News & Commentary, Stage

Sydney Theatre Company names Jonathan Church as new artistic director

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Sydney Theatre Company today announced that British director Jonathan Church will succeed Andrew Upton as the company’s next artistic director. Church, who has been artistic director of the beloved British institution Chichester Festival Theatre since 2006, rose to the top of a shortlist of local and international candidates and was appointed by the STC Board. He will be the only non-Australian director of an Australian state theatre company.
Church, 48, is renowned for turning around the CFT, and was initially given just two years by the British Arts Council to improve the theatre’s financial position and audience numbers. The audience has risen drastically over his tenure with bold, crowd-pleasing productions, and the theatre now regularly spawns hit West End and Broadway transfers, including the original production of Lucy Prebble’s Enron, The Judas Kiss directed by Neil Armfield starring Rupert Everett, Macbeth with Patrick Stewart, and musical productions Gypsy with Imelda Staunton and Sweeney Todd with Michael Ball.
“I remember, as a young man, Sydney Theatre Company getting a home at the Wharf,” Church told Daily Review. “For those of us in Britain who saw what happened with the National at South Bank, I’d always admired the idea of trying to regenerate an area by putting the arts into it. I’ve watched over the years through its various artistic directors and incarnations and seen the company grow from a relatively small company into a huge company with an international reputation spreading across four theatres and taking its work into New York and London.
“To see that the artistic director job was there was intriguing, because as an artist who wants to create work in great places, it’s a rare and special opportunity that probably only about half a dozen companies in the world can offer you.”
Church is promising to use his experience and contacts to continue down the touring road which STC is already on and expand the company’s international presence.
The director had never been to Australia until about four years ago, but since then has been a regular visitor mounting local productions The Last Confession and Singin’ in the Rain. He also programmed Australian director Neil Armfield’s production of The Judas Kiss at the CFT which went on to become one of the most successful works during his time at the company.
“I’ve had a very powerful sense of the creative strength that exists in Australia and the brilliant actors I’ve met,” he says. “We often think in Britain that we have the cream of everything, and to spend the last few years auditioning and working with some of the best Australian artists, if I’m honest, I’ve been deeply impressed by the skill and commitment in a broad sense in bringing great theatre to Australia.”
During his time at the CFT, Church has become a favourite with British critics, and was hotly tipped as a frontrunner to take over the artistic directorship of London’s National Theatre this year. In 2009 Charles Spencer wrote, in The Independent: “Jonathan Church is one of the great unsung geniuses of British theatre … Church has added new zest and ambition and [CFT] has bloomed into one of the finest and most prolific producing houses in the country.”
The director also worked to raise the funds necessary for a $46 million refit of the CFT for its 50th anniversary in 2014. Before coming to Chichester, he was artistic director of Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 2001 – 2005 and Salisbury Playhouse from 1995 – 1999.
Church says that he’s largely developed a reputation as a fixer for struggling companies over in Britain, and that his approach to STC, which is currently thriving, will be completely different.
“My pitch was: what this theatre needs is not seismic change, it’s growth. The breadth of the repertoire is fantastic. Its balance between being entertaining and challenging, I think, has been extraordinary, and its commitment to new writing and education … Broadly, I think [the board] felt I could nurse the best of the brilliant stuff that’s being created and didn’t want to turn the apple cart over.”
He says that he has a lot of homework to do in understanding the local theatre scene and identifying the writers and artists who he wants to work with, but that he’s starting from a very strong place with STC’s regular collaborators.
“It’s about time and immersion,” he says. “It’s about being there, being open for business and spending enough time with the people, talking about ideas and getting excited.”
Church will be STC’s sixth artistic director, following in the footsteps of Richard Wherrett (1978 – 1990), Wayne Harrison (1990 – 1999), Robyn Nevin (1999 – 2007), Blanchett and Upton (2008 – 2012), and Upton (2012 — present). Upton will unveil his final season next week, but Church will begin work immediately programming the 2017 season, spreading his time between Sydney and the UK until September 2016 when his commitments finish at CFT.
But Australian audiences will have the chance to see Church’s work next year when his production of Singin’ in the Rain plays a national tour. His production of The Last Confession starring David Suchet toured Australia last year to strong reviews.
David Gonski, Chairman of Sydney Theatre Company said, “I am very excited to announce Jonathan Church as our next artistic leader. After a comprehensive international search, the board was presented with a very accomplished shortlist of Australian and overseas candidates. We are extremely confident that Jonathan Church’s tremendous breadth of experience across the course of his career is a brilliant fit for STC. Jonathan is both an acclaimed theatre director in his own right, and also an artistic director with an extremely impressive track record in establishing positive relationships with a broad range of top theatre artists. He has also demonstrated in his leadership of a number of organisations the capacity to build audiences through programming. I know that he will build on the excellent work of Andrew Upton who has been Artistic Director for the last eight years, the first five alongside Cate Blanchett”.
Jonathan Church said: “I am delighted and honoured to be the next Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company and alongside Executive Director Patrick McIntyre look forward to leading the company through its next phase of development.
I have watched from afar STC’s growth over the past 30 years and the company has become a beacon of artistic adventure and international excellence. Recently I have also been fortunate enough to begin to work first hand with some of Australia’s best theatre practitioners and I have a strong sense of the extraordinary talent that exists and the deep sense of commitment to the theatre and the arts in general that a wide range of companies have fostered in Australia.  I am therefore immensely excited to be coming to STC’s home at the Wharf and along with its dedicated staff work with the best existing and emerging Australian talent to continue to serve Sydney audiences with the most vibrant, excellent and entertaining theatre possible.”
Patrick McIntyre, Executive Director of STC said: “I’m looking forward to working with Jonathan on taking STC into its next era. His exuberant enthusiasm for our art form and broad tastes have earned him many admirers around the globe, which will be enormously valuable as STC continues to position itself internationally. I’m sure Jonathan will prove a great fit with the team at STC, our community of theatre makers, audiences and supporters.”
Current Artistic Director of STC Andrew Upton said: “I think Jonathan Church is a terrific choice as the next Artistic Director of STC. After a period being led by an actress and a writer, I think it’s important to have a theatre director once more at the helm. I look forward to fresh perspectives on the international theatre canon and a continuation of STC’s championing of local theatre makers and stories, including on the international stage. Developing pathways for artists is one of the key aspects of being an Artistic Director of a theatre company this size and Jonathan has a great track record for enabling artists in the UK.”
[box]Featured image by Johan Persson[/box]

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