Why are so many leaders leaving theatre?

16th October 2023

“Running a theatre is a thankless job. No wonder people are saying no.” was a headline in a recent article in The Stage by Kate Malby.

It was an interesting piece that spoke about the ‘flight-mode’ of many theatre leaders leaving theatres and other cultural institutions, with no one in place to take the helm.

How have we got to this point?

We are all aware of the many challenges our industry has faced over the last few years. However, we continue to tackle the aftermath of the pandemic, chronic staff shortages, a haemorrhage of talent, lack of government support, funding cuts and more. In addition to this we are now navigating our way through the cost-of-living crisis, which is having a huge effect on theatres and our artists, workforce and audiences.  

This is a lot of pressure and expectation within our sector, regardless of your role. But for the person leading, there is a lot for one person to take on. There is no surprise that stress and burnout is a huge problem throughout our sector, particularly at the top. 

In recent times, running a theatre has become unappealing. We’ve seen, or will see, departures from the likes of Rufus Norris at The National Theatre, Roxanna Silbert at the Hampstead Theatre, Michael Longhurst at the Donmar Warehouse, Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, and Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise from the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

Many of these leaders have left or are leaving to pursue other artistic roles, but not in leadership. 

These leaders have been in their positions for a long length of time – from five years onwards. There are some, like Will Gompertz at the Barbican who left his role after only 18 months.

Ten years is seen to be the normal tenure in a leadership position. It does make you think just how pressurised this role is, particularly after the pandemic with all the new additional challenges, if more leaders are leaving after such a short time.

It’s not just the big city theatres that are losing leaders. It’s regional ones too, including The Watford Palace Theatre and The Royal and Derngate, who lost James Dacre earlier this year.

The Royal and Dernate have been lucky to find another artistic director, but it isn’t always that easy acquiring the right people locally. Some struggle as it can take time. Regional theatres have the same challenges that larger ones have, but with less budget and a smaller salary.

Following in someone’s big footsteps, like Rufus Norris or Vicky Featherstone is a hard act to follow. But it must be done if we want to continue having thought-provoking and magical theatre.

Tarek Iskander, artistic director of London’s Battersea Arts Centre, listed 33 reasons why the role of theatre leader ‘feels more difficult than ever, including ‘unsustainable inflationary pressures’, ‘chronic lack of investment to improve artists facilities’, ‘poor pay’, ‘ticket prices that are too high and exclusionary’ and constrained resources.

He makes some very good points – many that we have discussed before. If we had the support from the government and the Arts Council for more funding, then we can make a start moving some of these barriers that we are continually up against.

Ticket prices wouldn’t be as steep as they are, pricing huge numbers of people out of attending theatre. As David Tennant said: “tickets can be ludicrous and risks high prices are strangling next generation of theatregoers.

We need to have another look at the theatre model. It’s just not working. If theatre leaders with years of knowledge and experience are leaving the industry, then what hope do we have. Where are we going to find the next level of leader who is motivated and ready to guide theatre through the current storm?

Like Iskander says “to many people like me highlighting all the problems, that are obvious to everyone, but not offering constructive solutions...

There’s a lot to be done, but where do we start?