Rules of engagement  

The Royal Exchange Theatre is an iconic landmark in the heart of Manchester with a strong pedigree of plays and a close link to its schools and communities. Mark Glover spoke to the organisation’s new Director of Learning and Engagement Inga Hirst about reaching out to those beyond the bright lights of the city.

A few days before Christmas in 1940, the German Luftwaffe launched an attack on the city of Manchester. Among the raid’s targets was the UK’s largest trading hall, the Royal Exchange which took a direct hit causing serious damage to its main interior and the top of the clock tower.

On June 1996, a bomb planted on nearby Corporation Street by the IRA exploded, causing the building’s iconic dome to shift leading to repairs that took two years and cost £32 million. The Manchester bombings were the biggest explosions Great Britain had endured post WWII.

Looking back on the history of the building you wonder if its experiences wouldn’t go amiss on the Royal Exchange Theatre’s circular stage. Stories about the Manchester Blitz and the IRA’s terror campaign could easily slot into its edgy, provocative and forward-thinking suite of theatre making; this summer’s Fatherland explored the complexities of being a modern-day Father in uncertain modern times, and the forthcoming We Were Told There Was Dancing is about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967.

WWTTWD is being created by its award-winning youth theatre group, Young Company, and is a strong example of empowering the younger generation to explore complex themes such as homosexuality and identity, while acknowledging important passages of history that shaped our modern times.

However, in typical Royal Exchange style, the play shines a light on the stories of females during this period of decriminalisation as oppose to the more common male experiences. “We have an incredible young people programme,” says Inga Hirst, the theatre’s (very) new Director of Creative Learning and Engagement. “The Young Company, rather than looking at the classics, is about young people devising and creating their own work.”

The Young Company is one strand of Inga’s responsibilities. She along with her team oversee the theatre’s work with local community groups, young people (including children), the theatre’s senior acting troupe called The Elders, and of course schools including primary and secondary.

Their goal is to understand how these local schools and community groups can seamlessly link in with the theatre’s main productions, ultimately bringing the theatre closer to the people that it serves – an objective of Royal Exchange’s artistic director, Sarah Franklin.

“Sarah is really keen to blur the boundaries between what is professional work and what is non-professional work, and how we can support that with the outreach and engagement work that we do,” Inga explains.

Over the years, the Exchange has sought to work closely with the people of Manchester and its outlying areas to create a community feel, that the people of this city are just as important to its output than the actors who tread the boards performing about it.

The physical set up of the performance space itself is one that encourages such an alliance. Unlike more traditional theatres which have seats to one side, the Exchange is a theatre-in-the-round, a central performance area in which the audience envelops the stage area.

The 760-capacity arena, the largest of its kind in the UK, is housed in a spaceship style ‘pod’ which was designed by architect Richard Negri in 1976. The intimate nature of the performance area is, Inga says, symbolic of the relationship that the Royal Exchange is trying to build with its audience. “It’s an ethos of the organisation,” she explains. “That exchange between the audience and its actors. It’s a totally equal space, there aren’t any bad seats and it’s very intimate, very close.”

Tangibly, logistically and physically then, the Exchange is bringing its audience closer to its output, but to achieve true external engagement Inga is conscious that further work is needed.

When we speak, she is a mere six weeks into the role having taking over from Amanda Dalton, who spent 20 years in the position. Her CV is an impressive one having worked at renowned international touring company Frantic Assembly as Head of Learning and Participation. Prior to this she was Education Manager at the award winning cultural centre artsdepot. She has experience of building relationships with schools and she plans to bring this into her new role at the Exchange where currently she feels these partnerships are too sporadic.

“At the moment, the engagement is rather one-off, she says. “People come to see a show and maybe have a workshop, but I’m keen to create longer-term deeper relationships with schools across Greater Manchester.”

She is also involved in trying to extend these relationships into the poorer and less-advantaged areas of the city. A pilot project is currently underway in Rochdale and Cheetham Hill, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, to build new models of working within these communities, including schools.

“What does a theatre in the centre of Manchester mean to a school in Rochdale?” she asks. “Schools in Greater Manchester have additional barriers such as transport when coming into the city centre. But it’s about trying to understand what those barriers are and try and support those teachers and students to access our world class theatre.”

Currently the Royal Exchange has a programme for schools and teachers that includes focused workshops for students and CPD days for teachers tailored around certain productions. Further engagement takes place through the Exchange Forum, a series of meetings between local teachers and the theatre to share feedback, ideas and suggestions.

Throughout the autumn, a period of consultation within a larger pool of schools will take place, including those within the Rochdale and Cheetham Hill areas, which Inga hopes will highlight what they want their relationship with the Exchange to look like.

“In addition to the Exchange Forums we are going to be hosting particular sessions with secondary school teachers and really focus on what their needs are,” she explains.

Currently, almost two million people are employed in creative organisations, and the numbers are on the rise. Encouraging the next generation to see the arts industry, and in particular the theatre industry, as a valid career path is something Inga feels passionate about.

“It’s not just about actors on stage,” she enthuses. “There’s opportunities like our Behind the Scenes workshop where people can understand that there are jobs for technicians, carpenters, costume making.”

Inga herself, aged 17, did her work experience at the Royal Exchange, and it opened her eyes to what a job in the theatre can entail. “At that point I didn’t really know about all the work that went on behind the curtain,” she recalls. “Production, literary departments, casting departments; all this other work that goes on to make it all happen. But until you get that link in with the theatre who can open that up, students don’t know about it. I think it’s really important for theatres to have that role in terms of working with schools and giving them that industry insight.

She is well experienced in reaching out to those groups who might feel intimidated by the theatre world. As part of her work at Frantic Assembly, Inga successfully oversaw and developed a national training programme called Ignition, which focuses on young men from deprived parts of the UK, who feel that the arts and the theatre doesn’t reach out to them. It’s an attitude, Inga explains, that becomes ingrained for an early age, not just for males but for young people generally.

“It starts from children feeling they can be confident in walking into a theatre space that they’re allowed into”, she says. “Many people see it as a closed door.”

She tells me about a conversation she had during some consultation work with a 71-year old man, who has lived in Manchester all his life but never stepped foot inside the Exchange’s building. “I asked what would have made him come sooner,” Inga recounts. “And he said ‘If I’d have known that the theatre is open to the likes of me.’”

It’s a powerful anecdote that spreads light on an issue that Inga wants to be illuminated. “I think this is absolutely key, she says. “People need to know that this is something that isn’t just for middle class people, or something that you have to dress up for. Our ethos is equality in the space, it might be in a very historical grand building but the theatre itself is about increasing inclusivity and diversity. We need to work with schools to enable the children and young people to access that, and that’s going to be our next level.”

It’s an exciting time for the organisation, and having celebrated 40 eventful years last September you feel that the next forty could be just as important for both its own productions and the community it serves.