Terry Grimley catches up on the ongoing success story of Malvern Theatres with chief executive Nic Lloyd.
However much a theatre’s chief executive might be concerned with the big picture, he can’t afford to take his eye off the details of customer care.
I was reminded of that last week, when I had to move quickly to get out of Nic Lloyd’s way as he rushed to the aid of a member of the audience who had been taken ill during the opening night of Crown Matrimonial at Malvern Festival Theatre.
It just shows what a big responsibility it is to welcome hundreds of people into your home every evening, I suggested when I spoke to him two days ago.
“It is, but of course there’s a number of front-of-house staff trained as I am in first aid,” he said. “The one thing about our theatre is you can actually get to people because the space between rows is quite wide. But as I got up a woman behind me said ‘Would you mind sitting down?’!”
Malvern Theatres have just celebrated 10 years in the expanded form which emerged from a £7.2 million lottery-funded redevelopment. With today’s spacious foyers overlooking the park it takes an effort to remember quite how constricted the entrance to the Festival Theatre used to be.
Although it doesn’t call itself an arts centre, that is effectively what the complex now is, with its cinema and flexible second performance space, the Forum. It has been patiently building an audience for contemporary dance over recent years, and its classical music programming is suddenly stepping up a level, with four visits from the CBSO coming up over the autumn and winter, including one with new music director Andris Nelsons.
But touring drama is the unique regional niche that Malvern has long carved out for itself. If you live in Birmingham and want to see the latest classic directed by Sir Peter Hall, or English Touring Theatre’s new production, or various new plays on their pre-West End runs, there’s nothing for it but to get into your car and drive 35 miles into deepest Worcestershire.
“There’s a very strong drama base of people who travel for an hour’s driving time,” says Nic Lloyd. “I try to do new pieces as well – I like to give new playwrights an opportunity, but their work has to be produced to a very high level.”
The autumn season, just announced, carries on the tradition. There’s Sir Peter’s Portrait of a Lady and a chance to see his earlier An Ideal Husband, Stephanie Cole in a revival of Peter Nichols’ Born in the Gardens, Brenda Blethyn in The Glass Menagerie, Alison Steadman in Alan Bennett’s Enjoy! (also, like Cabaret, coming to Birmingham Rep) Susan Hampshire in Somerset Maugham’s The Circle, English Touring Theatre’s adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd and a stage version of Calendar Girls with seemingly every actress of a certain age you could think of. Plus another chance to catch the National Theatre’s hit production of Noises Off.
Alongside those plays are visits from Rambert Dance Company, English Touring Opera (with an interesting rarity in Dvorak’s Rusalka), the Carl Rosa Opera Company in The Mikado Compagnia d’Opera Italiano di Milano in Tosca, plus the Russian State Ballet of Siberia in four popular ballets.
“One of the highlights for me is having three big female leads coming in different plays,” says Lloyd. “Brenda Blethyn is coming here for the first time in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. This is coming out of the Royal Exchange in Manchester and it’s very good to get the Royal Exchange’s work here because it’s very good quality. And Tennessee Williams isn’t done enough.”
He has a particular fondness for American playwrights like Williams, Miller and Albee, and even hosted an Albee premiere from the Almeida at Malvern a few years ago. But Coward, Shaw and Shakespeare are more often the Malvern staples.
“We’ve moved the building in a different direction, and really built up the audience for contemporary dance here. You have to keep working away, even if you only add another 25 people each time. There’s a lot of work to do. We’ve got a big education programme which is developing all the time, with projects trying to persuade young people to come.
“Getting young people into the theatre is vital. We’re all underfunded, but we’ve heard all that before, so we’ve tried to introduce under-25 ticket prices and we’ve done a big push for audiences on the web. We’ve been gradually building up our marketing on the internet for the last four or five years. Everyone is using the internet now. We can target people so much more easily than by putting flyers in envelopes.”
Tending towards the more senior end of the age spectrum, I would have guessed that Malvern’s audiences was one of the less computer-savvy, but apparently I’d be surprised.
Questioning the assumption that education work is exclusively for the young, Nic Loyd reveals that the older members of his audience are an inquisitive lot: “My father is 82 and he’s on a course at the moment.”
When I mention that the extent of the forthcoming classical music programme has taken me by surprise it turns out that this is just how Nic planned it, building up the programme almost by stealth.
As well as those four CBSO concerts there are visits from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic, three concerts by the up-and-coming Armonico Consort including a Messiah with Emma Kirkby, and a piano recital series with Peter Donohoe, Noriko Agawa, John Lill and Nikolai Demidenko.
Malvern Theatres also host the Malvern Concert Club’s series of concerts by the Nash Ensemble, Gould Piano Trio and Carducci Quartet.
“The acoustic is good in the Forum, so audiences have responded very well,” says Nic Lloyd.
“We have a very strong music club here which promotes chamber music, so there’s a good base. Although a lot of our audience go to Symphony Hall they will come here as well, so now it’s about bringing in orchestras from all over the country.”
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the CBSO will top and tail the programme for next summer’s Malvern Festival, which will mark the 80th anniversary of the original event. Lloyd points out that Malvern Theatres’ year-round programme now replicates what the festival was doing when he first arrived in the town, but at the same time he thinks festivals are coming back into vogue and can make an important contribution to a town. There are plans to commission a new play for next summer’s event.
So how is the building doing, 10 years on from its major make-over?
“Malvern has often been heralded as a success, because of its value for money. We did a high spec on it, particularly the floors, making it easy for us to maintain, and that’s worked very well. We have had a few problems with double glazing fogging just as it’s come out of guarantee, but that’s to be expected. We are talking to Malvern District Council about external maintenance.
“I want this theatre to be as strong in 50 years as it is now, and we have managed to keep it feeling new, even though it has been hammered by the public – thank God!”
For information about Malvern Theatres’ autumn programme, visit malvern-theatres.co.uk.