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.
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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.”