The next 200 years

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Artistic Director Matthew Warchus and Executive Director Kate Varah talk to Commercial and Communications Director Joanna Down about The Old Vic and their hopes for its future.

On our 200th birthday, we’re taking a closer look at the social mission that has been central to The Old Vic’s artistic ambitions for almost two centuries. I spoke to Matthew Warchus and Kate Varah about what they think it is that makes The Old Vic a special place for people to come together and its approach to inclusivity, social mobility, and its future.

What is it, amongst the abundance of theatres in London, that makes The Old Vic stand out? ‘The actual building stands alone in Waterloo, looking powerful and imposing’, Matthew begins. ‘when starting as Artistic Director in 2015, I wanted to reflect this in its identity, make it confident and assertive in its individuality, and I also wanted it to be full of life. What we have gravitated towards is an artistically adventurous and surprising producing venue, which is at the same time an unintimidating and welcoming gateway to theatre in its broadest sense’.

What both Matthew and Kate are passionate about is finding new ways to connect with audiences, to throw open the theatre doors as often as possible, to as broad a range of people as possible. Matthew talks about one of his best moments as Artistic Director – walking in one day to find the foyer full of small children singing along with a puppet show. ‘The theatre now is sometimes overrun with young people, and that’s really fantastic. Creative imagination is a hugely important thing when you’re growing up. One thing theatre does brilliantly is put us into a childlike state where we consider and wonder about things we have taken for granted; we imagine how the world can be different’.

With no regular public subsidy, the team spend a lot of time working out how to build long-lasting relationships with audiences, to keep them coming regularly, with the confidence that they will always enjoy themselves. ‘The Old Vic has always been a creative powerhouse, a place of artistic firsts and birthplace of daring new companies’, Kate says. ‘Previous custodians over the last 200 years, like us now, took risks with the work. The theatre has always been independent in spirit and financially. Yet programming in this way remains a daunting prospect with no subsidy.’ The five-time Olivier Award nominated Girl from the North Country was financially ambitious and rather experimental, Matthew tells me, but found a very broad and enthusiastic audience, ‘It was really inspiring and reassuring to see that taking artistic risks doesn’t mean you’re destined to speak to a smaller and smaller number of people’.

Like many other theatres, The Old Vic plays the balancing act of needing to survive financially while trying to make the work accessible. Matthew strongly believes in finding ways to give everyone the chance to enjoy theatre, ‘We have a chance to give people their first encounter with theatre. Creativity is indiscriminate in terms of class and privilege and the consuming of creativity should be equally indiscriminate. We have to do everything we can to remove the obstacles that might be in the way of someone’s interest and enthusiasm’. Access to theatre for all is an essential part of Matthew’s and Kate’s vision, but it also cleverly ties in with The Old Vic’s business model – for example, young Frontline Participants serve as paid ushers alongside their employability training scheme, ‘they are all part of the life of the building’ says Kate.

After 200 years, there is plenty of history to look back on and learn from, in particular the creative visions of people like Lilian Baylis and Emma Cons. ‘This place has a remarkable history of artistic adventure’ Matthew says. Kate has also been inspired by the social activism of the past, the building has always stood for something, and I like that’, Kate adds.

So, looking to the future then, what advice would they give to the people doing their jobs when The Old Vic is turning 400? Kate suggests listening to the recording of Lilian Baylis that the British Library holds where she talks about the challenges of running the theatre in the early 1900s. The challenges, she says, will be the same, and so, hopefully, will be the sense of joy. ‘I sometimes wonder whether The Old Vic would have its same spirit and character if it became a place that was easier to run’. Matthew is certain some things will never change ‘The feeling you get in this auditorium is unlike any other. That will always be there. But you’ve got to hope that half of what’s going on in 200 years would be completely unrecognisable to us, as it’s got to be completely plugged in to its own time. We want audiences to really love The Old Vic, not just to love it because a certain person is running it or they’ve seen a certain kind of show. That richer, deeper relationship with this unique building is what we’re trying to create.