Eden Court chief executive James Mackenzie-Blackman outlines the priority for the future is to build on the work done to stabilise the business during lockdown – and persuade audiences back
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The challenges of running Eden Court and keeping it financially secure during a pandemic would probably make an exciting play one day.
But for the theatre’s chief executive James Mackenzie-Blackman, everything now rests on the audience ‘to play their part’.
His recent press release about the impressive suite of shows on offer to tempt that audience back to the theatre, ended with those words, casting them in the role of actors in Eden Court’s ongoing drama of securing a sustainable future.
“I don’t know if I did that consciously or unconsciously,” James laughed, speaking the day after the theatre went back to seven-day opening, a milestone in the return to normality.
“It does really feel like an important moment where we have put in place as much Covid mitigation as we can – our air handling units have been checked, we’ve created a whole new stage door so that artists can be kept separate from audiences. We’ve raised significant amounts of money, we have hand sanitising stations coming out of our ears – but people need to come.”
The concern in his voice comes across loud and clear.
“I guess what I really do feel – and that is one of the reasons I put that phrase in the quote – was that for the past 18 or 20 months there has been a number of moments when the very future of Eden Court looked at risk and we have worked unbelievably hard to stabilise the business, and we’ve been successful in doing that, and in lobbying and advocating to our funders about the really critical role Eden Court plays in the lives of the people of the Highlands.
“That advocacy and that lobbying has paid off because we have had emergency funding to keep the business going. But we are now at this, in a way, as critical a scary moment as we have been in at any moment in the past 20 months because we are reopening, the end of the furlough scheme is pending and we have booked a whole heap of shows.
“We will continue to send mails and emails and deliver social media campaigns to tell people about the wonderful work we’ve got ahead – but people will need to come.
“And if people do not come, we’re stuffed – and that’s it. It’s quite simple, but it’s scary.”
Choosing the shows for this crucial next few months, James had a couple of main objectives.
“What was really important to me was that I wanted to be sure that there was something for everyone –a broad Empire programme as well as stuff that was really going to lift people’s spirits.
“And clearly I wanted the national companies in the mix.
“We have The Enemy, what I’m sure will be an outstanding play from the National Theatre of Scotland, we’ve got Scottish Opera with The Gondoliers which is always a popular title. We’ve got Scottish Ballet in a couple of weeks with Starstruck.
“And, though it wasn’t in the press release, but we’ve got the Viennese Gala back from RSNO at the beginning of January.
“Cinderella is the best panto title!
“And I’ve persuaded my old boss Matthew Bourne to bring The Midnight Bell – and ours is the only Scottish date on the tour. There is nowhere else in Scotland to see that world premiere on this tour this autumn, so we are very proud about that.
“We’ve got two stonkingly good musicals at the end of November and the original Broadway production of Chicago coming to the Highlands for the first time – and we’ve got a brilliant week for that at the end of November and the beginning of December.”
James has a suggestion for a change from the traditional boozy lunch work Christmas do – add a show into the mix.
“I’m really hopeful that maybe people looking for things to do for their Christmas party – go and have a bite to eat, say at Rocpool, and then come along to Chicago – what a brilliant night out!”
James says he is really proud of the shows and productions on offer. But he confessed it can be hard sometimes to get the message out to people, despite trying every available option.
He laughed: “For every person who walks through the door, you meet someone who says ‘I didn’t know anything about that’ or ‘I didn’t know that show was on’. We’ve written letters and sent press releases and done the social media and other than knocking on every front door in the region …”
But the chief executive highlights the role the Studio Programme of classes and activities has in bringing people into Eden Court where they can become part of the organisation’s ‘family’ that way.
“Yesterday we had our I Heart Drama group which is our programme for young and adults with and without additional needs.
“They are a really important part of the Eden Court family and they come every month and were back for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
“It was such a joy to have them back in.
“And the Studio Programme also helps to sell coffee for mums and dads waiting for kids to finish dance or drama.”
Though it was speculated that people would be hungry to get back to the theatre after being stuck at home in lockdown so long, that is not entirely being witnessed so far in the booking behaviour, which has changed because of Covid, James revealed.
“Eden Court normally has between 70 to 100 shows on sale at any one moment and long into the future and before there would be fairly consistent sales across all of that.
“But what we’ve been seeing is we’re selling tickets every day – every day I get a sales report about the previous day’s sales. When I open that report we are selling tickets for pantomime, for Chicago and 9 To 5 – and then we are selling tickets for shows within the next few days, and nothing really inbetween.
“People are booking really late, but where they really want to look forward to a treat, or there’s product that they trust, or feelgood product, like Chicago and 9 To 5, product that is familiar to people, and where they feel like there may be availability issues, they are booking early.
“But, broadly, booking behaviour has evolved to the point where booking is very late.”
Is that creating difficulties?
“It’s terrifying!” James confirmed.
But there are causes for optimism too for the chief executive in the months before he will leave Eden Court in December to become chief executive of the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, his home town.
The building of the Under Canvas programme is one. The summer-long festival of live music has also added a tour across the Highlands to its programme of events.
“At the end of the year when I head away, Under Canvas will be something I look back on with immense pride,” James said.
“It was this bonkers idea in 2018. It was a tent a quarter of the size of the current one dwith hay bales in it. And look at us now – we are the second biggest employer of Scots traditional and Gaelic musicians after Celtic Connections. We have provided over 300 employment opportunities to independent musicians this summer, we have been nominated for the trad event of the year at the Trad Awards and it is now running for three months and it is sort of extraordinary. And it has become another venue at Eden Court for sure. We talk about the Empire, the OneTouch, the Scala, the Playhouse and Under Canvas. It’s a venue, it sits in our management system as a venue. Again, because of Covid-related money we have been able to buy the tent this year as opposed to having to hire it, so that’s fantastic. We’re really proud of it.”
Asking what the chief executive’s hopes might be for the post-Covid recovery of the wider Scottish theatre industry he will be leaving behind, and he revealed some that include Eden Court’s plans.
“As we emerge from the pandemic, what struck me in my four years here is I’m really surprised that there aren’t more Scottish stories being told on Scottish stages with Scottish audiences.
“So what I really hope is that with Eden Court starting to produce its own work, and collaborate with other theatres, there will be more Scottish stories being told on more Scottish stages – and I want those Scottish stages to be Eden Court’s!”
And James has identified something good to have come from the pandemic experience for the Scottish theatre industry.
“I think there is a real willingness across the country to collaborate and co-produce that there wasn’t before the pandemic.
“We’ve all got to know each other a lot better because we have all been living through similar crises and so among artistic directors executive directors and chief executives there is a real willingness to work together – which is exciting.”
James also mentioned his pleasure at the appointment to Eden Court’s newly-created role of senior producer of Susannah Armitage, former National Theatre of Scotland programme director and head of producing.
Originally from the Highlands with her early theatre experiences at Eden Court, Susannah is also a former producer and chief executive of the A Play, A Pie And A Pint celebrated lunchtime theatre programme and was producer at the award-winning Vox Motus theatre company.
“I’m so glad Susannah is joining us and coming back to the Highlands – she has had such an extraordinary career.”