Brutal layoffs and a cancelled show — inside the Royal Exchange's summer of discontent
We've spent weeks speaking to people about what's going on at Manchester's premier theatre
Dear members — today’s story is about the problems at the Royal Exchange, a cultural gem in this city that finds itself in trouble. Joshi has spoken to more than a dozen sources — ranging from very angry laid-off staff to the theatre’s artistic directors — to build up a picture of what is happening inside an institution that has been hit hard by the pandemic.
But do its problems go beyond Covid-19? “They have lost all their momentum, it’s all a bit ‘woe-is-me’, and they have ended up with this bunker mentality,” says one source, while another asks if the Exchange is prioritising “ideological purity” over getting audiences back.
As always on Thursdays, you have to be a Mill member to read this edition in its entirety, but we’ve given non-members a decent preview of the Royal Exchange report. If you want to read the whole story and you haven’t joined us yet, please do hit the button below.
A warm welcome to our 11 new members and 100+ new readers who joined after hearing Joshi and Dani on Radio 4 earlier. The You and Yours show devoted half an hour to talking to us about The Mill, our ideas about journalism, and how it all started in a greasy spoon in Chorlton, where Dani told listeners that Joshi was always late to meetings. Also, asks the show’s host Winifred Robinson, is Joshi smart, or just well educated? You can listen on BBC Sounds.
Your Mill briefing
A leading pollster made headlines yesterday when he recalled how, during the 2017 election, a poll that showed Jeremy Corbyn had done very well in a leadership debate went unpublished because it was too favourable to Labour. Chris Curtis has since left that pollster, YouGov, and we had him on our podcast yesterday to talk about what Red Wall voters think of Boris Johnson, and those incendiary claims he made on Twitter. Can we trust the polls if polling companies can come under pressure from a political party, as he says YouGov did? We asked him that and got his reaction to YouGov’s denials. It’s the only, or certainly one of the only, interviews he’s given since his tweets went viral. Listen now, and please share the podcast and leave us a rating if you like what you hear.
More turbulence in Tameside where Stephen Pleasant, the council’s CEO, stepped down with immediate effect on Tuesday. Sources said he jumped before he was pushed, and it has now been confirmed that he breached legislation by using his official Twitter account to sarcastically tweet: “Tory voter with compassion and empathy for others. Who knew !!” in response to comments made by a Conservative voter on Question Time. The resignation came as the borough’s children’s services were hit with another damning Ofsted report. Andrew Gwynne, MP for Denton and Reddish, is now calling for children's services to be taken out of council control. The inspection found that the borough continues to have capacity issues and struggles to promptly assess children's needs, leaving them in circumstances of risk for too long.
Martin Schröder, vice president of the University of Manchester, has been asked to apologise over a racism row. In October 2021, Professor Christopher Jackson, a black geoscientist, told BBC News that UK research was “definitely institutionally racist”, and highlighted the failure of white scientists to recognise it in their own institutions. Jackson later received an email from Schröder telling him he did not believe the University of Manchester to be institutionally racist, and linking to a GB News article. An internal investigation by five of the university’s leaders found a lack of awareness amongst senior leadership of the challenges faced by ethnic minorities. But, it concluded that Schröder’s email was not a deliberate attempt to attack Jackson, who has since left the university.
The controversial Golborne Spur, a HS2 branch linking the line to Scotland that would have carved through parts of south Manchester and Wigan, has been scrapped. One resident who has been rallying against the spur since 2013 told the MEN: “I think that it is a wise decision personally. It would have been a stain on the area.” Wigan Council, on the other hand, saw the spur as an opportunity to turn the area into a transport hub. The announcement comes two months after Altrincham and Sale West MP Graham Brady said transport secretary Grant Shapps had given him “verbal assurances” that the spur would be pulled.
300,000 revellers and ravers (and brass band enthusiasts) are going to descend on Manchester this weekend as Parklife festival takes over Heaton Park, Alicia Keys headlines the AO Arena, Ed Sheeran plays at the Etihad and The Killers are at The Cricket Ground. Oh, and there’s also the Saddleworth and Oldham Whit Friday Band Contest, which attracts 1000s of brass music fans every year. Nightlife Tsar Sacha Lord predicts the events will generate £21,700,000 for the local economy.
We can now say officially: Greater Manchester will get its first national nature reserve. We learned this morning that Wigan and Leigh Flashes have received the designation and will be the first post-industrial landscape to be recognised as part of our natural heritage. You can read more about the plans in our interview with National Trust land manager Mark Champion.
Manchester Airport has a new director. Chris Woodroofe, who was previously in charge at Gatwick, has taken on the role after the previous director, Karen Smart, stepped down amidst absolute chaos at the airport and lots and lots of negative coverage in the local press.
Bus routes in Rochdale which are cancelled till the end of July are being covered with pre-bookable minibuses supplied by TfGM. The R1/R8, R9/R10 and 457 services, currently operated by Rosso, will be replaced until regular service resumes on July 24.
Inside the Royal Exchange's summer of discontent
By Joshi Herrmann
For the past few weeks, I have been trying to understand what is going on at the Royal Exchange. The famous old theatre company seems to be in something of a mess — they cancelled their big summer show Red Velvet recently amidst talk of low staff morale and the absence of co-artistic director Roy Alexander Weise because of stress. At a time when the Exchange should be rebuilding its finances after the pandemic and welcoming back audiences in big numbers, its theatre is mostly dark this month.
Red Velvet’s cancellation raised eyebrows. “When this news came out that they weren't going to put it on, everyone was like 'What the fuck is going on?’” says one figure in Manchester’s theatre world. “Why couldn't they get someone else in to direct it?” A former senior staff member says they are looking on with concern. “Whether it’s a crisis or a really difficult time — I don’t know.”
Now, sitting in front of me are the three people best placed to explain what level of mess we are talking about. Weise, a director who came up from London in 2019 with a big reputation built via shows at the Royal Court and the Donmar Warehouse, is sitting to my right in the theatre’s lovely café. Bryony Shanahan, the other artistic director, has come to meet me too, as has executive director Steve Freeman. Together they form the Exchange’s leadership team, sharing the role of chief executive.
The trio are optimistic about pulling through the theatre’s rocky patch. “It doesn’t feel like crisis,” insists Weise, when I ask how things are going. “It feels like growth and it feels like patience and it feels like looking outwards and trying to understand what actually is happening in the world out there.” Shanahan, who is softly spoken but comes across as thoughtful and seems less defensive than the others, shares his sunny outlook. “I think we’re in, genuinely, a really exciting moment,” she says.
So what happened to Red Velvet, the cancelled show about the 19th century black actor Ira Aldridge, which was meant to run from a fortnight ago until the end of June? “I was experiencing some personal circumstances, which I’m not going to discuss,” says Weise. “And there comes a point in a production cycle where it just becomes untenable for everybody.”
Weise and Shanahan, both of whom look like they are in their 30s, were appointed a year before the pandemic as an exciting and youthful artistic team to lead a new era at the Exchange. But an awful lot has changed since then. “As you know, our organisation is looking very different to what it did look like before,” Weise says, in relation to the cancelled show. “So being able to continue that [Red Velvet], without breaking the backs of our staff, with an intense and very important summer coming up…” He talks about the theatre’s upcoming schedule and says sometimes the show just can’t go on.
Weise appears to be suggesting that the show’s cancellation might have something to do with the Exchange’s extensive restructuring early in the pandemic, in which dozens of staff members were made redundant. Was that the case? Freeman, who of the three is the only one with a commercial rather than artistic background, jumps in to clarify.
Some of what has happened to the Royal Exchange feels like a standard checklist of woes felt across British theatre today: reduced public funding; smaller shows; declining audiences; a horrifying drop in revenue brought about by the pandemic. By virtue of relying on ticket sales (rather than public subsidy) for a large proportion of its income — and having higher fixed costs than many regional theatres — the company seems to have suffered more than most when the lockdowns struck just over two years ago.
But there are also questions about the leadership of this important cultural institution, and there are moments during my 50-minute interview with Weise, Shanahan and Freeman when our conversation veers into the territory of surrealist dialogue from the Theatre of the Absurd.
I mention documents I have seen from the restructuring process in 2020, in which reference is made to 92 roles being made redundant.
“I don’t know where that 92 comes from,” Freeman says, as Weise laughs at my question. I explain that according to minutes I’ve seen, it came directly from them — in redundancy meetings they held with their departing staff.
Do they remember that figure?
“How many meetings do you have, Joshi?” snaps Weise. “Do you remember everything that you say?”
Later, I come back to the numbers to try to get some clarity. What was the overall proportion of your staff who left in the end, I ask? Was it the 65% that they said at the time might need to leave in order to ensure the Exchange’s survival?
“No, it was less than that. I don’t know,” says Freeman.
Half the staff, then?
“I don’t want to speculate off the top of my head.”
According to the company’s 2020-21 annual report, the number of “full-time equivalent” employees fell from 107 to 45 over the year in question, a reduction of 62 full-time roles, or 57%.
‘A bloody bereavement’
The people who made the cuts might be hazy on the details, but those who lost their jobs remember that period with sad clarity. “Good riddance,” one of them says when we meet, referring to the theatre’s present issues. “To be honest, I’m glad this is happening,” says another on the phone. “You reap what you sow. It serves them right.”
The layoffs were described as “a catastrophic act of self-harm” by a former staff member who was initially reluctant to speak to me, but came around to the idea because they think the scale of the restructuring can help to explain what is going on at the moment. “I just want people to know what really happened, because I don’t think people do,” they say. “I don’t think people realise how many people lost their jobs, and why the Exchange can’t really function anymore.”
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Mill to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.