What is the secret behind the success of Sheffield Theatres?

From Kenneth Branagh taking the title role in Richard III in 2002, to John McCrae starring in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie 15 years later, Sheffield’s Crucible has set a high benchmark in recent years.

Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres. (James Hardisty).
Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres. (James Hardisty).

This success was underlined last month when Sheffield Theatres, which consists of the Crucible, Sheffield Lyceum and Studio, took home a crown from a glittering national ceremony – not for the first time.

It was at the Stage Awards, organised by the theatre industry’s newspaper The Stage, where Sheffield made history, taking the Regional Theatre of the Year award back to the Steel City for an unprecedented fourth time.

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Having secured the trophy in 2013, 2014 and 2017, to win again in 2020 is remarkable. To borrow and adapt a line from playwright Oscar Wilde, to win it once is impressive, to win it four times suggests something quite out of the ordinary is happening in South Yorkshire.

Owain Gwynn, Richard Parker the Tiger and Hiran Abeysekera in Life of Pi. Photo by Johan Persson.

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So, a fourth win of the big award, a win for an inaugural award, and the praise of the industry in general.

It seems like Sheffield Theatres is definitely doing something right.

Conventional wisdom perhaps suggests that any organisation should do one thing and do it well. But that’s not how Robert Hastie sees it.

Layton Williams who stars as Jamie in Everybody's Talking About Jamie.

“What is it we are doing? Well, we are blessed in that we are made up of three theatres that cater to an enormous audience. We strive to be somewhere that can have something for everyone. Not everyone is going to like everything we do, but everyone will find something.”

Hastie is the current occupier of one of UK theatre’s plum jobs. It has been held by four people in the past two decades. As artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, Hastie is responsible not only for Sheffield Crucible, but also Sheffield Studio and Sheffield Lyceum.

The only theatre complex bigger in the UK is the National Theatre, one of the reasons Sheffield is considered one of the best theatre jobs in the country; the range of programming an artistic director gets to do is mind bending.

Hastie’s predecessors give a little hint as to another aspect of, and reason for, the remarkable success the venue has enjoyed.

Richard Hawley and playwright Chris Bush who teamed up on Standing At the Sky's Edge The Musical.

Michael Grandage, recognised as one of the great modern theatre directors, was artistic director from 2000 to 2005 and it was he who convinced Kenneth Branagh to return to the stage as the hunchback king after a long absence.

Samuel West took on the role in 2005 and reigned for two years, during which time Kathy Burke directed Roger Lloyd Pack at the venue. In 2009 after the Crucible had been shut down for a couple of years for a major multi-million-pound overhaul, Daniel Evans arrived in a blaze of publicity, bringing major musicals to the Crucible at Christmas. Evans eventually headed south to Chichester and handed over the reins to Hastie in 2016.

“The thing we all have in common is that we were all actors who became directors,” says Hastie, who did indeed spend much of his career treading the boards before becoming a director. “And this is a real actor’s theatre. Actors just love to come here.”

It’s a theatre that finds its leaders by taking a risk on actors who are still proving themselves as directors – at least, that has been the formula since the turn of the century. The actors in turn seem to have an instinct for what an audience wants and, crucially, how to get the best actors to come North and how to get the best out of them once they arrive.

Hastie has taken time out of the first day of his rehearsals for Coriolanus, which he is directing and presenting on the Crucible stage this month, to talk about the theatre’s recent award success.

“This afternoon we were doing the tour around the building which we always do with new casts and the Coriolanus cast bumped into the cast of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which were having their tour, and it was a lovely moment to see all the actors excited and talking about the theatre,” says Hastie.

“On the tour I also get to take actors onto the stage of the Crucible, some of them for the first time, and it is really quite special to watch actors go on to that stage and experience what it is like for the first time. They physically respond to the space and it is a wonderful thing to witness. The Crucible is the most incredibly empowering space for an actor because while it feels unbelievably epic, it also feels like you are in an incredibly intimate space. If I had to identify one thing that makes us such an ambitious theatre I think it’s the magic of the space.”

I had hoped to avoid using such ineffable terms as ‘magic’ while writing about the Crucible, but it is a space that encourages such descriptions. Sam West was the first artistic director to take me on to the stage of the Crucible so I could experience what Hastie was describing, and from the stage you realise it’s true. It feels like the most epic space, yet from the centre of the stage you also feel like you could whisper into the ear of an audience member sitting on the back row.

For the alchemical quality of the space Sheffield can thank the building’s first artistic director Colin George, who was inspired by American-built theatres to make the Crucible a thrust stage with the audience on three sides, highly unusual in England in the 1970s

A production which took full advantage of the ability of the Crucible to transform from the grand to the intimate was the one for which Sheffield Theatres won the Achievement in Technical Theatre Award at last month’s Stage Awards, Life of Pi. Based on the worldwide bestselling Yann Martel book, the adaptation by Lolita Chakrabarti premiered at the venue in July last year.

“The producer suggested Sheffield as a regional theatre where we could open because of the thrust stage,” says Chakrabarti. “I only knew of Sheffield Crucible by reputation, I’d never worked there, but as soon as I saw it, I realised it was the perfect space. You can do very poetic small things and tell epic stories on the same stage.

“It’s also an extremely friendly and open place to be, Sheffield and the theatre I mean. The people who work there were always willing to listen to us and our impossible demands. When I said my script would have a ship sinking, they just worked out how to do it.”

I suppose all Yorkshire cities share that ‘can do’ attitude, but maybe Sheffield’s industrial past has forged a certain spirit in the city which permeates the theatre.

Chakrabarti’s Life of Pi will be heading into the West End this summer, taking up residence at Wyndham’s Theatre where, like so many productions before it over the past two decades, it will carry the name of Sheffield Theatres into one of the most globally important theatre arenas.

And the good news keeps on coming with the recent announcement that Standing at the Sky’s Edge The Musical – featuring music by Sheffield balladeer Richard Hawley and a story by playwright Chris Bush – will be transferring to the National theatre in 2021 – following its sell out performances at the Crucible last year.

People from all over the world will see this production and they will see that it was made in Sheffield, the multiple-award-winning, record-breaking Yorkshire venue that is on our doorsteps.