Josephine Balfour Oatts attends an event in which ex-Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre, Christopher Haydon talks about his and the role in general. There may be something about Rupert Goold in here somewhere…

“So, what is an Artistic Director?” Dan Rebellato peers over his reading glasses at Christopher Haydon, a glass of white wine at the crook of his elbow. Haydon pauses, thinking for a moment, his hands readied for hearty gesticulation. A formidable stream of names are stamped across the cover of his debut book, The Art of the Artistic Director: Conversations with Leading Practitioners. This compilation of 20 interviews sees an in-depth exploration of the role, and as such, is the only work of its kind. That there is so little material on the subject is perhaps the root cause of the mystery and intrigue surrounding this job – strange, given the central nature of such a unique position within the creative industry.

“An Artistic Director,” Haydon says, “is a guide rather than a dictator – the person who shapes the organisation they are attached to, both in terms of artistry and elements of business.” He believes highly in the “value of bricks and mortar,” and reflects on this in his writing, giving focus to those who run buildings, rather than non-building-based touring companies. With this in mind, he also concentrates on the public nature of the role, with its strong ties to the community in situ. During Haydon’s Artistic Directorship at the Gate Theatre from 2012-2017 (prior to which he held the position of associate director at the Bush Theatre), he was asked more than once: “Who gets to decide what work you put on?” His mouth twists in mock horror, “Me! I do! Who else would it be?” The modest, if effervescent audience at the Bloomsbury Institute bubble with laughter, the sound caught by heady notes of vino.

Initially, Haydon began his training as an actor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. “How many actors does it take to change a lightbulb?” He ventures, grinning, “100: one to do it and 99 to say, I could’ve done that better.” More giggling. Haydon makes no attempt to conceal his disdain for the time he spent submerged in this particular pocket of the craft, having been steered into directing by his tutors, sharpish. “I definitely didn’t want to be an actor,” he grimaces. He maintains that one doesn’t have to have experience as a director to be a good Artistic Director though, and encourages traits attributed to professionals such as Nick Hytner and Richard Eyre. Namely, taking joy in the success of others and having the ability to think expansively.

“How many playwrights does it take to change a lightbulb?” Rebellato counters, after a swift glance at several jealous-prone – though nameless – industry leaders. “I’m not changing anything!” He says, his chuckling met by a mild roar of amusement. Luckily, The Gate Theatre is well-known for its mission statement surrounding inclusivity, particularly in regards to internationalism and emerging artists. There is however, inevitably, always potential for the taste of any AD to collide with that of their audience. Here, Haydon refers to the brief tenure of Emma Rice at the Globe – though, as with previous anecdotes, she is never explicitly named. 

So, does the audience shape the theatre, or does a theatre shape its audience? Haydon reaches for his microphone, which had fallen into his lap some time ago. It seems the key, garnered from his interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah, is listening. After performances, Kwei-Armah has an incognito team of staff members that frequent the toilets and car park in order to overhear the reactions of spectators. Security too, will impart any details heard as visitors make their way in and out of the theatre. Understanding a theatre’s responsibility to its community is a thread that binds Haydon and Kew-Armah tightly. Also, it seems, does giving an equal level of respect to all that work within the building – no matter their position.

Earlier this year, Rupert Goold (currently Artistic Director of the Almeida) penned a damning tweet, branding two employees as ex-“diary monkeys and house-seat wranglers.” (Read our thoughts on this in Emma Bentley‘s piece). His blatant disrespect for their previous work – as well as the toils of any Front of House staff under his wing at present –  couldn’t be further from Haydon’s own practice at the Gate. “I miss worrying about the toilets” he sighs, referring to his preoccupation with ensuring that all cubicles were made gender neutral. Also, in the wake of both the Trump election and Brexit referendum, he decided to call emergency staff meetings so as to give his shell-shocked team a space in which to make sense of the madness rocking our current political and social climates. For Haydon, embodying the values that he put on stage was a major part of his taking responsibility for the health of the organisation.

Encompassed by bookshelves lining the walls, the complete Arden Shakespeare collection is unmistakable. So is the title of Haydon’s next project, which begins to emerge in riddles: a play “about a Scottish soldier, whose name brings bad luck..” He barks humorously, straightening his features. It will be his first time taking on The Bard as a director, and come Autumn, his efforts will be staged at the Manchester Royal Exchange. A smattering of applause sees our gathering off into this warm spring evening, and it is then that the tolling of a bell brings one of Haydon’s most poignant remarks to the fore. “At its best, [the theatre] can act like a secular church: a place where people can congregate regularly to explore what it means to be human.”