Duncan Hendry reveals the 10 Best Things about running Edinburgh's Festival and King's theatre

ON Wednesday 11 December, after eight years at the helm of Capital Theatres, the trust charged with running Edinburgh's King's and Festival theatres, Duncan Hendry will retire from the role of Chief Executive.

Friday, 6th December 2019, 3:51 pm
Updated Friday, 6th December 2019, 4:04 pm
Duncan Hendry with the King's pantomime company

"It was one of the toughest decisions of my life," he admits when we meet to reflect on the best part of a decade spent ensuring both venues continued to entertain Edinburgh audiences.

He continues, "I made it in November last year and let the Board know at the beginning of December 2018. It's such a brilliant job and I love it, but it's also very demanding. There are lots of long hours and I've just turned 68, so, having worked more than 50 hours a week for the last 20 years it feels like it's time to slow down slightly.

"I expressed it as 'wanting to go before people wanted you to go' and I mentioned this to Tom Farmer at an event last week, he said, 'It's better to get off the bus at the second last stop,' which I thought expressed it beautifully."

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Duncan Hendry

He may be retiring, but that doesn't mean he will disappear completely. Having championed the redevelopment of The King's for the last five or six years, he will remain involved in the quest to raise the £25 million required to complete the project.

"I'm staying on the campaign board for The Kings and I've even said I'll run the half-marathon next year to help raise money," he reveals, with just a hint of trepidation, "I'll be involved in fundraising in many different ways, so far we have raised about £17 million of the £25 million we need to redevelop The King's, so there's still some way to go, but I am committed to making that happen."

And as he prepares for that new and exciting chapter in his life, here, Duncan shares with us his Ten Best Things about being in charge of the Festival and King’s Theatres.

1: Welcoming the National Theatre’s War Horse to the Festival Theatre in 2014

Dame Edna

The arrival of War Horse proved a game-changing production for both Capital Theatres and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

Duncan explains, "That was a real turning point for us. The Festival Theatre hadn't had many multi-week shows like that in the preceding years and we sold every ticket in advance of the show opening.

"It led to the National Theatre coming to our theatres regularly in the subsequent years and it now feels we are their go to company when they tour anything to Scotland. That has been a fantastic relationship. All their shows are of quality and have very high production values and just the financial impact alone of having four sold out week in a big theatre like the Festival Theatre is immense."

2: Working with Allan, Andy and Grant - and Director Ed Curtis on developing the King’s panto

War Horse

More than 93,000 theatre-goers now attend the King's panto each year.

"The panto has gone from strength to strength since we changed the creative team back in 2014," says Duncan. "We brought Ed Curtis on board to direct, changed the style a bit and it has built year on year. The box office sales have increased dramatically and that really sustains the theatre through the year.

"Working with Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott has been a joy. It really has been a joy to work with them even if I do have to check the script with my 'red pen' each year to keep the jokes just the right side of acceptable. They're all great guys and I now feel I am close personal friends with them."

3: Most star struck moment

Sting at the Dockers Club

"Two spring to mind, interviewing Dame Edna Everidge for a promotional event before she brought her farewell tour to the Festival Theatre in 2013 and chatting with Sting on stage at Leith Dockers' club in 2018 promoting The Last Ship.

"When Dame Edna arrived at the front door I slipped into treating her like royalty. She was very generous and funny. Doing that whole event with her was just amazing but to appear on stage with Sting at Leith Dockers' Club was quite a thing and such a surreal experience. That's one of the wonderful things about this job, I get to meet people like that quite regularly and they are usually very charming and easy to talk to."

4: Persuading Cameron Macintosh to bring his shows to the Festival Theatre and then presenting Miss Saigon, Mary Poppins and Les Misérables over subsequent years.

"We'd been talking to Cameron and his general manager for some time before we convinced him to come to the Festival Theatre. We have fantastic back-stage facilities here, they can load these big shows in very easily so eventually they agreed and we have got on with them ever since. They are very easy to work with, very professional, and I think they appreciate the professionalism of the staff here too. So whenever they can, they now bring these huge productions to the Festival Theatre.

5: Favourite productions

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was an amazing production, great design and wonderful performances. The design of the set just worked really well at the Festival Theatre, it is such a clever production and a lovely story - I actually think it is better as a stage play than as a book. It's always stunning. I just love that piece.

"Also the James Plays, which were part of Edinburgh International Festival in 2014. I saw the three plays in one day with food and refreshments in between and it was just an amazing experience. I watched from both the auditorium and on stage seats, with swords flashing about you, and each way gave such a different immersive experience."

6: Bringing Scottish Ballet to Edinburgh with their Christmas shows, Nutcracker, Snow Queen, Cinderella etc

Finding a suitable Christmas show for the Festival Theatre had been a challenge until that point. Scottish Ballet’s productions were the perfect solution that complemented the panto at the King’s and the shows in other Edinburgh venues. Until then Scottish Ballet had always come in January, it just struck me that ballet was something that wasn't in Edinburgh at Christmas - most big cities have ballet companies that do these seasonal productions, so it filled what was a gap in an already crowded market."

7: Proudest moment - bringing relaxed performances to both theatres

"Seeing the first relaxed performance of the panto at the King’s. Our Learning & Participation department are now world leaders in the presentation of relaxed and dementia friendly performances and we present more accessible performances than any other theatre in the country," says Duncan.

"We were one of the first theatres in the UK to mount relaxed performances for people, many with multiple special needs, but to see the joy on their faces when they could see a production with the lights up and where it was okay for them to wander around the auditorium, with the cast coming on to introduce themselves - it's very moving to see one those performances.

"The dementia friendly work is more in its infancy but again is about changing the performance slightly to suit the needs of people living with dementia. So we are trying to bring people into out theatres who find it difficult to get there for whatever reason."

8: Favourite concerts

In the 80s and 90s, Duncan was a concert promoter - he was the man who brought James Brown to Scotland for the first time in 1993. So music is close to his heart.

"Elvis Costello at the Festival Theatre in 2017... Elvis has been one of my favourite singer/songwriters for a long time. I was involved with him way back when he did an album called Good Year for The Roses, the South Bank Show wanted to film him in a Country and Western Club in Aberdeen where I was working at the time and I ended up setting up that show for him in a hotel, which was quite weird.

"And Jools Holland and his Big Band. Now a regular visitor during the Jazz and Blues Festival I'd promoted him a number of times over the years."

9: Favourite Dance Company: Nederland Dans Theatre 2

They have world class dancers and the work they present is always very stylish, beautiful and enjoyable. I love having that company here. Contemporary dance is probably now m favouitre art form of all the artforms we present.

10: Notable events - Opening the Studio Theatre on Potterrow in 2013 and rebranding as Capital Theatres in 2018

"Opening the Studio Theatre gives us space for a range of different things, dance companies rehearse there and panto rehearsals happen there, and we use it as a performance space for small scale touring work - I think there will be more of that in the future because of a change in funding arrangements.

"The other notable event was moving from Festival City Theatres Trust to Capital Theatres. The idea was to get the message across of just who runs the Festival and King's theatres and that we are a charitable trust, and I think people are clearer now who runs the theatres.