Features Published 6 July 2020

Dear Oliver

Director Atri Banerjee imagines some letters to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, during the long wait for government support.

Atri Banerjee

The central hall of Royal Exchange Manchester

He felt the strain of this clinging affection for the old home as part of his life, part of himself. He couldn’t bear to think of himself living on any other spot than this, where he knew the sound of every gate and door.

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

Dear Oliver,

I’m not sure whether I’m ever going to send this to you. But you know, it’s four o’clock in the morning, I can’t sleep, and my therapist thought it might help me to put down my feelings into writing.

I know this pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone but it just feels a little hurtful that you haven’t once reached out to get in touch, or find out how I am.

I got the news this afternoon, on the street. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and not because of the mask I was wearing.

You must have seen it yourself. The Royal Exchange Theatre has announced a redundancy consultation process that’s going to affect 65% of its workforce.

That hurts, Oliver. It really does. Particularly since it’s been you and your government who have forced this theatre to scale down its own reliance on public subsidy in recent years.

I blame you. I’m sorry, but I do. I guess I could understand if it felt like you had been trying? I saw that roadmap you put out on social media — I’m sorry, love, it’s no good.

It’s been over a decade of this though hasn’t it, really? Coronavirus has only lifted the veil on what’s already been rotting away. You and your cronies couldn’t care less about what happens to the theatre sector. Or the arts in general, for that matter. We shouldn’t have to beg.

The Exchange has survived an IRA bomb, for Christ’s sake. It’s the lifeblood of the communities they serve. By letting the building fail, you’re letting them fail.

I hope you’re well. I’m not expecting you to write back.

Atri x

Atri Banerjee’s first day selfie

Dear Oliver,

I guess it feels particularly hurtful because you must know how much that theatre means to me. It’s hard not to take it personally.

I sent you that selfie, do you remember, on my first day? From the steps that lead down to St Ann’s Square. In front of the doors with the theatre’s name on it. I’m wearing a turtleneck (I wanted to look like a director, after all) under a denim jacket (but not like a regular director—a cool director). And I’m smiling. I’m excited.

I know that people talk a lot about theatres changing lives but what you must understand Oliver, you must, is that the Exchange really did change my life.

I was a naive young ingenue trying to make it in the big world, embarrassingly southern, who had hardly ever ventured north of Birmingham (apart from an annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Fringe). I was so happy to be finally be a professional director. To start as Trainee at this bonkers-brilliant-lunar-module-slash-theatre.

I expected to be challenged and excited by the work and by the artists I met. What was bracing for me, and thrilling, was to quickly have my pretensions chipped away. To realise that the thing that I would fall in love with was, really, the city of Manchester; understanding in the process how much the Royal Exchange is its beating heart.

It was inspiring, Oliver. I wish you could have been there. The theatre always tried to speak directly to and for the communities it served. Never talking down, and always including the communities in the conversation.

And that thrumming Mancunian sensibility echoed through the chamber of the Great Hall and could be felt in every flagstone; every brick; every steel pylon. A spirit of radicalism. Togetherness, solidarity and pride.

There’s no where quite like it. When you walk into that Hall, you’ve overwhelmed by history. You’ll have to see it for yourself.

You imagine those original founders walking into a dusty building, the legacy of slavery in its bones, and reclaiming that space to tell stories.

You walk with the ghosts of actors past, who have smoked outside the Module doors while waiting for their cue (back when you were still allowed to smoke inside) ash twirling up up into the vaulted glass dome.

It becomes hard to imagine ever working anywhere else. Nowhere else can really compare.

Anyway.

A xx

Atri Banerjee with the company of Our Town. Photo: Chuck Deer

Dear Oliver

You know that poem, don’t you? The one by Emily Dickinson. I saw it on Twitter.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

I could talk about the work forever. Our Town was my first show, do you remember? It breathed through the city’s grief with it. After the bomb in the Arena.

Our cast was made up of people across the country, speaking in their own voices. We had members of the Young Company and Elders’ Company and community choirs from across Greater Manchester.

Do you remember? I told you about Maureen, from the Elders’ Company, who kept forgetting her lines! But  she finally got them right on first preview, and was so happy. 

The company sang and signed together in BSL, ‘Blessed Be The Ties That Bind’, the hymn that threads its way through the play, led by Nadia.

We took the show to Rochdale. We performed it in the Town Hall, with one day of rehearsal, with no set or anything. The kids in the audience started off glued to their phones. By the end, though, they were sucked in… enraptured by our story of love and loss and letting go. That was a good day.

Remember the community ensemble in Jubilee? Some of the most brilliant people I’ve had the privilege to work with. Like Wednesday, who told us about her hobby hanging herself up with meathooks. Remember how schools groups would cheer when M.I.A.’s ‘Bad Girls’ blasted through the auditorium, Travis dancing in the middle? The show was raucous and tender and queer, and held out a hand for some people, I’m sure, who would have needed it most.

And I remember my friend actually holding my hand involuntarily through The Almighty Sometimes, because his mum had taken one of his anti-depressants to see how it felt, just like Julie’s character in the play.

I was part of the family, even after I left. We went on a wild tour of the North with The Mysteries. I’ll never forget the first time we performed the cycle of all six plays in the Module, with a choir from Whitby, a falcon from Staindrop, bell ringers from Stoke, a comedy rapper from Boston, Lincolnshire. The stillness after the Manchester play finished — also about the bomb — is a moment I’ll treasure forever.

We made Utopia with the Young Company in the Den, the Theatre’s gorgeous pop-up space. It gave a group of brilliant, amazing, wonderful young people a place to express their political fury and fear of their house being on fire. I wonder what they’re up to now. Their future must feel so uncertain. I hope they’re ok.

What you have to remember, Oliver, is that the theatre is so much more than just a building. Indeed, it’s so much more than just art! Whatever rarefied definitions of art you might still cling to.

The art only exists as a premise for people to come together. You don’t get that in a cinema. You don’t get the network; the ecology; the intersections between artist and actor and spectator and volunteer and participant that make this art form live, really live.

The ecosystem is fragile, Oliver, you can’t let it fail.

I hope you’re getting these.

A x

Atri Banerjee with the poster of Hobson’s Choice, at Royal Exchange

If I can stop one heart from breaking…

Dear Oliver

After I got beaten up in my own home (my own home! how could you have forgotten that!) and came up to Manchester for the first day of rehearsals for Hobson’s Choice, a mere twelve hours later, the theatre looked after me, and cared for me, and I think, in all honesty, saved my life.

I called Sarah on the train up and told her what had happened. That a gang of burglars had broken in, looking for Asian gold. Of course, she dropped her plans to be in the rehearsal room for the meet-and-greet that day. I told the company what had happened.

The theatre wrapped its arms around me. In that moment, it held me.

Lee took my phone, which had been smashed by the burglars, and got it fixed. Bryony cried, and gave me a massive hug, and brought me a shopping bag with wine and Pringles and chocolate. Michelle brought me a cup of tea to help me feel better. Sarah told me that I didn’t have to do the show if I didn’t want to… but if I did, she would be there for me every step of the way.

The (mostly) South Asian company rallied together, and we made a beautiful show about diversity, family, and community. Tony (Token Tony, as we called him, as the one white man in the cast) and Kate took me for dinner at the end of the first week to say well done for getting through. After I had a panic attack on my lunch break, Harriet took me aside and calmed me down. 

The theatre paid for my therapy and put me up in a flat. At a point when it felt like my home had been taken away from me, the theatre became my family, my sanctuary, my safety.

I hope we offered a family of sorts for others, who had never seen a South Asian family, represented in all its complexity, on that stage before. There was that group, wasn’t there who bought tickets immediately after watching the show once, to come see it again the next day, because they had “left feeling better than when they had gone in”.

And my own, real, family, of course. How proud and beaming my mama and baba were when they come up for press night. How my uncle and my grandmother (whose house it had been, who had seen me the next day with a bruised face) came on the last day, and met the cast, and had a cup of tea with them.

That’s what it’s been about for me, really.

Yours,

Atri x

‘Our Town’ at Royal Exchange Manchester

STAGE MANAGER: We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars … everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.

Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Dear Oliver

That theatre has been my home for nearly three years. I miss it.

I’m aching at the thought of it hurting. My colleagues. My friends. 

The theatre is so much more than just a building. Wait, did I already say that?

It’s Lee, who would despair at my messy desk and took me to IKEA in Ashton-under-Lyne in my first week, because I had nothing in my flat.

It’s Michelle, surrogate mum, who’d tell me all about her love for Derek Jarman. It’s Vanessa, and Mo, and Vicky, and Anneka, and the biscuits I used to pinch from their office. It’s Val, who’s always offered me a room to stay. And Paula (we bonded over press and PR, and have since become close friends).

It’s Inga, who started at the Exchange the same week as me, and shared my baffled awe in that first month. And Philippa, who I’ve known since back at my days as Press Assistant at the NT, and I’m so chuffed at how well she’s doing there.

It’s Ella, who’d stay up late dancing with me at MIF parties in Festival Square. It’s Carys, we made Utopia together and I share so much with her.

It’s Jerry, born in Calcutta, whose wisdom and friendship I’ve always been able to count on, particularly in long hours of auditions.

It’s Simon and Bubble and Neil, who can solve any problem, technical or otherwise. And it’s Sorcha and it’s Jim, with his sunflower tattoo.

It’s Annabeth in Wardrobe, with the sassy comebacks and fondness for a night out. It’s the wonderful, brilliant, amazing stage managers (who surely will inherit the earth): dour (but actually very sweet) Scottish Scott. Rosie, with her awful puns, who bought me a fidget-spinner because I keep fiddling with stuff in the rehearsal room. Sophie, we went mad together over Beckett’s lines with Maxine. Loren, and Amber, and Clare, and Chuck, and of course, Harriet, simply the best.

It’s Carl and Anthony at Stage Door, who tease me every time I stay in the bar too late. And Tommy, who comes to see everything more than once.

It’s Anne, and Yvonne, with their chippy Fridays and cheese flan. They care for everyone, and everyone loves them. The walls of their kitchen are covered with photos of companies come and gone. 

Anne insists on calling me “Harry Potter”, which I don’t really mind, because it’s her.. Yvonne sneaks into the dress rehearsals and gives the best notes out of anyone. Every time she sees me, she tells me how proud she is, how proud, that “I’m a grown man now, Harry”

It’s Suzanne, who always recommends me a huge stack of plays even if I ask her with five minutes notice before I need them, and it’s Chloe, so patient with late script reports. It’s Zak, who takes the piss if I ever get too emotional (god, imagine if he read these!)

It’s Ric, a constant rock, and guide. It’s Steve, it’s Bryony and it’s Roy, who lead with passion and spirit and love, who don’t deserve this. Roy, who took me out into St Ann’s Square when I couldn’t stop crying the day the theatres closed.

Bryony. We became close at a difficult point in her life, and I can’t believe how much she’s grown over the last few years, and it’s amazing that she’s at the helm of this wonderful place. I’m so proud of her.

And of course, though she’s no longer there, it’s Sarah too. She’s given me everything, I owe her everything, as my mentor, my colleague and my friend.

There are so many others. The systems by which we live our lives are nothing other than that — networks of people. Your government, Oliver, I’m sorry to say, has proved how unreliable people can be. But the people who work at the Exchange are committed. They are talented. It’s through them that the theatre can do its work. 

It’s through this hard, fearless, passionate work that Yandass and Justina can start off in the Young Company and end up, respectively, performing on the main stage and as Assistant Producer. I am far from being the only one whose life this building has changed.

The Exchange is a guiding light of its community, a restless beacon. Always striving to do better, do more, whether in Manchester or Tameside or Leigh or Moss Side or across the breadth of the North West.

And I only speak of one theatre, Oliver. These stories are echoed across the country. From Plymouth to Sheffield to Cardiff to Bristol.

This is not about art for art’s sake, Oliver. This is vital, and it’s important, and it changes lives. If you and your government continue to suffocate these networks, and do not come to their rescue, the industry will crumble. Lives that could have been saved will be lost.

Please, Oliver. I heard the pubs open again tomorrow. Seems foolhardy, but maybe see you there. I’ll get you a drink. Gin and soda, wasn’t it. Maybe we can talk about this. 

I shall not live in vain.

Do better. For my sake, if no one else’s.

With love

Atri x

Atri Banerjee on the set of Happy Days

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

– Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Dear Oliver

It’s been a few days now and thanks for finally getting back to me. Well. I got a notification last night on my phone about the rescue package. I would have liked to have heard directly from you but I get you’re spending more time with Rishi now. I hope you two are happy.

£1.5 billion is a lot of money, and not going to lie, I do feel relieved. A lot of people will, I’m sure, be feeling very grateful – not least my colleagues and friends at the Exchange — and that is totally fair.

But help should have come sooner, Oliver. We’ve given you so much, and we needed you. You haven’t been there for us, and it’s hard not to feel like it’s too late. 

I think we need to rethink our relationship, Oliver. I’m going to take a bit of space. Hope you understand. I’m glad you’ve reached out and I want there to be a way we can move forward but I’m feeling a bit wary. I hope you’ll take some more accountability. I’m unsure.

Love,

Atri

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Atri Banerjee

Atri is a theatre director and writer based in London. He trained at Birkbeck, and was previously Trainee Director at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. For Hobson’s Choice at the Exchange, Atri won The Stage Debut Award 2019 for Best Director and nominated for the UK Theatre Award 2019 for Best Director. Pre-pandemic, he was due to direct The Glass Menagerie at the Exchange. Atri is a Resident Director at the Almeida Theatre and was formerly Press Assistant at the National Theatre, on an internship with Creative Access. He is represented by Davina Shah at TEAM. @atri_rohan

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