John Tomlinson, Sheffield Theatres producer: ‘We have a bigger responsibility to make sure plays are right and relevant’
March 2019 has been, says John Tomlinson, the perfect month to start work as Sheffield Theatres' new producer.
The company has undergone its first rebrand in years with a strident overhauled logo – an exclamation mark replaces the 'i' in Sheffield - and excellent reviews have greeted Standing At The Sky's Edge, Richard Hawley and Chris Bush's musical about the Park Hill flats which has just opened at the Crucible.
"The welcome has been perfect," says John, successor to Caroline Dyott who left for London's Donmar Warehouse in November.
"I know the place really well, I know the people and the city inside out - as expected, everyone was an absolute dream and welcomed me with open arms. Day one, and onwards, was perfect."
John certainly isn't a stranger to Sheffield. He spent a year on a placement at the theatres as an apprentice producer - his first proper job in the industry - then continued as an assistant producer before a spell at York Theatre Royal. Returning was always an ambition, he says, sitting down to chat in the Crucible foyer before a meeting about the sold-out Park Hill show.
"I was really overwhelmed at first when I got the news, because this is my dream job - in this place, this theatre. Getting all those ducks in a line was perfect for me."
The role forms part of the senior team alongside chief executive Dan Bates and artistic director Robert Hastie. At 32, John is relatively young for such a high-profile position, but he is quietly driven and has notched up some very impressive achievements, from setting up his own company to delivering a large-scale project in Manchester that commemorated the Battle of the Somme.
"My responsibility is really understanding and getting the detail of the productions we make," he says. "Things we put our new logo to and our stamp on - all the things we as Sheffield Theatres want to make and say about the world, I have influence within."
He'll liaise with the other bosses to help steer the organisation, but day-to-day tasks will involve working with the technical manager - who oversees lighting, sound, wardrobe and sets - as well as the administration team and the company manager.
"My responsibility is to ensure we're doing the right things for our community, that we're influencing the rest of the industry, and we're choosing the right people to work with and the right stories to present."
He wants to make his mark quickly. "When you go to a new place you think about the impact you might have. This place has a really great pipeline of projects that are nearly ready, or need some work to be ready. You hope that if there are gems like Standing At The Sky's Edge, then with the right support and development they'll be the next big thing people will love."
John grew up a fan of the city's theatre scene. "When I was at secondary school I started to understand a bit more about contemporary work and theatre in itself, studied it and had a brilliant drama teacher who took us to Sheffield all the time. I'm from Goole, which is only up the road, so it was the go-to place."
He saw his first Shakespeare play, Othello, at the Crucible aged 13, along with 'lots of other stuff'. "I felt I had a pretty good grasp of what they were doing when I was quite young. Once I knew a bit more about what needs to happen behind the scenes, I thought 'maybe there's a place for me back there'."
After dabbling in acting at sixth form college and at Salford University, he took a degree in drama and media. "I did enjoy performing, and still would, but it felt like my skills, appetite and excitement was about asking 'Why do people go to the theatre?' I try and understand that from different points of view. Theatre is a community, it's a platform for sharing stories and I have always loved sharing stories in whatever situation I'm in, whether it's with my parents having dinner, talking about the day, or a big political message that you're going to put on stage that thousands of people are going to see."
He joined a production scheme for young people at the Contact Theatre in Manchester and mounted 'DIY projects' of his own. "At the time I was working for a bank, so I was doing theatre outside of those hours and really trying to find where my path should lead."
Was theatre in his family background?
"No, far from it. My mum and dad were always so supportive of any choices I made - I think they probably expected I would go into sport, but that definitely isn't where my skills lie."
Apprenticeships like the one he took in Sheffield are 'invaluable', he thinks. "And so necessary to give people those kinds of opportunities you might not get otherwise. Now, coming back, I'm very keen to support the next generation of theatre-makers, arts managers and producers. It is an amazing career to have but there are not enough people maybe that know that it is a viable option."
Sheffield, he says, has 'changed as a community and will continue to change'. "Theatre has to respond to that quickly to make sure the people living here now are represented in the workforce and on stage."
The theatres have to strike a tricky balance between new, innovative work and guaranteed crowdpleasers.
"We have an audience, between the Crucible and the Lyceum, which sometimes are very separate," says John. "But they are part of the same organisation. You've got the best of both worlds. There aren't many theatres in this country that can risk a new play in an auditorium the Crucible's size, which means we're in a really privileged position. But it also means we have a bigger responsibility to make sure that play's right and relevant, because attention is quickly on us if it's not."
Asked whether theatre is in a healthy state in 2019, he considers his answer carefully.
"Sheffield Theatres is in a good place with its audiences and the amount of amazing work we do here, on stage and out in the community. Theatre has lots of challenges and there's more support needed between different organisations and cities. As an industry we need to shout loudly about how brilliant it is if you come and take part."
London is saturated with culture, he observes, however 'incredible' its theatre sector may be. "Occasionally amazing things happening elsewhere don't get the coverage they deserve. In my opinion you're as likely to see the next amazing project in Sheffield, or any regional theatre for that matter, as you are at any theatre in London."
The upcoming Crucible production of Life of Pi, based on the novel by Yann Martel, will be something to behold, he promises. Staff have successfully solved the conundrum of how to depict several animals, including a huge tiger, and a 16-year-old boy stranded on a single lifeboat.
John plans to move to Sheffield full-time soon, and is looking forward to another of his new job's key duties - watching as many plays as possible around the country to pick up ideas. "That's the fun bit," he says.
To achieve such a big ambition has happened sooner than he might have expected, he admits.
"I could have been sitting here in 10 years' time and been very happy about that. I want to be here long-term, because this is a place that has so much power and influence over Sheffield and the arts industry. It's a beacon for positivity."
‘Theatre as a tool for action’
John Tomlinson is one of three people behind the Stand and Be Counted Theatre Company – the UK’s first ‘Theatre Company of Sanctuary' that chiefly works with asylum seekers and refugees.
The group has just completed a series of 10 creative sessions at the Montgomery Theatre in Sheffield city centre, supporting Syrian families to learn and practice English, and to settle in their new home country more comfortably.
“It's very much a response to what's happening in the world right now – theatre as a tool for action,” says John.
“We make work that's really accessible but also has a key message about where the world is and where it could be if people took action.”
In Manchester, meanwhile, he was involved in the Somme 100 project in Heaton Park in 2016, which featured a performance by a national children’s choir, newly-commissioned short films, dance, a concert by the Hallé Orchestra and a specially-written poem by Lemn Sissay. It was led by the Leeds-based Slung Low company, which makes epic productions like Camelot: The Shining City, which took actors and audiences out of the Crucible and on to Sheffield’s streets in 2015.
“Their care and dedication to a project is something that's remarkable,” says John.