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.”

Contributor

Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
New Lamda boss Sarah Frankcom: 'radical' solutions required for drama schools
Artistic director at Manchester’s Royal Exchange appointed to new role and celebrated by Benedict Cumberbatch for her passion for increasing diversity

Chris Wiegand

28, Feb, 2019 @2:13 PM

Article image
Maxine Peake to star in A Streetcar Named Desire in Manchester
Exclusive: Actor will portray troubled Blanche DuBois in Sarah Frankcom production of Tennessee Williams play

Chris Wiegand

24, May, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Manchester's Royal Exchange theatre names joint artistic directors
Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan unite to ‘make work with and for’ the city’s people

Chris Wiegand

08, Jul, 2019 @11:11 AM

Article image
Hamlet review – Maxine Peake stresses character with a caustic, spry prince

Sarah Frankcom's modern-dress production confirms the star's capacity for fierce, uncensored honesty, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

17, Sep, 2014 @12:16 AM

Article image
Jarvis Cocker to compose music for Manchester Royal Exchange's new season
Cocker to collaborate on new Simon Stephens play, while Lucy Ellinson to play Macbeth and Neil Bartlett to stage 24-hour work on Remembrance Sunday

Laura Snapes

04, Jun, 2019 @11:21 AM

Article image
Harlem shake-up: how Guys and Dolls found its swing
A new version of the classic musical moves Damon Runyon’s characters to uptown New York, with an all-black cast and a burst of bebop and gospel

Ryan Gilbey

13, Nov, 2017 @12:39 PM

Article image
Our Town review – Wilder's hymn to ordinary lives is remade for Manchester
Sarah Frankcom stages Thornton Wilder’s 1938 drama with tenderness, bleak honesty and a community choir

Lyn Gardner

22, Sep, 2017 @11:48 AM

Article image
Maxine Peake’s play Queens of the Coal Age to get stage premiere
True story of four women who occupied Lancashire colliery in 1993 set for run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

15, Nov, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
A Streetcar Named Desire review – Maxine Peake is a breathtaking Blanche
Peake excels as the disintegrating southern belle in Sarah Frankcom’s fine production of the Tennessee Williams classic

Michael Billington

13, Sep, 2016 @11:45 PM

Article image
Hamlet review – Maxine Peake is a delicately ferocious Prince of Denmark
The gender switches in Sarah Frankcom’s Hamlet may unsettle but do not distort the play, writes Susannah Clapp

Susannah Clapp

20, Sep, 2014 @11:08 PM