Lisa Burger: Running the National Theatre, returning to Sheffield and 10 years of live drama in cinemas - 'I thought the fire alarm was going to go off in our first broadcast with Helen Mirren'

Lisa Burger's job leading the National Theatre puts her at the centre of London's cultural life, but she takes her cue from the organisation's name – because her mission as its executive director is to make sure the whole country benefits from the dramatic work created on the South Bank.

Wednesday, 10th July 2019, 11:48 am
Lisa Burger. Picture: James Bellorini

A qualified accountant who held important roles at the National Gallery and Royal Opera House before joining the National Theatre in 2001, Burger set up the highly successful NT Live programme of cinema broadcasts a decade ago. Since then, screenings of productions ranging from classic Shakespeare to the latest Alan Bennett plays have been watched by six-and-a-half million people worldwide.

She is masterminding a touring project that has brought popular offerings such as One Man, Two Guvnors and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to regional stages, and steers the NT Learning scheme which encompasses Connections, the biggest youth theatre festival in the UK.

And next week she is in Yorkshire to accept an honorary doctorate in music from Sheffield University, having graduated there with a degree in the same subject in 1983.

The National Theatre, on London's South Bank. Picture: Philip Vile

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

"I feel incredibly honoured by the whole thing," she says when asked about the upcoming ceremony. "Sheffield's such a special place for me - I had a really happy time there. But it's also about being recognised by others, which is a little overwhelming to be honest."

It isn't the first time she's returned - in fact, she's been back on many occasions. Her older daughter Claudia read history and politics at the university and her younger daughter Rebecca attended to study medicine too.

"I've been coming for family reasons, but also professionally - the arts in Sheffield continue to be fantastic," says Burger, speaking from her office in the capital.

Musicals, especially, have caught her eye - she was impressed by This Is My Family, Tim Firth's show about a teenager's camping holiday that premiered in the Crucible Studio in 2013, and saw Standing At The Sky's Edge, Richard Hawley and Chris Bush's hymn to the Park Hill estate, in March.

She would love to bring the latter to London - but, lest anyone gets too excited, Burger is not taking part in talks about any proposed transfer.

"It's more an idea - 'it'd be lovely if'. At the National Theatre we make all our own work, largely, but we're always on the lookout for talent and an understanding of how, as part of a vibrant theatre economy, we can showcase. We're not actively involved in it but we'd love to see it come to London."

Burger grew up in Cardiff. Her father ran a financial business which her mother worked for too.

"There was lots of music and theatre at home," she says. "I was hugely lucky in that I was exposed to it, in the nicest possible way, from a really early age. I remember going to see Gilbert & Sullivan and then moving on to opera. But I was also lucky at school – learning the recorder, and being taken on trips to the theatre. Something I think is rather sad right now is there's not enough of that, because of funding and the fact poor teachers are just so busy with quite a strict curriculum."

Sheffield University's large music department, and the opportunity to play with a proper orchestra, was a deciding factor in picking the city - her instrument was the flute. "It was the continuation of something I really loved, at a time when there was slightly less focus on 'What are you going to do with that?'"

However, she admits she 'wasn't cut out to be a performer'. "I ended up becoming a chartered accountant because it was suggested to me that 'working in the arts' was a slightly unformed idea and I needed to bring something, so studying finance would be a way in, as it were. Which indeed it was."

She returned to Cardiff to gain her financial qualifications, and joined the Welsh National Opera as soon as her training finished. The flute, she says, lies in its case these days. "It looks at me a bit sadly... I still sing a bit."

From 1987 to 1997 she worked at the Royal Opera House, and was acting finance director in the period leading up to the closure for renovation of the Covent Garden site. Afterwards she joined the National Gallery Company, becoming its deputy managing director.

What did she learn from her stints at these esteemed places?

"It sparked in me a deep understanding of how you can get work out to more people, and the various things that could make that work possible or could be barriers - that's why going to the National Gallery was really interesting, because galleries are great at being able to draw people in. You can see the impact an exhibition has but you can also see the impact things like the layout of the shop can have, or the catering."

She's pursued this approach at the National Theatre, touring work to 'places that don't have such strong producing of their own and, crucially, getting it to children and young people'.

"I really want them to have the same opportunities and experience that I did," she says. "That's how we're going to nurture the future performers and theatremakers, and that sense of enjoyment and bringing people together as a community."

Burger pitched NT Live to Sir Nicholas Hytner, the National's then artistic director, having 'utterly nicked it from opera'.

"The Metropolitan Opera had been doing it well before we did, but it just seemed such a very good idea - a practical way of serving up theatre to people who couldn't actually get to London to see it."

Hytner stepped up to direct Racine’s Phèdre, starring Dame Helen Mirren and the first production to be broadcast. Mirren was instrumental too, Burger says.

"It really hinged on her agreeing to it, and the rest of the cast as well. But when somebody high-profile like that says 'I'll give it a go' - and it was quite brave - others then follow. It set the bar and was very successful as well. Now we're in 700 screens around the country."

That nerve-wracking first night in 2009 is imprinted on her memory, though - she was watching on a screen at the British Film Institute next door to the National Theatre, 'feeling really sick the whole time'. "I thought the fire alarm was going to go off, or something was going to happen," she confides, laughing. "Of course it didn't... but never have I sat in a cinema and felt quite so jittery."

The theatre, established in 1963 under the artistic directorship of Sir Laurence Olivier, holds a substantial archive of footage which is slowly being made more accessible. National Theatre Collections, a service launching in September, will provide video on a paid-for basis to universities, colleges and libraries - state schools can already watch a selection of plays on demand for free.

Does this mean there will soon be an online resource for the public to log on and watch whatever they want?

"That's tricky," Burger says carefully. "There are issues around quality of the recordings and the rights. As you can imagine, the costs are large, so I'm trying to get it working on a commercial model so we can make some money which we can plough back into increasing the provision for UK schools."

Burger, 57, was made joint chief executive of the National Theatre in March, sharing the additional title with its director Rufus Norris. She lives in West London, and is a trustee of Chelsea Arts Club and the Lyric Hammersmith. Her daily duties typically involve 'meetings and trying to make the books balance'.

"We get about the same amount of subsidy now as when I joined," she observes. "In those days it represented about 40 per cent of our income, these days it's less than 20 per cent. We can just see the way public funding is going. It's very tight out there and, actually, we want to keep doing more. It requires constantly to think of new models and partnerships, and transferring work - whether it's to the West End or Broadway, or out through NT Live. Box office in itself is another really important form of income, as is fundraising and front of house... all those early lessons from the National Gallery."

But, equally, every day is different - chief among her privileges is the chance to see work in progress.

"The variety of it is just fantastic, honestly - I could never have dreamed, back in 1983, that I would end up with the sort of job I've got today. I was so hugely fortunate."

‘An inclusive place for everyone’

Lisa Burger has responded to calls for the National Theatre to host ‘emergency town hall meetings’ to help people in the arts form a ‘resistance’ against Brexit and right-wing populism.

Director Nastazja Somers, who is Polish, instigated the idea on Twitter, writing that she was ‘absolutely scared by what's happening in this country right now’ and winning the backing of Sheffield dramatist Chris Bush.

Burger says such an initiative would ‘absolutely’ be part of her organisation’s remit, adding: “I certainly see our buildings as places where people should be able to talk about things, inspired or challenged by the work they've seen on the stage.”

Clearly there are limits. On Friday, the night before London’s Pride celebrations, a group including lesbian activists was asked to leave the National Theatre following an incident in the Green Room restaurant.

One of the group, Anne Ruzylo, was wearing a T-shirt printed with the words ‘Lesbian: a woman who loves other women’, which could be interpreted as being anti-transgender.

However, in a statement Burger said the clothing was ‘not a factor’ and that there had been ‘a series of disturbances’.

“These began with their refusal to put placards out of sight that featured messages which upset other customers and contravened our visiting policy, and culminated in abusive behaviour towards our staff. The National Theatre must be an inclusive place for everyone, and that means asking visitors to conduct themselves in a way that respects that principle.”

The theatre’s upcoming season features more female than male playwrights, after the institution’s gender balance was criticised.