Features Published 15 December 2020

Bryony Shanahan: “We need to laugh together and cry together to try to figure this thing out.”

Rosemary Waugh interviews the co-artistic director of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre about her tumultuous first year in the job.

Rosemary Waugh

Bryony Shanahan

“I still have huge imposter syndrome about what a leader looks like,” confesses Bryony Shanahan when we meet via Zoom midway through Lockdown 2.0. “It’s something I like to be open about because I really struggle with it.”

But despite her hesitations, the Stoke-born director is precisely that: a leader. In November 2019, Shanahan took over as co-Artistic Director of the Manchester Royal Exchange alongside Roy Alexander Weise. The twelve months since have been – for obvious reasons – unimaginably different from anything the pair could have predicted when they started. To say the Royal Exchange was hit hard by the effects of the pandemic is something of an understatement. In July 2020, the theatre entered redundancy consultations with staff, with up to 65% of permanent jobs at risk of being lost. And although they latterly received a pay out of £2.85 million from the government’s cultural recovery fund which allows them to start tentatively planning for the future, the bad events of the summer are not lost on Shanahan: “What we’ve had to do to just survive has been really horrendous and not something we could ever had imagined or wanted.” She also comments that being aware of the devastating impact of the coronavirus outbreak makes it tricky to talk about positive plans without sounding “insensitive”.

But among the understandable sadness, there’s a note of positivity threaded into our conversation. Back in June, Shanahan contributed an article to The Stage’s Theatre 2021 series stressing the importance of community in running a theatre and the role of hope. What, I ask, has allowed her to keep a sense of hope throughout such a tough period?

“Even in the darkest of times, I’ve never had an existential crisis about whether theatre will be wanted or needed as we emerge out of this,” she explains. And as proud as she feels of the digital programme the Exchange has put together, nothing, for Shanahan, compares to the experience of actually being in the theatre itself. “I miss it. I really fucking miss it. As humans we need to be in a room together, and I think from this period we need to heal together, we need to laugh together and cry together to try to figure this thing out.”

At the centre of the Royal Exchange’s recent struggles was a financial model reliant on reaching “insane” – Shanahan’s word – box office targets. A model which, even in normal circumstances, made it very vulnerable. It also had a direct impact on programming decisions – as is the case with so many theatres – placing restrictions on experimentation and artistically risky work. So although they wouldn’t have wished for a global pandemic to force their hand, the events of this year have provided the chance to create a funding model that is more sustainable, less reliant on a few big box office hits per season, and that allows them to rethink what fills the building, onstage and off. “It feels,” she says, “Like starting a theatre company from scratch.”

The lockdown period also allowed Shanahan and Weise to reiterate their vision for a theatre grounded in the local community. Both the Young Company and the Elders Company have continued to practice and make work over the last year – including the Elder Company’s video call-inspired show A Funny Thing Happened in Isolation, on until 31 December 2020 – and Shanahan repeatedly mentions how much these groups contribute to the holistic life of the theatre. She also lights up when describing a devotion to making theatre that speaks to the people who live in the area and supports local freelance artists – more now than ever. In lieu of a Christmas show for 2020, the Exchange have created All I Want For Christmas, a digital advent calendar presenting a different story connected to Greater Manchester online every day in the lead up to Christmas. The creative team behind it pulls together an extensive list of writers, directors and performers from across the region, and they’re inspired by local experiences and anecdotes.

But while that all sounds lovely and Christmassy, Shanahan remains realistic about the intricacies of making theatre with links to different communities. “The thing that we’re really trying to move away from is this idea that you create a piece of work for a specific community; you invite that community to that work and then they’re not invited to the next thing. Yes, maybe it’s a really fantastic invitation to see yourself or to recognise yourself but really: what’s the thing that that’s going to make them feel like this is the place for them? Or that they can keep coming back and they can engage in different areas of our work?”

The early months of lockdown saw an explosion of digital programming by theatres. Shanahan and Weise decided to take things a little slower, reflecting first on what the year 2020 suggested was needed. One of the events they settled on was a series of panel discussions and wider conversations with the resident companies connected to four previous Royal Exchange shows. Winsome Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights – which had to close before press night due to the first lockdown – sparked reflections on the literal foundations of the Exchange itself. As Shanahan explains, “We’re very aware of the complexities around our actual building. It’s always spoken about as this Grade II-listed, very beautiful ex-cotton trading hall. But, it took part in the transatlantic slave trade. Of course, it did: it was trading in cotton. The very architecture holds a narrative we don’t feel we should ignore. So, we’re looking at how we can commission a project that explores that narrative and acknowledges it.”

She hopes this project will be the catalyst to “radically change who this for and what happens here” and offers a “playful invitation to go wild in opposition to its history”.

Considering Shanahan is on a mission to make the Royal Exchange work best for the people of Manchester, what does she think about the London vs ‘regional’ theatre divide? “I feel really passionate about Manchester being able to sustain artists and creatives because you shouldn’t have to leave. It is great to move and to have different experiences, but you shouldn’t have to leave and certainly you shouldn’t have to leave to one of the most expensive cities in the world,” she argues.

“I think the thing about ‘regional theatre’ is bollocks! Because it instantly centres London as the place of excellence and then makes everything else this ubiquitous collection of ‘others’. Our experience to Chichester, to Nottingham, to Sheffield, is totally different, and it discounts the nuances of the different communities theatre serves to exist.” Simply put: “We are not a ‘regional’ theatre, we are a theatre in Greater Manchester.”

Connecting with people who aren’t necessarily the typical ‘theatre’ crowd is also what brought Shanahan back from London – where she had lived since training at East 15 – to the north. Although she stresses how much being in the capital gave her, she also mentions a sense of inadvertently making work for the echo chamber of her peers and those who “already had the language of theatre” at their disposal. Before devoting herself to the theatre route, Shanahan grew up as a football-obsessed kid with dreams of playing for Stoke City Ladies (nowadays, when we’re not experiencing a pandemic, she goes to see Manchester United W.F.C play). Asked at an early career interview who her favourite director was she recalls blurting out: “Alex Ferguson!” and she still feels football and theatre share a lot in common: “It’s a live experience, essentially, and a chance for us to express and to be and to play.”

But, perhaps most importantly, it was going to matches that gave her a sense of the kind of theatre she wanted to make. “I always used to say: I want to make work that I can take to Stoke and to the people that sit around me at the football. So they could come and see a show, and they wouldn’t feel excluded from it or that it wasn’t for them.”

Dot Conor and Michael Glean in Queens of the Coal Age. Photo: Keith Pattinson

Shanahan’s directing work for Royal Exchange Theatre to date has included Queens of the Coal Age, Maxine Peake’s  2018 play about four women who occupy a colliery pit that’s threatened with closure, and a version of Wuthering Heights that closed just as the pandemic hit. Before then, she formed Snuff Box Theatre with Charlotte Josephine and Daniel Foxsmith in 2011 and touring the company’s shows, including Bitch Boxer and The Observatory, across the globe. Shanahan’s earlier career also featured a number of assistant and associate director roles. It was doing these jobs and, specifically, the female directors she worked alongside on them, that she credits with giving her the inspiration and determination to continue with her own work and, crucially, chipped away at some of her insecurities.

The first name she mentions is Sarah Frankcom (former AD at the Royal Exchange) who Shanahan assisted with Hamlet, starring Maxine Peake. “I remember my first meeting with her she said to me – and I thought she was mad – she said ‘I want to learn from you in this process so there will be moments when I just throw it over to you,’” Shanahan recalls. The other person she mentions is Yaël Farber, who she worked with on Salomé at the National. “She taught me so much about the spaces, the environments and the worlds you create, and your commitment to your heart and to the heart of the people around you.”

Their effect on Shanahan was, in many ways, profound: “I think the quiet grit and grace of these amazing women reflected back to me that you can be yourself – it’s scary, it takes bravery, you’re going to have to persevere and survive a lot of things and a lot of doubters and a lot of people having lower expectations of you – but it is valid and there is a space and a place. I think without them reflecting that back to me, I don’t think I’d be here.”

But she is still here and so is her desire to keep making “messy” theatre. For Shanahan, making theatre is “not based on an intellectual reaction, it’s a kind of guttural one. I really enjoy when writers are stretching to an extreme, with real people and real hearts and real muscle stretching to a place of emotional extremity, and they’re brave enough to express that in whatever wild and messy way.”

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

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