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Country Images Meets – Adam Penford

Country Images Meets – Adam Penford

When Adam Penford was about six years old, he went to a panto at Nottingham Playhouse but was too scared when invited to go on stage with other children to join in the entertainment.

Despite returning every Christmas, he was never asked to go up again and always regretted it.

This is how he assesses that experience: “You have to seize opportunities as they come and put yourself out of your comfort zone sometimes.”

Now that the young lad has grown up, he recognises an opportunity and goes for it: he has just taken over at the helm of Nottingham Playhouse.

At the age of 37 Adam is relatively young to be an artistic director. He has already made his mark, announcing not only his first season but his first year in charge of one of the most important regional theatres in the country. And some people may be astonished to learn that he has secured a television megastar to appear in one of his productions.

Mark Gatiss is known as one of The League of Gentlemen, has appeared in Doctor Who and played Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock alongside Benedict Cumberbatch.

He has agreed to come to Nottingham in November 2018 to play the lead in Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III. So how did Adam persuade Gatiss to take the role?

“I’ve worked with Mark before. I knew that I wanted to end 2018 with a big play, something quite spectacular. I love The Madness of George III – I think it’s a modern classic. But I knew I wouldn’t want to programme it unless I knew who was going to play the title character.

“When I started to think about actors who could play it, I thought of Mark Gatiss. He’s not afraid to go to a slightly dark side and George III isn’t a wholly sympathetic character – he’s quite belligerent and pretty grumpy.

“Mark’s an actor of real range and I just offered it to him. It turns out he’d always coveted the role, he knew Nottingham Playhouse’s work and he was happy to sign up 18 months in advance.

“The truth is we’re very lucky. He’s very much in demand – he’s an Olivier Award winner, so it’s a real privilege.”

Adam admits it’s difficult to get actors, directors and designers to leave London and come to the provinces.

“The truth is the money isn’t great regionally. So it’s about being canny and offering people an opportunity that they might not necessarily get in London.”

Adam Penford was born on March 1st 1980. His father was a painter and decorator while his mother was a primary school teacher.

It was when his parents took him to the panto that he got the theatre bug.

“I remember walking into the auditorium as a child and there was an adrenalin rush. That led to me seeing a much wider variety of shows when I was a teenager.

“I had a real love for the building. I always thought one day I’d love to be an artistic director and I always thought the ideal venue would be Nottingham Playhouse. That’s how it’s worked out.”

After attending Arnold Hill School and Bilborough College, Adam was accepted by Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts – the drama school started by Paul McCartney.

But within weeks of beginning the course he realised it was a mistake. He was going to drop out but then showed an interest in directing.

For the past 15 years Adam has been a freelance director, working at theatres including the Watermill in Newbury, Salisbury Playhouse and London’s highly rated Donmar Warehouse.

He says he learned a huge amount at the National Theatre where Nick Hytner, the artistic director at the time, took Adam under his wing.

He met Mark Gatiss while they were working on Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings in 2010. After that Adam was Hytner’s assistant on One Man, Two Guvnors featuring James Corden.

“I moved up to being the revival director which essentially meant that I was directing Nick’s production with new casts in the West End, on Broadway and around the world. That was an amazing experience.

“I was also Nick’s associate on the National Theatre 50th anniversary celebrations a couple of years ago when we got to work with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch and Helen Mirren. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I expect will never be topped.”

Adam spent the first 18 years of his life in Nottingham, went away for 18 years and is now back in his home city, taking over as Playhouse artistic director from Giles Croft who, coincidentally, held the post for 18 years.

Adam admits that Giles is a tough act to follow: “Some of the stuff that Giles has accomplished has been amazing. He’s produced over 50 new plays in those 18 years. It’s really admirable.”

The new man is welcoming, cheerful and simply can’t hide his passion for the theatre. He also admits that bits of his new job are daunting.

“There’s no training course for artistic directors. There’s a huge amount of stuff which you have to learn on the job by making mistakes and taking the guidance of others. It’s occasionally daunting but it’s really exciting. You’re learning stuff every day and I relish that.”

Adam points out that his first season at the Playhouse is varied and there’s something for everyone. It includes the musical Sweet Charity, a play about the miners’ strike and a family show Holes, the stage version of the Disney film.

“It felt really important to me that the audience should be entertained. But there are also themes which will challenge the audience. That’s what theatre should do.”

He’s keen to attract people who haven’t been to the Playhouse before, especially younger theatregoers. And he believes that theatre is for everyone.

“Some programming can be elitist. Much of the work (in the new season) is challenging but it should be a good night out. It shouldn’t be tortuous, it shouldn’t be boring.”

So what does Adam see as his biggest challenge during his tenure as the Playhouse’s artistic director?

“All arts organisations are being squeezed because local authority funding is disappearing. That’s because they’re being squeezed in turn by the government. That’s a real challenge.

“All theatres are having to try to bring in more income to replace the public subsidy which is disappearing. I think there’ll be a breaking point at some stage so we’ve got to keep arguing the case for arts funding.”

He also says it’s understandable that some people don’t like the change that comes when a new artistic director takes over.

“It’s making sure we take our audience with us while building a new audience. We do well in terms of sales but we absolutely could do better. That’s the big challenge that hopefully the 2018 programme will start to address.”

Adam Penford may not stay in his new job for the next 18 years but it will be interesting to see whether this driven yet personable young man makes as big an impact as his predecessor.


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