War Horse producer to take over at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Robin Hawkes from the National Theatre who is about to become the new boss of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Robin Hawkes from the National Theatre who is about to become the new boss of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
  • He helped turn War Horse into a global theatrical hit and today he will be revealed as the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new boss. Nick Ahad speaks to Robin Hawkes.
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They’ve done it again. The board of the West Yorkshire Playhouse have blue-skyed a problem, thought outside of the box and pulled a rabbit from the hat.

If the results of their decisions weren’t so consistently brilliant, you might wonder if they were heavily influenced by the BBC sitcom W1A, where executives sit around making seemingly random, odd decisions.

The first thing I am looking forward to is being part of a theatre that is truly for and of the community... there also seems to be a huge amount of energy in the North around the theatre world.

Robin Hawkes, who is leaving the National Theatre in London to come to Leeds.

In 2011 the board appointed James Brining as artistic director and the theatre world had a collective ‘Oh, I see what you did but we didn’t expect that’ moment.

It’s about to have another.

Allow us to introduce Robin Hawkes.

He’s the 32-year-old who will be announced today as Brining’s right hand man. Hawkes is taking on the newly created role of executive director and joint chief executive.

“You won’t recognise the name, so I can tell you, but you can’t tell anyone else,” I was told last week, the same words which were used to usher in Brining. He turned out to be an inspired appointment. Hopes are high for Robin Hawkes one of theatre’s bright young things.

“I suppose I am young but age isn’t everything,” says Hawkes, a man who sounds like he knows his own mind. “I had dinner a couple of nights ago with Rodney Brookes, chairman of the Playhouse’s board and he has had a long and distinguished career. We talked about what it meant to be a leader of an organisation in your thirties and he said, ‘you’ve got nothing to worry about - when I was your age I was running an organisation of 95,000’. There’s plenty of precedent.”

It’s a fairly comprehensive answer, but there’s no denying that it does seem quite impressive that Hawkes is about to step in and help run the West Yorkshire Playhouse at a fairly tender age. Having said that, he’s not coming from nowhere. For the past seven years he has worked at the National Theatre in London as a producer, which means he has played a key part in that venue’s unprecedented run of success.

When we speak, he’s taking time out of a very busy day which is seeing him plan one of the most momentous events of the last decade at the theatre - a leaving do.

“It’s Nick Hytner’s last day, so today is about party planning as much as anything else,” he says. In his time at the National he has done a lot more than plan parties - although thanks to his work behind the scenes, millions have enjoyed a good night out.

“It’s been a wonderful place to work, to be a part of exciting productions and new initiatives. I played a part in NT Live (the technically gargantuan task of broadcasting National Theatre productions live to cinemas around the world), worked on War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” says Hawkes.

He’s being modest. In theatre the producer is such a vital role. It is the producer that helps to turn the vision of artists into a reality. They’re the fixers, the arrangers, the ones who make dreams into something tangible. His experience, particularly working as producer on the cultural behemoth that is War Horse, is going to be invaluable to the Playhouse.

He says: “I joined the theatre at the point where War Horse was being revived for a second season. I arrived and we thought it could have a further life. That meant first of all taking it into the West End in 2009 and we’re currently planning a ninth production. In fact I’m currently planning our latest production in China, opening later this year in Beijing and it is very satisfying to know that I have played a greater or lesser role in every one of those productions. I’ve been around the world with the War Horse.

“It has been well documented that it was a long and tortuous process to get it on to the stage. There were several years of research and development, lots of furrowed brows, but I think there is a real lesson there about how successful shows emerge.”

So Hawkes brings with him an impressive CV, but what about his heart? When Brining was appointed, a Cambridge graduate who had lived in London and Scotland for most of his professional life, there were questions about his commitment to the region. Turned out Brining was born and raised in Leeds and since arriving his commitment has never been in doubt.

It transpires that Hawkes might have similar pulls to the North - his wife is from Alwoodley.

“Over the past 12 years I’ve been to Leeds...I can’t actually count the number of times. It really is a second home,” he says.“I’m really excited to be joining the Playhouse. There’s a part of me that has nerves and anxiety, but that’s how it should be.”

His newly created role is a result of the departure of the highly regarded Sheena Wrigley, who left the Playhouse last week to take up a role at the newly created Cornerhouse in Manchester. As executive director and joint chief executive with Brining, Hawkes really will play an integral part in leading more than 150 Playhouse staff. And ‘leading’, as opposed to ‘managing’, is clearly how he sees his role

“I’ve been thinking for a little while about what it might be like to be part of a leadership team for a big producing house in the UK. I’ve learned a lot at the National about leadership styles and how different people approach the same problems. I thought that the way we worked in the past was a Ten Commandments of how things are done, but a new team has come in and while it’s not as though they’ve torn up the rule book, they have brought their own way of doing things. That’s what I expect to do at the Playhouse.”

The first job, says Hawkes, when he arrives in June is to continue the good work Brining has done, which is about the most ‘politician’ answer you might hear. It also happens to be completely fair, so you can’t really blame him. He has also clearly thought long and hard about his ambitions.

“The first thing I am looking forward to is being part of a theatre that is truly for and of the community,” he says.“The National Theatre is here to represent the nation, but in truth there’s only so far you can go with that.

“ You can offer a broad and diverse programme that offers lots of different things, but you can’t really represent everyone when your community is over 60 million people. The fact that the Playhouse really does have the opportunity to do that is exciting. There also seems to be a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm in the North at the moment around the theatre world.

“At its heart should be the artistic programme, but when you also have a theatre that is relevant to its community and people from further afield, that’s a wonderful combination. I’m really looking forward to getting started.”

It is entirely unfair to expect Hawkes, in several years time, to have helped create something that has the same magic as, say, a War Horse. But he’s done it before. I’m looking forward already to seeing if he can do it again. I reckon he might.