Anthony Clark: 'Who are you doing the work for? Tourists?'

Hampstead Theatre's new artistic director tells Daniel Rosenthal why he won't be wooing the West End
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The Independent Culture

Anthony Clark's arrival as the new artistic director of London's Hampstead Theatre has been a muted affair. On the eve of his opening show, Clare McIntyre's new play The Maths Tutor, it feels as though he has strolled on from the wings and reached centre stage in a virtual blackout - an entrance very much in keeping with his low-key, high-achieving career.

He has been directing professionally for more than 20 years, but when you stay in Manchester and Birmingham, concentrate mostly on new writing (a field in which critics seldom give directors their dues) and seek publicity for your work, not yourself, then your national media profile is always likely to remain low.

Within theatre circles, however, Clark's recognition has been much higher, ever since he took over Manchester's Contact Theatre in 1984 - aged 24 - making him, he thinks, the youngest ever artistic director of a building-based British theatre company. He was a pioneer of "colour-blind" casting of Black and Asian actors in the classics and wrote original dramas for adults and adaptations for children, including The Little Prince and The Pied Piper.

As Associate Director of Birmingham Rep in the 1990s, he tackled Shakespeare, Synge and Brecht, but it was his more recent work with Moira Buffini, Judy Upton and Tamsin Oglesby in the Rep's Door studio that cemented his reputation for sensitive development and direction of new writing - and tipped the balance in his favour in the contest to succeed Jenny Topper at Hampstead, a venue famous for premiering plays by Michael Frayn, Terry Johnson, Mike Leigh, Philip Ridley and many others.

His decision to accept a three-year contract and move down to London with his wife and four children has necessitated major domestic upheaval, yet it's easy to see why taking charge of the Hampstead's £15.7m new home was an irresistible opportunity.

The increased capacity - the main auditorium can now seat up to 325 - is the most significant and potentially most problematic change, because in the old building the mailing list could be relied upon for a significant proportion of box-office revenue; now Clark is all too aware that the subscribers can only fill 30 to 40 per cent of the seats. His break-even figure is 70 per cent.

Cue the launch of a scheme offering 650 seats per week to anyone under 26 or on full benefit at just £6.50 a head - undercutting even the National's ground-breaking £10 season. "Obviously we need to expand our audience for financial reasons," explains Clark, "but because the general perception is that the Hampstead audience is elderly, the £6.50 policy is led by my desire to attract a younger audience. Because there is nothing more exciting than when the audience mix is varied.

"I have no idea whether it will work. The plays are what will determine whether people come back, and because I don't really know the tastes of the Hampstead audience it's my taste that's leading my first season." That taste includes the London premiere of Gregory Burke's Gibraltar-set The Straits, already a hit at this year's Edinburgh Festival, and The Maths Tutor, the result of a Door commission that Clark gave McIntyre in 2001. "I was looking for new plays whose subject-matter gave me an imperative to put them on and The Maths Tutor is so current you can hardly read a paper without another story of a teacher being suspended after accusations by a pupil." Is he hoping for a West End transfer? "It's never been the raison d'être of this company to secure commercial transfers," Clark says, "but sometimes I'm made to feel that it is. Everybody in theatre seems to aspire to work in the West End, but then who are you doing the work for? Tourists? I've always enjoyed working for building-based companies because you have an ongoing dialogue with your audience. That's part of the joy."

'The Maths Tutor': Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), tomorrow to 25 Oct