'Don't spit on the deck!' Arts bosses on how to hand over power

When Indhu Rubasingham turned the Tricycle theatre into the Kiln earlier this year, there were protests and passionate defences. Vicky Featherstone, Richard Eyre and Charles Saumarez Smith discuss the tricky business of artistic change

What a difference a name makes. Earlier this year the Tricycle theatre in north London announced that it would be rebranding itself as the Kiln when it opened after redevelopment. There were petitions calling for the theatre to revert to its former title; placard-wielding protesters gathered on the street to demonstrate against the artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham. A letter to the Guardian decried the change as throwing away “a valuable legacy and history”. Twisting the knife, two of the theatre’s former heads, Nicolas Kent and Ken Chubb, signed it.

Even by the self-dramatising standards of British theatre, the controversy seems somewhat mystifying. There’s barely a theatre in the country that hasn’t changed its name at some point. No one was proposing the Tricycle – or Kiln – be closed down, and indeed after a £5.5m makeover it looks better than ever. This isn’t even the first time the theatre has taken on a new identity: it began life nearly five decades ago as the Wakefield Tricycle Company.

Defending the decision to rebrand, Rubasingham – who has run the theatre since 2012 – explained in interviews that she and colleagues simply felt that it was time for a new start to match their freshly refurbished building (plus many audiences assumed, wrongly, that the Tricycle was a children’s theatre). The theatre is in Kilburn; “Kiln” seemed an apt choice.

But opponents refuse to be mollified, and, eight months after it started, the affair – somewhat improbably – rumbles on. A website called It’s Our Tricycle sprang up, proclaiming that the theatre “is being rebranded entirely against the wishes of local residents” (the theatre mildly pointed out that in fact public consultations had gone on for several months). A few weeks ago, protesters picketed the theatre again, this time at the press night of an adaptation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. They were joined by that veteran controversialist Ken Livingstone.

‘Everything has to change.’ The Tricycle theatre in 2010.
‘Everything has to change.’ The Tricycle theatre in 2010. Photograph: Ben Rowe/Rex

Over and above the fortunes of a small, if influential, north London theatre, the case raises intriguing questions. What happens when an organisation decides to make a fresh start, or change artistic direction? Is it possible to evolve and still stay true to your past? Most of all: what happens when you do something that your audience – at least a small and vocal part of it, including your predecessors – really detests? In other words, do legacy and history matter? And who gets to decide?

One person who has little time for the nay-sayers is Vicky Featherstone, who runs the Royal Court theatre in central London. “Everything has to change,” she says briskly when we speak. “Theatre is a live art form. You hold things back at your peril.”

Would Featherstone ever criticise a decision taken by her successor? “God, no. Arts organisations are publicly funded. We don’t own the theatre or gallery; we’re just guardians. You either need to support what they’re doing or back off. Go and drink sangria in Spain.”

Richard Eyre, who took over the National Theatre from the domineering, larger-than-life Peter Hall in 1987, concurs: “I don’t think you should make trouble for your successor. As Stanley Baldwin said, once you leave the bridge, you leave. You don’t spit on the deck.”

Featherstone was the founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland as the company came into being in 2004. Challenging as it was to create a troupe from scratch, this paled in comparison with her arrival at the Court in 2013. She was taking over from Dominic Cooke, whose tenure was garlanded by a long run of critical and commercial successes, and some observers wondered how she could possibly do things better.

“Dominic was massively supportive, and I only had respect for what he’d done. But you also have to think about what to do differently. As tightropes go, it’s really tight,” she says.

Eyre remembers with pinpoint clarity what it was like trying to turn the National, the largest of theatrical supertankers, in another direction while battling hostile critics. “When it’s working, it’s great, but when it’s not, it’s brutal,” he says. “When you have, say, a couple of shows in the Olivier theatre that haven’t caught light, you can feel the morale and the cash draining away. Then you get a hit and the weather changes. But that’s the point, in a way: it’s empirical. Your policy as an artistic director is the shows you choose to do and the people you get to do them. That’s how you show what your organisation is about.”

‘As tightropes go, it’s really tight’ … The Royal Court theatre, Sloane Square, London.
‘As tightropes go, it’s really tight’ … The Royal Court theatre, Sloane Square, London. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

It isn’t just in theatres that such issues hold sway, of course. Organisations of all kinds, from community choirs to multinational tech giants, grapple with issues surrounding leadership and regime change. In the art world, Maria Balshaw’s takeover of Tate last year after Nicholas Serota’s 29-year tenure has been scrutinised for signs of what Balshaw is doing differently (more focus on diversity and female artists, it seems, and a less remote management style).

Charles Saumarez Smith, who has run no fewer than three major British museums – he is leaving the Royal Academy after 11 years, having previously headed the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery – agrees that taking over from a leader who is much-loved can be the trickiest of challenges. “I had that at the National Gallery, certainly. Neil MacGregor, who was there before me, was brilliant and I had a hard time competing with that, looking back. The problem is that people expect you to be the same. And that’s the one thing you can’t be.”

How did he deal with it? “Those old adages ring true. Get to know the place. Make time to meet everyone in the organisation, from top to bottom. And keep your objectives in mind: what do you want to achieve in your first 100 days? How do you want to leave your mark?”

A huge amount comes down to personalities, he says. “It’s like football teams. You’ve learned what it’s like to manage Oxford United, but you can’t do the same with Arsenal. And sometimes the more outwardly similar organisations are, the more different they are internally. It’s almost a point of pride.”

If such questions feel personal for employees and loyal audiences, they are even more so for the director, says Richard Eyre. “For all that you have to be outwardly thick-skinned, no one is, when it comes down to it. That was what I really admired about Peter [Hall], actually: even though a lot of the criticism of what he did really hurt him, he was brilliant at pretending that it didn’t.”

How about looking at it from the other side – has Featherstone ever had mixed feelings about organisations she has moved on from, especially when they have changed direction? “You feel things, but what’s important is to never try and judge individual decisions – it’s to do with taste, time, pragmatism. Change happens, and yes it can feel like rejection. But theatre is full of rejection: as artistic directors we’ve probably rejected everybody at one time or another.”

Across at the National Theatre, Rufus Norris’s decision to showcase edgier and more experimental work, though it has built up a fanbase, initially offended some people accustomed to the glossier shows commissioned by his predecessor, Nicholas Hytner. Hytner may have stayed publicly quiet about his predecessor’s choices – unlike Nicolas Kent and the Kiln – but he did decide to set up a new theatre of his own just down the South Bank, in what looked teasingly like an attempt to poach the National’s former audience.

‘How do you want to leave your mark?’ ... This year’s Royal Academy summer exhibition.
‘How do you want to leave your mark?’ ... This year’s Royal Academy summer exhibition. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Eyre argues that, just as such contrasts are inevitable, it’s the job of a new artistic director to create them. “You’re always going to upset some people. Your job is to exercise your preferences and make choices.”

For Featherstone, the issue is bigger still – one of diversity. “That’s what equality means, at least to me. In order for people to gain, other people sometimes have to lose.”

It’s crucial for artistic directors to focus not only on their own tenure and ambitions, but to plan for what comes next for the organisation: to put it somewhat brutally, the most difficult bit of the job might be arranging for your own disappearance.

“People talk a lot about leadership, that’s obvious,” says Saumarez Smith. “But really, transition is the issue – you always have to be thinking about how to hand on the baton, how to make sure you’re leaving things in good shape.”

How does he feel about moving on from the RA after 11 years at the helm? “When you leave an organisation, a bit of you thinks: what a gigantic relief. You live with it every moment of the day. The people, the money, the politics, the policy – they’re a part of your life. But I have no doubt I’ll miss the RA immensely.”

‘For all that theatre lives in the memory, it’s always moving,’ says Richard Eyre.
‘For all that theatre lives in the memory, it’s always moving,’ says Richard Eyre. Photograph: Goldber/Variety/Rex/Shutterstock

Says Featherstone: “I never want to leave this place, but one day I will. Everyone who has the honour of running one of these extraordinary institutions needs to be thinking about succession planning, not holding on. That’s part of the job, too.”

Ultimately, adds Eyre, the art is what matters. What surely counts isn’t what a building is called, or shows it staged 10 or 20 years ago, but what’s happening in the here and now. “For all that theatre lives in the memory, it’s always moving. Try as you might, you can’t stop that.”

The rebranded Kiln, certainly, is unlikely to go back. Though complaints about the name-change rumble on, audiences appear to be welcoming the new beginning. According to the theatre, nearly half the people who have booked for the reopening season have never bought a ticket there before. And despite mixed reviews, its adaptation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth has become the fastest-selling and most financially successful production in the company’s history. Names come and go, but another adage holds true: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.


Andrew Dickson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Royal Court hires Vicky Featherstone as first female artistic director

National Theatre of Scotland head takes job described by one predecessor as theatre's equivalent to England manager

Andrew Dickson

11, May, 2012 @6:02 PM

Article image
When theatrical regime change creates an in-house drama

Any incoming artistic director faces a challenge – especially when the outgoing director was as well respected as Sam Walters at Richmond's Orange Tree, writes Lyn Gardner

Lyn Gardner

06, Jun, 2014 @11:07 AM

Article image
The sponsorship files: who funds our biggest arts institutions
We now know what BP pays the Tate to get its logo on posters. But what do other institutions receive from their donors – and how much would you pay to have dinner with a Viking?

Susanna Rustin and George Arnett

02, Mar, 2015 @7:00 AM

Article image
Stage of the nation: what does it mean to be a national theatre?
The national theatres of Great Britain, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have all caused a stir about what they represent. How should they reflect a country’s identity?

Mark Fisher

15, Jan, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
In the building: why don't more women run our theatres?

Women are highly visible in non-traditional fields of theatre, such as live art, outdoor and children's work, says Lyn Gardner. So why not in venues?

Lyn Gardner

07, Jul, 2014 @7:38 AM

Women, Power and Politics

Nine women writers explore themes of women in power, but they handle those apportioned into Then better than they do Now, finds Michael Billington

Michael Billington

13, Jun, 2010 @5:56 PM

Article image
The Invisible Hand review – Ayad Akhtar's thriller is right on the money
The arguments about global economics in Akhtar’s follow-up to the Pulitzer-winning Disgraced are so dramatic that it’s a shame when the plot kicks in

Michael Billington

19, May, 2016 @11:14 AM

Article image
The best theatre of 2022
In a superb year for the stage, our chief critic gives 10 shows an extra round of applause. Plus, Guardian theatre reviewers each pick their 2022 standout

Arifa Akbar

15, Dec, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Kilburn's Tricycle relaunches as Kiln theatre with Zadie Smith's White Teeth
Artistic director Indhu Rubasingham explains how, after its £7m facelift, the theatre will give a platform to ‘stories we don’t hear’

Nosheen Iqbal

11, Apr, 2018 @10:23 AM

Article image
The Wife of Willesden review – Zadie Smith’s boozy lock-in is a bawdy treat
Kiln theatre, London
The author’s debut play lets one of Chaucer’s most revolutionary characters loose in modern-day Kilburn in a celebration of community and a life well-lived

Kate Wyver

18, Nov, 2021 @9:12 AM