He was the man who discovered David Tennant and has helped transform The Belgrade Theatre as one of the region's top cultural venues. Hamish Glen talks to Catherine Vonledebur about his10 years as artistic director at the Coventry theatre.
WHEN Hamish Glen took the helm at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in 2003 his aim was to restore its reputation as a place where it could produce its own plays.
He oversaw a £14m redevelopment, including the creation of a smaller second performance space, the B2 studio, and introduced a new, more daring artistic policy which has seen the theatre produce more than 50 of its own original and rarely-performed plays, as well as showing a wide range of high-quality touring productions.
Now the 55-year-old innovative Scot is celebrating his 10th anniversary as artistic director and chief executive at the theatre and shows no sign of taking his foot off the gas.
“I like the energy, the politics and leadership of buildings; but my passion is plays and working with actors,” Hamish explains.
“When I joined The Belgrade 10 years ago my main aim was to restore the reputation of the theatre as a major producing house and bolster its position as the cultural heart of the city.
“With a varied and life-enhancing programme of work, including home-grown Belgrade productions and a Thriving Community & Education Company, I think we’ve accomplished that and more.
“I’m proud of all of the theatre’s many achievements, but a particular highlight for me has been the creation of the B2 auditorium, which was crucial in allowing us to develop our own plays. I’ll never tire of seeing it packed with excited theatre-goers, as it has been for plays such as Scenes from a Marriage, One Night in November and We Love You City.”
B2 opened in style in 2008 when Trevor Nunn returned to regional theatre for the first time in 40 years to direct a new version of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.
Trevor’s then wife, Imogen Stubbs, and Hamish’s brother Iain Glen, played the two lead roles.
“Trevor Nunn started his career at The Belgrade. He was here for a year as a trainee director before he worked at the RSC.
“My brother was approached directly by Trevor. Iain and Imogen have been friends since childhood. Although she grew up in London her parents had relatives in Scotland. They were also in the same year at RADA. Trevor felt there was an intimacy there, of a man and a wife, that could really help the production,” Hamish explains.
“As a second space B2 has been a triumph. It has been a physical springboard and means we can do smaller scale, new work, which was particularly difficult, when we only had a 900-seater theatre.
“Trevor Nunn said it was the best studio space in the country, which was high praise indeed.
“Audiences and theatre makers love it. The flexibility is great.
“One of the things I am proud of is the quality of the work we are making.”
Sons Without Fathers, which ended this week, was The Belgrade’s latest co–production with the Arcola Theatre in London based on Chekhov’s first play Platonov.
Directed by Helena Kaut-Howson, 30-year-old Jack Laskey gave an outstanding performance as Platonov, supported by an excellent cast, including four members of The Belgrade’s Senior Youth Theatre and 50+ Theatre group.
Hamish says: “I loved it. It’s a fantastic production with great performances. Helen Kaut-Howson directed our revival of Uncle Vanya in 2011 and she’s very good.”
Hamish’s real energy goes into directing. In his previous role as artistic director at Dundee Rep, which he did for 11 years, he set up Scotland’s only permanent ensemble and has directed more than 60 plays in his career.
For The Belgrade these include Moliere’s The Miser, the Brecht comedy, Mr Puntila and His Man Matti, the award-winning Moscow Olympics drama Stars in the Morning Sky and most recently, Gogol’s farce Marriage, in B2.
But one of his biggest successes has undoubtedly been One Night In November, Alan Pollock’s play about the Coventry Blitz, which premiered in the B2 auditorium in 2008. It sold out twice that year and was re-staged on the Main Stage in 2010, where it will play again from September 28 2013 to October 19.
“One Night in November had an enormous response in the city and we have kept going. We are now playing the fourth incarnation in September. I’m going to be directing with a new cast and we are going to redesign it,” he reveals.
“So many people had not been about to see it the first time round because it sold out so quickly. It achieved 97 per cent in the main theatre.
“It genuinely was the first time in my life that a show I’d directed was brought back by popular demand. It’s such a big part of the history for the city and is what makes the city.”
Hamish’s next project is The Prodigals, a musical set in Afghanistan, which opens on August 30.
“It is a brand new musical we are co-producing with a commercial company, Inspire. I am very excited about it. The Belgrade has a long history of new musicals. Buddy started here, then there was Three Minute Heroes and the Mark Bolan musical, 20th Century Boy which is going to go on a national commercial tour, including the West End.
“That’s the next step forward for The Belgrade in a way.”
One of Hamish’s personal highlights was Sir Ian McKellen’s one-off show on the very day and minute of his first professional debut on stage at The Belgrade. Hamish received a phonecall out-of-the-blue asking if The Lord Of The Rings actor could stage a special show celebrating 50 years of acting on Sunday, September 4 2011.
“It was quite an amazing phonecall to get,” says Hamish. “The actual 50th anniversary fell on a Sunday. He was out on tour so unless it had landed that day he couldn’t have done it.”
The Belgrade’s Theatre and Education work with young people and local communities has been ground breaking, involving 9,000 participants.
In the 1960s The Belgrade was the first theatre to establish a Theatre in Education Company – Hamish felt it was important to revive the theatre’s early radicalism.
“Right at the heart of the artistic policy we seek to give a voice to everyone in the community, particularly communities without a voice. We work in areas of depravation and with children excluded from school. We also have a black and minority writing group. It’s about the excitement of seeing lives transformed – it really does transform lives.
“Theatre and Education were developed at The Belgrade and it has gone around the world, we are trying to recapture what the Belgrade was famous for.”
It was whilst working in Scotland that Hamish first discovered David Tennant as a young drama student in Glasgow.
“I taught David Tennant at college,” he explains. “He was studying at the Royal Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. I was Michael Boyd’s associate at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre and at the time got invited as a guest lecturer. I gave him his first professional job at Dundee Rep.
“David was in my very first show in Dundee Rep – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – and he was very good in it.
“Look at him now – he’s a superstar.”
Tennant will be returning to the Midlands in October to play Richard II at the RSC.
Hamish and his wife Denise Winford, aged 53, who was previously head of marketing at Dundee Rep, live in the Earlsdon area of Coventry.
When they first moved there from Scotland 10 years ago Hamish admits it was a “cultural shock”.
But he adds: “I have grown very attached to Coventry. It’s a quirky, energetic, international city with really good people. Coventry people are strong, open and friendly. You can see that in its diversity.
“Scotland, especially Dundee, is mono-cultural – that what was one of the exciting things about coming here.”
Two years ago the couple, who have been together for 32 years, decided to become foster parents.
“My wife and I foster two boys, aged six and eight. One of the children we foster is a young, black boy. He loves the stage, acting and dancing,” he adds.
“When you’ve never had children, stop-starting in your 50’s, is quite a steep, learning curve.”