Karen Simpson on the future of Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal
14:14 19 November 2013
Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal has been through some turbulent times in recent months. Karen Simpson is in the process of taking over as chief executive Andrew Clarke spoke to her about her vision for the future
Karen Simpson is a theatre-maker who knows what she wants. Coming from the world of touring theatre and from children’s theatre she understands that a show has to capture the imagination of the audience if it is to survive.
She has just arrived at Bury Theatre Royal as the Regency playhouse’s new chief executive and says that her first job is to give the organisation a new sense of purpose.
She says that the theatre will continue to acknowledge its historical legacy but will now focus much more on delivering the very best contemporary theatre.
“Theatre is not a museum. It’s about putting on plays which engage with audiences and reflect the times in which we live. But, the Theatre Royal is special because the building provides a direct link to the roots of modern theatre and we will continue to acknowledge that.
Karen comes to the Theatre Royal from Oxfordshire Theatre Company and has 30 years experience of directing plays.
“I have a background in new writing and young people’s work. But I have always resisted being pigeon-holed. I embrace all types of theatre.”
She moved to Sheffield to work at The Crucible in 2000 staying for six years before moving to Oxford. She said that the Oxfordshire Theatre Company toured across the country staging shows in a similar style to Eastern Angles.
“A lot of my work has been about making theatre accessible – encouraging children and families to come along. Getting people to come to the theatre who hadn’t been before and making theatre part of their lives and I found that very exciting.”
She said that the key element to making theatre accessible to new audiences was >>
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making the building welcoming and she wants to continue the good work that already goes on at Bury and take it further.
“It can be quite daunting to go into any building that you don’t know – more so a theatre if you are not particularly comfortable with the surroundings and you think you don’t know how to behave or what you are supposed to do.
“So it is vitally important to know how you are going to introduce theatre to people. Of course parents and schools are really important. Schools are the great equal opportunities provider because it’s a comfortable, secure way to first walk in through our doors and how most people first encounter the thing they love whether it’s theatre, books or sport.
“For me the youthful audience is really important and it always has been. I’ll be looking at programming a very strong family programme throughout the year and a programme that schools can engage with.”
However she stressed that it would not be at the expense of general audiences and the programme would be designed to appeal to all ages but there would be more emphasis of family shows rather than adult-only drama.
“We won’t be programming children’s shows as such but plays which people of different ages can engage with and take away something different. A family covers many generations.
“I think it is vitally important to grow the next generation of theatre-goers if we are not going to lose this building and others like it.”
One of the main challenges she has set herself is to entice the huge pantomime audience to come and enjoy other work throughout the year.
“If they love theatre in the pantomime season, I want to show them that there are plenty of other shows that they will enjoy at other times of the year. I don’t see any reason why you can’t bring that volume of people to a whole string of other work throughout the year.
“One of my first tasks will be to join those dots up a little bit.”
She added that she remains committed to the Theatre Royal continuing to produce its own work as well as taking the very best touring productions.