With some big changes at York Theatre Royal, theatre correspondent Nick Ahad speaks to chief executive Tom Bird.

First came the announcement that Berwick Kaler’s 2018-2019 pantomime would be his last. After forty years of service, the ultimate dame deserved a rest.

A scene from Emma Rices Wise Children which comes to York next week. (Steve Tanner).
A scene from Emma Rices Wise Children which comes to York next week. (Steve Tanner).

It is impossible to overstate how big a deal this was for York Theatre Royal. The pantomime is not only an internationally renowned theatrical event, it plays a significant part in sustaining the theatre’s financial year.

Then came the announcement that Damian Cruden, the artistic director of York Theatre Royal, was also going to be leaving the theatre after 22 years of service.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Again, to overstate his influence and impact on the building is impossible. Cruden is one of those quiet, extremely passionate leaders who inspires the teams he has around him to create work that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In August 2012 I remember a trip to York to see his staging of the York Mystery Plays. To this day I think it is one of the most astounding achievements, in terms of scale, I have seen from a Yorkshire theatre. Similarly his version of The Railway Children, which was staged down the road from the theatre at the National Railway Museum in 2008 – before going on to become an international hit over the following years in London and Toronto – speaks to the man’s ambition. Cruden dreams big.

Now the theatre will have to keep those dreams going without him.

Cruden announced last week that he would be stepping down as artistic director with his final show being the York Theatre Royal summer production of Swallows and Amazons. He will then take on the role of artistic director of the Shakespeare Rose Theatre Project in York and Blenheim. Announcing his departure, he said: “I am proud of our achievements over the years, had we only managed to keep the theatre open that in itself would have been a miracle, however we have done so much more and we did it as a team.”

Who takes over from Cruden is yet to be decided, the search for his replacement is in the very early stages. The man who will lead that search is the theatre’s chief executive Tom Bird, a man you might excuse for having a slightly spinning head after receiving the one-two combination of the Kaler and Cruden departures. None of it. Bird has the quality chief executives of theatres need more than any other: an optimistic disposition.

“I’m really excited about the season we have coming up,” says Bird, who moved to take over at York from the Globe theatre last year.

I don’t know if it’s the Northumberland accent, but Bird does not come off as man who deals with false words. When he says he’s excited, he clearly means it; I’m not being fed a corporate line.

“After 15 years in London I wanted to come back to the North. I was fascinated by York and have admired its work from afar, particularly those big community productions that really involve the city in the theatre like Blood and Chocolate, the York Mysteries and The Railway Children.”

So how did he react when, less than a year after arriving two of the most important mainstays of the theatre announced their departure?

“You go into quick thinking mode and start working out how you are going to deal with this,” he says.

“The question you immediately ask yourself is how do we take this change and make the most of it? How do we keep developing the mission of this theatre which is to be deeply engaged with the community?”

One way in which he is doing that is by using a contact he has from his previous job at The Globe; the hugely regarded Emma Rice. She was the artistic director at the Globe before an acrimonious split with the venue. Now she is working with York Theatre Royal as the theatre becomes a co-producer with her company Wise Children on a staging of the Angela Carter novel of the same name. “She is one of the most inventive and innovative directors working in British theatre today,” says Bird. “Her work is an extraordinary mix of genres, sometimes her productions feel like watching a play, sometimes it’s like watching an opera, sometimes a musical, a gig, a piece of dance. As a theatre we are interested in expanding the range of work we do and bringing Emma’s Wise Children here felt like the perfect way to do that.”

Bird won’t be pushed on future plans for the theatre, but I wonder aloud if bringing an artist of the quality of Rice to the theatre might hint at future ambitions.

“Wise Children is a big, bold, diverse and brave show and I think that’s what we want to be, a theatre that takes risks, that doesn’t shrink from challenges and that is bold and brave.”

Two loyal servants are leaving York in Kaler and Cruden, but the future looks pretty bright.

Wise Children, the adaptation of the novel by Angela Carter is not the first time Emma Rice has combined with the author to create work. Wise Children is also the name of Rice’s new theatre company which is bringing the show to York next week.

Emma Rice’s 2006 production of Nights at the Circus was an early hit for Kneehigh and a spectacular one that hinted at what was to come from the visionary director. The combination of Rice and Carter is definitely one not to be missed.

Wise Children, York Theatre Royal, March 5-16. Tickets from teh box office on 01904 623568 or via yorktheatreroyal.co.uk