Joyce McMillan: Drama at Dundee Rep raises wider issues

Dundee Rep.
Dundee Rep.
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There had been rumblings of discontent for a while; unhappiness inside the company, signs of administrative unease in areas like the press office, and – in the end – a devastatingly critical Scotsman column by writer and Dundee University academic Kirsty Gunn. Yet still, it came as something of a shock, two weeks ago, when Dundee Rep’s Chief Executive Nick Parr stepped down after just two years in the job, to be replaced – at least on a temporary basis – by the two artistic directors of the Rep’s resident companies, Andrew Panton of the Dundee Rep Ensemble, and Fleur Darkin of Scottish Dance Theatre.

With an annual grant of over £1 million, the Rep is Creative Scotland’s second biggest theatre client after the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, and one of Scotland’s “big three” building-based producing theatres, creating six or seven in-house shows a year. The Rep is also one of very few UK theatres to retain a permanent ensemble of actors, with seven performers on staff, plus five graduate trainees; and even in the years of rapid change at management level since Hamish Glen’s successor James Brining left to run West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2012, this unique company has sustained a high artistic reputation, first under joint artistic directors Philip Howard and Jemima Levick, and then since Nick Parr’s appointment in 2015.

Earlier this year, Nick Parr was able to report a rise in audiences and footfall at the theatre, as then associate director Joe Douglas created hugely successful productions of The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil and Death Of A Salesman, and Andrew Panton staged a much-admired debut production of the modern American classic August: Osage County, earlier this autumn.

So what are the tensions, within this outwardly successful organisation, that led to Philip Howard giving up the role of chief executive and joint artistic director after just two years, and the apparently well-qualified Nick Parr also departing after a relatively short time? In essence, they seem to be three-fold, and the first concerns the unique structure of the Rep organisation in providing a home for both a theatre and a dance company. In the early days of the Rep Ensemble, Scottish Dance Theatre was a relatively small organisation; and it could be taken for granted that the artistic director of the Rep Ensemble would also act as Chief Executive of the whole Rep organisation.

Today, though, SDT has matured into a major, internationally-recognised dance company that operates on a similar scale to the Ensemble; and it was this sense of a growing equality between the two companies that led Philip Howard, during his time as chief executive and joint artistic director, to suggest 
a structure in which the Rep Ensemble and SDT artistic directors would be regarded as equals, both working with an overall Rep Chief Executive who would act as chief producer and administrator for both companies.

At this point, though, the other two dimensions of the problem seem to have kicked in, as Nick Parr’s new management style – and efforts to introduce change to the Rep structures – failed to win support from artists and other company members, in a company where they wield a strong influence; it was a joint protest by a large number of Rep staff numbers against the handling of personnel changes in the production department that seems finally to have led to Nick Parr’s departure. And the board also struggled to deal with what was perhaps a predictable negative response; indeed the sense that the Rep’s board has sometimes lacked a full understanding of the dynamics of running a major producing company long predates Nick Parr’s appointment, and raises much wider questions about the membership of arts boards in general, and about whose job it is to ensure that they function well at all times.

And beyond those questions, there is also the wider recurring issue about what kind of overall leader an arts organisation should ideally seek. The legendary arts bosses, of course, are those who are great artists themselves, but are also willing to take on the chief management role in an organisation; outstanding examples include the great Giles Havergal of the Citizens’ Theatre, and Vicky Featherstone, founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland.

Today, Scotland’s other two top producing theatres have adopted a joint chief executive model, with artistic director and executive director – David Greig and Alex McGowan at the Lyceum, Dominic Hill and Judith Kilvington at the Citizens’ -– sharing the ultimate executive responsibility. And it remains to be seen whether Dundee Rep will resolve its present impasse with another attempt at recruiting an overall Chief Executive, or with a switch towards a different management model.

For those who might form the next generation of artistic directors, though, the story of Dundee Rep is bound to give some pause for thought. In general, most theatre artists working in Scotland still seem to feel that the art should be “front and centre”, in the leadership of theatre organisations; and that they should ideally be led, at least jointly, by people who are themselves theatre-makers.

Yet the skills needed to run a successful 21st century theatre are so varied, and so much more complex than they were even a generation ago – in areas from fundraising to health and safety – that there is now perhaps a need for a different strand of professional training in arts management; one designed not to create professional arts managers, but to enable artists to express their creativity, at least in part, by shaping arts organisations that allow others to flourish, and the art-form itself to change and grow – to do, in other words, what Hamish Glen did when he raised the money to found the Rep Ensemble back in 2000, and what the Rep still does in Dundee every day, given even half a chance. ■