Twenty years at the helm of York Theatre Royal

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Damian Cruden arrived at York Theatre Royal in 1997. Now celebrating his 20th anniversary, he talks to Sarah Freeman about his plans for the future.

It’s a lovely – and very different – atmosphere when the festival is on and it was what city theatre should be all about.

When we speak Barrie Rutter, that stalwart of the Yorkshire stage, has just announced that he is leaving Northern Broadsides. The news has sent shockwaves through theatreland, but the ripple hasn’t reached Damian Cruden over at York Theatre Royal.

“You’re kidding me?,” says the artistic director who is now marking 20 years at the venue.

“That’s sad news, desperately sad news. Barrie is an absolute servant to the arts and what he has achieved has been amazing and innovative. When he started Northern Broadsides 25 years ago, regional accents didn’t really exist on the stage. Then came Barrie with a determination to do Shakespeare with a northern voice. He made every young person in every Broadsides’ audience realise that theatre – and more specifically Shakespeare – was for them.”

Broadsides are regulars at York, they were there just a few months ago with Cyrano, and Rutter is a friend of the theatre. But Cruden is sad not just on a personal level, but about what it symbolises for the arts in general.

The news came just days after Broadsides failed to secure the Arts Council funding it wanted for a series of projects now unlikely to be realised. Sour grapes? Not according to Cruden.

“When the Arts Council announced who was getting what for the next four years much was made of the fact that it had sliced a little off the budgets of some of the big London theatres to give more to those outside the capital.

“It was seen as a step in the right direction, a way of finally redressing the funding imbalance and so it appeared. But then what happens? A week later, one of those organisations, the National Theatre, is handed more than £1m from a different pot to tour its work.”

The Arts Council was, unsurprisingly, accused of smoke and mirror tactics, but those like Cruden who have been in the business for a couple of decades know that when you run a theatre in the north of England it is a case of adapt or die.

The theatre’s summer show is a case in point. While most theatres still go dark during the holidays, in York it’s one of venue’s busiest times of the year and was born out Cruden realising a long-held dream of staging The Railway Children, complete with steam trains.

In 2008, the theatre decamped to the National Railway Museum just down the road and the production of E Nesbit’s much loved novel was nothing short of a triumph. It won five star reviews, transferred to London and Toronto and to Cruden it proved there was a market for a big summer production.

Which is why he spent much of July in rehearsals for the latest Theatre Royal epic, Robin Hood: The Arrow of Destiny.

“It’s Robin Hood but not quite as you know it,” says Cruden. “Taking a familiar story and turning it on its head is the fun bit, so in our production Maid Marian disabuses the myth of Robin Hood. He is lost in the forest, he’s not exactly helping the poor or even robbing the rich and it’s Marian who goes in search of the man behind the legend.”

The show is written by Richard Hurford who was behind last summer’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and Cruden is co-directing this year’s production with Susan McLean. While, like most theatres, the Royal’s demographic is largely white, middle-aged and middle class, Cruden has taken great strides to drop the average age of audiences and not just in the summer.

Key to this is the annual Takeover festival which sees a group of young people aged between 12 to 26 do just that. It’s now in its ninth year and was born out of a significantly less successful attempt by the government to get more people into the theatre.

“In 2008 at the Labour Party conference, Gordon Brown announced that the government was going to give £2.39m of funding to the A Night Less Ordinary scheme to give away 500,000 theatre tickets to young people. It was a nice idea, but I thought we could do something better than that, something which would have a real legacy.

“We took our slice of the cash and staged the very first Takeover where a group of incredibly talented young people programme the work, do the marketing and run the place. It’s a lovely – and very different – atmosphere when the festival is on and it was what city theatre should be all about.”

The theatre is also part of the Be SpectACTive initiative which aims to put power into the hands of audience members.

“Over the next four years we are committed to engaging 100 people to be part of our programming group.

“The idea is that we show them how the theatre runs, introduce them to every department and get them to watch the productions that are on and listen to their feedback. It’s about giving the community a real sense of ownership over the theatre.”

It’s something which becomes apparent each year when panto season arrives. Unlike most Christmas shows which descend each year with a new cast, York has a returning band of panto veterans. Written by Berwick Kaler, who is also the country’s longest-serving Dame, the audience are as much a part of the show as the cast.

However, last year there was one piece of the jigsaw missing. Kaler’s sidekick Martin Barrass was seriously injured in a motorbike accident and his presence was very much missed.

“Martin is doing well,” says Cruden, who directs the annual panto.

“In fact he’s not only back but he is perhaps the only person I know who could have a crash as serious as that and come back even better. We keep joking that the doctors performed a miracle and found his brain.

“We are an extended family. It wasn’t the same with one of us missing, so this year it will be special.”

Before then though there is Robin Hood and the rest of the autumn season which includes a new production of Pride and Prejudice written by the comedian Sara Pascoe.

“It’s now over a year since we reopened following a major redevelopment. It’s always a challenge when you have to close a building and there is a settling in process.

“I think it’s fair to say that the new front of house areas are still finding their identity, but we have found good landlords in the York Conservation Trust who are with us for the long term and the future, I hope, looks bright.”

Robin Hood: The Arrow of Destiny, York Theatre Royal, to September 2. 01904 623568,