Daniel Buckroyd: “The Covid situation contains the opportunity and necessity for a reset”
Lucy Aylmer interviews Artistic Director of Exeter Northcott Theatre, Daniel Buckroyd, about the rise of virtual theatre, furloughing and diversifying the theatre
What attracted you to the Northcott Theatre?
I’ve always had a soft spot for it as it was my first experience in theatre many, many years ago. It had a tough time 10 years ago and nearly went into administration. Huge support from the people of Exeter and the University meant it was saved and has been rebuilding ever since. Pre-covid, it felt like all the fundamentals were right for there to be a cultural resurgence in Exeter. Partly due to an alignment of various interests within the city; from the City Council increasing funding to the arts, the university playing a role in the civic life of the city and Exeter attracting the UNESCO status. Solid rebuilding of our audience base made me realise there was still lots to do and an interesting job to get my teeth into. The Covid situation contains the necessity and opportunity for a reset. It‘s both terrifying and exciting.
Do you think think the pandemic will bring far worse suffering to the Northcott Theatre (and other similar, localised small scale theatre productions) than the 2008 financial crash?
Our sector is built around the idea of gathering and people coming together. There is no shadow of a doubt that the damage will be significantly worse than the 2008 financial crash. Theatres around the country have started to go into administration, there is increasing talk of significant levels of redundancies. It‘s going to be a pretty bloody period. The question is the rebuild strategy. The hope is that the central government might recognise that the sector is in dire straits. The Secretary of State for Culture (Oliver Dowden) has raised the need for an arts package, but he needs to get going fairly quickly.
Is the furlough extension adequate for the arts? Should it be longer?
Crucially it‘s about capacity levels. Whilst we can open our doors, it won’t be at pre-pandemic capacity levels, probably more like 25% capacity. Hopefully by Christmas we can resume normal capacity levels. This is due to social distancing measures, and further along, how quickly audience confidence will recover. The Chancellor stated that in its current form, furloughing will terminate in October, so there is a possibility that there may be a phase three of the furlough scheme that is industry specific. I reckon funding through The Arts Council may be another possibility.
Operating at 25% capacity is so insignificant to pre-pandemic capacity levels, would you be even be able to breakeven, perhaps even make a loss? Is it worth it?
It‘s not worth trying to do what we usually do. We’d be haemorrhaging money and be out of business within months. The two sensible options are hibernate and ride this out, or radically rethink what we do and come up with a business model that can function within those constraints.
Theres been a lot of discussion about the rise of virtual theatre, I notice on your website you’ve been actively posting dialogues such as The Roses of Eyam. Are these videos and clips available to everyone, or just members?
Anyone is able to access them. We are doing a range of content and digital opportunities to stay in contact with our audiences, support local artists and experiment with new ways of working. I think they’ll have a lasting impact on how we work in the future. Although it’s important to note that they absolutely don’t fill the hole in the business left by the fact that we are closed. From a financial perspective, they are not sustainable. For example, The National Theatre has been offering free digital services for the past decade and the average donation is only 5p.
During the pandemic, how has the University of Exeter contributed to Northcott Theatre?
The university is one of our three key strategic partners alongside The Arts Council and the City Council. Between the three of them they fund the theatre and promote its success. The university has bolstered our funding with the council and continue to be staunch supporters. We have a number of university staff on our board and a few student trustees every year who get involved in the running of the theatre.
Sam Mendes, (film director) came up with some proposals for the theatre industry, such as redirecting a fraction of the pandemic profits made by Amazon and Netflix to theatre and other traditional means of arts culture. What do you think of his suggestions?
Sam has an interesting background, he started off in theatre before he went off to make Oscar winning films and is likely to want to protect that ecosystem. There is a business case for some churn of resources through the whole ecosystem. I think the best mechanism may be for governments within that, to redistribute resources through tax revenues, support or tax breaks.
In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, how can theatre broaden the base of people who feel like it’s for them?
It has an image of appealing to a particular age, income and ethnicity. There is a lot of work for the arts to do in terms of breaking down historic traditional barriers for those who feel that it‘s an experience relevant for them. The lessons from the last week have shown that we as an industry need to double down on that.
What initiatives has Northcott Theatre been part of to be more inclusive in your range of audience members?
We’ve been taking small steps. I’m not making claims to any massive success in this area. Programming is key and relationships with communities and trying to connect these to enhance the dialogue between the two, which then feedback into programming choices relevant to them. I think we need to play our part in an industry-wide move to diversifying the workforce and that’s around socio-economic backgrounds as well as ethnicity and disability. This isn’t specifically related to BLM initiatives, but we are part of the Jerwood Foundation which aims to bring more working class voices into theatre management.
With the programming and diversity engagement, have you seen an improvement in the number of BAME people working for you in management roles or in the acting capacity?
No, not in our core staff. We need to work on that and plan what our future steps will be to achieve that. In terms of representation of BAME artists, we have made progress in that area. Over the last year, it sounds a bit dull really, but we’ve been monitoring our diversity across all areas of programming and we’ve made some strides but there is still more to do.
Lastly, what do you miss most about the theatre from the perspective of being an artistic director, but also as an audience member?
There is an energy when released when a group of people gather in a building to experience the same thing. It’s there in anticipation, in the moment, during the performance, interval and afterwards. It sounds different depending on what the show is. It can be contemplative or excited energy, but the fundamental aspect is that its shared. Both as an audience member and someone working in the theatre, it’s the loss of that shared energy and experience that I feel most acutely. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to getting that back.