Fiona Mountford: Executive directors are the unsung heroes of British theatre


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The Independent Online

The top 20 of The Stage newspaper’s recently published “power list” of the 100 most influential people in British theatre made for fascinating reading. Most of the usual suspects were there, but many of them found themselves paired with another name for their entry. For it’s not only the artistic directors, the Nick Hytners and Gregory Dorans, who are celebrated but their all-important executive directors, the men and women who oversee every aspect of an organisation except what goes on its stages. Without executive directors, no contracts would be written, no money raised and no ambitious building projects undertaken.

Eight entries in the top 20 comprise artistic director/executive director (or executive producer, or chief executive, as the title varies) pairings. Five come from the subsidised sector, with the heavyweight National Theatre combination of Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr at No 2, and gratifyingly strong showings from the regions via Daniel Evans and Dan Bates from Sheffield Theatres in 11 place and Jonathan Church and Alan Finch from Chichester Festival Theatre in 15. Of the three pairs from the non-subsidised sector, Michael Grandage and James Bierman from the Michael Grandage Company come out strongest, in sixth place.

We’d do well to note the less familiar names in these combinations. Without Starr’s commercial and strategic wizardry, there’s no chance that the National would have enjoyed the expansive, golden decade it just has and be looking forward to the completion of its £80m rebuild. One of the most accomplished executive directors of recent times, Vikki Heywood, oversaw highly-praised building projects during her stints at both the Royal Court and the RSC.

Two key arts organisations, the ENO and the National, are on the hunt for new executive directors. Starr leaves the latter this summer as the regime of incoming artistic director Rufus Norris gets going, and there are rumours that the favourite for the job is an “inside appointment” who might not have the necessary clout in the commercial world in which the National increasingly operates. Norris, who was himself the National’s favoured internal candidate, is inexperienced in running a building and needs a firm hand to guide him. With the wealth of British and international talent available, it is to be hoped that this crucial search is both far-ranging and comprehensive.