On his first day, Adam Penford discusses his journey to becoming Artistic Director ahead of taking on the role full time from November.
I lived in Nottingham for 18 years, I’ve been away for 18 years and it feels great to be back.
I’ve always wanted to be Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse. When you’re starting out, going to job interviews for assistant director roles, one of the interview questions is always “do you think one day you might like to be an artistic director?” Most people respond with “yes, for the National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company”. But I always said I would love to run Nottingham Playhouse, because it’s my home theatre and a prestigious venue, and plays such an important part in the theatre industry in the UK.
Like most people, my first experience of Nottingham Playhouse was being taken to the pantomime as a child. It was such an exciting event. One year I was asked to go up on stage to do the song sheet and I said no because I was too scared. I was never asked again, and it was something I always regretted. It made me realise that you have to seize opportunities when they come your way and step outside of your comfort zone.
My other memories of the Playhouse are as a teenager. I was part of the Nottingham Youth Theatre, which was based up the road at College Street. We had a special deal where we could watch whatever show happened to be on for a fiver on a Friday evening. I saw a wide range of productions and that was really the beginning of my theatrical education.
It felt important to move away from Nottingham to experience other cities and train. I went to Liverpool for a few years and trained at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, which is Paul McCartney’s drama school. Afterwards, I moved down to London and did a variety of assistant director jobs, before starting to direct my own work. I spent several years at the National Theatre, working under their former Artistic Director, Nick Hytner. I learnt a huge amount about the industry during this time, and forged relationships with a wide variety of people. I’m excited to be bringing this experience and knowledge back to Nottingham.
It’s a challenging time for theatre because of funding squeezes. The local authority are having to make some very difficult decisions because of the level of money they’re receiving from the government, and that affects arts organisations. Nottingham Playhouse is a registered charity, so we are trying to maximise our income through ticket sales, programmes and the bar and restaurant.
We’re also increasingly reliant on donations – and on building close sponsorship relationships with local businesses. SHINE Youth Theatres have, so far, been predominantly funded by individual donations of everything from 50p to £1,000. When households are also being squeezed financially they, quite rightly, expect ambition and excellence in what they come to see. That’s an exciting challenge.
Theatre should be thought-provoking, and challenge the audience and their perceptions. We have to reflect what is happening in the world, particularly at the moment, and engage politically with our audiences through the work we do, whilst also offering a good night out at the theatre.
What I most love most about Nottingham is the people, who have such a strong identity. They’re outspoken and passionate and complex. It’s a diverse cultural hub with a melting pot of different communities. It has such a rich tapestry and sense of history, which means it’s a city with real depth and nuance. Nottingham also has a huge amount of home-grown talent, which I’m looking forward to tapping into, and this is recognised in initiatives like the UNESCO City of Literature status.
Whether you just come to watch the panto once a year, or whether you come and watch stand-up comedy, concerts or dance, or whether you prefer the drama that we programme, we’ve got to cater for everybody. We’ve nearly finalised our programme for 2018, which is immensely exciting, as it will bring some of the best artists, actors, directors and playwrights to the city.
We can present riskier, more challenging work in the studio, and offer emerging artists a place to hone their craft and a place for audiences to see their astonishing work. There’s a whole generation of younger artists in Nottingham and I can’t wait to integrate them further into the organisation.
And there’s our Participation department, which does amazing work and manages to reach a massive amount of people in the community. One of the great examples of that is the SHINE Youth Theatres. These are free groups that we run outside of the building so young people can take part within their own neighbourhoods across the city.
Ultimately, the Playhouse belongs to the community and our audiences. They own it. That’s what we have to honour and that’s what makes it such an exciting place.