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Scale Up Report - Dave Whetstone

Journalist David Whetstone, from The QT, was a ‘fly on the wall’ at the launch of Northern Stage’s new Scale Up programme


The buffet came at the end but there was ample food for thought as Northern Stage launched its Scale Up initiative with a Stage I conference. Stage 1 is an auditorium blessed with a big stage.

Did I say blessed? Many are the directors I’ve heard speaking of the challenges it poses.

Impact is what it demands. Spectacle even. You can get lost if you haven’t scaled up to meet its demands. But wow (and I speak as an audience member), how brilliant when it works!

On stage to start an event that might in some minds have seemed counter-intuitive (Scaling up? In this artistic climate?) was Kate Denby, Northern Stage executive director.

“Scale Up emerges from a long period of consultation with our colleagues in the creative sector here in the North East,” she said.

“Northern Stage is the largest full-time producing theatre in the North East and this space, Stage I, is at the heart of who we are.

“Scale Up will see us flex our resources in service of artists and audiences across the North East and beyond, ensuring that we maximise our impact, transforming artists’ careers and growing both the workforce and the opportunities available to them.

“We want, and as a business we need, to see more mid-scale theatre being made. We want to see more, and more diverse, artists working and making high quality work that speaks to the lives of people in this region. Through Scale Up we hope that we can work to do that with you.”

Northern Stage, no doubt enviously regarded by others less well resourced, is reaching out, offering expertise and a helping hand.

Kate, it turned out, was anticipating a key message of the day – the importance of collaborating and sharing.

“Today’s about starting a conversation and I sincerely hope it provokes debate, ideas and excitement,” she concluded before a smiling man appeared on the screen above her head.

If anyone can start a conversation and single-handedly sustain it then it’s Daniel Evans, still quite new in his role as joint artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (frequent visitors to this stage over the years) after spells running the theatres in Sheffield and Chichester.

“Is bigger better?” he asked rhetorically.

“Not necessarily. Size cannot be the measure of existence and value. I’m a proud Welsh speaker but a small number of Welsh speakers doesn’t make the language less beautiful.”

There was value in big and small, he said, illustrating the former with his memory of a trip to the Greek amphitheatre at Epidaurus where a line of Shakespeare spoken from the stage was heard by his friend at the back of a venue that would have seated 14,000.

“Acoustically perfect. In that instance, big was beautiful.”

On the other hand, his biggest acting thrill came in a play seen by about 90 people a night during a short run.

“Barely anyone saw it but as an actor it’s probably the thing I’m most proud of.”

He shared moments of self-doubt and the pressures that came with scaling up in his career, going from directing six actors to 16 plus a community ensemble and combating soaring costs and imposter syndrome.

But… while leadership could feel lonely, theatre was a collaborative art. He spoke of the importance “of building relationships, of collaboration, of listening, of dialogue, of compromise, of questioning”.

Michèle Taylor, champion of disability equality through the Ramps on the Moon consortium, chaired a discussion on politics and representation with panellists Stephen Bailey, artistic director of Vital Xposure, freelance writer Matilda Ibini and Amy Leach, deputy artistic director of Leeds Playhouse.

The discussion was vital, wide-ranging, passionate.

“There shouldn’t be an access requirement that can’t be met,” said Matilda, I’d guess speaking from bitter experience.

“Disabled artists are professionals and need to be engaged with in the same way as any other artist,” said Stephen (ditto).

And should you be thinking of the cost involved in all of this, consider Amy Leach’s joyful recollection of a barnstorming production of Macbeth involving disabled performers.

“Having disabled people involved makes shows more truthful,” offered Stephen with his track record as a neurodivergent director and producer.

Michèle observed that any improvement to access generally makes things better for everyone.

And a salutary reminder from Matilda: “The state of being non-disabled is temporary.”

After a break came sessions from Matthew Xia, artistic director of ATC (Actors Touring Company) and freelance designer Vicki Mortimer.

“How do we do as little harm as possible when making work?” asked Matthew on screen, broaching sustainability and the climate crisis.

Question from the floor: “Wouldn’t it be better if we just did nothing?”

Matthew called that “a glorious provocation” and referred to ATC’s agreement with the Arts Council to tour for 12 weeks per year.

But he gave examples of how to “do more with less” and highlighted the Theatre Green Book and its target of ensuring 50% of everything used in a show is pre-used and 65% will have an afterlife.

“Parameters encourage ingenuity,” he said.

Vicki, addressing scale and spectacle, knew all about that. Having alluded to many of the current problems, she said it was important to hang onto the fundamental thing of knowing the story you want to tell.

And also, perhaps, question the thing that gets into the bloodstream, that everyone’s in competition and everything must be original.

Last but not least came Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic and a man who can work a room.

“It’s hard out there,” he said, prowling among us, “being a theatre artist and doing what we do. I want to big you up. Whoop (expletive deleted) whoop!”

He described his personal scaling up which saw him go from directing a cast of five in the UK to 500 in Senegal and then crossing the Atlantic to run a theatre in Baltimore.

Mistakes were made and lessons learned. “Scaling up is what we do as artists. Faith in me from the people around me led me to believe I could do it.

“The ability to scale up lies in you.”

One North East director in the audience didn’t seem convinced, saying: “But I’m feeling really battered now.”

Kwami acknowledged a lack of resources but urged: “Don’t let the quality of the thing you do be the thing that gets in the way.”

Natalie Ibu, artistic director of Northern Stage, rounded things off on screen from London where she was directing Underdog: The Other Other Brontë,  for the National Theatre and Northern Stage.

She explained how the Scale Up programme could benefit artists who wanted to live in the region but work nationally and also Northern Stage, facing a crisis in mid-scale theatre.

“We and other theatres like us need shows made by more and different people from more and increasingly diverse audiences,” she said, before running through the Scale Up strands.

Scale Up Network was the entry point. Sign up to be the first to hear about open auditions, rehearsal visits, networking trips and the like.

Scale Up Companies was “for theatre companies to work in partnership with us on a meaningful journey of scale that embraces your practice”.

Scale Up Artists was about offering transformational employment opportunities, leading an artist, perhaps, from Northern Stage’s Stage 3 to Stage 1.

She hoped it would be a game-changer, “for you and for us”, and result in “more work made and more artists working and that you will supply the nation’s stages from here in the North East”.

And so to networking and the buffet…