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Karen Hebden

Karen Hebden - Rescuing Derby

Steve Orme discovers what keeps Playhouse boss Karen Hebden awake at night

Two years ago Derby Playhouse was in a financial mess. Like Leicester Haymarket it almost closed. The Playhouse was spending more money than it received through grants and the box office. It had a trading deficit of £400,000 - the biggest in its history.

Along came the new creative team of chief executive Karen Louise Hebden and creative producer Stephen Edwards. Karen immediately upset quite a few people, stating that the city ought to have a new theatre by 2006 and refusing to give amateur groups their usual dates on the main stage so that in-house productions could have longer runs.

Now the Playhouse is on a more sound financial footing, it's breaking box-office records and plans are being drawn up for a new theatre in the city.

Its resurgence is a triumph for Karen Hebden who's proved she's capable of handling a theatre's finances after an unhappy time in her last job. Her tenure at Dublin's Pavilion Theatre ended with her going to an employment appeals tribunal alleging constructive dismissal.

After just over a year in the job, she claimed she was forced to resign as artistic director. She said she'd been treated in an "aggressive, rude and very unpleasant manner" by theatre board chairman Tony Barry and had effectively been stripped of her job.

"Highly talented"

The Pavilion denied she'd been constructively dismissed and acknowledged that she was a "highly talented individual". But the theatre alleged she'd failed to heed the financial limitations of the job after four in-house productions allegedly lost almost £250,000. Karen maintained she'd been made a scapegoat for the theatre's financial difficulties. The tribunal was adjourned; before it reconvened the two parties settled behind the scenes.

Before that, after gaining a diploma at RADA, she'd been assistant director to Jude Kelly at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Then she founded the JFK Repertory Company which specialised in working with new writers.

The public of Derby didn't know anything about her experience at Dublin when the Playhouse appointed her. And when the full extent of the theatre's financial position leaked out, the management had already begun to address it.

When Karen accepted the job at Derby, she knew she had an extremely difficult task on her hands because there's a limit to the amount of money people will pay to see a show at Derby Playhouse.

"It doesn't have a big, expansive great-night-out feel to its building because it's in a shopping centre. There's very little you can do about that. It's not like going to Covent Garden or the Palladium or somewhere that feels really special, so you can't charge the kind of prices that those theatres charge.

"A lot of Government legislation impacts directly on how much you can afford to put on the stage. For instance, the National Insurance hike came in just as we got an increase in grant and it wiped out a large chunk of that. But we're still expected to deliver more art for that grant. So you're then faced with 'well, what do I cut?'

"Nottingham and Leicester both get double the grant that Derby gets and Derby has to start to ask the question: why? We actually have the same number of prospective audiencegoers as both of those theatres and yet Derby has historically always got half the amount that Nottingham gets. I could sleep more easily if I knew why because we do extremely good work, we have better audiences than them, we have much better fund-raising efforts yet there's somehow a perception that Nottingham theatre is better than Derby's and therefore gets more money."

Return of the Bard

When Karen arrived in Derby, the theatre could afford to have only three actors in any show. More than 55% of all the Playhouse's programming was John Godber and pantomime. How things have changed! The theatre's last production was A Midsummer Night's Dream - the first professional Shakespeare play for nine years. Audiences surpassed all expectations. Some 12,500 people saw it. That's more than the number of people who watched Shirley Valentine, although Dream ran for five weeks compared with Shirley's four.

Many people think the Playhouse has chosen safe plays in its programme. Karen denies that emphatically.

"We've tried to build an artistic style for the work that we do. The plays have been sold in a very safe fashion. They've been branded together; we haven't necessarily told people that things are difficult."

That was the case with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd which Karen describes as "basically a contemporary opera and one of the most difficult musicals in the canon. We just told people it was great fun and it was a thriller and they came and they loved it - that's not a safe programming choice.

"Putting Shakespeare on the stage for five weeks is not a safe choice. We chose one that was most likely to appeal to more of a cross-section of our audience because in the end we don't have a Shakespeare audience - we have an audience and we have to persuade that audience who would come to Godber and pantomime that they should come to Shakespeare.

"That's a big journey to take people on in two years. To have done Coward, Shakespeare and Sondheim in a season isn't safe. Dracula seemed like a very safe choice because everyone's heard of it, it's great fun, but actually it's three hours of drama. It was a big play.

"If we'd tried to do an Ibsen or a Chekhov, people would have stayed away in their droves. We've got to take them there, we can't just dump them in the middle of the theatre and say 'this is what you should be enjoying', you've got to encourage them to experiment and to trust us so that we can continue to take them forward."

Leading from the floor

Karen directs occasional Playhouse productions and believes that's an integral part of her job. "I think artistic buildings are led from the rehearsal room floor. That's what Stephen and I have both done. That's what we both passionately believe. That's what Trevor Nunn did at the National, what Nick Hytner does, what Ian Brown is doing up at West Yorkshire, that's what Michael Grandage is doing in Sheffield.

"The building operates because of the way we are and the way we work. It's the only way I can run it. I don't see how else you can build a connection with your audience."

That's one of the many reasons why Derby Playhouse remained open while Leicester Haymarket is still dark. The Haymarket will shortly stage its first show for more than a year after being bailed out by the Arts Council with a £1.3million rescue package.

Arts Council criticism

Karen has no doubt about where the blame lies for the Haymarket's problems: "Arts Council East Midlands seem to have had a drive to push Leicester into representing on its stage the 50% of the community that is Asian within Leicester in a ridiculously short amount of time.

"I think that Mandy, Paul and Kully (chief executive Mandy Stewart and directors Paul Kerryson and Kully Thiarai) tried to deliver that agenda and in consequence lost a large amount of their audience who didn't want to see that work. And to gain that level of Asian audience in the time-scale they'd got was just not possible.

"It's quite interesting that Arts Council East Midlands have very different views as to what each of their theatres is, all of which I think are fundamentally flawed and are actually causing quite a lot of damage to each of those theatres.

"They view Derby Playhouse as a community theatre that delivers community work, like our community play and our youth play. That's how they wanted us to stay because that made us unique within their region. Nottingham does art and Leicester does culturally diverse work. They've actually managed to knacker all three theatres with that view because each of our communities needs a mixture of things; there's a Derby audience that wants art, there's a Derby audience that wants fun, there's a Derby audience that wants cultural diversity, there's a Derby audience that wants all kinds of different things. And that must be the same in Nottingham, that must be the same in Leicester.

"We don't have much crossover audience, so to push each of us to be regionally distinctive seems to be the path up which various theatres have gone and we're now all in a cul-de-sac and we all need help. Leicester's help was slightly more public."

As well as directing, Karen adapted A Christmas Carol for the stage last winter and will be writing this year's seasonal offering, Merlin And The Winter King. This is despite widespread criticism in Derby of her predecessor Mark Clements who received royalties of up to £30,000 a year for writing the panto when he was artistic director of the Playhouse. Karen can't see what all the fuss is about.

"Writers get royalties all the time. Mark got considerably less money than he would if he'd taken his pantomime and given it to (a theatre in) Nottingham."

Eighty-hour weeks

"We all subsidise this building to an enormous extent. I work 80 hours a week - I get paid for 39. I work weekends, I work late nights. So did Mark. He didn't do anything that five or six other artistic directors around the country are doing at any one time because it's cheaper and you can deliver to the strength of your building and therefore make something more successful. I think the criticism that Mark got was completely unwarranted."

As for the future, Karen sees the redevelopment of the Eagle Centre shopping complex in which the theatre is housed as "really exciting" because there may be a new building set aside for the Playhouse. A new performing arts centre in Derby is another possibility.

If either came off it would "lift us into a different league," says Karen. "It would allow us to do much more. We'd have more seats, we'd be able to bring in some big touring shows and it would help to balance the books. If we had a proper touring space that could take big shows I think we could make quite a difference to the economics of this organisation. I think there are lots of exciting things about to happen if we can keep them on the agenda."

The people of Derby owe Karen Hebden a great deal: she rescued the Playhouse when it would have been simple for the board to close the theatre and hope for an Arts Council handout. More than that, she's made sure that national critics have taken notice of the programming that the Playhouse has presented over the past couple of years. If she continues in that vein and Derby gets a new building, the city will be even more in her debt.

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©Peter Lathan 2004