Incoming New Theatre Royal boss: I see Portsmouth as an international city
The New Theatre Royal has got a new CEO. He spoke to CHRIS BROOM about his vision for its future
Sitting in the Watkins and Faux cafe at The New Theatre Royal, Scott Ramsay already looks very much at home.
The affable Scotsman is due to take up his role as the new chief executive at the city centre venue from March and as he chats to The News, various people stop for a quick word as they walk by and he’s keen to know what’s going on.
He replaces Caroline Sharman who left last October to pursue a masters degree after overseeing the Guildhall Walk theatre’s multimillion-pound revamp and its first year since reopening.
The 45-year-old will be coming from Harlow Playhouse in Essex, which he has been running for the past eight years.
When he took over there, it was, as he puts it ‘not in a great state physically or in terms of programming.’
While he leaves it in a much better place than he found it, the father-of-two is bullish about putting some of the ideas that have proved successful at the smaller Essex venue into action at the 700-seat Portsmouth theatre.
He is already familiar with the city from previous visits, but is obviously now casting a more critical eye on the NTR’s role here.
‘I was quite well aware of The Kings Theatre already and I’ve visited there before. The Guildhall I’m less familiar with, but obviously I’ve been studying what the different spaces around here do, where we fit into that, and what the gap in the market for the local population in the theatre scene. And there is a gap there.’
By making sure the theatre presents a diverse programme, Scott believes they can attract new people to the theatre. One of the main innovations he is keen to introduce is to make the theatre a major commissioner of new works.
‘What we’ve been doing at Harlow is looking at the subject matter and the types of artists that we’re working with and using a model we call embedded commissioning, so we’ve become quite a major commissioning house for the east of England.
‘I’ve done that by strengthening the Christmas show.
‘As that has become more and more successful commercially, we can redistribute that income to stimulate other contemporary theatre on some really quite edgy subjects – and we insist that that work is researched and developed in the town.’
Some of these shows have gone on national and international tours.
‘We, with those collaborations, want our pieces to have a bit of life overseas, and that will spread the Portsmouth brand. We’ve had plays put on in places like Korea, which we never would have imagined 10 years ago.
‘It’s definitely more diverse than if you’re just putting on the run-of-the-mill Agatha Christie in the main house. I’m not saying they’re not important too – of course they are, but you have to have that diverse ecology of work.’
And Scott sees the bigger picture in how getting the community involved helps build their audience.
‘The really exciting thing is that all the people who’ve been involved in that engagement, they can’t help but come and watch the piece, be involved and then you have a relationship with them that means something and they come back and back.’
Attracting a younger audience is also something Scott sees as key to survival.
‘Look at all of this,’ he gestures around him, ‘it’s beautiful isn’t it?
‘But it is slightly intimidating. One of my jobs when I come to a new venue, is to put myself in the place of one of the myriad of people who might come here. Every step of the way, look at how I would see this, and to remove those barriers.
‘I’m not saying it’s easy – it’s not – but it does work over a period of time.
‘If you don’t refresh your audience, those older theatre-goers will no longer be able to come for a variety of reasons, then we’ll really be in trouble.’
‘We do a lot of creative ticketing – we’ve been one of the proponents of pay-what-you-can in the UK and we’ve been refining that over the years. It will be interesting as to whether it’s something we do here on particular pieces.’
Isn’t that model risky?
‘You get some people put in a £20 note, or you’ll get a student who doesn’t have much money put a couple of quid in, and that’s the idea.
‘Generally people do honour it. One of the reasons it works is because we ask people to pay afterwards because then they’re emotionally engaged with the piece. After they’ve experienced this fantastic piece of theatre, they want to pay more.’
But before then, Scott and his family are looking for a new family home on the coast.
‘I can’t wait to move here. My wife and I are suckers for history and culture, and this place has got a real mix of that.
‘I’ve visited Portsmouth on a number of occasions before and it’s got that grit I like in a city. Places like Liverpool and Bristol as it was, like Glasgow and Dundee.’
Originally from Kirkaldy in Fife, he had his ‘formative years’ in Perth.
‘At 16, I started in Perth Rep with my friend – you might have heard of him,’ he says with a grin, ‘Ewan McGregor?
‘There were a few of us who were very fortunate to be taught up in the old rep system which doesn’t really exist any more.
‘And I started doing a bit of dabbling in writing, I was backstage, I was fortunate to be exposed to everything.’
Scott trained up in stage management and went on to work at The National and The Royal Shakespeare Company as well as several years travelling around the UK as freelance touring production management, which gave him the chance to see much of the UK.
‘What’s really powerful in Portsmouth, from an external perspective, it’s refreshing that there’s a really strong vision from the city about the city and about growth, and I see Portsmouth as an international city.
‘For me creativity is at the heart of everything, whether in science or business or the arts, it’s about pushing creativity in all walks of life, and I get that from the city, and that’s not the case all over the UK.’
It will be a while before Scott’s plans start to yield fruit though, as he says: ‘You’ve got put the graft in and over the next couple of years people will start to see those changes, it’s not going to change overnight.’