As he prepares to leave Eden Court to return to head the theatre in his home city of Plymouth the chief executive reflects on his four years running the Highland arts centre
The light is fading from the day as James Mackenzie-Blackman sits in his office looking across the river from Eden Court and thinks about his time as CEO there in the countdown to moving on after four years, heading to the other end of the country, his hometown of Plymouth and his new role in charge of the Theatre Royal there.
It’s been a turbulent time for the world, let alone the theatre. But the pandemic saw Eden Court stare closure in the face.
And along with weathering the storms of the funding challenges that have surely been some of the biggest tests James has had to face during his time here, there have been the evolving attitudes in the world to embrace, everything from a raised LGBTQ+ awareness to Black Lives Matter where the theatre has engaged and played a part, led by James.
The day of our interview, the theatre is buzzing with the presence of New Adventures, Sir Matthew Bourne’s company bringing the Scottish world premiere of his new show The Midnight Bell.
It was with New Adventures, in James’s previous job with them as chief executive, that he first saw Eden Court and had an instant reaction to it.
“It must have been not long after Eden Court reopened in 2008 after the refurbishment,” James said.
“The theatre I was working at in London was co-producing a production with the National Theatre of Scotland and it was opening here. And I flew up from London and stood at the end of that drive and I thought ‘Wow, what is this place?’.
“It was curious, odd-looking, ‘architecturally schizophrenic’ is how I describe it all the time. And I thought ‘What is this huge arts centre doing in this tiny town?’
“Then I came in and there were young people everywhere and older people everywhere and it was busy in the morning which most theatres never are - and it reminded me a lot of the theatre I worked at in London.
“I felt I had found a place that was going to be special in some way, or that spoke to my values, and eight or nine years later, I got this job.”
What were his memories of arriving for the first time to take the job?
“I guess what is important to remember – or to say – is that the job I applied for, and the job I walked into, became two very different things.
“When I applied for the job in August 2017, it was a financially stable organisation and by the time I arrived on day one, there was a financial crisis, so all those hopes and aspirations I had when I applied, I needed to put on hold really,” James said.
A daunting start?
“It was totally daunting, but in hindsight there was an opportunity around leadership. We kind of needed to start again, really, to rebuild the organisation.
“I remember quite clearly back at the beginning, I would say to different people, ‘What is the purpose of Eden Court?’ Why are we here?’ and if I got an answer at all it would be different to the answer I got before it.
“I had to understand why our funders had cut our grants, what their beef was. And I had to make commitments and promises that we were going to do things differently and that would mean difficult decisions. So that was the journey of the first couple of years, if I’m honest.
“And what I would say about this job is, it’s pretty lonely. The buck stops – and this is an organisation where people take comfort from the buck stopping with me!” James smiled.
“What there isn’t really in the city is a network of people in the cultural centre doing jobs like mine, in a way, like in London, where you bump into people all the time and you can moan about a form you are filling in over a latte. Here, it’s just … Muggins! So it’s a lonely role.
“But I have just been endlessly able to see potential in Eden Court and in the talents of Highland-based artists.”
What is he proud to leave behind, when he heads off to Plymouth at the end of the month?
“I’m really proud that 31 people applied for my job and when I applied, I think I was one of five.
“I think that says something, that 31 people wanted this job and I think that’s because over the course of the last four years, we have fundamentally shifted the role Eden Court plays in the culture of this country, both Scotland and the United Kingdom.
“People see this as a brilliant job and that is because we have proudly and ambitiously and openly said ‘Look at us!’ and I’m very proud of that.
“I’m starting to reflect that perhaps the change has been too fast that I have asked too much of my team.
“I’ve got bags of energy and at 41 with two kids under seven, I’ve still got that Tigger in me!” James laughed. “And I guess that could be a lot to keep up with.”
But it was probably an energy he needed for getting Eden Court through the closure brought on by Covid, keeping the theatre alive and securing the extra funding needed to bring it back.
“One of the things I’m regretful about is that I’m leaving because there is so much else I want to do.
“But someone said to me ‘James it was your job to come and turn the Titanic in the canal and it needed your boundless, nuclear energy and approach to do that – and now the ship is facing the right way in the canal and what Eden Court needs in its new chief executive is someone to sail it in the right direction. But do not underestimate how hard you have had to work to turn it!’
“And that was really useful for me, on a very personal level.”
James has seemed to relish playing a part in the wider community too. When Black Lives Matter protestors peacefully marched and attached banners to the main Inverness bridge, it divided the community. Some people wanted them taken down, others felt they should stay,
But James felt Eden Court could help and offered an artistic solution.
“I’m reading it in the Courier and thinking ‘What can I do?’. I do this job because I love the performing arts, but I’m also someone who takes pride in my civic role.
“I thought ‘There is an opportunity for us here, for us to create an artistic response that allows the people of the city and the region to come together safely and pause and reflect and it gives me an opportunity to pay an artist of colour to create an installation’. And that’s what we did.”
There’s an insight into the kind of issues the boss of a vibrant arts centre in 2021 has to deal with, when he talks about the recent dates by Scottish comedian, writer and actress Janey Godley.
In September historic controversial tweets she had sent in the past including insults relating to race and disability were publicised and she was dropped from a Public Health Scotland campaign, but her comedy tour came to Eden Court.
This month she announced that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and is now in hospital being treated.
James said: “People were really angry that we allowed her to have her dates. I felt that Janey really held her regret very openly. But my God, the emails I got, ‘If you don’t cancel Janey …’, people writing to their MPs and MSPs because Eden Court was not going to cancel Janey Godley.
“And I’m someone who always responds to these angry emails. If I get five paragraphs, I feel I should send five paragraphs back. If I get three sentences you get three sentences back.
“I’ve got a mixed race son, I know a bit about what it’s like for your family to look a bit different.
“She spoke really openly and acknowledged what she had got wrong. Really brave.
“Janey wears her politics really openly too, as a fierce SNP supporter she’s been taking flak and getting trolled by angry men for a decade.
“But my goodness, these are not easy decisions.
“People have strong views about Eden Court’s programme and that’s because they perceive that Eden Court belongs to them. Which of course – it does! And it’s really hard to get it right!”
There have been many artistic achievements at Eden Court during James’s time and he picked out some personal favourites.
“Under Canvas, because that was just a mad idea in 2018 and now it’s the second biggest employer of Gaelic and trad musicians after Celtic Connections. Back to 2018, it was stretch tents and hay bales and four weeks of crossing our fingers and now it’s become like an additional venue.
“Our mission is to bring the world to the Highlands and the Highlands to the world. Eden Court didn’t have a vision, a mission and values before I arrived.
“Now they are proudly on the wall as you come in at the stage door.
“And Under Canvas is such an embodiment of us celebrating Highland culture and providing employment to Highland artists and I’m so proud of it.
“It’s become its own venue and a brand and we’ve bought the tent, we don’t hire it any more.
“This summer it ran for three months and we toured a version of it to Lyth Arts Centre, in Caithness, and Tain and Strontian and Skye – and what a joy!”
It has also been nominated for live event of the year in the Scots Trad Awards.
“Carlos Acosta closing Eden Court, the last thing to be here before Covid, though it would also have been fitting if it had been Starlight or Inverness Musical Theatre or Phil and Aly. But the fact was it was the world’s best dancer who locked the doors.”
The night with actor Ian McKellen was another memorable night.
“The Scottish Ballet Gala was such a special evening. The Barbershop Chronicles, was a big show from the National Theatre in London, here in the Highlands and Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert because who is going to come and see a show about a load of drag queens in Australia? But, my God they turned out for that!
“And the Eden Court Christmas with panto.”
One of the hardest things James must have done during his time here, was, in 2020 effectively cancel Christmas for the Highlands.
As Alan Rickman famously said as the Sheriff of Nottinghm in the film Robin Hood – 'Call off Christmas!", and that's exactly what James found himself doing as the restrictions of Covid made it impossible for Eden Court to stage the panto.
It is one of the shows that has a tradition of bringing people from all over the Highlands as an annual pilgrimage.
“We do consistently have between 33,000-35,000 people a year coming to the panto at Eden Court, it’s an amazing figure,” James marvelled.
“We are doing some stakeholder engagement about the future of Eden Court at the moment and what the future of the building might be.
“And so many people are fond of Eden Court in their adult lives because they came as kids to panto. It’s that simple.”
As a child growing up in Plymouth, it turns out James was just the same.
“I do what I do in this industry because my first memory is going to see Dick Whittington at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth and being in the stalls and King Rat entering into the auditorium in a haze of smoke and – my mother thinks I must have been about four – I was absolutely terrified!
“I darted under my seat and spent the rest of the show occasionally popping up to have a look.
“But the magic hit me and I’ve never been the same since,” James laughed.
“It’s where the fire got lit in my belly and my mum says that at 13 or 14 I’d look across the bar and spot the chief executive I am now taking over from and say ‘One day, Mum, I’m going to do his job’.”
Now he will be. But maybe it wasn’t such an apparently simple inevitability.
“Here’s the thing, I never really thought I would,” James confessed
“And, in all honesty, applying for the job wasn’t really because I thought I’d get it.
“I applied for the job for self-preservation because I needed to know that I hadn’t got it, so that on a really bad day in 2025, say, I wasn’t driving across the Kessock Bridge seething because my colleagues had been driving me mad all day and going in to my husband Colin and saying over supper ‘My God, I wish I’d applied for Theatre Royal, Plymouth, in 2021!’,” James laughed.
“That’s why I applied for the job. I thought I wouldn’t get it and I thought I would spend a couple of days feeling emotionally vulnerable, dust myself down and crack on. That was the plan!
“Then I kept getting further in the process and I guess as I got further in the process, I realised I really wanted it.”
What has his time at Eden Court taught James about himself?
He is silent for a long moment.
“My immediate response is something about admitting to myself or settling into the idea that when you do a job like this, that it is very difficult to be all things to all people.
“I say that and I am immediately thinking about my husband and my kids and I’m immediately thinking about my senior team.
“I’m quite self-critical, actually, under this Tigger. I live a lot in my head and I give myself a hard time.
“I want to be my best to my husband and kids and colleagues and it’s actually really hard. So I’ve learned that I need to be kinder to myself.
“I also think a lot about head, heart and gut decisions and in a job like this where you are having to make really difficult decisions, often about people and values, your head is often really pulling you, but your gut is normally right.
“Also in a job like this, you have to balance all the time a commercial head and a charitable heart – and I’m probably a bit too charitable heart – and that is what makes the job so fascinating and brilliant!”
One change at Eden Court James is happy to have achieved.
“I’d like to think Eden Court was more collaborative with the wider cultural infrastructure in the Highlands – Fèis Rois, and other Highland-based arts organisations, Findhorn Bay Arts, Dance North, we’re their pals in a way that I don’t think Eden Court was before I arrived and that is really, really important. But we are also pals with Dundee Rep and the Lyceum and the Traverse in a way that I think we weren’t before either.”
There are also wider goals he would love to have seen become a reality too. He had hopes the theatre might be extended to be able to host larger shows and the background work on assessing that is in its early stages. Also he wanted to secure opportunities for future generations of talents.
“I’m sure this will happen under Eden Court’s new leadership, I want to put more young people on our stages in really world class productions and for Eden Court’s youth theatre to be one of the best in the world – because we have got way more Karen Gillans and James Petts to discover – James is the choreographer who discovered dance at Eden Court. It’s our job to foster and nurture that talent.
“And Eden Court producing its own work will happen – there will be a big announcement soon about the first major production that Eden Court is going to produce by itself and Susannah – Susie – Armitage coming home to the Highlands to lead that work is really exciting. She is a huge asset.”
What has James taught Eden Court about itself?
He laughs and suggests you ask his colleagues.
But what would he have liked to teach Eden Court about itself?
“How amazing it is and it is one of the best in Scotland and one of the best in the UK and what a privilege it is to work here,” he replies immediately.
“We will be leaving a little bit of our hearts here. It will always be a place that our eldest Angus remembers living.
“I remember when I got the job, friends in London saying ‘My God, it’s not a new chapter, it’s a new book!’ – and I loved that.
“And it was a new book.
“What a ride it’s been!
“There had been a little bit of me going round the world working unbelievably hard with Matthew Bourne and really building New Adventures and certainly Matt’s charity into something extraordinary.
“There was a bit of me that thought ‘Move to the Highlands, settle down into one venue, lead a bit of a slower pace’.”
James grinned: “I’ve never worked harder in my life than I have over the past four years. It’s been really tough.
“But it’s been a total joy.”
More by this authorMargaret Chrystall