The play’s the thing for York Theatre Royal

Damien Cruden, artistic director of York Theatre Royal in rehearsals for Blithe Spirit.
Damien Cruden, artistic director of York Theatre Royal in rehearsals for Blithe Spirit.
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York Theatre Royal’s Damian Cruden is bringing Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit to the stage. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad spoke to him.

It’s about 10 minutes into the conversation with York Theatre Royal artistic director Damian Cruden, that we both realise it has been at least a couple of years since we last spoke. The reason for the long hiatus is that Cruden has been busy overseeing one of the most successful periods of work the theatre has experienced in its 250-plus-year history.

It started, arguably, with The Railway Children. Staged in York’s Railway Museum in 2008, the show was a critical and commercial hit. A logistical undertaking that would test the mettle of most men, Cruden oversaw an extraordinary production that returned to the Railway Museum a year later. It then moved to London in 2010 and then to Toronto and back to London in 2011, staged at Waterloo for a second time and winning the theatre an Olivier award.

A passionate Scot whose sense of social justice is strong, Cruden is not falsely modest. He recognises that he has been at the helm of the theatre during an unprecedented period of success.

“It’s down to some good decisions we made 10 years ago,” says Cruden. “One of the key things we did was invest in our youth theatre. We amalgamated with what was Yorkshire Youth Theatre and it gave us an audience and a resource that York Theatre Royal had not had before.

“Prior to that our audience was what you would call a very traditional. Bringing the youth theatre in necessitated a lot of changes, one of the major one being the creation of the studio. If we had a youth theatre, we had to have a space for them to perform and that meant opening up the studio theatre. They get to show 16 to 18 productions a year and they are a really important part of the tapestry of the building.”

The youth theatre is clearly something of which Cruden is justifiably proud, but other theatres have youth arms and yet many would envy the success York has enjoyed. It transpires it is only one of the reasons. An economy of scale is also important at York.

While the building might look to the outside world like a great big, grand theatre, Cruden’s team is deliberately small. It makes the venue’s team light-footed, but more importantly it is a team that must be willing to adapt.

“A lot of the other things that we’ve done are invisible. Back in 1999/2000 we decided to embark on the Investors In People scheme which means the team, while small, is heavily invested in here,” says Cruden.

“We took a look at the way people work and, in theatre particularly, you can have these periods where people are working flat out and then have lulls. That just didn’t make any sense, so instead we try to structure it so that people are always working relatively close to maximum output, but never beyond that.

“It also means we have a team that can move around and take on more than just one specific role, which I think is important for both the organisation and for the team that works here.”

What Cruden doesn’t say, of course, is that much of this is down to his artistic leadership of the organisation. Having learnt his craft at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, he has seen up close an arts organisation that truly belongs to the people of the city. Politically, it is something he has always been interested in creating in York. That spirit gave birth to massive community casts in recent productions like Blood and Chocolate and the Mystery Plays, but it influences more than just that.

“We are servants of the people of the city. It means we are not here to do the work that we are just interested in, but to make work that the people of York will want to see.”

That work includes productions like Blithe Spirit, a play about a novelist who invites a clairvoyant to his home to communicate with the dead - and who summons to the house the spirit of the novelist’s dead wife. The Noel Coward play might be considered a safe choice of work to stage.

“He wrote it in a very dark time for the country. It was 1941 and while we might think of it in a certain way now, it was a play that allowed the country to talk about death and grief. It was a really important play.”

The importance of the play is reflected in an impressive cast which Cruden has gathered, including Nichola McAuliffe as Madam Arcarti and Andrew Hall as Charles Condomine.

It appears Cruden will keep giving the audience what it wants - and reaping the rewards.

Blithe Spirit, York Theatre Royal, May 9 - 31. Tickets 01904 623568.