The Old Vic theatre has always retained a strong grip on my imagination – I remember visiting this great Victorian stage when I first came to London as a young child, and coming back years later to see many of the theatre’s iconic productions. I finally had the chance to tread the boards of the stage myself when we transferred Howard Davis’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” from its initial run at the Almeida Theatre to the Old Vic.
During our 16 week run at the Old Vic in the spring/summer of 1998, I was asked if I would join a committee to help the new Trust Board. The Old Vic had recently been purchased by a Trust and needed the committee’s help to find an Artistic Director to take on the re-vitalization of this famous and admired theatre.
This was a task I took very seriously, as The Old Vic is one of the best known and best loved theatres in the world, synonymous with the greatest acting talent that Britain has ever produced; from Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson to Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, and Peter O'Toole. This iconic 195 year old building has a rich history and has always been know for the great performances that have graced its stage.
I spent the following year learning all I could about the more recent history of this iconic building. I discovered that after the National Theatre departed the building – after 14 seasons of work under the Artistic Directorship of Laurence Olivier – the theatre became a booking house. This meant that it no longer held a company, and didn’t receive subsidies from the government which in turn lead to a decline in attendance as it ceased to be a destination theatre. There were a number of occasions when a few remarkable directors began their own companies in the building (most notably perhaps Jonathan Miller and Peter Hall), but neither of these companies managed to overcome the difficult challenges the funding presented in order to continue working there.
In 1999 while I was in London for the premiere of American Beauty, I requested that an evening be organized for a free-flowing discussion about the future of the Old Vic. Gathered in the main rehearsal space at the top of the Old Vic were playwrights, directors, actors, theatre personnel and friends of the Vic. The questions discussed revolved around the status of the theatre: when had the Old Vic been at its best? What made it work when it was a major venue in London? What happened to it? What is its future? I left this evening with my mind swirling, and decided to take a walk rather than go to bed.
These discussions and ideas came at a time in my life when I was reflecting on my career and I was feeling that I’d arrived at a cross-roads. Having started my professional life in the living theatre I had spent the previous 12 years focused on building a film career. I was, however, beginning to have a sense that I did not want to spend the next ten years continuing down this same path.
Typically for London it was drizzling this night, and I ended up hailing a taxi which drove me to the National Theatre. I walked to the edge of the Thames and looked up at the grand structure reflecting on what this theatre means today and where Olivier was in his career when he decided to take on the challenge of creating a National Theatre. I then walked the six blocks to the Old Vic and sat across the street in the Emma Cons Garden looking up at the theatre. Sitting there, my swirling mind seemed to settle and I realized that all my musings were leading me to the same idea – to a secret dream I had been nurturing since I was a teenager: I should take on the Artistic Directorship of the Old Vic myself!
Even though I was only announced as Artistic Director a few years later, after that night I immediately began working on an economic model that I believed could work without having to take subsidies, as well as starting to raise the money. I also began to find people who would join me in this major enterprise. First on board was producer David Liddiment whom I convinced to leave his post as the head of ITV. It is now eleven years later and we have a staff of over 75, both behind the scenes and front-of-house, and are working on about 49 main stage productions.
An important part of re-vitalizing the theatre was to introduce a ticket scheme to bring theatre to a wider, younger and more diverse audience. As the Old Vic doesn’t rely on subsidies and ticket sales alone are not enough to cover all of our costs, the financial support of generous individuals, companies, trusts and foundations have been vital to our existence.
The Old Vic also hosts a vast educational department which is involved in community work and runs programs in schools. In addition to this we also host a program in which we nurture emerging actors, producers, writers and directors called Old Vic New Voices.
I am now in my last 18 months as Artistic Director and am excited about the legacy I will be leaving for the next person to step into this role. I have always believed that the best asset the Old Vic has is its future and it has been my honor to dedicate myself to the theatre’s revival and to ensure its continued existence without losing sight of its illustrious past.
If you don't wish to commit to membership or another one of our giving schemes, you can make a one-off donation to The Old Vic, which is a registered charity. Your contribution is appreciated and will make a real difference.