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Text reads Scale Up

Scaling Up - Fergus Morgan

What does it mean to scale up in theatre? For a director, it might mean directing a show on a bigger stage. For a dramatist, it could be writing a play for a bigger ensemble. For a company, it might be reaching more audiences by taking a production on a longer tour.

Scaling up, according to director Daniel Evans, speaking at the launch of Northern Stage’s Scale Up programme last week, can mean something different depending on who you are, what you do, and what stage in your career you are at. When Evans was an actor, it means embracing the challenge of performing in bigger spaces, like when a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George he starred in transferred from London’s 200-seat Menier Chocolate Factory, to the 700-seat Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End, then to the 1000-seat Studio 54 on Broadway.

“Playing bigger spaces actually requires a different kind of breathing,” Evans says. “You need to train your apparatus differently. Going from Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre to the Olivier Theatre is like going between running 100m and running a marathon.”

Now co-artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, scaling up means something totally different to Evans. It means adjusting his ambition to encompass the artistic administration of an organisation with three theatres in Stratford, regular London transfers, and a staff of 750. “It’s eye-watering,” Evans says. “I’ve had to grow up fast.”

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Whether you are artistic director attempting to successfully steer an ocean liner of an organisation like the RSC or an emerging theatremaker seeking to take your first steps in the performing arts industry, though, Evans says, the process of scaling up is the same. It requires deep contemplation of four key questions: why, what, how, and who?

“Those of you thinking about scaling up, I would encourage you to answer the question: why?” Evans says. “Why do you want to do this? What is your purpose? What is your goal? And what is your ambition underneath that goal? What is that driving factor that is personal and emotive to you that will keep you motivated through the tough times?”

“You also need to think about is what you are scaling up,” Evans continues. “I believe that not everything should or can be scaled up. You might have an ambition to scale something up. I would encourage you to interrogate whether it is the right thing to do? Is bigger better? Not necessarily. Size cannot be the measure of existence and value.”

“Then it is time to get your strategic brain into gear and think about how you can get yourself there?” Evans says. “What are the staging posts along the way? How can you balance your ambition and imagination with realism? Crucially, what is your timeline?”

“Then, finally, you need to think about who you have around you? Who can help you fill the gaps in your knowledge? Who has done it before? Whose brain can you pick?”

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Developed over three years of consultation, Scale Up is a talent development programme that will, in the words of Northern Stage’s artistic director Natalie Ibu, equip local “theatre practitioners with the experience, knowledge, skills and networks to expand the scale and impact of their work.” It is, Ibu continues, for everyone, “whether you are making the jump from micro to small-scale to mid-scale, or beyond.”

Other speakers at the Scale Up launch will consider different aspects of scaling up. Matthew Xia will discuss the importance of thinking sustainably. Vicki Mortimer will talk about scaling up from a designer’s perspective. Kwame Kwei-Armah will speak on the need for self-belief. Michele Taylor, Matilda Ibini, Stephen Bailey and Amy Leach will chat about making sure everyone has the opportunity to scale up if they want to.

It is Evans’ advice in the event’s opening speech that resonates loudest, though, chiefly because of its universal application. Building a career in theatre is like riding a rollercoaster: there are myriad highs and lows. The industry itself ebbs and flows with economic impetus, artistic freedom and creative confidence. After a global pandemic and over a decade of shrinking public subsidy, things are particularly tough right now.

Yet Evans’ provocations remain pertinent. In times of boom or bust, of plenty or scarcity, scaling up is always possible if ambition, attitude and approach are considered carefully. Scaling up is only ever a matter of asking yourself the right questions. Why? What? How? Who? For artists and companies based in Newcastle and the northeast, Northern Stage is offering some answers with Scale Up.