Tom Bird had only just got his feet under his desk at York Theatre Royal when he committed a cardinal sin. Sat in the dress circle, watching for the first time the venue’s panto, the new executive director happened to catch one of the Wagon Wheels thrown into the audience at the end of each show by veteran dame Berwick Kaler.
“I ate it,” he says slightly conspiratorially. “I had no idea that you were supposed to take it home and keep it on your shelf for 20 years as a souvenir. It had been a long day, I had skipped lunch, I hadn’t eaten dinner, but I can still hear the intake of breath from those sitting near me as I took that first bite.”
To be fair to Bird, the Theatre Royal’s panto would have been a baptism of fire for anyone. It’s not just Kaler who is something of a legend round these parts. Sidekick Martin Barrass, principal boy Suzy Cooper and arch villain David Leonard have notched up more than 100 years between them and it’s always been much more than a series of gags, strung together by a few big song and dance numbers. “I have seen a lot of theatre in lots of different parts of the world, but I have never seen anything like it,” admits Bird. “To be honest, I’m not sure anything like it exists elsewhere.”
While he still has some way to go to make up for the panto faux pas, it was proof of one of the reasons why Bird, who was previously executive producer at Shakespeare’s Globe, wanted to move not just to York, but to this theatre in particular.
“It’s a theatre with history,” he says. “There aren’t many places where you walk past an 18th century gateway backstage and when they did the recent renovation they discovered an ancient cobbled street and medieval well. Of course this is York, so it’s easy to become a bit blasé about old relics, but even as a venue this is a place to be cherished.”
Dating back to 1774, the Theatre Royal is the oldest producing house outside of London and it was a place familiar to Bird. Having grown up in the North East, when he moved to London York was often a convenient halfway house for meeting up with family and he admits to having had a “bit of a crush on the place”.
“I still can’t quite believe I am here. As a visitor, I have loved this place for so long and now I get to call it home.”
It may seem all the more surreal given that Bird never planned on a career in the theatre. However, while studying English Literature at Edinburgh University he would fund his summers working at the city’s annual Fringe Festival and when a job came up at the Globe while he was studying for an MA he went for it.
Starting out as general dogsbody, he worked his way through the ranks and while he looks back fondly at his time there, his last season was something of a nightmare. Emma Rice, who Yorkshire audiences will know from her work with Kneehigh Theatre, which often tours to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, had been appointed the Globe’s new artistic director.
It was an interesting choice for a theatre which oozes Elizabethan dramatic tradition from its bare wooden seats to the stage open to the elements. Rice has never been described as “traditional” and when her version of Cymbeline opened, the disquiet behind the scenes was audible. The Globe’s board wasn’t happy with Rice’s introduction of designed sound and use of a lighting rig and her departure was announced.
“It was really hard,” says Bird. “I loved Emma’s work. But more than that, I thought her ideas, her creativity was good for the Globe and the whole thing seemed to blow up out of nowhere. However, while I know I am in danger of sounding like I am sitting on the fence, I could also see the other side.”
In a bland statement, the board said it wanted to go back to historically accurate productions, devoid of contemporary sound and lighting techniques. Rice has since said that she felt her working-class background went against her.
“Everyone who works at the Globe loves it,” says Bird. “They feel a sense of ownership of it. That’s why it is such a special place, but it’s also why every so often you get these clashes. It was, let’s just say, unfortunate for everyone involved.”
There certainly appears to be no hard feelings from Rice who when Bird’s appointment at York was announced described him as one of “the brightest stars in the industry” combining “a fierce intellect, a curious mind and an ability to listen, change and adapt”. He will need all those talents at York, which faces some of the same challenges as the Globe.
“It is one of the most visited cities in the country,” he says. “People flock to York because it is historic and while we have to make the most of that tourist audience we also have to keep moving forward. This isn’t a museum and we have to make sure that we are also a theatre for the people who live in the city.”
Bird, who moved north with his young family in December, already has a long to do list and at the top of it is finding more space. “We could do with more storage space, more rehearsal space and we have a waiting list for our youth theatre because we don’t have the room to expand,” he says. “There are those practical problems to find solutions for, but there is also a more creative wish list.
“One of my best days when I was working for the Globe was when we performed Henry VI on the battlefields at Towton just down the road at Tadcaster. It was where he lost the throne and there was something really special about the atmosphere that day. The weather was kind and when the sun set over those fields it was really quite emotional.
“Of course these four walls here are our home, but I think it is good every so often to get out into the community and do something a little different. With the arrival of streaming services like Netflix, theatre is facing more competition than it ever has before, so we can’t stand still.”
Bird is full of praise for Theatre Royal artistic director Damien Cruden, who spearheaded the pioneering TakeOver festival which sees the venue given over to young people each year and has invested in quality summer productions at a time when most other theatres go dark.
However, these are interesting times for the arts and with all venues staring reduced funding streams in the face, it has inevitably led to greater pressure to co-produce. It’s one Bird wants to resist. “Co-production does have its advantages in terms of being able to share the cost of a production, but by its very nature it also means that you lose an element of control and you lose some of your identity.
“I really believe it’s important that we produce as much of our own work as we can as. That is the only way we can tell stories that speak to the people out there. I am not saying we will have an entire Mandarin season, but this city, for example, has a huge population of Chinese students and I think it would be interesting to explore how we can appeal to some of them.”
Before then, Bird’s past may well come back to haunt him with York due to get its own version of the Globe when a temporary Rose Theatre is built on the car park at Clifford’s Tower. “I have to keep telling people that it is nothing to do with me, but it is a good fit for the city,” he laughs. “When I was at the Globe I loved the fact that we could put on Timon of Athens and we might very well have a teenager from Greece in the audience.
“The best theatre finds a voice through the centuries and that’s why I love it.”