The charming and much-admired Chris Honer, artistic director of Manchester’s Library Theatre from 1987–2014, died last week.
During his time in charge of one of Britain’s leading repertory theatres, the company won more than 40 Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards. Chris himself received a special achievement award when he stepped down as artistic director on the merging of the Library with HOME in 2014.
A Londoner, Chris was artistic director of Derby Playhouse and Chester Gateway before joining the Library after the sudden death of artistic director Howard Lloyd-Lewis. In an interview looking back over his first 20 years he recalled: “In those days the company also staged productions at the Wythenshawe Forum and between the two theatres we did 13 or 14 productions a year, some of which I directed. It was quite a baptism of fire!”
By taking on the Library, Chris in many ways became the inheritor of Britain’s repertory theatre tradition, which was started by Annie Horniman, in 1908, at Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre—just across the road from the Library Theatre’s Central Library base. It was a legacy he was determined to honour: he instilled in company members the belief that absolutely anyone, from any walk of life, should be able to come to any Library Theatre Company production and be entertained, informed and educated.
When Chris took over, LTC already had an international reputation, partly based on a series of European premières of Stephen Sondheim musicals. Chris strengthened that reputation with a string of award-winning productions, including The Merchant of Venice (1993) and The Life of Galileo (1996). Chris by no means directed all the Library’s successes and he was always ready to credit the highly-talented team he had around him, notably Roger Haines and Paul Kerryson.
When Manchester City Council confirmed the long-talked-about major refurbishment of Central Library would begin in 2010, and that upon its reopening four years later the venue would not include the 312-seat theatre space, exploratory talks were held with Manchester’s Cornerhouse about the two companies merging.
In the meantime, LTC, with Chris still artistic director, signed a deal to present three shows a year at The Lowry, as well as three site-specific productions between 2010–2013. From this period, Chris’s outstanding production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a lasting memory for many.
The Library Theatre Company and Cornerhouse formally joined forces in April 2012 and Chris soon announced that he would be stepping down as AD in 2014, just before the specially-built HOME Manchester opened in 2015. He continued to be active in Manchester theatre, occasionally directing, teaching drama and directing several student productions.
Under his stewardship, LTC unarguably strengthened its reputation as one of Britain’s key producers of contemporary drama and modern classics. The company was also an early pioneer in developing participation, with a strong emphasis on communities with poor access to the arts. It nurtured partnerships with new artists and companies in the region through the RePlay Festival.
For 27 memorable years, the Library’s loyal audience enjoyed a golden age of theatre under Chris Honer’s artistic direction, one they will forever treasure.
Originally posted on Theatre Reviews North.