Interview: York Theatre Royal’s Tom Bird on Working in the Industry, Theatre for All & Making the Tough Decisions

After a twelve year stint on the London theatre scene, Tom Bird has recently taken the leap from Executive Producer at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to Executive Director at York Theatre Royal. At the helm of a regional producing and receiving theatre during a global pandemic, Bird remains confident that the arts can weather the current storm and is certain of an ambitious, brave future for York Theatre Royal. I caught up with him recently to chat about his route into the industry, the ins and outs of his senior roles in theatres and what it’s like to make big, controversial decisions for the greater good…

Where did the love of theatre begin for you?

Mine began with live theatre in Newcastle. I grew up in the North East and I was taken to shows that Northumberland Theatre Company did in Alnwick near where I lived. I was taken now and again to Newcastle to live theatre which was (and is) such an exciting thing because it’s the only new writing theatre outside of London and that’s pretty much where I fell for it all. And the Royal Shakespeare Company used to do a season in Newcastle straight after Stratford (before London) and that was really really exciting, to have that company roll into town en masse. They would take over literally almost every theatre in the city and they did these amazing deals where if you were student or if you were under 18, you could see everything for something ridiculous like fifteen quid – the whole season. So it was absolutely brilliant and I feel so lucky to have been grounded in that.

Is there any particular production that really grabbed you and made you realise: this is for me?

Yeah, there was a play by Peter Straughan called Bones which was set in a cinema in Gateshead that was just amazing – I got taken to a completely different world sitting in live theatre watching that. I watched Sam West be Richard II in the Gulbenkian in Newcastle which was a tiny little space and that was just incredible. And there’s a play called Get Up and Tie Your Fingers by Ann Coburn which is a play about north Northumberland and southern Scotland and about fishing in those communities, which is where I’m from, and that was a really special show for me.

And so from that early grounding and enthusiasm for live theatre, what was the route into the industry and into your current role?

I was quite a late arrival into the industry in that I’d always just loved going to the theatre and I’d never thought of myself as ‘a theatre person’ or of working in theatre at all. I went to Edinburgh University and I was really in with the music scene there – I played in those bands and orchestras and my friends were the music people, but I always got to know the theatre people as well. Then essentially, my girlfriend at the time was a real sort of theatre bod and I think I ended up stage managing one of her shows just because she couldn’t find anyone else to do it, and that was in Bedlam Theatre.

That was an amazing time because at that point at Bedlam Theatre, which was just a student theatre at Edinburgh University, there was this unbelievable range of talent. There was Lucy Kirkwood who is now an amazing Playwright, Ella Hickson who’s an amazing playwright; there was Ellen McDougall who’s now Artistic Director at The Gate and Andy Field, who ran the Forest Fringe in Edinburgh for years. So there was this big wealth of theatrical talent right there and I was only ever on the fringes of that, but it felt exciting to be part of – I mean obviously you didn’t know at the time that you were in the presence of those sorts of people!

So that’s how theatre became part of my life and then because of that I ended up specialising in Contemporary British Drama as one of my specialisms on my English degree. Then basically I finished university and it was like what the hell am I gonna do with my life? I needed to get a job really quickly – I didn’t ever really have the option to coast or anything so I went and taught English in Spain for a while. And then while I was in Spain I saw an online article on The Guardian site for a job at the Globe called ‘Theatre and Music Assistant’.

I suppose because I’d had that musical side at University and I was interested in theatre, I just applied for it in the total assumption that I wouldn’t get near it. It sounded kind of glamorous to be ‘Theatre and Music Assistant at the Globe’, but it was still copying scripts and making cups of tea – and unbelievably I got it. I went into the Globe and I was just completely in awe of it. I was so intimidated at the interview and that kind of thing and feeling like I’d completely messed it up, went back to Edinburgh where I lived at the time and heard that I’d got the job so I just packed up and moved to London. I got a room in a flat in south London and then stayed at the Globe for a long time, moving up.

And then from the Globe to York, what prompted that change?

I’d done eleven years at the Globe and I think that that’s enough anywhere. I had worked with all of the people who had been Artistic Director at the Globe; Mark Rylance coming back in to do his things and Emma Rice and Dominic Dromgoole mainly, and Michelle Terry. And… it’s still really hard to speak about this, but I didn’t really fully agree with the Globe’s decision about Emma Rice, to change the conditions under which she was allowed to work. Michelle Terry is a genius – she’s fantastic and she’s a friend and I think some of the stuff she’s done there, like Emilia, is bloody amazing. But at that time, it felt to me like I wasn’t entirely sure about what kind of organisation it was going to be going forward. But mainly – mainly, I’d done eleven years, I was becoming the grumpy person in the corner instead of what I normally am, which is not grumpy, but optimistic and positive.

So that’s why I decided to leave the Globe. York – I’d spent a bit of time at York Theatre Royal co-producing a show with them and I just felt it was an exciting challenge. I wanted theatre to survive outside London and I’m from the North, so I wanted to come back to the North and I wanted a job being in charge of somewhere. York felt like a really exciting place to go, [with] the insistence on the engagement with the community. The building is so amazing, I love the sort of 1960s foyer extension to the theatre and I thought that would be a brilliant place to work, it’s so different to the rest of the architecture in York. I was just excited about getting my teeth into a theatre like that; a producing theatre in the north of England.

I’m glad you’re fighting tooth and nail to keep it going!

Yeah, absolutely – I mean it’s been there since 1744 and it’s been through the mill a few times alright, but we’re obviously determined to keep it going and I’m confident we can.

That’s exactly what we like to hear. So in terms of changing roles then, you’ve gone from Executive Producer at the Globe to Executive Director at York Theatre Royal – can you give some insight into the core differences between those roles?

Executive Producer at the Globe – basically the job was the Artistic Director would have an idea, and it was my job to discuss that idea with the Artistic Director and then to contribute to that idea if appropriate, but then absolutely the main thing was taking that idea and making it happen logistically. At the Globe, that meant some really ‘out there’ projects, like touring Hamlet to every country in the world.

Here, it’s different because at the Globe I was sort of three rungs down in that there was a Chief Executive and then there was an Artistic Director who was line managed by the Chief Executive and then there was me. Once I was Executive Producer, I was always a senior figure there but here I’m just in charge, that’s it. And that’s always been the case at York; the Executive Director job is the Chief Exec job and so that’s a really interesting change and a funny change because you look around and you go ‘no, this is me, this in on me’. It can be lonely but it’s a really exciting challenge as well so that’s the main difference. But obviously there’s more [to it] in that you have to think about absolutely everything, so you’re thinking about fundraising and how to keep the building standing up and marketing and producing and everything, so it’s a mixed bag.

And no one has yet taken over from Damian Cruden as Artistic Director as yet?

Yes that’s right, we’ve decided not to replace the role, at least not immediately. Damian was in post for a very long time as Artistic Director and if a theatre like ours has an Artistic Director, that person is going to need to direct the vast majority of what we do. I felt that it was a good time to work with a variety of different creative voices and you know, of course that can happen under an Artistic Director, but because finance would dictate that an AD would have to direct the majority of what we did, the best thing for us, as I have a producing background, was to work without an AD for a little bit of time in order to bring through a range of creative voices.

So with that in place, how is programming currently handled?

We do it with a group of four of us, so there’s me, there’s our Associate Director Juliet Forster, there’s our Artistic Associate John Wilkinson and there is our Producer Thom Freeth. So there’s a four person team that does programming and it’s quite nice, it’s good because it’s kind of collaborative. In a way of course, I’m in charge, but we talk about these things as peers and equals and we work out the best thing for the theatre. And then the other thing with programming for us is that we actually have tried to – and it’s Damian that started this – we’ve tried to give our community an active voice in programming. We have a thing called the Visionari which is kind of a representative group of community members who get to comment on producing and programming decisions and even to programme the theatre itself for a week.

And that does show in the programming I think – there’s a good variety at this theatre.

Yeah, and I think we can do even better at that – I’d like to push that harder and get more variety.

What is it you’d want to see more of then when it comes to increasing variety further?

I think we are seeing that theatres won’t be able to rely on traditional drama to survive at the Box Office any more. I think we’re learning that it’s not enough to put on a classic play and do it really well as we did with A View from the Bridge recently. We got some five star reviews for that and it was beautifully put together. It’s obviously an amazing play and I also felt it had a relevance to the political discussions that were going on at the time because it’s about immigration really and so obviously that was an interesting topic to deal with. But we just didn’t get the audience numbers we wanted for it. So I think we will obviously keep doing drama but we’ll need to balance it out with some more exciting programming in the long run with dance, opera, musical theatre and community theatre and just mix it up as much as we can.

And in terms of the theatre being both a producing and receiving house, how does that impact on programming discussions and logistics?

I love it actually, I really love it and I’m keen that we’re both. Obviously you have to balance the two. A very typical situation is that we have a three week slot for a produced show that we’re planning and then some producer comes in from outside and says ‘do you want this brilliant and amazing show for a week?’ Bang in the middle of that slot that we’ve ear marked, so we have to start all over again. But I really like the balance, it’s important that we make stuff and it’s important that we bring the best of the world to York as well.

Speaking of bringing great things to York, you’ve already brought some big happenings to the theatre, particularly the recent BBC filming of Emma Rice’s Wise Children – is that kind of exposure for the theatre something you’re keen to pursue?

Yes, definitely, I’m really ambitious for it. I think there’s no reason why York Theatre Royal should hide under a bushel, you know, the space is beautiful and the team’s amazing. Obviously it’s as challenging time right now, but we’re really ambitious for the future. And it was fantastic – it was fantastic to be on the BBC iPlayer, so we want to keep that ball in the air, definitely.

Another big happening has been the decision to cut the Berwick Kaler-led YTR panto as we know it. It’s proven to be very controversial so what can you tell me about having to make that decision about such an established event as someone relatively new to the building?

It was really tough because I knew about Berwick Kaler, of course I did. I like Berwick Kaler, despite the fact that he wasn’t particularly talking to me at the end (laughs) – and I think he’s really talented. But I was looking at the number of people that were coming to that pantomime and it wasn’t tallying with the story that that pantomime was telling about itself. It wasn’t tallying with the story that York Theatre Royal had been telling about the pantomime, and it wasn’t tallying with what the City of York was telling itself about that pantomime. There was a lot of affection for that pantomime but that wasn’t translating into popularity, you know, it wasn’t one of the most popular pantomimes in the country, not by a long stretch. This obviously bothered me and it was clear that by the end of this year a change would need to be made and I was looking at myself in the mirror going ‘you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do this’ because I couldn’t in good faith leave a panto whose popularity was dwindling.

It was my responsibility to the people of York to try to find a product that was genuinely for everyone, and that [the panto] was becoming exclusive, it was becoming a club, so we had to unfortunately move on. And actually I’m glad it’s at the Opera House, I’m really glad that’s happened because it just means that the people who do love that panto can still have it and I think that’s the perfect situation.

So all in all, what would you say are the biggest challenges and joys of your role?

The joy is seeing young people’s lives transformed by being in a community play or doing a youth theatre session. Or talking to a young person – well actually, not even young, just seeing people’s lives transformed. That can be a young person who gains confidence from being in the youth theatre, it can be an older person who we drive to a show who hasn’t been to a show for years because they haven’t been able to get the bus for whatever reason. The way we can change the lives of individuals, it’s amazing.

The most difficult thing is… I mean, regional theatre is hard, money-wise. It’s really hard. Money’s the hardest thing. Coming from a theatre in London – I mean the Globe has got its documented money challenges now, as every theatre has – but the budgets are much, much tighter [regionally] so it’s tough to run financially.

And final question then – obviously we’re in a very tricky situation at the moment. What are you hopes for both York Theatre Royal and the wider industry in terms of getting back out there?

My hopes are that the industry stops and thinks: okay we’ve got this enforced period of closure, whether we like it or not. What was maybe less than perfect anyway, that we weren’t admitting to ourselves was less than perfect, and how can we sort that out? How can be genuinely for everyone? How can we be not for a moment elitist? How can we truly help our community to be creative? My hope is that we just stop and bear those things in mind and come back roaring, yes, but come back a little bit different.

So there you have it! You can keep up with Tom Bird via his Twitter page and of course, the Twitter and Website pages for the gorgeous York Theatre Royal. As is the case across the arts, York Theatre Royal is in need of financial support – if you are able, please consider donating to secure the future of York Theatre Royal. Not sure why it’s so great? Take a look at these five simple reasons for a start!

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