Regional U.K. theater grabs headlines

The newly revitalized Crucible Theater, now one of the U.K.’s most dynamic regional theater addresses, is on a roll.

Recent credits for the Crucible — located in Sheffield, a 2 1/2-hour train ride from London — include a headline-grabbing production of “Othello” starring Dominic West and Clarke Peters and helmed by a.d. Daniel Evans. The show won rave reviews, played to 99% capacity and is surrounded by rumors of future West End life.

Evans is also riding high after his theater’s showing at October’s Theater Awards U.K., the only kudos that cover national legit work. “We were the most nominated theater in the country and the only theater that equaled our two wins was the Royal Shakespeare Company,” he says.

Why the sudden flurry of attention for the 40-year-old troupe? Credit the addition of Evans, who took over as a.d. in 2009.

In the first two years of his tenure, Evans has overseen the re-opening of the Crucible following a £15 million ($23.6 million) refurb. His post also sees him programming and running the Crucible’s versatile studio space and the neighboring 1,200-seat Lyceum, which is almost wholly a touring and presenting house.

So far he’s programmed a canny mix of new plays, local and regional initiatives, classic revivals with heavyweight legit names attached, and major tuner productions for the holidays season.

Last year’s production of tuner “Me and My Girl,” helmed by Anna Mackmin, won critical raves and has been searching for a home in the unusually crowded West End. Meanwhile, buzz from rehearsals suggests that its much-fancied new production of Sondheim’s “Company,” opening Dec. 5, starring Evans and helmed by Jonathan Munby, may also head into town.

Such success is particularly notable given that Evans is best known as an Olivier-winning thesp who nabbed a Tony nom for his Gotham perf in the 2008 Roundabout production of “Sunday in the Park With George.” Although he also had a small number of helming credits, his appointment to the organization initially raised eyebrows.

“I’d been nurturing this secret wish since being a teenager,” he says. “All my formative experiences were watching theater at the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company, seeing seasons of work in great buildings. How would it be to run that kind of ship? I’d been on Broadway, which was a sort of pinnacle, and I wanted a new challenge. The actor Malcolm Sinclair (now president of U.K. Equity) pointed me towards the advertisement.”

Even with Sheffield’s West End cachet growing, Evans refuses to judge his building’s success by its transfer potential. “Of course we want our work to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, but we make our work for our city and our region,” he insists.

Indeed, transferring work from the theater is particularly tricky since the Crucible is a 980-seat thrust space with the audience wrapped around three sides of the vast, open stage, in a design influenced by Tyrone Guthrie, who founded the Stratford Festival and the Guthrie in Minneapolis, but it means that a costly re-design is needed for a show is to have future life under a traditional proscenium arch.

Financially, things are tough for all U.K. arts organizations, thanks to recent cuts in government subsidies. Evans acknowledges that not every Crucible production has hit its financial target, but he and his team remain bullish, noting that 73% of the troupe’s income comes from box office vs. the 27% from subsidies.

Evans won’t consider following the U.S. lead of subscription-based seasons.He was put off by the system during his experience in the Roundabout’s Broadway staging of “Sunday in the Park.””Audiences with season tickets inevitably have at least one show they don’t want to see,” he says. “So either they don’t turn up, which is dispiriting for actors and audiences seeing a half-empty house, or they do come but don’t want to be there, which kills the atmosphere.” Instead he follows the U.K. practice of what’s known as a “Friends” scheme. The program operates like a membership in which a fee entitles ticketbuyers to first dibs and reduced prices on all tickets to an org’s programming.

Although past and future programming includes new commissions and a season of plays by Michael Frayn, some of it draws on Evans’ experience as a performer. “Company,” for instance, grew out of his stint in “Sunday in the Park” in Gotham.

“Director Jonathan Munby and I met in New York while I was doing ‘Sunday’ and we decided we wanted to collaborate on something,” he recalls. “He suggested ‘Hamlet’ and I said no, I want to play Bobby in ‘Company.’ There was no proper plan, but nine months later I found myself running this building.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more