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I'm still passionate about this Norwich theatre

PUBLISHED: 12:06 13 December 2010

Caroline Richardson, manager of Norwich Playhouse, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary.; Photo: Bill Smith

Caroline Richardson, manager of Norwich Playhouse, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary.; Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2010

From the best of times to the worst of times, standing ovations to threats that Norwich Playhouse itself was facing its final curtain call, Caroline Richardson has weathered the storm alongside her beloved theatre.

As the long-standing general manager of the St George’s Street venue, no one could be prouder that the Playhouse is about to celebrate 15 years of bringing the cream of international entertainment into the heart of Norwich.

“I consider it to have been a privilege to work in such an incredible building, with such amazing staff and to have worked with such wonderful performers,” said Caroline, who has been manager for 14 years. “Everyone who visits the theatre falls in love with it. It’s such a warm and inviting place and it would have been devastating if the space had been lost. We have all fought for the Playhouse and I’m happy to say that it was all worth it.”

Caroline has loved theatre since her schooldays in London and went on to take a drama degree at Bristol University. She has always, however, preferred to remain back, rather than on, stage.

“I never fancied acting, really. Directing, yes, but acting – not for me. I’m the kind of person who likes to get a project moving, make sure it’s going to work and then move on to the next project,” she said. “I love making things happen. Sometimes, I stand at the back of the theatre and I look down on a full house and it’s a feeling of immense pride and achievement. But I can’t rest on my laurels – planning is everything at a small theatre.”

After leaving Bristol, Caroline was an assistant stage manager in Stoke-on-Trent before moving to Germany for five years to work with some of the country’s best-known theatrical directors. A stint at studios in Hammersmith followed before she became an arts officer in Islington, organising large-scale events.

In 1990, Caroline left Britain and emigrated to Melbourne in Australia with her family. There, she found a job at the Victorian Writers’ Centre (“Incredible, really. I think I knew about five Australian authors, and four of them were dead!”) and threw herself into her new life down under.

Within five years, however, the bubble had burst. Soaring interest rates and an Australian economic downturn sent Caroline and her family, including three young children, back to the UK and a new life in Norwich.

“I heard about the plans to build the Playhouse and straight away I thought it was a brilliant idea. I loved the concept, the building, everything about it,” she said.

“When the role of general manager was advertised in spring 1996, I knew I wanted the job. I was interviewed and told I’d been successful on May 31 – I still remember the day. It was fantastic: I was so happy that I forgot to ask how much I’d be paid!”

It took several years for the Playhouse to find its feet.

Establishing its own repertory company proved costly, time-consuming and difficult, jazz sessions held outdoors didn’t bring in enough revenue and it quickly became clear that the budget sheets weren’t adding up.

“We swiftly realised that we needed to bring companies in because if we didn’t make any money, the theatre wouldn’t be able to continue,” said Caroline.

“We had a lot of help from our first board. At that stage, we were getting dangerously close to the point where we might have been trading insolvently and we were receiving legal advice. We knew things had to change, and fast. At one point, we were even looking at pub chains to come in and buy us out and make the Playhouse into a theme pub. It was awful – devastating. We couldn’t bear to see all that hard work go to waste.

“Then things picked up a little: I managed to book Trainspotting and the Reduced Shakespeare Company and they were big successes. I looked at the audience in their seats and thought: ‘It can work, it will work, it must work.’”

John Parker, former chief executive at Norwich City Council, became involved in the Playhouse’s plight and arranged a loan which baled out the theatre and put it back on track.

A new board, including David Hill and Roger Cortis, stepped up to help the venue continue to fight off the threat of closure and while new ideas were formulated, Caroline and Enid Stephenson (who owned the Hungate Book-shop with husband Chris, which originally opened next door to the theatre’s foyer) ran the Playhouse bar.

“It was a very tough time. On one occasion, we only took home £50 each in a week. We just kept plodding along – we believed in the theatre.”

From 1999, the theatre was able to hire its auditorium and employed an education officer, a technical manager and a development officer and welcomed Hilary Hammond, former head of arts and libraries at County Hall.

A new season was planned and in October 1999, the autumn programme was launched to great success, with added help coming from the Arts Council, County Hall and the continued support of City Hall.

In 2003, and in large part thanks to the influence of Theatre Royal chief executive Peter Wilson, a merger between the two theatres was put into place and further funding gained from the Arts Council for programme development, marketing, maintenance and IT.

Office space at the Playhouse was rented for further revenue and the theatre began to plan increasingly impressive seasons packed with the very best entertainment on offer.

“By 2004, I realised that comedy was going to really work for us at the Playhouse and we began to build up a real reputation for bringing top acts to the city. I think we’ve pretty much had everyone here – except Jimmy Carr – and of course we’ve been lucky enough to have The Nimmo Twins come to us almost every year,” said Caroline.

“Having said that, it’s important for us to put on the smaller shows – the contemporary writing, the one-man shows – that we know won’t sell out but which are high quality, exciting and deserve to be staged.

“At the end of the day, however, as David Hill said, ‘if the finances don’t work, you won’t exist.’”

The most popular performances at the Playhouse are comedy acts, with the Nimmo Twins and their irreverent Norfolk-based humour proving to be the fastest-selling seats in the house – this year, the duo won’t be bringing a show to the venue, but there are hopes they will return for their sell-out Christmas show next year.

Today, the Playhouse is enjoying its 27th season.

“Times in the theatre have changed a great deal since we started. Fifteen years ago, a 300-seater venue was considered to be small, while today it’s the kind of venue that attracts middle scale touring companies,” said Caroline.

“There are nine performance spaces in the city and it’s vital that we all communicate and have a good relationship to make sure that we’re all holding hands and looking after each other. When I first came here, there was a little bit of an ‘examination hall’ feel to programming – everyone would put their arm round what they were writing so that no one could see what anyone else was doing. But that’s no longer the case and we all talk and make sure that we’re not at cross purposes.

“It’s a tough climate out there and we won’t know what arts funding cuts will mean to us until they come into effect. But it seems as if theatre is weathering the storm: people need cheering up, they need to feel good and the theatre has that feel-good factor.”

In addition to showcasing a huge variety of acts, from drama to comedy, cabaret to circus, celebrity speakers to children’s shows and jazz to dance, the theatre also has a healthy outreach programme that seeks to engage the local community with their theatre. Schools regularly visit the theatre to take part in workshops and to see performances, disabled groups use the venue and students from the University of East Anglia take placements at the theatre to better their future work prospects.

On Monday, the Playhouse will host a 15th birthday party to thank patrons, board members, businesses, individuals and staff for their role in securing the future of one of the Eastern region’s best-loved venues.

From 6pm to 8.30pm, the event will be invite-only and will include speeches, music, refreshments and a visual montage of the Playhouse’s colourful history, from 8.30pm onwards, the theatre and bar will be open to the public to join the celebrations.

“It doesn’t feel as if 15 years have passed. It hasn’t been easy here since day one to keep our heads above water, and when you’re busy robbing Peter to pay Paul, time never drags, it races by,” said Caroline.

“I can’t believe that we’re celebrating this landmark.

“It’s a way to say thank you to all the people who we’ve called on for favours over the years – and there have been a lot of them, because I am well known for calling in favours! Without all their help, we wouldn’t be here today.”

After spending her career in theatre, Caroline remains as passionate as ever.

“I still absolutely love it – all of it. I exhaust myself in Edinburgh, but it’s worth it – we were the first theatre to book Tim Minchin after Edinburgh and I’m proud that we’re able to bring such exciting acts to Norwich.

“I see each of our seasons like a patchwork quilt – we need different textures, different colours, different patterns to make it perfect. I love this space, its warmth, its intimacy and I love the people I work with put their heart and soul into this theatre.

“I spend more time at the theatre than I spend at home. To me, it is home, really.”

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