New Norwich Theatre Royal boss speaks of his delight at taking the helm
- Credit: Archant
John Bultitude talks to Stephen Crocker, the new chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal.
Peter Wilson has been a key part of the fabric of Norfolk life for almost 25 years. Since taking the helm of the Theatre Royal, he has built it into an organisation at the heart of the community with healthy audience numbers. Over and above that, he has aimed to be an Ambassador for the Arts lending his creativity and focus to a number of bodies and organisations.
So Stephen Crocker is under no illusions he has big shoes to fill but is looking forward to the challenge and admits he cannot wait to start work. 'Peter has built an amazing programme and an incredible organisation, and the opportunity to build on that fantastic legacy is so valuable. There are so many things that just sit on the horizon, particularly Stage Two.
'It is not just that it is a facility for young people and local communities but it is right in the heart of the city. The fact that it is 20 paces away from the main stage is just unparalleled.'
Stage Two opened its doors in the autumn and is focused on providing flagship education and training for the community. It is already being used by a number of organisations including the theatre's own Arts Courses, Access To Music, and is the home of a trail-blazing theatre course run in conjunction with the Prince's Trust to help equip 16- to 25-year-olds with theatre skills plus the vitally important confidence and self-esteem to help them find work and a direction in their lives.
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And it is projects like these that have helped to cement Stephen's bond with the city in just a handful of visits so far. 'I have to say I have had a whirlwind love affair with Norwich. I have fallen in love with the city and it epitomises to me what a modern heritage city should be.
'There is massive respect for the heritage of this place but it is also a city that is moving forward, feels vibrant, and is wanting to grow, develop, and be cosmopolitan. To have a mix of those things is very rare and to be part of a major cultural institution in the midst of all of that is incredible.'
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So where does this passion for arts and culture come from? Growing up in South Wales, Stephen believes it has to be through the joy of singing. 'I guess singing was something I grew up with. Everyone was singing in our house when we were kids. We would sing around the house and in the shower and always during long car journeys. I did some professional singing training over a period of time and I worked as a singer for a spell too.
'My grandfather was also for many years a club singer working all around South Wales. It is something that has always been there.'
And it was those early experiences which shaped his interest and passion as he launched a quest through his career to understand how to make the arts work and be relevant and accessible to everyone. 'What I have learned is that creative experiences are so important to the world and I truly do believe that. There are so many challenges around us and being able to enjoy the kind of escapism created by sitting and enjoying a piece of artistic work is vital.'
Two key projects in his past have proved particularly relevant and successful bearing in mind his passion and interest. He was part of the four-person team who raised money for the £36m renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London which occupies a key historical and cultural place in the capital. Stephen recalled: 'St Martin's was an amazing adventure. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work on that team. It is an incredible institution with the most fantastic history. It is the Royal parish church because technically, Buckingham Palace sits within its parish confines, and the parish church of the Royal Navy because the Admiralty is just next door. It has an incredible history but at that time had huge challenges because of the building. The renewal project was all about making it fit for the future.
'It is a Grade One-listed building with Grade Two-listed buildings surrounding it, but it has modern relevance working with tens of thousands of homeless people bang in the centre of London. That is where my passion for supporting homelessness came from. I also got to work with the Chinese community there which was really interesting and a lot of work on the arts and cultural programme at St Martin's. It was about how a heritage asset could be a true parish church and reach out to those most in need and celebrate its own communities. I have lots of happy memories of my time there.'
Then it was a move to Manchester and after a period of time at Manchester Camerata, he joined the flagship Lowry in Salford in 2007 initially as Development Director before becoming Deputy Chief Executive. He was attracted by the city's undoubted cultural buzz. Stephen explained: 'When I joined, the Lowry had been open for seven years and the city was beginning to flourish following a period of regeneration that followed on from the terrible bomb in the mid-Nineties. There was huge investment in cultural infrastructure, the Bridgewater Hall had been open for six years, and it was just at that cusp when exciting things were going to happen with the launch of the Manchester International Festival, Media CityUK springing into action, and the redevelopment of Cornerhouse into a brand new facility called HOME.
'It has been fascinating to see how a place can be built around an ambitious and internationally-recognised cultural programme. Dare I say that this should be an ambition for a city like Norwich?'
While in the North West, Stephen also shared his expertise and knowledge with other charities and organisations based in the Manchester area. He explained: 'I guess I believe strongly that people in leadership roles can lend their abilities to help other organisations. That is how the arts and culture sector, and the broader charity sector, should work.'
And so he has devoted time to the Albert Kennedy Trust which supports young people trying to come to terms with their sexuality or sexual identity. 'My description of AKT's young people is they are not runaways, they're throwaways. When they have nowhere else to go, AKT steps in. It is a huge honour to give my time to support that charity,' he said.
He is also a keen supporter of Maggie's Manchester which gives vital support to those who have cancer, along with their loved ones. 'Often the clinical provision in those situations is phenomenally strong. But the toll it takes emotionally on families and the individual can be huge. What Maggie's centres do is provide these environments for families who can come together at times of crisis in a comfortable and supportive environment,' said Stephen.
While his bonds and affection for Manchester are strong, he is preparing to create new ones in Norwich too. Stephen laughed: 'I took a Facebook quiz with 15 questions that only a Mancunian would know. I got 15 out of 15 so I am quite pleased with that. I have loved Manchester. It has been amazing to live there. I have so many friends and so many happy memories. I won't be the ghost of Manchester and Salford but I still have a great affinity for it and will continue supporting some organisations where I can. I am also really excited about making Norwich my home.'
With all these commitments, down-time is also important and Stephen is looking forward to exploring Norfolk with his partner Michael. 'We love being outdoors. We love getting out into wide open spaces and that is what excites us with the beautiful countryside and the beautiful coast. Having said that, I also do really love a night in front of the telly.
'One of my absolute passions is seeing artistic work and my tastes are hugely eclectic. I spend a lot of time in galleries and theatres.
'Do I have a favourite genre? No, not really. I guess the only thing that would unite my artistic taste is I like stories. Stories really get me and really capture me. What I find exciting about working with producers, choreographers and directors is when they take a story and translate it. Whether it is drama or dance or a piece of art, I love seeing what that person has done with that particular story. You will find me at lots of different things.'
So from early January, look forward to seeing Stephen out and about exploring the cultural delights of the region and taking the helm of Norwich Theatre Royal as it opens a new chapter in its history.