Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre is preparing to mark its 60th birthday tomorrow, March 27, nicely coinciding with World Theatre Day. Being the first civil theatre to open after World War II in 1958, the theatre is steeped in history and is very much at the heart of the Coventry community.
Hamish Glen, Artistic Director for the Belgrade – who is celebrating his own 15-year anniversary in-post this year – took some time out of plans for the birthday season and beyond to chat to Nicole Craft about his time with the theatre.
Relocating to Coventry from Dundee 15 years ago can’t have been an easy decision when the financial climate for theatre wasn’t at its best and a Belgrade renovation was in the offing, but Glen still made the move. “They headhunted me” he explains. “I’d done 11 years at Dundee Rep and a big building project there…the Belgrade has always been a sort of iconic building and company that I’d heard about as I grew up in Scotland, so it was a great opportunity and I thought I would like a new challenge”. There are no regrets about taking such a big step, Glen reflects. “I’m well settled here now. I’ve got two kids that I fostered here so I’m well embedded in the city”.
So, have Glen’s ideas for the theatre changed during his time here? “The vision hasn’t changed, the detail of the vision has had to change and develop and evolve, mainly through cuts. The heart of it was always to rediscover the innovation and excitement of the opening of this theatre as the first civic theatre built after the Second World War, it had an internationalism that really interested me, the creators of TiE [Theatre in Education] – all those things I wanted to recapture and reinvent in an artistic policy for this theatre while at the same time retaining local stories” he says. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though, Glen recalls the financial period of 2008/9, “It was quite a rude awakening. Suddenly austerity hit. The local authority, for example, are hugely supportive but they’re between a rock and a hard place and there’s nothing much they can do in that atmosphere”.
The Belgrade is renowned for pioneering the TiE movement back in 1965 and the TiE philosophy is still very much at the heart of its values. “The community and outreach work that we do here offers up to 10,000 opportunities to local children in particular but the idea of engaging with communities throughout the city, giving the platform to tell their stories, was always there”, Glen explains. “I wanted to reinforce it and embed it so I brought in an associate director of the entire theatre as a senior manager to take control of all of our community and outreach in education work. I think it’s very important, especially when the financials get tight, they tend to be the things that get cut first and to buttress against that, if you’ve got a senior manager at the top table, so to speak, arguing for it, defending it…you can see that as the major stepping stone to lift the profile and importance of that work”, he goes on to add. “It’s always been my philosophy that that work should have the same professional standards, production values and commitments as any other shows we make”.
With the increase of digital platforms and new ways to reach young people, theatre may not be as relevant to young people as it once was, but Glen describes it as an evolution. “I think we’re still grappling at how we might be able to engage digitally with live theatre. As a dinosaur myself, I find it quite difficult to get my head around” he laughs, then glances to the crowd of people queuing up for a matinee behind us. “If you look around me now, there’s bunches of school children coming in to see the show this afternoon and most of the way they engage with cultural life or the arts is through social media… so I think the task or the challenge is to find out ‘how do we, in this day and age, engage young people in what in the end has to be, I think, a live act?’”.
With many achievements under his belt, Glen reflects on a few highlights of his directorship so far, “The reopening of the building [following renovations in 2007], its transformation, the creation of the second space, B2, which has been absolutely central to the theatre’s success – it was the place where I managed to attract Trevor Nunn to come and make a work in its opening year and was the home of the initial One Night in November which is probably the biggest show that we’ve done here”. With all good ups there must be downs though, some of them all too literal and Glen recalls an ‘Oh my word, what did we do’? moment. “We did a show called Pains of Youth in that first season at B2 that had a slowly rising scissor lift with a set on top of it that moves through the show. Unfortunately, it only had about two or three performances because the lead actor broke her ankle stepping off this scissor lift. That was something of a disaster because it wasn’t a cheap production, as you can imagine, and no-one got to see it”.
Having recently been announced as City of Culture for 2021, the community is buzzing with ideas for events and activities, but what does this mean for the Belgrade directly? “It completely transforms the context in which we’re making work. In a vulgar sense, they’ll be significant amounts of money being invested in the cultural life of the city, I think Hull’s was around 40million, it’s of a different order”, Glen says. “I have a plan for the work of 2021 that I really believe could transform theatre-making in Britain, I would state it that highly. Unfortunately, I can’t talk to what it is exactly… It’s about focusing on what we make and how we make it and I think it’s going to be a really exciting year for the Belgrade, and for British theatre, I would argue”.
With local companies already getting in on the City of Culture action and the rise of other theatres and arts centres locally, does Glen see them as competition or opportunities for collaboration? “Oh absolutely collaborators…the whole journey to the bid was about gathering all those people, forces, institutions together and I think it is the backbone, the strength of the bid, that was successful and there’s no doubt in my head that that will continue. It’s not about the Belgrade, it’s about cultural life of this city and they are all absolutely crucial to that”.
Plans for the theatre’s 2018 birthday season are already well underway with some home-produced shows in autumn, a Diamond Anniversary Gala and an ambitious takeover of the former Coventry Evening Telegraph buildings for some good old local storytelling coming in summer. Glen explains the importance of involving the CET building in the upcoming Read All About It. “It’s part of the stepping stones that will take us to 2021. It is an iconic building with iconic history and as part of the redevelopment of Coventry city centre will be turned into a boutique hotel, we wanted to get in there just to celebrate the space, its history of the Telegraph and try and make a piece of site-specific contemporary work that celebrates that history”.
An impressive 60th birthday for the theatre, a 15-year anniversary for the Artistic Director and a City of Culture badge for the city to boot; with the climate for the arts looking so positive for Coventry, what’re Glen’s aims to ensure the next few years are just as successful? “I still want the Belgrade over the next 15 years to be right at the heart of the community, civic and creative life of this city. I’ve always seen theatres as local places – we will continue to tell local stories and bear witness to the experiences of local people…I see a theatre as like a church or a city square or a football ground. Public places where people can gather to discuss their lives – so that remains the vision into the future”.
More details of the Belgrade Theatre’s birthday season’s shows can be found on their website http://www.belgrade.co.uk/whats-on
Nicole Craft| Image: Contributed