'He's lots of projects on the go'

I Work For... Judith Murrell works for William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly Theatre, which is taking part in the Edinburgh Festival
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The Independent Online

William is a theatrical man. He loves to be able to break in new talent by giving a platform to comedy or drama, at the Edinburgh Festival and at the Riverside. Yet despite having acted briefly himself he's not thespy, just very jolly with a very dry sense of humour, and one which we share - more Jo Brand or Jack Dee than slapstick. He's been running the Festival's Assembly Theatre at the Assembly Rooms since 1981 and has been head of the Riverside, a multi complex arts theatre, since 1993.

William is a theatrical man. He loves to be able to break in new talent by giving a platform to comedy or drama, at the Edinburgh Festival and at the Riverside. Yet despite having acted briefly himself he's not thespy, just very jolly with a very dry sense of humour, and one which we share - more Jo Brand or Jack Dee than slapstick. He's been running the Festival's Assembly Theatre at the Assembly Rooms since 1981 and has been head of the Riverside, a multi complex arts theatre, since 1993.

Moving up to Edinburgh during the Festival is entering a different environment. During the Festival, everything is so busy, the place is full of people to meet and with such limited time it can get crazy.

There's no time for rest and we all get very tired, but it's exciting. Once I arrive, I have to find William then somewhere to sit and do my work, Festival-and Riverside-related. In the evening, or perhaps for an hour or so at lunch time, I go to see a show, or meet colleagues I haven't seen for a year or so.

I make sure everything runs smoothly for William. He's the kind of person who needs to have lots of projects going at one time and his catch phrase is: 'I've had a good idea'. The fact that I always have something different to work on makes the job interesting. This year at the Festival we are launching a new internet comedy channel called ComedyRed.

It's the first of its kind and will include chat lines, listings, video clips and direct links to comedians' sites. The channel's directors are based in our office and I've been helping them out. Sometimes I won't see William for a day, because it's such a good place for him to network. He's good at socialising and describing what he wants to do and he has an amazing number of contacts. He's level-headed though and he enjoys the Festival - it's like a family to him. I think he feels Scottish now, although he's actually Zimbabwean.

Everything is more impromptu up here and my role changes all the time. Last year was frenzied, we were wondering whether the Assembly Theatre would survive. I became involved in writing campaigning letters and it wasn't until this January that we finally managed to secure a six-year seasonal tenancy. Sadly, financial concerns mean one loses a degree of artistic freedom. When William first started at Edinburgh in 1981 he could put on any production he wanted. He still feels strongly that financial viability shouldn't be the determining factor on staging a show.

There's a never-ending need for funding at the Riverside too, since it is a charity. Hiring it for parties, conferences and as studio space is vital to our existence. William also runs a television company from here, which is where I originally got involved, having worked for William while he was head of arts at Granada. I didn't know much about the Riverside before I joined it. At the time it looked like a student bar, painted black, very dim and repertory. Yet it's always been a groundbreaking space, renowned for staging international work, particularly during the Sixties and Seventies and famous for being the setting for Doctor Who as well as Hancock's Half Hour and the occasional Blue Peter. TFI Friday was shot there, with one studio permanently rented to them.

Over the years I've become increasingly involved with the day-to-day running of Riverside Studios and its unique blend of theatre, film and TV. I've learned a lot about how arts theatres are run, I hadn't realised how many different factors slot together, from managing the front of house to running the box-office. My job varies from regular administration to putting together brochures, marketing and getting involved with our cinema.

I've had a fair bit of contact with performers and highlights have been comedians such as Jack Dee, Mark Lamarr and Alan Davies, as well as seeing Cooking with Elvis, playing with us at Assembly Theatre. Comedians tend to be a diverse bunch, some are mad, others very normal and down-to-earth.

Theatre can be a bit more stuffy, but at the Assembly and the Riverside everyone tends to muck in together. William has always been more of a friend than a boss, easy to work for, calm, normal and unthreatening. He's never put pressure on me or breathed down my neck. He's naturally laid-back, some people sometimes think too much so, but that's the way I prefer him any day.

* Interview by Katie Sampson

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