Star Interview: New mission means all the world's a stage for Sheffield Theatres chief
Dan Bates is going on an adventure. The chief executive of Sheffield Theatres is bidding farewell to Yorkshire and heading for the Far East.
But the search is definitely not beginning for a new boss, he insists, sitting down to talk in the Crucible Theatre’s foyer bar.
He has just had photos taken on the set of the Wizard of Oz, the Christmas production that finished at the weekend, and is still impressed by the show’s staging that took audiences from Kansas to a fantasy land.
“There were thousands of LED lights to create the Yellow Brick Road and the whole floor lifted up to become Oz,” he says. “The staff love that because they’re getting a challenge.”
Dan has led the Crucible Theatre, its Studio space and the neighbouring Lyceum for eight years, and is about to take a ‘short sabbatical’ from mid-February to June when he will travel through Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia, seeking new opportunities for the theatre company in the hope of giving Sheffield’s drama programme a more global outlook.
It sounds very exciting.
“It will be,” says Dan. “For me, there’s always a little bit of ‘What’s next?’ to keep me interested and keen.”
The stars were aligned, he says. Artistic director Robert Hastie has fully established himself after two years, and the venues are in a ‘stronger place’ – apart from one shortcoming.
“We do hardly any international work here. When you look at how the city and its population is changing, it would be great to explore some new avenues. Ultimately, if we can start collaborating with companies overseas, we could take our work out to those places or bring other pieces of work here.”
The seeds of the trip were planted last March when Dan went on holiday to Singapore and looked around an arts centre called The Esplanade, run by ‘leadership guru’ Benson Puah.
“They opened up the whole organisation for me for two days. It was really amazing. I asked if there was an opportunity for me to come back and they said ‘Yes, please do’.”
The Sheffield Theatres board gave his idea the thumbs-up and Claire Murray, communications and fundraising director, is stepping up in Dan’s place. For the first month, his sabbatical is to be paid for by the Arts Council and the British Council’s Artists’ International Development Fund.
Dan thinks The Esplanade, a striking-looking complex in Marina Bay at the mouth of the Singapore River, would be ‘very receptive’ to taking work from Sheffield. He likens it to the National Theatre in London ‘mixed with a concert hall’, and half of the programme there is international work.
“They also do a lot of free foyer activities. One of our ambitions here is to make our foyers a little more welcoming and make sure there are more activities during the day.”
Progress is already being made in Sheffield. Each October the theatres open their doors for Fun Palaces, two days of workshops, tours and activities, while Mountains – The Dreams of Lily Kwok, a play by In-Sook Chappell based on Helen Tse’s memoir Sweet Mandarin, is being brought to the Studio in May as the company’s first piece of Chinese drama.
There are other ‘big drivers’, Dan says. “Nearly 40,000 people have been to see the Wizard of Oz, which is fantastic, and nearly 50,000 have been to see the Lyceum pantomime. A huge number of people want to see our work.”
Heavyweight material is coming up in the first half of this year, such as revivals of Peter Gill’s play The York Realist, co-produced with London’s Donmar Warehouse, and Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon.
“On top of that, there are crucial things about keeping theatre live in people’s minds, and how we can engage with those who probably don’t want to come to the theatre but want to use their phones to have a ‘live’ digital experience. Those things are quite pressing for us.”
Dan wants to widen the diversity of his workforce, addressing any imbalances with ‘renewed vigour’. The organisation employs 112 permanent staff, plus a large number of casuals.
“We’re not a posh organisation. But there is a perception that we could be. There are some people who like to get dressed up to come here and there are others who don’t. I love that mix.”
Ticket prices have been lowered, with the cheapest seats for Crucible productions now costing £15. “Which is still a barrier, for some people, but for many that’s actually like going to the cinema.”
And then there’s the ‘game-changer’ – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the Sheffield-set musical about a 16-year-old aspiring drag queen that became a sleeper hit last year after premiering at The Crucible. It quickly transferred to the West End’s Apollo Theatre, where its run has been extended.
“It’s funny, because it was a huge risk for us to invest in a big production, in February,” says Dan.
“That’s a difficult time of year. No-one’s got any money, let’s face it. They had to constantly change it, and rewrite it, and bits were coming and going. When it opened we had hardly sold any tickets.
“But what was fascinating was there was a buzz within this organisation about the show. Once that joy started to come out of the building, and as soon as the audience saw it, the sales just went crazy.”
But the initial sluggish response stopped the show from having a longer stint in its home city.
“Everyone was saying ‘Why haven’t you extended this?’ We could have done, we sometimes extend shows, but you need two or three months. It can’t be that off the cuff.
“At the point we needed to extend there were no financial reasons why we should. There were no reviews.”
Jamie is still earning money for Sheffield at the Apollo, though, as the city’s theatres remain a partner in the project.
“It’s a great deal because we have no financial risk but we get a weekly sum. That comes back into the organisation and we’d probably be able to commission a play.”
There is even speculation the musical could reach Broadway. “There’s lots of rumours about all that. Who knows. The people of Sheffield got behind that story.
“There are some who’ve seen it 15 times already in London. That’s a big commitment. I’ve seen it three times, but that’s for work. I’d quite like to go again.”
Ultimately, box office successes spread the word about Sheffield Theatres, which has to generate much of its own income. The company’s Arts Council grant accounts for nine per cent of the annual budget, and the city council supplies three per cent.
“We play a big part in attracting visitors to the city, and new business. It’s about thinking ‘What does a decent city in the UK need?’ – you probably need a decent theatre as an attractor.”
The company is trying to book bigger shows for the Lyceum. The 2016 production of No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, only visited a handful of cities other than Sheffield.
“They went to places where they knew they’d be welcomed. Producers love coming to Sheffield. The staff are a little bit more – I’m going to say it – skilled. Other places are a bit like ‘We just unload the lorry and shove it on’.”
Dan grew up in north-east London as the middle child between two sisters. His mother was a school secretary, and his dad was an accountant. He went to the theatre as a child on school visits and with family, but it was always a treat.
“We used to go to the London Palladium to see the panto there and stuff like that. It was literally once a year. I had a fantastic drama teacher at school. I never really wanted to act, but I started to get into lighting; the organisational, bossy area. I really enjoyed that.”
Dan, 52, trained in stage management at the Central School of Speech and Drama. “I realise how lucky people of my age are now. We had grants then.”
His first job was with York theatre company Riding Lights, then he went to Windsor’s Theatre Royal and the Leeds Playhouse in 1987, just before it became the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
He worked his way up from stage manager to executive director in Leeds, and took the job of CEO at York Theatre Royal before joining Sheffield. “It was always on my radar, I always used to come to the Crucible. I had to get this job, really.”
Today he lives with his partner on the Sheffield-Rotherham border.
Chatty and casually dressed, he doesn’t seem in the least bit corporate, which is reassuring.
“I love my job, and I love Sheffield, and the theatres,” says Dan, who is also a member of the Sheffield Culture Consortium and sits on the board of the city centre business improvement district. “My days are so random, dealing with things that come up. Which is also the attraction to it.”
We’re out of time, and Dan has to go to his next meeting, about bringing ‘another huge show’, a musical, to Sheffield next year. In the meantime he’s managed to encapsulate the mission for his Far Eastern journey. “It’s about trying to find the equivalent of the Crucible, and Sheffield Theatres, abroad. And there will be some, I know. I just don’t know where they are at the moment.”
‘The power of new work is fantastic’
Dan Bates says Sheffield Theatres is swimming against the tide by championing original theatre work.
Unusually, the company has a ‘new work co-ordinator’, and recently issued an appeal for freshly-written scripts.
“We think the power of new work is fantastic,” he says. “We’re slightly bucking the trend.”
The Tudor Square theatre complex is the largest outside London, and has won The Stage’s Regional Theatre of the Year prize for three years running.
The industry paper also placed Dan at number 34 in its list of the top 100 most influential people in UK theatre.
Details are being finalised for the new season, to be announced in March, which will have ‘a lot more fresh writing’, and Dan is keen to work with other local groups such as Theatre Delicatessen, Third Angel and Eclipse Theatre.
“We might be called Sheffield Theatres but we’re not the only Sheffield theatre.”