BWW Interview: Robert Hastie Talks THE WIZARD OF OZ at Sheffield Crucible Theatre
Robert Hastie is currently Artistic Director of the Sheffield Theatres, following several years of directing in the West End. He discusses their upcoming Christmas production of The Wizard of Oz and how it feels to return to the space where he made his professional debut as an actor.
Did you attend Christmas theatre growing up?
I grew up in Scarborough and, I think like most people in this country, my early theatregoing experiences are pantomime. I was also going to Alan Ayckbourn's theatre in Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round.
The theatre that I remember growing up was the shows he was writing for children and young people, and seeing the incredible invention of a show for young people in the round has fed into the way we approach our work here at the Crucible.
You're currently directing The Wizard of Oz. Can you tell us anything about your choice of this show?
It's a story that I've always been fascinated by. I think growing up I think I went through wanting to play the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion in succession. I've always loved the film and the novel as well; the original novels are fascinating and full of wonderful inventive detail.
L. Frank Baum was trying to invent a whole new American mythology that was an alternative to all the European fairy stories, of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen and so on. Putting that on stage, that mythology mixed with the magic of the musical and the movie that we all know so well, is brilliant.
Do you feel any pressure about people coming in with their own ideas about the story and characters?
As it's our big family Christmas show, first and foremost, we want everyone to have a fantastic time at the theatre. So if you come and see it knowing and loving the film, then you'll get all of the moments and characters that you love, but hopefully you'll discover new things in the story as well.
Why do you think people should come see The Wizard of Oz?
Because it's a story for children of any age. We've got a quote in very large letters on the walls of our rehearsal room as a guide from Baum in his introduction to the original novel.
It says: "This book has been written for children. I have no shame in acknowledging that I, who wrote it, am also a child...Childhood is the time for fables, for dreams, for joy...Perhaps some of these big, grown-up people will poke fun at us. Never mind. Many of the big folk are still children -- even as you and I. We cannot measure a child by a standard of size or age. The big folk who are children will be our comrades."
And that's exactly why people should come. It's going to be a large, lavish and energetic telling of a familiar story in which people will discover things I hope that they weren't expecting. It's a story about friendship, belonging and courage. And it's about discovering that the qualities you need to face the troubles of the world are things you already have, if you believe in yourself.
You switched over from acting to directing in 2011. What was your first professional job as a director?
I was the associate on a production of Much Ado about Nothing in the West End with David Tennant and Catherine Tate, directed by Josie Rourke. That was my first job as an associate director and from there I went to work on a season of plays at the Bush.
What did you learn working with other artistic directors, like Josie Rourke?
That's a really good question. Having been an actor, I was always fascinated by seeing the different leadership styles of different artistic directors. I think listening to everybody is a lesson that I've learned. As a director you listen to everybody in the room and then make decisions.
As an artistic director, you're also in constant conversation with the audience. The thing I've observed really great artistic directors do is have a conversation with their audience where each show constitutes a part of that conversation. That's a conversation I'm really enjoying having with the audiences in Sheffield.
You made your professional acting debut at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre in Lear in 2005. How has it felt to return there as artistic director?
Really wonderful. I think it's one of the finest stages in the country. It's a beautiful space in which to work as an actor and that's what attracts such brilliant people to work here. That's what gives the place its electricity and makes it a pleasure to work in it as an artistic director.
My favourite theatre spaces, even when it's quite a big epic space, are where the actors and the audience still feel like they're in the same room and that we've gathered together to tell a story in the same space. That's what gives a space its special energy. I remember that energy from being an actor and it's a real thrill to be able to come and work here as a director.
What did you admire about Daniel Evans's tenure at Sheffield?
I greatly admire the work that Daniel did both as a director and in his programming. The conversations that he started with our audiences, particularly around new musicals, is one that I hope to continue. I hope audiences will enjoy the new work that we've got coming up.
How are you looking to challenge local audiences and continue to make this the regional powerhouse it's been in the past years?
I think it's about telling stories that reflect the energy and diversity of the city that we're in. These buildings belong to the city and we're very proud of making theatre for and with the people of Sheffield.
Are there challenges with programming for three different theatre spaces - the Crucible, Lyceum and Studio?
The challenge is a very enjoyable one because when you're blessed with three very different spaces like that, the range and variety of stories that you can tell is very broad and very exciting. We use that opportunity to make sure that we're telling a diverse and thrilling range of stories.
Has cutting ticket booking fees made a difference? Or providing free tickets to young people and schools through the Ignite scheme?
Certainly, yes. I believe very strongly that these theatres belong to the city and therefore getting young people to understand that theatres are for them is a huge part of what drives me.
So that statement of support that we made is for young people who have already discovered a passion for drama and who are finding it at schools. And it's also a statement of support for those schools that are nurturing that passion in educational circumstances which aren't currently geared to value the arts.
Lately, there's been a lot of discussion about the current situation with sexual harassment in the theatre. Does Sheffield Theatres have a policy in place? Was this situation a surprise to you or is it more expected?
I think none of us are surprised, but of course we're shocked to hear it. What has been a very positive surprise is the speed and bravery with which stories are now coming forward that allow us, as an industry, to face up to responsibilities that we've known about for a long time. But we now have a very clear census of needing to address some fundamental issues of human decency and dignity.
At Sheffield, we have existing policies to protect and support the people who work here, but we are working with UK Theatre and Equity. As the scale of the task ahead becomes clear, we're working with those industry bodies to make sure that we are making Sheffield Theatres a happy and safe and dignified place to work for everybody who comes through our doors.
What's next for you after The Wizard of Oz?
Any advice for aspiring directors?
I was telling my assistant director here yesterday that it's wonderful to learn from the examples and the productions and the careers of directors you admire, but ultimately to know that nobody else's roadmap will work for you. You have to discover your own path by making your own work and discovering what it is that you really care about and what you do best.
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport