Sarah Frankcom: turning the Royal Exchange into a northern powerhouse

Via bold collaborations with Maxine Peake and a ruthless self-analysis, Frankcom has shrugged off the ‘regional theatre’ tag at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. The argumentative director explains why ‘it’s good to scare yourself’

“I’m quite surprised I’m here. I shouldn’t be,” says Sarah Frankcom. The “here” is the artistic director’s office at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Being a working-class, non-Oxbridge woman still makes her a rarity when it comes to running a British theatre.

“It was a very circuitous route,” says Frankcom, who, since she took over sole artistic directorship in 2014, has been dragging the theatre into the 21st century with a quiet, steely resolve. Her apparent shyness is deceptive. “I like nothing more than a good argument,” she says with a grin.

She can be mischievous, too. Frankcom is currently directing Jessica Walker’s forthcoming cabaret show, All I Want is One Night, about the openly bisexual Suzy Solidor whose erotic lesbian love songs won her a huge following in 1930s Paris, and will be staging it in the Royal Exchange’s old boardroom, once an exclusively male preserve. “I’m unshockable, and even I went ‘blimey, these songs are really explicit’. Solidor was completely unapologetic. Doing it in the boardroom where those men in their top hats once sat smoking cigars feels good.”

It’s not just what Frankcom has been doing on the main stage – including her high-profile collaborations with Maxine Peake in Hamlet, The Skriker and the newly announced A Streetcar Named Desire – that have caught the eye, but also the sense that she and her team are genuinely trying to reimagine what a theatre might be for the city. She doesn’t see the Exchange as a regional theatre – a term she hates even though it won regional theatre of the year in January’s Stage awards – but as a local one. “This theatre couldn’t exist anywhere else but here,” she says. “The radicalness of its architecture, of putting a place of art in this mercantile building at the end of an era in this industrial city … it’s unique.”

Mischief maker... Sarah Frankcom.
Mischief maker... Sarah Frankcom. Photograph: Jonathan Keenan

Frankcom says “it’s a space that people know and use”, but that doesn’t always mean they step inside the theatre itself. That’s exactly what Frankcom is addressing in an ongoing initiative called You, the Audience that included a mass sleepover in the Exchange in 2015.

“It’s about listening, getting people to reflect back at us what we feel like to them,” she says. “There is a vast range of different relationships that we can have with people, whether it’s young people on school trips or the Company of Elders, or those who come here for World Wide Workshop, which is where asylum seekers and refugees meet and share experiences. Sometimes very little theatre goes on in a traditional sense, but people have identified this building as somewhere where they might have a place. That’s what I think a local theatre is.”

Frankcom knows it’s long, slow, patient work. The recent success of Talawa’s King Lear, with Don Warrington majestic in the title role, is a case in point.

“Talawa are skilled at accessing certain communities and developing artists from them who might have a problem coming here,” she says, “and King Lear became a monumental word of mouth thing in the city.” There is a similar ongoing relationship with Graeae, whose production of The House of Bernarda Alba will be seen on the main stage next year. “It’s important for buildings like us to put our hands up and say: ‘We need to work together and there is a lot you can tell us – and make us realise that some of the things that we think we do well are not actually great’.”

Inside the Royal Exchange theatre.
Inside the Royal Exchange theatre. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

It’s this honesty that makes Frankcom a breath of fresh air. The first from her Sheffield family to go to university, she fought for permission to do a drama degree on the understanding that she would then do a PGCE, eventually becoming a teacher and doing some directing on the side. She got picked up by the NT Studio and being spotted directing at Oval House in the early 1990s, but despite their support, her unwillingness to claim that she knew all the answers almost stalled her fledgling directorial career.

“I found myself in a room at the NT Studio full of some quite grand actors going: ‘What do you want me to do?’ And I didn’t have the answer. I don’t work like that. I got told off for sitting on the floor. One of the actors said: ‘You are the director – you need to have some status in the room’. By the end I thought, I can’t do this. I’m not a natural director. It’s funny now, but it was devastating at the time.”

Arriving in Manchester shortly after the theatre reopened following the 1996 IRA bombing, she was charged with overhauling the new writing department. “It wasn’t in the theatre’s DNA – they didn’t know any writers. There was a real desire to change, but it was difficult and I had lots of arguments.”

Word of mouth hit... Don Warrington as King Lear.
Word of mouth hit... Don Warrington as King Lear. Photograph: Jonathan Keenan

She started directing again, and has since delivered some remarkable shows, latterly developing an artistic partnership with Peake that just keeps on giving. Frankcom reckons that Streetcar, which opens in September, may be their most difficult project yet. “There has always been an element of scaring ourselves. On occasion we’ve probably bitten off more than we can chew. But it’s good to scare yourself, and Streetcar is a very scary play.”

Frankcom has personal experience of being close to those suffering from alcoholism. “As a director you have to find something personal and relevant; I can’t make a play work if I don’t. Blanche is one of the most iconic female characters, and yet the great danger is she’s seen as just another bad, mad, sad woman – what do I see in it that might be different? I see someone who is a high-functioning addict, and I’m drawn to a play that’s written by a writer who has written from the throes of addiction. For me that’s the meat and bones of Streetcar. And I’ve been through some of that, I know how it affects interpersonal relationships.”

Frankcom admits that when she first began working at the Royal Exchange at the end of the 1990s, she didn’t particularly want to leave London and move to Manchester. Now she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. “It’s such an exciting time, with devolution and the Factory coming. There is a shared sense of purpose and all the theatres are much more porous. We are all taking to each other and aware of how we might support each other. I feel very lucky to be here.”


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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