There is no doubting Robert Hastie’s passion for theatre. “I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else, really,” says the new artistic director of Sheffield Theatres who announced his inaugural season earlier this month. Born and raised in Scarborough, Hastie found a focus for his early ambition in the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
“My first taste of theatre was going to see Ayckbourn shows and I was just so desperate to start work there. I ended up as a ticket collector when I was in sixth form but before that they let me deliver posters and leaflets to local shops for pocket money. There was a couple of years when horrified parents and sceptical careers advisers tried to convince me that I wanted to train as a solicitor but I went to university and then on to drama school.”
Hastie, an associate director at the Donmar Warehouse, was appointed in March this year, taking up the role at Sheffield in July after Daniel Evans’s departure for Chichester Festival Theatre.
“I think the Crucible is one of the most beautiful theatres in the country,” he says. “And its thrust stage creates an exceptional connection between the actors and the audience. I am thrilled to get the chance to work here.” He’s also clearly very happy to be returning to his roots. “I’m really excited about coming back to Yorkshire,” he says. (Although, he adds laughing, that several of his Scarborough friends have pointed out to him it’s South Yorkshire…)
There is a bit of a tradition of actors-turned-directors at the helm of Sheffield Theatres – the previous three artistic directors Daniel Evans, Samuel West and Michael Grandage are all fine examples of how to combine the two disciplines – so Hastie is following along a well-marked path, but he is aware that the job presents particular challenges. There are three venues to programme for – the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum – all catering for slightly different audience expectations, but Hastie is not daunted.
“The fact that there are three such different theatres under the same artistic umbrella here makes it a unique and thrilling space for people to come to, and to work in,” he says. “I’m really enjoying discovering the appetite of the audience here – what they are excited about seeing and where they want to be challenged. Being an artistic director is really about starting a conversation with the audience. ”
The Studio provides an opportunity to experiment a little and take the audience by surprise. “I am passionate about new writing,” he says. “So I want to use that space to nurture up-and-coming writing and directing talent.”
The Crucible stage also happens to be where Hastie made his professional acting debut, straight out of RADA, in a production of Edward Bond’s Lear. He went on to work successfully as an actor for nearly 10 years before making the move into directing which was prompted by what he describes as “a kind of epiphany” while visiting a friend who was appearing in a production of The History Boys over in America. “I remember walking into the theatre while the technical rehearsal was going on and thinking ,‘If I could choose where to be in this room right now I wouldn’t be on stage I would be where the director is sitting’. It brought to the front of my mind something that had been going on in the back of it for some time. I was working regularly as an actor at that point and the prospect of having to go back to the beginning was daunting but I just had this gut feeling that it was going to work out. Luckily I was proved right. As soon as I had a go I realised I was going to be better at directing than I was at acting.”
His big break as a director came with a revival of Kevin Elyot’s seminal play My Night With Reg at the Donmar Warehouse two years ago. It was first staged at the Royal Court in 1994 and Hastie had seen the original production as a teenager.
“I used a speech from the play to get in to drama school and I requested the script as a prize from my school in Scarborough,” he says. “It was a big step for me to do a play which meant so much to me personally. So I did get a feeling that the stars had slightly aligned for me.”
The production at the Donmar was a huge success and went on to transfer to the West End. Set in the 1980s, the play unfolds over a number of years and focuses on a group of gay friends who first meet at university. The 80s setting means that AIDS is part of the play’s landscape although it is never explicitly mentioned.
“It’s both true and not true to say that it’s play about AIDS,” says Hastie. “It is really a play about friendships, the way they come together and break apart. And the fact that the characters are gay is both significant and not significant – none of them are exploring how they feel about their sexuality; it’s just a fact for them.”
He makes his directorial debut on the Crucible stage with Julius Caesar next May – coinciding with Sheffield’s first mayoral elections. “I knew I wanted to start with a Shakespeare but Julius Caesar just feels like a play that could have been written for 2017,” says Hastie. “It is about tensions between people and politicians and about a city working out how it is going to be led.”
Other highlights in Hastie’s first season include a couple of big classic dramas with productions of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms in the Crucible and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in the Studio, the regional premiere of Nina Raine’s powerful family drama Tribes which tells the story of Billy, a deaf boy in a hearing family who falls in love with Sylvia, a hearing girl from a deaf family. Demonstrating Hastie’s commitment to nurturing emerging talent, it will be directed by Kate Hewitt, winner of the first Royal Theatrical Support Trust Director Award. Guest productions coming to the Lyceum include Patrick Hamilton’s thrilling drama Gaslight, Willy Russell’s heart-warming comedy Shirley Valentine, Roald Dahl favourite Fantastic Mr Fox and the feel-good Gershwin classic musical Crazy for You.
There are two world premieres in the mix. The first, What We Wished For, written by Chris Bush for Sheffield People’s Theatre, is set in a castle for retired fairy tale characters and features a community cast of 80 and the second, Of Kith & Kin by former social worker Chris Thompson, looks at the complex issues that arise when a gay couple father a child with their best friend acting as a surrogate. Hastie will be directing the latter as well as the Christmas production The Wizard of Oz.
“I want to open our doors to as broad an audience as possible,” says Hastie. And he is sincere in that wish – in addition to details of the new season, he has announced that the theatre will be providing 10,000 £15 tickets and scrapping their booking fees. They are also inviting all young people studying drama or performing arts at either GCSE or A level in Sheffield to come to the Crucible to watch theatre for free.
“We are living in a time when arts education is being diminished and devalued, with creative subjects on the curriculum under sustained attack,” says Hastie. “I strongly believe that every child has a right to a cultural education. What we are saying to young people in the city who are discovering an interest in theatre is – we share your passion and we support it.”
Tickets for all productions in the new season at Sheffield Theatres go on sale today. For details visit sheffieldtheatres.co.uk