Fringe Box



Dragon Interview: James Barber, Director of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Published on: 28 Aug, 2014
Updated on: 28 Aug, 2014

Being in charge of any theatre these days is a challenge especially so, perhaps, for smaller, provincial theatres such as ours in Guildford, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.

Here the director of the theatre, James Barber talks to Guildford Dragon.

James Barber, director Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.

James Barber, director Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.

Tell me about your background.

I was born in Guildford, and brought up in Cranleigh and Horsley.

What about your working life, how did you get involved with theatre and with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in particular?

After completing a technical course at LAMDA in the 1970s, I wrote 72 letters to regional theatres enquiring about work – the cost of stamps is a killer when you’re out of work. I received 12 replies and out of those, two interviews. As a result of the second interview I got a job at the Yvonne Arnaud.

Since then I’ve been away and I’ve done a lot of other things, but here is home.  I’ve been lucky to work here for 36 years.  Guildford is a wonderful place to live and Guildford’s Theatre is a very special place to work.

The Yvonne Arnaud is central Guildford’s cultural life, what is your vision for the theatre’s future?

The Yvonne Arnaud was built by enthusiastic theatregoers in Guildford during the early 1960s, opening in 1965.  Next year, Guildford’s Theatre celebrates its 50th birthday and I am incredibly lucky to have been its Director for the past 23 years.

Sometimes people use the phrase “the typical Guildford audience”… I still don’t know what that is.

The Yvonne Arnaud is absolutely embedded in the community here and our task for the future is to ensure that it continues to serve the community by providing the best and most varied programme of work that is available and affordable.

Audiences here are predominantly older people, what can be done to encourage more younger people to come and watch your productions?

There is a tiresome preconception that Guildford’s audiences are in some way old, stuffy and artistically conservative.  This just isn’t the case.  We have a very varied programme of work which people of all ages and all types come to see.

I’ve been lucky enough to tour all over the country with our own productions and generally the solid core of regional theatregoers are middle-aged, and older.  Guildford is no different in this respect; however we do enjoy a much broader spread of visitors than many realise.  Sometimes people use the phrase “the typical Guildford audience”. Well, I’ve worked here for 36 years and I still don’t know what that is.

We do a lot to encourage a younger audience.  We offer the “Big Ticket”: a well-subscribed scheme whereby anyone aged 16 to 30 that lives or studies in Guildford Borough can purchase £6 theatre tickets to many Thursday evening performances.

Research indicates that younger people are likely to be active on social media, and we strive to develop new audiences by generating engaging material to publish on our social media outlets.  We work with schools, hoping to both enhance the education of young people and instil a lifelong passion for theatre.

Perhaps the most significant approach is the extraordinary success of the Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre.  When I first started here we had 20 or 25 young people taking part. Through the exceptional hard work of our Youth Theatre team we now have waiting lists and over 400 young people involved very week.

Funding is known to be a perennial problem for the Arts in general and for the Yvonne Arnaud, especially, since the Arts Council withdrew its support. Who are your main sponsors now and are you optimistic about your financial situation?

The Yvonne Arnaud’s lifeline is Guildford Borough Council: its support is invaluable and without it, we would close.  We work hard at building relationships with the local business community.

We have so many commercial sponsors and I feel it would be invidious to name just one or two, but you only have to go into the Theatre or look online or in our brochure, to see the extent of the extraordinary generosity of these companies.

Most important of all is our audience who support us, not only through their ticket purchases, but also through their donations, memberships to our Vanbrugh Club and joining our Friends, as well as various other schemes.

With your riverside site flooding is always a risk. Has anything been done to improve your flooding defences recently?

Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre is built in the middle of a flood plain, on what is virtually an Island.  We do take precautions and are constantly looking at ways in which we could protect the Theatre from flooding.  It’s extremely difficult to do anything more than try to improve things – we can’t actually prevent it.  What can I say… it rains.

What are your favourite types of theatrical productions?

Good ones!

What do the celebrity actors and actresses say to you about appearing at the Yvonne Arnaud and about Guildford? Do they like it, hate it or what? Please tell – it will go no further.

Performers tell us they like performing here; they enjoy the warmth of our audiences, the intimate nature of the auditorium and – their words, not mine – the welcome they receive around the building.

No one gets rich from performing at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, so we make it our job to at least ensure they have as happy and as comfortable a time as they can whilst they are our guests.

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Responses to Dragon Interview: James Barber, Director of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

  1. Tom Higgins Reply

    November 23, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    It is indeed a wonderful theatre and I have always enjoyed coming here from when I was 5-years-old until now (50!).

    I am happy to support the theatre as is is such an important part of Guildford as the cultural centre. We are lucky to get such a varied mix of plays from those on the Way to the West End to touring plays.

    I would encourage everyone to come and see a play there if they have never been and for local businesses to support it as much as possible.

    Keep it coming.

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