Derby Theatre is probably the only theatre in the UK situated inside the city’s busiest shopping centre. Right there amongst the high-street chains, market stalls, restaurants and daily hubbub, it’s no wonder this theatre has such a distinctive relationship with its audience. I spoke to Artistic Director Sarah Brigham about the bond between the theatre and its community.

‘I’d never sat in an audience before where they were so warm and so vocal. You walk into the market and the store sellers have seen what you’ve done and you can have that conversation; it’s not a theatre sat high up on a hill, it’s right in the heart of it and that does inform the lifeblood of who we are’

This relationship however, had to be developed almost entirely from scratch. In 2008 the city was left without its artistic base when Derby Playhouse closed down for 18 months, before re-opening as Derby Theatre in 2012 with Brigham taking over leadership of the building.

‘We’ve had to work really, really hard and be in dialogue with our audience all the time. In the first year that I worked here, every day on my lunch hour I’d walk into the shopping centre or into the street and just ask for directions to the theatre, just to see if people knew we were here. I’d make sure I was here at least three to four time a week, in the bar after the show, to talk to the audience – just really get to know them.’

This constant dialogue between the theatre and its community is something Brigham works hard to maintain, making sure everyone involved in the theatre has their voice heard.

‘Whereas normally in a theatre, the people sat around the programming table will be your Artistic Director, probably your Executive Director and a Programmer and that’s kind of it, we also have students sat in there, we have people from the University, members of the community, all having this really open and transparent conversation’

Complimenting this devotedness to community engagement is the theatre’s unique relationship with the University of Derby. They run two degree courses that have their tutorials in the theatre itself, as well as a series of masterclasses and opportunities to shadow staff at all levels, each and every staff member having been specially trained to disseminate their skills.

I was interested in Brigham’s experience as a young director and how that may have influenced her to work so closely with her community. She noted that there was no real dialogue between herself and the theatres she grew up with; that she was lucky to get to where she is today without that unique open-door policy of support and tuition.

‘What we’re trying to do here at Derby Theatre is say actually it shouldn’t be luck. As a regional theatre we’ve got a responsibility to artists to really share our knowledge and share our practice.’

‘Because we had that period of closure and now we’re re-forming and re-shaping and because I’m relatively new in post, we can ask: what can regional theatre be? Not what has it always been, but what can it be and that’s a really exciting concept’

One of the ways the theatre is tapping into this new energy is through its RETOLD series. The first commissioned piece, Penelope RETOLD, is written and performed by Caroline Horton and directed by Lucy Skilbeck.

‘As a female artistic director, when you look at the classics, the female voice is often minute, often ignored, often sat on the side-lines ‘

Brigham wanted to commission a companion piece to the theatre’s 2014 production of The Odyssey, giving a different angle to audiences as well as encouraging the usual main house crowd to experience the studio space.

The series takes female characters from classic narratives and re-tells the stories from their perspective. As a project focusing on unheard voices, it is a fitting reflection of Derby Theatre’s inimitable dedication to inclusivity, openness and local engagement.

Whilst it has evidently been a challenging few years, Brigham is full of enthusiasm and inspiration for the future of the theatre.

‘It feels like we’re such a young organisation because we started from scratch. I’d like to see us in the next three years come at ease with what we’re producing. Beyond that, it’s about having really ambitious work, so I want to take work outside of the building, I want to really push this learning agenda and really question the industry about why it is that learning is always put at the end of the process’

Plans are already well underway for the next RETOLD piece, with Derby theatre working hard to re-write the relationship between audience and theatre-maker and construct a learning environment that supports and nurtures creativity, reminding artists, young and old, that the tools for them to succeed are not unreachable:

‘This industry isn’t a big scary monster – all of us were where you were at some point and so generally everyone at that higher level wants to open doors and help, but you just need to push on the door first’