So much has changed since I joined Greenwich Theatre back in 2001. The funding climate has shifted more than we could ever have imagined.
When I joined the theatre, as press officer, we were turning over just over £1million per year and well over half of that came from grants. Now, while our turnover has slightly increased and the number of shows we present has dramatically increased, only eight per cent of our income comes from grants.
We have become leaner, more efficient and more attractive to touring producers. Our pantomime has become one of the most acclaimed in the country. We now have a fully programmed studio operating alongside the main theatre and we have built a reputation for being one of the UK’s most dedicated and prolific supporters of young and emerging theatre companies.
In many ways Greenwich Theatre is unrecognisable when compared to its turn-of-the-century self, but in others it has not changed. We still have one of the best auditoria in London for children, without a bad seat in the house; we are still one of the capital’s most important professional theatres; and there are certain programming fixtures, like the pantomime, that people still look forward to every year.
One of these is the Shakespeare Schools’ Festival, returning to Greenwich this week. One of my first tasks in 2001 – I took over as marketing manager the following year, and as director five years later – was to promote the first ever visit of this pioneering festival to Greenwich.
Since then, the festival has become the world’s largest youth drama project. Every year, primary and secondary schools across the country prepare shortened versions of Shakespeare plays for performance at their local theatre.
Directed by teachers from the school with support from the festival, the shows are performed by students and often utilise student technical teams as well. This year, 16 schools will perform here at Greenwich Theatre across four nights. One of those is Eltham Hill secondary school, performing under the direction of drama teacher Joanna Whittington. She said: “Last year, the students really wanted to try their hand at some comedy.
“So we chose to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream – but with a difference.
“Our fairies took centre stage, showing that it’s all right to take risks with Shakespeare.”
No stranger to artistic risks, this year the school will present an all-female version of Henry V. “Standing on that stage is daunting but the confidence our girls get, having performed in that kind of environment, has a huge impact on not just their performing skills but their general confidence,” said Joanna. “Some girls are super confident but some are shy and start off as part of our ensemble and graduate to bigger parts as they get older. Friendships are formed that stretch across year groups, with students from all backgrounds coming together to create something they are collectively proud of.”
As Greenwich Theatre continues to evolve over the years, whether we are touring a show internationally, producing an industry-leading pantomime or developing a programme of new work in our studio, the opportunity for young people to not only watch but participate in theatre will always remain an essential part of what we do.