Interview: 'Every Theatrical Experience We Provide is Unique': Paul Hart and Claire Murray on the Magic of The Watermill Theatre

'The vital importance of producing theatre has to be recognised in a much more substantial way, going forward'

By: Mar. 25, 2024
Interview: 'Every Theatrical Experience We Provide is Unique': Paul Hart and Claire Murray on the Magic of The Watermill Theatre
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Earlier this year, the Watermill Theatre was awarded nine awards from BroadwayWorld UK for their hit summer show, The Lord of the Rings, as well as an award for Paul Hart’s direction of Notes From A Small Island. The theatre announced its upcoming season which includes the summer musical Barnum, the world premiere of FANNY (a comedy about Fanny Mendelssohn) and The King’s Speech

We sat down for a chat with Paul Hart, the Artistic Director, and Claire Murray, Executive Director, and together joint CEOs of the theatre. We discussed what it is like working for a regional theatre, the process of producing new work and how the Arts Council England funding cut will affect the future of The Watermill and the local community surrounding it.

What made you want to work with the Watermill Theatre?

Claire: So I've only been here for two and a half years - I say only because it still feels fairly new because we've had such a lot happened in those two and a half years! I think what's exciting about The Watermill is the extraordinary quality and innovation of the work on stage that is unexpected when you arrive here. You turn up and it's in this beautiful setting and feels like you're going to have a very traditional theatre experience. I think it's fair to say that there's very little that is traditional, or what you'd expect when you when you come here! So that experience is a lot to do with what makes it exciting to work here. And before I worked here, I was way up north and hadn't had much experience of The Watermill itself, except for all the amazing shows that had started off here and had toured into the venues that I was working for like the Lyceum in Sheffield. 

Interview: 'Every Theatrical Experience We Provide is Unique': Paul Hart and Claire Murray on the Magic of The Watermill Theatre

Paul: I had worked here as a freelancer - I've directed four shows here and worked as an associate director as well, so I knew the space quite well and I'd loved making work for that space. I’ve definitely made some of my best work here. And I love the whole sense of people coming together, that sense of community of working here was really special because the actors live on site, the creatives live on site, the whole backstage stage team are here. So that was really unique.

What has it been like working with the local communities for this theatre?

Paul: The theatre has always been here to serve the local communities. More than anything else, it's always been a space that's been created to be a hub for everyone locally, and we try very hard to access people at all levels. So that's always been key to what we do. And the outreach work that comes out from the theatre is absolutely massive. We've got quite a small team, but they reach around 16,000 each year. So it's really massive, but it's also at the heart of everything we do, the heart of all of our programming. We hand the theatre over for two weeks each year to The Youth Theatre! It's really integral, and the amount of people I meet who have had their first experience of either seeing work here or experiencing theatre through the outreach work that we do is absolutely massive. It puts us in a brilliant place in terms of communities.

With these local communities, what are some of the programmes that you have?

Claire: As Paul just mentioned, youth theatre is quite a significant part of the outreach programme - weekly sessions for young people starting from preschool age, and we give the theatre over every year. This time, it's for two weeks and we've got two different groups who are performing a production of Wendy and Peter Pan. So we've got 50 young people taking to the stage and they've been working so hard on that for what feels like quite a long time - it takes so much work for them to get there!

Interview: 'Every Theatrical Experience We Provide is Unique': Paul Hart and Claire Murray on the Magic of The Watermill Theatre

A number of young people then get involved in providing the access services for that production. They will do audio description and be part of BSL interpretation and captioning. So that's a massive part of what we do. We also run a number of regular groups for, for example, young people who are deaf or hard of hearing, young people who have additional complications in their lives, young people with who are neurodivergent and a range of programmes for adults. Just recently, we've started doing a scratch choir event that's proving very popular, so that's nice to see as well!

And what has it been like running these programmes with the recent cuts in Arts Council funding?

Paul: Yeah, that's been really hard. It's something we were really clear that we wanted to absolutely hang on to. It's so core to our constant development as a theatre that you're encouraging new audiences and new ways of people interacting with theatre. And it's so key to our wider ethos and how we think and work as an organisation. You can hear from what Claire has described there, it's amazing, so much of the work that happens. It's been, in many ways, a joy to go out to new funders and to talk about that work and celebrate what we do. So it's been a huge amount of work to keep those programs running post-Arts Council cut, but it's been absolutely vital for us. We were very clear from day one that we didn't want to lose that aspect of who we are.

On a lighter note, you recently announced your upcoming season. What is it like to create a season for the Watermill Theatre?

Claire: It's fraught and exciting at the same time! [Laughs] The conversations start really early on. We enjoy thinking together about what kinds of work we want to make, but more importantly, what kinds of work we think will really resonate with our audience. So we have lots of conversations that start so far ahead of when we get to the announcement stage, and lots of dialogue with other members of the team here as well to understand what they think and feel about those ideas. You also have to have lots of ideas, because then you've got to go through the process of looking at what rights are available and all of those kinds of things!

Interview: 'Every Theatrical Experience We Provide is Unique': Paul Hart and Claire Murray on the Magic of The Watermill Theatre
The Lord of the Rings at The Watermill Theatre
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith

Paul: This year in particular, it was a challenge of, “How do we keep the momentum going? How do we keep that sense of ambition there at a time where budgets are also tight?” Trying to get that balance is really crucial. One of the bigger questions this year was, “How do you follow Lord of the Rings?” The next step in what that summer slot could be for us was always going to be a big thing that we'd have to confront! [Laughs] So there's many layers to it, but it's a full-on process. 

Claire: And you can see in that announcement, some of the things that are really important to us, like the Shakespeare Ensemble, is back! We start off the produced work with that. We've also got a visiting company show at the very beginning of our season. We've programmed Princess Smartypants, which we're really excited about in terms of how that helps us to reach family audiences.

You mentioned The Lord of the Rings - what was it like bringing that to the stage?

Paul: It was an unforgettable experience and surreal in so many ways. It's obviously the most epic story you could ever tell, and the idea of doing that in one of the smallest theatres in the country was fascinating to me. The ability that we had to take over the grounds and use the whole site was what I found really exciting. And it allowed us as an organization to bring the whole organisation with us - it took every single person and every single department to make that show work for this venue, which I think was why it was so special.

Interview: 'Every Theatrical Experience We Provide is Unique': Paul Hart and Claire Murray on the Magic of The Watermill Theatre
Louis Maskell in The Lord of the Rings
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith

The other thing I'm really proud of with that show is that we found a way of telling that story that had a connection to the original books. That meant that fans really enjoyed it, but also that it brought that story to a whole load of new people experiencing that story for the first time. The amount of young people coming through our doors was absolutely massive. So I think the balance of bringing people into this space and experiencing that story in a way that had never been told before was a very special combination for us.

What do your plans look like for the future of The Watermill Theatre?

Claire: Well, we should talk, first off, about the new season, because in Barnum this summer, what we're aiming to do is maximise on the experience of Lord of the Rings. Obviously a different title, but very much the same approach in terms of using the full site and it feeling like audiences are part of an experience. We hope that that will help to attract people to come and spend their summer here again with us this year.

The immediate term is the new season and thinking about audiences, those that are already engaged with us and those that we want to welcome to The Watermill so that they can find out what a special place it is. And beyond that, it's very much thinking about how we can adapt the business model so that we can continue to do all of the brilliant work on stage, alongside all of that vital outreach work. That means there's a real focus on fundraising - we've got to increase our fundraise income - as well as thinking about the commercial aspect. We have a restaurant here that we run ourselves and that became part of the experience of Lord of the Rings. How we expand that and how we think about other events that might be able to take place here are all important as we move forward. But what we're absolutely committed to is ensuring that we remain a producing house and retain the essence of what makes The Watermill so special.

How do you balance the artistic visions with the financial truths at the current time?

Paul: With great invention! I think what's so key to us is that every theatrical experience we provide is unique, is special. It's something unlike anything you could experience anywhere else. And I think what that means in terms of making it possible from a budgetary point of view is you have to be inventive. You have to think about how you use every penny most effectively, how you get that money to be seen in the work that you're creating on stage. That's key to us.

What's been surprising, particularly in the last year, is we're employing more freelancers than we've ever employed. The ambition has been key to that - the fact that we've been able to work on these huge titles. We’re doing The King’s Speech later in the year, another massive title. It allows us to expand slightly the scale of what we're doing, and get audiences through the doors and supporting us. That's been useful across the business in terms of the level of support that we're seeing and the nature of the interactions with people coming through the doors. So that's been key. It's really been about positive thinking and applying that to how the budgets are working for us.

What are your hopes for regional theatres and audiences in the future?

Claire: It's a bleak picture out there in terms of what's happening to people with local authority cuts. We feel that pain very deeply for those organisations because we know what it's like. I would hope that the challenges that we are seeing, we find a way to overcome them. There's great quality work that's happening in regional theatre because it is absolutely the heart of what we do in this country. So much work is produced in the regions, that then will go out on to the West End Stage, out nationally, internationally. Finding a way for organisations producing theatre like us to be able to carry on doing that is the big challenge, and the hope is that we can do it!

Paul: The idea of generating new work through regional theatre is so important because by doing that, you're fueling the local economy, you're fueling new audiences coming in consistently over a period of time and, as Claire says, you're also fueling the possibility of those productions going on playing other regional venues, often touring, going into London, going to international venues, as so often this venue and many others have in the past. The less and less those venues are supported to create that work, the more detrimental that will be for audiences and people living close to those regional theatres. So the vital importance of producing theatre has to be recognised in a much more substantial way, going forward.

And finally, how would you describe The Watermill Theatre in one word?

Claire: Magical.

Paul: Inventive!

Wendy & Peter Pan runs at The Watermill Theatre until 30 March.