Woman to Watch in a Theatre to Watch
Steve Orme speaks to Theresa Heskins, artistic director of Newcastle-under-Lyme's New Vic, about the theatre's record year at the box office
One of the strangest phenomena I've come across while reporting for the British Theatre Guide has been the continued success of a theatre tucked away off a main road only a short distance from one of the most deprived areas in the country.
Over the years there've been big improvements to Stoke-on-Trent yet it still comes at the wrong end of the table for deprivation, skills and education.
But just a few miles away is Newcastle-under-Lyme. Its New Vic Theatre is thriving. It's established itself at the heart of the local community and keeps attracting audiences for its varied programme of high-quality work.
Three-and-a-half years ago Theresa Heskins, formerly with specialist new-writing company Pentabus, became only the third artistic director in the history of the New Vic - Europe's first, purpose-built theatre-in-the-round.
She's certainly made her mark in that time and in March was named in the Cultural Leadership Programme's inaugural list of 50 Women to Watch in the creative arts. She was recognised for an "outstanding contribution" to regional theatre by exploiting the impact and intimacy of the New Vic.
She explains how the theatre succeeds. "I think it's extraordinary. We serve quite a wide catchment area, so our audience comes from Shropshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire - Cheshire in particular has got some of the wealthiest areas in the country.
"But also right on our doorstep is the city of Stoke which has high rates of teenage pregnancy, low rates of achievement at GCSE, high unemployment - all those things that make an area difficult for people to live in and difficult to achieve in, low self-esteem which the government doesn't rate but we see it when we go out and do our work with those communities.
"We have a fantastic audience base, a really committed and diverse audience base, and that's all to do with the incredible relationship with the community that we benefit from that goes back over half a century (to the former Victoria Theatre in Stoke) and has never been interrupted."
When she first arrived at the New Vic she was surprised at how people talked themselves down. But over the past 12 months things have changed.
"I'd open a newspaper and I'd see articles about Stoke and north Staffordshire - the only place in the country that has more BNP councillors is Barking and Dagenham. I'd see incredible things about deprivation and poverty, how awful the area is.
"What I hear now is how Stoke City are in the Premier League and what an exciting thing that is, and I hear about the Staffordshire Hoard and how this amazing treasure that people want to queue up for hours to see comes from Staffordshire.
"And so being named as one of the Women to Watch is a really terrific thing - this region is producing excellence and quality on a national scale that's admired by the rest of the nation. So that's really important to me as a representative of this theatre to be included in that.
"On a more personal level it was great to see my work and contribution recognised. And also to be part of a group of really fantastic women who achieve so much in the arts sector."
The New Vic has managed to overcome difficult times by scheduling more work including more co-productions. The usual ten shows a year, nine produced in north Staffordshire and one which visits in a reciprocal arrangement with the Stephen Joseph Theatre at Scarborough, have been increased to 14 this year, with plays coming from Bolton Octagon and Oldham Coliseum while Stephen Joseph has provided two extra shows.
"We were planning this year right back at the start of last year when a big dark cloud of recession was looming over us," says Theresa.
"We all thought 'crikey, this is going to be dreadful, we're going to have an awful year.' In fact our box office did start to slip with all that talk of recession. So instead of compromising on our artistic values and charging people the same price for a ticket but giving them a less high-quality experience, we decided to offer them more opportunities to come to the Vic.
"As a result our audiences have been just fantastic. The recession didn't hit in the end - in fact having started the year thinking this was going to be the worst and most difficult year ever, we've had the best year we've ever had critically and commercially. It's been an extraordinary year. Now we just have to build on that."
Theresa Heskins has certainly made people take notice of the quality of the work that she's programmed. Last year she directed Bryony Lavery's adaptation of Magdalen King-Hall's The Wicked Lady and her own adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe broke box-office records.
This year the New Vic has produced its first mini-rep season, Michael Frayn's Alphabetical Order and Copenhagen and staged its first promenade production, Theresa's adaptation of Dickens' Bleak House.
She says her job has been made easier by her predecessors. Peter Cheeseman, who died in April, was with the theatre for 36 years. His successor, Gwenda Hughes, was artistic director for nine years.
"For me it's been a very valuable thing to inherit, particularly in terms of the building that is so strongly allied to its community. This really feels like a building that does belong to its community.
Accessible to all
"Before that the Old Vic had a long history of a relationship with local people that takes ages to cultivate and I'm so grateful to Peter for the work that he did, making that happen through documentaries, going out and researching them in the local community, through having ensemble actors who stayed here for long periods of time and really got to know the area and respect the area. That's been a great thing to inherit.
"Gwenda used to talk about this as a theatre of glass, accessible to all. So for her as well that idea of community being able to use this theatre as a resource was a really important one.
"I wanted to come here partly because of all the history that I was inheriting from Peter and Gwenda. I wanted to run a building that was owned by every element of its local community, that isn't an ivory tower - I'm not interested in that at all.
"I want people to feel they can come into this building, be welcomed by it, find theatre here that is going to be entertaining and accessible but also offer some substance."
Theresa grew up in a tower block on a London council estate and went to a "really rough" school before going to Oxford University where she saw "how the other half lived". Now she says she looks at her work with both a low-brow and an academic slant.
"What I wanted to do when I came here was to start to bring some of the forms and approaches that we think of as quite avant-garde and on the edge but are actually some of the most accessible ways of seeing theatre. I felt this was a great place to do it because it's a very modern building.
"I think one of the reasons we've created lots of ways of producing different theatre - site-specific theatre and so on - is because as a profession we feel a little bit suffocated by the building stock that we've got in this country.
"So much of what we ask people to come to as theatre is performed in buildings that are 200 or 300 years old. There isn't much else in life that we accept on a daily basis that's 200 or 300 years old - we want things to be modern.
"I think one of the things that this building does fabulously and there aren't many that do is it has a very modern relationship between the stage and the audience - not an 18th century one. I think everything we produce has a slightly different edge because of that."
The New Vic's busy schedule and the fact that it has only one space means, according to Theresa, that everyone is pulling in the same direction.
"The staff come out of one tech and go straight into another show. It means we can maintain departments that other theatres don't any longer maintain: we've got a fully staffed workshop, we've got a costume department, a props department, stage management team - they're all in the building all the time throughout the year.
"The technical department has four people, two light and two sound, we've got an in-house designer, an in-house lighting designer, so we're really fortunate in that respect. We're almost entirely self-sufficient, so our resources go very much further because we farm so little out to other organisations."
There's little staff movement and actors keep returning to north Staffordshire.
"I'm always really impressed by their level of enthusiasm for the building," says Theresa. "The fact that actors come back again and again proves that we're doing something right.
"It's a fantastic place to play in - being in the round is very exposing at first but once an actor is used to it and comfortable with it, it's a very liberating and exciting space to be in. The actors feel they're in a very inclusive space.
"It's a space that's about the performer and I think it works at its best when the performer is at the absolute heart of it."
So what about Theresa's ambition? She's not sure whether she will be at the New Vic as long as her predecessors but she's enjoying herself immensely.
"I can't believe I've been here three-and-a-half years. It feels like only yesterday. And I still feel shiny and new.
"I really feel that I'm achieving what I set out to do, what I wanted to do. I'm surprised that I've been able to achieve it so quickly. I wanted to take the audience on a bit of a theatrical adventure.
"I wanted to bring to the building a way of experiencing theatre that I felt it didn't have, which is to tell a narrative as much through the physical and visual language as through the text.
"I started quite gently. I was really surprised how immediately the audience grasped it and were excited about it.
"My ambition has always been and continues to be to do good work for ordinary people. That's all I ever wanted out of theatre. I'm very lucky to be able to do that."