THE tradition of artistic leadership goes back a long way at Dundee Rep. In the 1970s, the theatre’s artistic director was the writer, actor and director Stephen MacDonald, who went on to run the Lyceum in Edinburgh.
His successors have included the veteran actor-manager Robert Robertson, two inspired producer-directors – Hamish Glen and James Brining, now in charge of the Belgrade, Coventry and the West Yorkshire Playhouse respectively – and the acclaimed former Traverse boss Philip Howard, who became chief executive in 2012, sharing the artistic directorship of the theatre ensemble with Jemima Levick.
Today, though, if you wander up Tay Street to the Rep’s handsome modern building, opened in 1982, you’ll find that the man in charge is top theatre executive Nick Parr, who left his previous job as commercial director at the King’s and Festival Theatres in Edinburgh to become Dundee’s chief executive earlier this year, after Philip Howard moved on to concentrate on directing and touring in Scotland.
“I know that people often groan when they hear about this kind of change,” says Parr, “because they feel that an artistic organisation should be led by a practising artist. And actually, I have a lot of sympathy with that view.
“I do think, though, that boards have to think through what’s best for any organisation at a particular moment, and I think they’ve made the right decision for Dundee Rep at this stage. The Rep is a particularly complex producing organisation – not only one of Scotland’s top producing theatres with its own unique acting ensemble, but the home of Scottish Dance Theatre and a huge range of community work; and I think I’m the first chief executive of this company who’s really been able to focus equally on the dance and theatre aspects of the company, rather than trying to run the whole show with one hand, while also being artistic director of the theatre company with the other.”
Anne Bonnar of theatre consultants Bonnar Keenlyside, who advised on the changes at Dundee Rep, agrees.
“I think the key point about Dundee Rep is that the organisation has just outgrown the model laid down by Hamish Glen in the late 1990s. In particular, Scottish Dance Theatre, now directed by Fleur Darkin, has grown to become a leading international company in its own right, rather than a junior partner. So it seemed right, for now, to set up a different structure, with a chief executive for the organisation as a whole, working closely with powerful artistic directors of the two producing companies, Jemima Levick and Fleur Darkin.
“And don’t get me wrong,” adds Bonnar, “I’m absolutely in favour of artistic leadership of arts organisations as a general rule. I was brought up at the Citizens’ Theatre in the early 80s, so I was trained by Giles Havergal, who was the artistic director par excellence – a practising actor, writer and director himself, but also a superb theatre boss. So it’s not that I want to see some kind of triumph of the uber-administrators – and if you look around the theatre scene at the moment, you can see that the artistic-director-led model has proved much more resilient than some thought it would, 20 years ago. In Scotland, we’ve got Pitlochry and the Citizens’ at the moment – just to give two examples – both being led by artistic directors, exactly the kind of practising artists who can subsume their creative ‘selfish gene’ into the work of a whole organisation; and Vicky Featherstone is another great example, a superb founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland.
“Above all, though, I think the key to success for any arts organisation is to be flexible and to respond to change. And the worst thing that can happen is for any management and staffing structure to become set in stone. Because ultimately what matters is the art, and the structure has to serve that, no matter what.”