Daniel Evans is the Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres, comprising the Crucible, the Crucible Studio and the Lyceum, all of which good-naturedly share a piazza in Sheffield’s newly-regenerated city centre. With three theatres to take care of, it’s little wonder that when I phone him he hasn’t had a chance to eat today and asks me if I mind him eating some soup while he talks to me. Although I say of course I don’t mind, I doubt that he manages as much as a mouthful with so much to tell me about the theatres.
When I ask him what his vision was for the theatres when he took the post in 2009, it becomes clear that the city of Sheffield is at the centre of his conception of their role. “I wanted to imbue the people who live and work in the region with a feeling that the theatres were theirs, and to somehow create in people a deep emotional investment in their theatres. We do that by bringing the very best to Sheffield, the best actors, directors, designers, etc., and also by touring our shows, taking Sheffield’s name elsewhere.” Evans also established the Sheffield People’s Theatre, a company made up of local residents of all ages who want to perform. “When we’ve done productions before, the youngest has been 12 and the oldest was 84; some of them were amateur actors, some had never acted before. What’s important was that they all come from this place.” Evans will be directing them in The Sheffield Mysteries next year, written by Chris Bush. “York and Wakefield have their own Mystery traditions but Sheffield doesn’t have one, so we’re very excited to be working on it now.”
When asked about his personal relationship with Sheffield, he answers, “I love it, actually. I always loved it when I worked here as an actor and had some fantastic digs up in Sharrow Vale. People are very honest and generous and they’ll stop you in the street or in M&S to tell you what they think of the shows. You really feel that theatre matters here.” Testament to this is the recent transformation that the Crucible and the city centre itself has undergone. “When I worked here in 2003 the centre of town was like a ghost town, it was really quite bleak. But a really enlightened council have spent a lot of money on regenerating the city centre and the theatre has played an important part of that.” The Crucible was refurbished in 2007 with £15m from the Arts Council and local councils, and Evans hopes to be able to do the same with the Lyceum next year.
The Lyceum itself is a nineteenth-century proscenium arch theatre which houses opera, ballet, musicals, family shows and a yearly panto: “It’s a real peach of a theatre, very ornate and really beautifully preserved.” The Crucible, a few steps away, has a main auditorium with a thrust stage, seating 920, giving the theatre, as Evans points out, as many seats to fill each night as the National Theatre. Its studio is a blank-canvas black box space that can hold up to 400, and is where the theatre stages “mostly new, sometimes risky work”. I ask if he thinks modern theatre is gradually moving away from chocolate-box or proscenium-arch-friendly work: “I don’t think their day is past, I think theatre is robust enough as a form to take a variety of things. There’s something wonderful about everyone facing the same way, seeing the same picture, and that lends itself to certain plays in marvellous ways. Certainly for us, the Lyceum is like a jewel in the city’s crown, we’re seeing amazing sales on shows that don’t open for another year and a half. I think there’s room for it all and we don’t need to think in a binary way about it.”
Evans is clearly enthusiastic about theatre in all its forms, from the most traditional and familiar to the cutting-edge. “It’s interesting to see how the digital work and theatre are collaborating and how the use of projection is becoming more and more clever and exciting. I think it’s also interesting to see where verbatim theatre is going, into musical theatre and narrative. But amidst all the advances it’s heartening to see that people still also want to see well-written ‘well-made plays’. Chimerica, for example, is a robustly-written play with a fantastic narrative, and it’s wonderful how it just stormed it at the Almeida and into the West End. It wasn’t by any means a simple production, but it had a strong narrative in a simple form.”
As a successful actor-turned-director, I asked Evans what advice he would give to young people working in all sections of theatre. “Far be it from me to give advice, really, but firstly, get involved. Write. Visit. Go and see the work. Get online. Do your research. There’s so much information around nowadays about opportunities to work in theatres. Secondly, one thing I always tried to do early on in my career was always to say yes, to take every opportunity that was offered because even though it might not be whatever you ideally want to do in the end, the opportunity will teach you something.”
The theatres are looking ahead to an exciting year in 2014, beginning with Sheffield Theatres’ yearly Writer’s Season. “We’re opening our 2014 season with three plays by Brian Friel, playing simultaneously one in each of our spaces over the period of a month, so that the people of Sheffield can really savour the expanse of Friel’s career.” Next comes a new dance theatre piece, choreographed by Northern Ballet’s Jonathan Watkins, based on Barry Hines’s novel set in Barnsley, A Kestrel for a Knave, which was adapted into the film, Kes. After that, a revival of the popular French farce Boeing Boeing, and Evans’s production of the Sheffield Mysteries with the Sheffield People’s Theatre. “It’s quite eclectic for us, and there are some lovely local connections with Kes and the Mysteries.” It occurs to me, as I leave Evans to his now presumably stone-cold soup, that Sheffield Theatres are managing an impressive juggling act with this eclecticism; while keeping an eye on the wider world and on the most recent advances of modern theatre, its focus is first and foremost upon the interests of Sheffield residents, with its roots firmly embedded in the heart of the city.
For more information about Sheffield Theatres, visit the website.
Photo (c) Mark Douet