DIGGING down beneath the stalls of the King’s Theatre, excavating a space in which to create a new bar, is just one of a raft of improvements Duncan Hendry, Chief Executive of Capital Theatres, reveals as we chat ahead of the rebranding of two of the Capital’s best-loved theatres.
His vision for The King’s is as dramatic as many of the plays that unfold on its stage.
The work, due to start in September 2021 and finish in the Spring of 2023 will see the Old Lady of Leven Street close for 20 months and the annual panto decamp to the Festival Theatre for two years, where it will enjoy a shorter run.
The King’s will become a much more “open, welcoming, spacious theatre than it is at the moment” promises Hendry.
He explains, “The building is Grade A listed so we are limited in what we can do, but we will be opening out the foyer space.
“The box office will move to the corner taken up by the cloakroom and there will be a coffee shop where the current box office is.
“Leading down from the foyer, there will be a bar and we’ll dig down, underneath the stalls, to create more space.”
Those long term plans to develop The King’s include improving access to the building with the installation of a lift.
“We have plans drawn up, we’ve yet to recruit the architect to oversee the project, but we’ve got £9 million promised already for that project, which we see costing £25 million,” says Hendry.
“It’s our number one priority at the moment with four people working on the fund-raising for that alone.”
Hendry is candid when he admits, “I don’t think I’ll be here at the end of the building work but I would like to be here to raise the majority of the money to make it happen.”
It’s six years since the 65-year-old took up the post of what was then The Festival City Theatres Trust.
Having fallen into financial difficulties, the organisation welcomed Hendry into his post on the back of a stabilisation period overseen by interim Chief Executive Pat Weller.
He recalls, “When I was interviewed for the job, I set out several areas where I hoped to change things, one was the programming of the theatres.
“At the time there was a feeling that, as they were loosing money on everything they put on, they should do less shows.
“I felt that was a negative approach and believed there was another strategy whereby we would try to fill the theatres as much as we could with quality work, making a little bit of return on each week.
“That is what I’ve tried to do and what I think I have done in building up the programme.
“It feels like we’ve moved a long way over the last six years, the programme in the theatres has more than doubled in that time - we now present more than 500 performances a year.”
Between the King’s and Festival theatres, an astonishing 460,000 patrons were attracted to shows Hendry brought to the Capital. It’s a figure of which he is rightly proud.
“I see the King’s as a drama house,” he says, “drama, children’s shows and mid-scale musicals, that’s the nub of the programme there,” he says.
“The audiences at the King’s and Festival theatres are quite sophisticated because they have experienced the International Festival, so they know more about drama and dance than those in theatres elsewhere in the country.
“We try to cater for a broad audience and we try to get quality drama, but there’s also a lot of really trashy work out there, which we try not to book.”
He continues, “We aspire to put on work that we think is of a reasonable quality.
“Sometimes work doesn’t always live up to the levels we expect, but you don’t always have the chance to see it before booking it.”
That is hardly surprising when you consider that Hendry is currently programming both venues anything up to five years in advance.
“Often it hasn’t yet been created and you’re going on the reputations of directors, producers, and actors, but the chemistry doesn’t always come together... that is just live theatre.”
Once touted as the Capital’s ‘Opera House’ the audience of The Festival theatre has certainly broadened under Hendry’s tenure, thanks to his ability to attract big shows such Les Miserables, War Horse and Mary Poppins to what was once the city’s Empire Theatre.
“We need that audience to keep the Festival Theatre successful,” he admits.
“Big theatres need lots of people going through them to keep them viable and vibrant, the fact we have now convinced the producers of big musicals to go there is a big turning point for us.
“So we’re not only ‘Edinburgh’s Opera House’, we’re putting on large scale ballets and musicals, which gives us a breadth of appeal across the board.”
To reinforce the point he adds that “55 per cent of people who saw Miss Saigon were new to the Festival Theatre.”
The name change from the cold, corporate Festival City Theatres Trust to Capital Theatres will also help raise the profile of all three theatres - let’s not forget The Studio - believes Hendry.
“We are creating a new identity under Capital Theatres because when we asked people who they thought ran these theatres, most had no idea.
“Some thought it was the Council, some were aware it was a charity but couldn’t name it.
“There was no connection between our audiences and the Festival City Theatres Trust. We think there will be with Capital Theatres.
“It is clearer, simpler. It provides a unifying brand across the organisations that I hope people will recognise and relate to.
“They will start to realise that one organisation runs these three venues and they can expect the same quality of shows and five star service across all three.”
After thinking for a minute, he suggests, “This new name could play a small part in the start of what becomes a new era for the King’s, Festival and Studio theatres.”
And as he prepares to resume planning the venue’s programming - “We have a vast jigsaw that is always moving” - he smiles and says, “You know, this is one of the best jobs you could ever have in theatre.
“Running three of the best venues in the country, dealing with all sorts of things that crop up every day to surprise and excite just makes you think, ‘Wow! This is a fantastic job.”