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From Byre to Court

Ken Alexander is used to turning theatres on their heads.

When the newly appointed – and first ever – artistic director of the Royal Court theatre in Liverpool was in charge of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, he initiated touring and an outreach programme while at the same time overseeing the in-house company's move from its old premises to its new lottery-funded state-of-the-art home. Once in the new building, Alexander increased production from five shows a year to eight, a remarkable feat that paid dividends in both attendance and quality.

When Alexander took over Perth Theatre, where his career had begun as a trainee director under theatrical legends Joan Knight and Clive Perry, during his year-long tenure he re-established the venue as a producing house and increased audiences.

With the closure of the Byre two weeks ago, several years after its Scottish Arts Council funding cut caused its production arm to be scrapped outside of pantomime season, someone with Alexander's commercial and artistic savvy is much needed. Given his central role in the Byre's former glory, Alexander is both mournful and angry.

"I feel pretty angry about the staff who've been with the company since before the new theatre was built being laid off the way they have," he says. "But I think once the SAC removed core funding from the Byre that this was inevitable. The Byre was designed to be a producing theatre, so after core funding was removed it was a no-brainer that something was going to go horribly wrong."

Alexander was speaking just days before a summit meeting between Fife Council, Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government was held to try to save the Byre. Whatever happens next, all parties might do well to listen to Alexander's experience.

"When I was at the Byre we really had to fight hard to get the funding that we did, and to convince the SAC that Fife was a place deserving of producing work in its own right," he says. "The SAC never regarded St Andrews as strategically important, but to think that St Andrews can be serviced by theatres in Dundee and Edinburgh is a big mistake and a serious misjudgment. I'd really like the Byre to go back to being a producing house, but you need strong management to achieve that."

It is Liverpool, however, where Alexander's energies will be channelled over the next few years, in a building which seems tailor-made for his talents. For the past 30 years the Royal Court was a music venue before returning to its theatrical roots several years ago with a series of commercial comedies served up in a Scouse demotic. Alexander has already directed several shows there, including A Nightmare on Lime Street and Dirty Dusting, and has plans for more ambitious fare.

"It's a job that's going to have its challenges," Alexander admits. "The Royal Court as a production company has only existed for six or seven years and so far it's been done on a commercial basis, with shows being paid for by the last thing that was done. Part of my remit is to develop and expand the programme, and we're at the first stage of a four-stage development. A lot of the plays that go on are by writers in the Liverpool area. There's a really strong sense that the theatre is tapping into working-class Liverpool voices, and I'm really interesting in developing that, and finding new Liverpool talent.

"I'm also interested in taking some of the shows on tour. Most of the number-one venues say they can't find enough drama to put on, so I'll be looking to making links with various consortiums to try to work out how we can do that."

The Royal Court seats 1200, with cabaret-style tables filling the stalls where audiences can have a meal before the show. This speak-easy vibe fits in perfectly with Liverpool's strong theatrical history, both with the Everyman, currently being rebuilt, and the 700-seat Liverpool Playhouse. There is also the 2000-seat Liverpool Empire a stone's throw from the Royal Court.

"A lot of the top-quality touring work that does exist tends to bypass Liverpool and goes to Manchester," Alexander observes, "so we'll also be looking at bringing some of that in, and looking at some kind of possible relationship between the Royal Court and the Empire. It's important that what we do compliments what's already there rather than going up against it, and I'd like to see us share work and resources with the other theatres here."

With plans to expand the theatre's community and outreach work, Alexander's ambitious plans come at a time when Scottish and Scotland-based directors are spreading their artistic wings. Former Dundee Rep director James Brining is already in post heading up West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, while outgoing National Theatre of Scotland head Vicky Featherstone is about to take charge of the more familiar Royal Court in London.

Only last week Lorne Campbell, previously associate director at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, was announced as the artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, a city with its own set of funding problems.

While this is a clear endorsement of directing talent nurtured in Scotland, Alexander also points to other reasons for this trend.

"There's not as much going on in buildings in terms of producing in Scotland anymore," he says. "That's partly why I wanted to spread my wings. I certainly learned a lot in Scottish theatres, and was lucky to work in such well-equipped theatres, but I don't think there are as many opportunities for directors to develop their craft in the way that I did."

Alexander will spend his first full year at the Royal Court "fact finding", as he survey's Liverpool's theatrical landscape, and he is unlikely to direct a show until the autumn at the earliest.

The theatre will nevertheless continue in a light-hearted vein, a la Nightmare on Lime Street. Already lined up is another Christmas show with a similarly local flavour, a science-fiction spoof revelling in the name of Hitchhiker's Guide to Fazakerley, the location being a northern suburb of the city. Bearing in mind that it was Liverpool which pretty much initiated the current wave of rock musicals, with the first production of Return to the Forbidden Planet at the Everyman in the mid-1980s, such a focus on unashamed populism isn't surprising.

"I would like to see the Royal Court in a position where we can plan seasons with at least a couple of shows going out on tour," he says. "I would also like to see the likes of the National Theatre, the RSC and the National Theatre of Scotland touring here. I want the theatre to be running at least 50 weeks of the year. It has to be aspirational."

www.royalcourtliverpool.co.uk

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