1:00 AM 2nd February 2024
By Steve Pratt
It makes sense to ask Paul Crewes exactly what his title as York Theatre Royal’s new Chief Executive means.
After all, times are changing behind the scenes in the theatre world. The role of Artistic Director is an endangered species as theatres adopt new management structures and titles like chief executive to adapt in a post-covid, financially-precarious, inflationary world.
He’s the boss but – and this is something he emphasises several times during our conversation – also part of a team working for the theatre and the community.
“Fundamentally I’m working with the senior management team and staff but ultimately take the responsibility for how we programme the work on stage, how we fulfill all our activities alongside the commitment we have with ACE (Arts Council of England),” he explains.
“So it’s balancing the business of theatre with the artistic and finding a way where both work. Sometimes the art works and the business doesn’t, sometimes the business works and the art doesn’t. You have to try to get that balance right.
“It’s also about consolidating and continuing to build our audience and our reputation as a regional producing theatre. It’s to do with relations we have both within and outside the industry, and ensure that the work we put on our stages becomes recognisably something that York Theatre Royal is proud of.”
Paul arrived in York three months ago with a bulging CV stuffed with an impressive variety of top posts within the theatre and arts industry including executive producer and chief executive officer at Kneehigh, which he helped build into an international touring company, well as a producer and leader at Leeds Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Plymouth Theatre Royal and the Lowry in Salford. He also spent three years as director of technical training at RADA.
He comes to York from Los Angeles where, from 2015 to 2022, he was artistic director of the Wallis Annenberg Centre for Performing Arts. The experience of working in America was “fascinating” but there’s not a great deal from the US experience that he’ll bring to York.
“They don’t have the same level of public funding as we do. What it did teach me is that there’s a different culture of philanthropy over there and maybe that something we’ve got to explore. We do have people who are very supportive of theatre financially in this country which is brilliant but it’s a slightly different world to the American one,” he explains.
“The experience of programming and producing a brand new theatre was useful. All experiences are useful. You have to adapt to the landscape of where you are and to the communities you’re working with. I was programming and producing in Los Angeles, and it would be a very different programme if I was doing it in say Detroit or Washington. You reflect the world around you and the people around you, and work with that community in a different way.”
Paul hadn’t worked in York before taking up his Theatre Royal role in October although he knew of it through his time as a producer at Leeds Playhouse in the early 2000s. He saw it as “an established regional producing theatre” and aims to continue to build on that reputation.
“You are always having to look at the future and reimagine a little bit. Producing theatres in this country are all having to think slightly differently. I’m not sure we’ve got all the answers yet but we are exploring ways of working. Structures have changed, personnel are changing, we’re learning how to survive in a community in cities. Everyone is having that challenge at the moment.”
Looking after the finances may be a key part of his role but not at the expense of the artistic side. A theatre needs an artistic voice but, he asks, does that voice “just come from someone who directs plays”? For him and many other in the country’s theatres the answer is ‘no’. The Theatre Royal has a creative Director – Juliet Forster – and a range of artistic and producing associates who talk and plan the season. “A range of voices are heard, not just the one voice of the director,” he says.
With a background in producing, there’s an emphasis from his point of view on the producing side. Don’t expect major changes at York but “things have moved around a little bit” he says without being specific. His declared intention is to build on what’s been done before. With programming and planning decisions being made being made up to 12 months ahead, his presence won’t be felt in public until the autumn of 2024.
He’s approaching having been 40 years in the business but the scale and scope of his past theatre achievements is all the more remarkable for someone who, as a youngster, never thought of theatre as a career.
His father – a Methodist minister and chaplain at Brixton Prison in the 1960s – was a big influence and support with his interest in theatre and music. Then there was the teacher who helped him become stage manager of a school production that travelled to the Edinburgh Festival. “That was a fantastic experience. I didn’t really know what the job was in those days but I loved it”, he says.
He went on to study English and History at Roehampton Institute, part of London University, where he began producing – this time, staging events as social secretary of the student union. “I enjoyed creating events but never saw theatre as a job. I loved theatre and enjoyed making theatre when I was a student but hadn’t thought of it as a profession,” he recalls.
“It was only after exploring other things – I think I was about 24 – that I thought I was going to test the waters. Even now I sometimes think I should get a proper job. But I was always exploring and seeing theatre – and loved it. Starting to work in theatre made me realise that I was in love with it.”
At 62, Brixton-born Paul could have considered retirement rather than a new job in York. He didn’t. “I’ve still got the energy to take on challenges and be challenged. This job will do that,” he says.
“You work for theatre because you love the work. It’s a way of life. I want to make sure that while I’m here we’re still continuing to produce work of a quality that we’re proud of – a cultural offer to the city that’s as good as can be.”
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