English Touring Theatre was founded in 1993 to create outstanding theatre and tour it to the widest possible audience.In 2008 Rachel Tackley took over the directorship of the company, making ETT the first large scale subsidised touring company to be producer-led.Under Tackley’s leadership the scope of ETT’s work widened to include adaptations of classic novels (Great Expectations, Grapes of Wrath), musicals (Been So Long– produced with the Young Vic) and collaborations with emerging artists, while continuing to include classics (TartuffeandTheHypochondriacadapted by Roger McGough) and new writing. In 2010, she became President of the Theatre Management Association.
Ahead of ETT’s 21st birthday celebrations in 2014, Paul Couch caught up with her in London.
Rachel, next year will be English Touring Theatre’s 21st birthday and you’ve just announced the anniversary season. How did you decide on what to produce?
Well that was really interesting because of course we’re 21 next year and we were having all these conversations internally about should we do a play in 21 days, in 21 weeks, in 21 hours, should we commission 21 new plays? I was having lunch with our patron, Ian McKellan, and I was talking about this rather in a ‘child-in-a-sweetshop’ way and he said: “Why don’t you do 21 plays?” And I thought “Ooh…that’s a good idea!” I didn’t even know why I hadn’t thought of it, because I’d become so excited about doing plays in 21 hours and how we could make happen. Then I thought that’s a really good idea but we couldn’t possibly do it! Then my colleague, Jonathan Munby, who’s one of our creative associates, suggested I read Tonight At 8.30, which is nine one-act plays by Noel Coward. So I read them and loved them and, literally as I finished reading them, Sam Hodges [Nuffield Theatre, Southampton] came to see me and we talked about a few things in the way that one does. Nothing really gelled, and then he said: “Of course, what we really want to do is Tonight At 8.30.” and I said: “So do we!” And then I was tantalised because, if you’ve got nine then that’s nearly half-way to 21! So then there were a couple of other productions that we wanted to do and so we had 10 and 11, and then 21 didn’t seem to be so out of the question.
Tonight At 8.30 was first produced in 1935. Why do you think it still resonates with audiences?
I think that en-masse they give you a real sense of the diversity that is Coward. It’s Coward being funny, Coward being in love, Coward being not in love, it’s Coward being obsessed – all those glorious emotions in little one-act plays, some of which are tiny, and some of which are a bit longer. I just thought that to have something that so represents the man himself, and many of which haven’t been done since he did them, would be wonderful.
Do you think that Coward has any modern-day contemporaries?
I was just talking to somebody about Alan Bennett. If we were going to talk “national treasures”,then I guess that Alan Bennett would be a contemporary, but very different. I think Coward was Coward.
Was he very much of his time?
It’s interesting. People still fall in love, people still get frustrated, people still want to be on the stage, people still want to sing songs, fall in love, fall out of love, and they lose people and all of those things. So of course it’s still relevant to today’s audiences, but very much a period piece.
You’re involved in the National Touring Group. It sounds like an ambitious project.
It is ambitious. A few years ago, The Globe and ETT produced a production of Anne Boleyn that had previously been on at The Globe, and myself and Conrad [Lynch – former Executive Producer at The Globe] thought wouldn’t it be great to tour it? Hugely ambitious, beautiful piece of writing, and it deserved a wider audience. We applied for a one-off Arts Council grant, which we got; we put together a group of venues all over the UK, and we took it on tour. It was phenomenally successful and then when the Strategic Touring Fund came along we thought we might be able to do that again with something else and so as a group of eight or nine venues we applied for some money to be able to take large-scale, ambitious theatre into the regions – to give regional audiences access to a type and size of work that they wouldn’t normally get. I mean, who’s touring 20-hander shows these days?
In your rôle as President of the TMA, you’ve been reported as saying that there should be no differentiation between London and regional theatre.
Why does it have to be different? Why does theatre in the regions differ from that in London? People in the regions deserve the very best theatre that they can get and it shouldn’t just be the preserve of people who can get to – or want to get to – London. Let’s take the best of British theatre all over the UK.
What’s your favourite?
I haven’t actually voted yet! If I had to nail it down to one, the play that has moved me to a huge extent is Conor McPherson’s The Weir, which I loved – I cried like a baby! But then what about the classics? I love Twelfth Night.
What’s been the highlights of the past 21 years for ETT?
I think one of the big highs for ETT must have been when we moved into our glorious rehearsal rooms and offices in Waterloo, because that enabled us to rehearse and produce on site. And as the most recent custodian of its success, that is the most enormous privilege and joy. So lovely to sit in my office and hear a show rehearsing downstairs and people coming in for auditions and casting sessions and people using the building all the time. Being here in a real creative hub is heavenly for a producer. There have been huge creative highs as well. During Steven’s [Unwin – founding Director until 2008] tenure, one of the highs must have been doing King Lear at the Old Vic with Timothy West, which I saw when I was nothing to do with ETT and it’s the only production of Lear that’s made me weep.
More recently, what’s been really lovely is the number of people we’ve been co-producing with. Just meeting those lovely people – largely regional theatre – but also London theatres like the Young Vic, co-producing with the Everyman in Liverpool. Gorgeous!
What are the biggest challenges for touring companies these days?
It’s got to be funding. But there’s always more than one way to fund a play. It doesn’t always have to be Arts Council, it doesn’t have to be commercial. I think people have been very clever these days about bringing together both the commercial and subsidised approaches in the same productions, and collaborations. We just need to be smart, to think on our feet, be very light on our feet, and keep finding solutions.
So what happens for ETT next?
We have Ghost out at the moment and then we have 21 plays that we’ve got to produce next year. After that, I have lots of commissions out at the moment so I’m looking forward to reading a lot of glorious new plays. And we’re talking to many different partners about what we might do in the future. I’m still like a child in a sweetshop – we have an embarrassment of riches. We just need to be very clever about how we make them happen. When you’ve got 15 new ideas and £2.50 to do them with, you’ve got to be creative, haven’t you?