A collaboration with the University of East Anglia is one of several exciting partnerships being announced – chief executive Stephen Crocker with Sarah Barrow, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Arts and Humanities at UEA.
Norwich Theatre Royal, Norwich Playhouse and Stage Two have announced new developments within the organisation which will see the three venues brought together under a brand new umbrella identity, a major new refurbishment of the Playhouse, and new artistic and community partnerships to take theatre in Norwich into the future.
Chief executive Stephen Crocker, speaking at the theatres’ annual Centre Stage event today at the Theatre Royal, announced that alongside a new website design, which will see the three venues combine to significantly enhance the customer experience, there will also be a cutting-edge new box office system to improve the customer journey when buying tickets, as well as a range of new online initiatives.
And in celebration of Norwich Playhouse’s 25th anniversary, which falls in December 2020, a major redevelopment and capital fundraising project will be launched to “give the Playhouse the TLC it so richly deserves whilst absolutely protecting the unique and creative ethos and environment which has been critical to its success”.
The project, which is still in development, will expand Front of House facilities at the Playhouse to significantly improve universal access, boost green initiatives and upgrade the overall visitor experience. Architect Cathy Hawley, who won the 2019 Stirling Prize for her Goldsmith Street housing design in Norwich, will be the creative force behind the project.
In addition to the new announcements, Mr Crocker reported on a bumper year of ambitious, diverse and unique theatre which has seen the sale of 433,000 tickets across 722 performances during 2018-2019, generating £11m in ticket sales and £16m overall.
One of the biggest contributors to the success was last year’s Aladdin pantomime which was the Theatre Royal’s highest grossing Christmas show ever, with nearly 60,000 people enjoying the festive fun and Aladdin actor Steven Roberts being nominated for ‘Best Newcomer’ at the Great British Pantomime Awards; while the West End hit production of Miss Saigon during its five-week run in Norwich generated a £4.5m financial boost to cultural tourism in the region.
He said: “Partnerships are at the heart of what we do. Whether it is working with major West End and Broadway producers who tour their work to our stages, creating new work with theatre-makers or building links with local community groups to attract new audiences and open up all that we have to offer to the widest range of people. We are committed to working with many partners to present magical experiences across all three of our stages.”
In the past year, the organisation has welcomed established and internationally-acclaimed creatives like legendary Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta and renowned producer Cameron Mackintosh who brought world-class dance and musicals to Norwich; supported exciting new work such as the new musical SIX which premiered at Norwich Playhouse and now runs in the West End and on Broadway; and co-commissioned Gastronomic for Stage Two from cutting-edge Norwich-based theatre company Curious Directive.
Community engagement work has seen the Creative Matters seasons flourish, with the past year’s seasons expanding across all three stages and focusing on Black British History and issues such as homelessness; while new work was created with theatre-makers and links built with local community groups to attract new audiences and open up all that theatre has to offer to the widest range of people.
Mr Crocker reported on programming highlights in dance and drama strands with membership of the Dance Consortium bringing internationally-celebrated choreographer Mark Morris and his American company’s Beatles-inspired Pepperland; while the first visit of Acosta’s newly-formed dance company Acosta Danza to the city in 2018 led to the Theatre Royal partnering with Sadler’s Wells, Birmingham Hippodrome and The Lowry to co-produce the company’s second tour which premiered in Norwich three weeks ago. Acosta will return in 2020 in his new role as Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet
In the drama programme, partnerships with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre have continued, seeing contemporary productions of two of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, delighting audiences, receiving critical acclaim and informing educational studies for many students across the county.
Classical music and opera programmes were also in good shape with both Glyndebourne and English Touring Opera remaining key partners, and a new collaboration has seen Welsh National Opera returning to Norwich earlier this year after a 46-year absence, bringing professional opera to the Playhouse stage for the very first time. The company will return to present The Marriage of Figaro at the Theatre Royal in Spring next year. Orchestral partner Britten Sinfonia also visited the Theatre Royal earlier this year with two world-leading conductors Sir Mark Elder and Thomas Adés.
Commercial shows remain important to the theatre with shows such as the Jersey Boys and Comedy About A Bank Robbery featuring on the Theatre Royal programme alongside the blockbuster Miss Saigon, while The Playhouse has hosted Elf and Singin’ In The Rain, as well continuing its hugely-popular and award-winning comedy offering.
The theatre’s learning and participation programme has continued to present powerful, emotional and often difficult issues, building and strengthening links with the third sector, voluntary and community groups and a host of grassroots organisations.
One of the core values of the organisation is to instil a love of theatre in everyone, regardless of age, background or circumstances and, in 2018-2019, 40 per cent of its ticket sales have gone to people from areas classed as deprived communities based on Government-recognised indicators which is up from 37 per cent in the previous year. In addition, over 13,000 seats went to under-18s and 44 assisted performances were hosted with captioning, BSL interpretation or audio description.
This year also saw the opening of the Theatre Royal’s new restaurant, Prelude, with a modern and vibrant dining environment, and an increased capacity.
Looking to the future, Mr Crocker said there was also a major new partnership now formalised and under way with the University of East Anglia; and plans for two mini-festivals next year. The first will be in September 2020 entitled Taboo: Theatre without Comfort Zones, which will see a flavour of the Edinburgh Festival vibe come to Norwich; and the second will be a dance festival called Leap in March 2021 featuring, amongst others, the pioneering Alvin Ailey Company.
The theatre will also continue to partner with the Royal Shakespeare Company through the Shakespeare Nation project – a long-term project which will see the Norwich venue engaging with a number of different groups who face significant barriers to engagement with the arts.
With a commitment to develop and engage with families and younger audiences, the theatre has also just started a new three-year partnership with the Children’s Theatre Partnership which has previously brought Goodnight Mister Tom to Norwich. Its first production, which will also see extensive programmes of work in schools and with teachers, will be Holes, an adaptation of Louis Sachar’s award-winning novel.
And as the festive season approaches, the theatre is not only fully committed to its brand-new partnership with Norwich City Football Club, which will see two of the region’s major institutions join forces in a number of ways to highlight each other’s work and create opportunities, but is also creating more new work in another exciting creative partnership with Norwich-based and internationally-renowned circus company Lost In Translation Circus to co-produce A Circus Carol which will premiere at the Playhouse in December.
Wrapping up the event, which also included performances from Lost In Translation Circus and from Jodie Prenger who this week is starring on the Theatre Royal stage in the National Theatre’s A Taste of Honey, Mr Crocker paid tribute to the entire staff and volunteer teams across the organisation for “an enormous amount of hard work and some big changes and developments in the way in which we work”, to the trustees of Theatre Royal for “their vision and boldness in approaching their stewardship of the three venues”, and to audiences and supporters for their “loyalty, passion and generosity”.