All theatres face tough times, particularly Hull Truck with the shock departure of its chief executive. Nick Ahad on the story behind the scenes.
After a turbulent two years in charge, the controversial chief executive of Hull Truck Theatre has stepped down. Since the arrival of Andrew Smaje at Hull Truck from the Ustinov Theatre in Bath in October 2010, its artistic director has been made redundant, a decision which led to a public outcry from actor’s union Equity, and so sweeping has been the theatre’s transformation that many who knew it previously say it is virtually unrecognisable.
Now the Yorkshire Post can reveal that last year the venue was the subject of a rescue package, put together by the Arts Council, which saw it receive an extra £1m of public funding on top of its £520,000 annual Arts Council grant.
The Yorkshire Post understands that had Hull Truck not received this bail-out, it was at risk of ceasing to trade – just a few years after the company moved to a new £15m building on Ferensway, the future of the theatre was being measured in months.
Cluny Macpherson, regional director of Arts Council, says: “In the early summer of 2011 we became aware that Hull Truck Theatre was experiencing difficulties both financially and with their business plans. This is a company with an important place in the regional and national theatre ecology as well as for audiences locally, and our staff worked closely with the theatre and with Hull City Council to analyse the problems and to develop solutions aimed at securing access to the best plays and drama for local people.
“With additional investment from the Arts Council (£1,005,000 as well as their National Portfolio Organisation payment of £520,459 in 2011-12) and Hull City Council and significant cost cutting by the theatre a new business plan was developed for 2012-15. We are pleased to see that this year, with some very positive reviews and increasing audience figures, these changes are starting to bear fruit. It nevertheless remains a challenging financial climate for arts organisations across the country.”
The theatre has also been given an additional £200,000 by the Arts Council for this financial year to prop up its regular funding as a result of falling audience numbers.
On Tuesday this week the theatre issued a statement saying that “Andrew Smaje is leaving the company to pursue new opportunities.” When asked to clarify if the chief executive had resigned or been asked to leave the organisation, the interim chair of the non-executive board would not add to this statement and Mr Smaje himself was unavailable for comment.
Several people the Yorkshire Post spoke to, including a local playwright, an actor and John Godber, said they were bemused at the timing of the resignation.
Dave Windass, a Hull playwright whose work was produced at the previous home of the theatre and in the new building this summer says it seemed like an odd time for the chief executive to stand down given that the theatre recently published details of the next season, which had been programmed by Mr Smaje.
Hull Truck was established by Mike Bradwell in 1972. In 1984, John Godber became artistic director, a role he held for 20 years before handing over the reins to Gareth Tudor-Price in 2004. The company had been based at Spring Street in a former church hall, for two decades before moving, in 2009, to a new purpose built building on Ferensway.
Within 18 months the board had appointed Mr Smaje as chief executive, taking over Hull Truck from his previous position as artistic director of the Ustinov Studio Theatre, part of Theatre Royal, Bath. When Mr Smaje programmed his first season, it didn’t include one show directed by Tudor Price and the then artistic director was soon made redundant.
At the time the performer’s union Equity condemned the move and argued that the theatre needed to have an artistic director.
Playwright Godber, who severed ties with the theatre following Tudor Price’s departure says: “The fact that I have been back in the theatre that I helped build twice in the past two years should tell you everything you need to know about how I feel about the situation.
“After Gareth took over as artistic director, my loyalty kept me attached to the theatre. I never had a contract and so, when the artistic director was made redundant I had no problem in voting with my feet and walking away from the theatre. I still am baffled by the timing of the decision of the chief executive to leave the company.”
When the company moved to its new premises, the artistic team had a challenge to fill a space much larger than they had been faced with at Spring Street.
Godber says: “You don’t make a new venue work after a single year, you need three years to make a go of a new theatre. I don’t know if the people making the decisions had ever run a theatre, but we just were not given enough time to make the new building work, we needed longer.”
Godber’s response was to quit Hull Truck and set up his own company, under his own name, which now tours out of Wakefield Theatre Royal.
He says: “I never fell out with the people of Hull, I still live here and I want to bring my work here. I hope whoever takes over is someone I will be able to have a conversation with.”
With Mr Smaje’s surprise departure, it leaves the company without a single person at the helm. The interim chair said the management board is currently running Hull Truck, with a producer, general manager and finance director steering the company. Next season’s brochure, programmed by Mr Smaje, is on sale now.
Ms Dickenson, interim chair of the board, says: “We have not been knee-jerk about anything. We are really confident in the new programme. It has been a challenging couple of years, particularly given the economic climate we are all working in, but we have done a lot of audience development work and we now understand, much better than we have before, where our audience is coming from.
“We have a large inner-city audience and they have told us that they want to see Shakespeare, new writing, a variety of work and we have tried to make sure there is a huge mix of work for our audiences to see here at Hull Truck. Andrew Smaje was brought in to oversee a period of change and he is moving on because he feels he has done his job.”
Godber argues that when there were changes at the top of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, Sheffield Theatres and West Yorkshire Playhouse in recent years, the management structure stayed the same. Each of those theatres employed an artistic director to lead the buildings artistically and in programming work, with a chief executive looking after the business side of the organisation. Many favour a return to this way of running the organisation.
Ms Dickenson insists that Hull Truck is yet to decide if it will return to the structure employed before Mr Smaje was appointed as chief executive.
“We are in no rush to suddenly bring someone in,” she says. “We appointed Andrew Smaje to be a creative chief executive and look at developing other younger and emerging directors to lead the theatre artistically. We will now take the time to decide if that is the best way forward.
“These are challenging times and every theatre is struggling, so the board is going to take its time and decide what is the right way forward for Hull Truck.”
Jack Brady, an actor who worked regularly at Hull Truck’s former home and also performed in the new building while Tudor Price was artistic director, is representative of a number of actors who have privately shared concerns about the theatre with the Yorkshire Post.
He says: “When the chief executive brought in a programme full of change and re-direction and when the artistic director left, the theatre became a ship without a hand on the rudder. The theatre should have an artistic director and the board need to get their house in order.”
Key moments in Hull Truck
1972: Mike Bradwell establishes a theatre company in Hull, touring work from the back of a truck, running the company before going to London to lead the Bush Theatre.
1984: With the company nearing bankruptcy, John Godber is appointed artistic director. Through the 1980s and 1990s a string of hits from Godber establish the company’s reputation.
2004: Gareth Tudor Price appointed artistic director.
2009: New £15m building opens on Ferensway.
July 2010: Andrew Smaje appointed chief executive, joining Hull Truck in October. Within months Gareth Tudor Price is made redundant.
November 2012: Andrew Smaje leaves Hull Truck Theatre.