky to 
work in such well-equipped theatres, but I don’t think there are as 
many opportunities for directors to develop their craft in the way that 
I did.”

Alexander will spend his first full year at the Royal Court 
“fact-finding”, as he survey’s Liverpool’s theatrical landscape, and he 
is unlikely to direct a show until this coming autumn at the earliest. 
The theatre will nevertheless continue in a light-hearted vein, a la 
Nightmare on Lime Street. Already lined up is another Christmas show 
with a similarly local flavour, a science-fiction spoof revelling in 
the name of Hitch-hikers Guide to Fazakerley, the latter word being a 
northern suburb of the city. Bearing in mind that it was Liverpool 
which pretty much invented the rock and musical by way of the very 
first production of Return to the Forbidden Planet at the Everyman in 
the mid-1980s, and such a focus on unashamed populism isn’t surprising.

“I would like to see the Royal Court in a position where we can plan 
seasons with at least a couple of shows going out on tour,” he says. “I 
would also like to see the likes of the National Theatre, the RSC and 
the National Theatre of Scotland touring here. I want the theatre to be 
running at least fifty weeks of the year. It has to be aspirational.”
www.royalcourtliverpool.co.uk

The Herald, January 12th 2013

ends

No comments: