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Why Jo Gordon’s reign as chief exec at Royal & Derngate should be music to our ears

The Stage has just released its list of the 100 most influential people in British entertainment and that included two people from Northampton’s Royal & Derngate: Artistic Director James Dacre and new Chief Executive Jo Gordon.

It is James’ second time on the list but for Jo, who was appointed in November after the departure of Martin Sutherland, it was a reminder what a huge job she has inherited after ten years as Marketing and Sales Director.

Alongside Royal & Derngate Jo will be responsible for Corby Cube and Northampton Filmhouse (formerly the Errol Flynn).

But in addition Royal & Derngate is one of select group of regional theatres that creates its own productions, often sending them off on tour around the country.

She is in a unique position and I asked her how it felt when she was handed the role.

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“It was a shock to start with. A really happy shock. I’ve been here 10 years working at strategic management level. So working with all the board members all those people that then were sat on the interview panel – who I kind of know and work with – that actually had to be in a very different way through the interview process and gosh it was an interview process! A lot of rounds and a lot of presentations and obviously there’s stakeholders involved in the theatre so you’ve got the Arts Council involved for example – doing all of that alongside acting as interim chief exec it was it was quite a struggle for a few weeks.

“So it was a kind of mixture of shock and relief a little bit and I’m really excited. It’s such a privilege because I’m really proud of what we’ve done in the last ten years and I’m kind of excited that I get to be the one that shapes what the next the next few might look like.”

When the chief executive who went before essentially created the role – how do you pitch to be his successor? A job that immediately puts you in British entertainment’s top 100 would have attracted some heavyweight applications.

Jo, who is a mum of two, a junior team manager at Casuals Rugby Club and a season ticket holder at the Saints, took a typically grounded approach but the outcome may well be groundbreaking.

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“I had a ringside seat with Martin for ten years and have learned so much doing that. I’ve seen an ambitious, extraordinary, thinker and innovator work. My role through a lot of that has to be the one that’s been a little bit more internally focused. Looking after the ship if you like.”

“My pitch was that looking after ship is really valuable and all of the things I’ve learned from that I think puts me in a great position to innovate and be ambitious but with the ship at my heart. But also I think evolve, you know, I kind of evolved with this venue, I have evolved with our audiences especially when you do a marketing and audience development role.

“I feel like the people of Northampton are who I have been working with for ten years. I’ve been about about them, how they come in, how they access this building, all those kind of things and I think knowing what I do about Northampton puts me in a great position to lead the organisation.

“I was quite bold during the interview process about being a working parent and I think it was something when I first thought about it was a little daunting in terms of what that work-life balance might look like, but actually I became quite confident with the interview process that as a working parent, I bring a huge amount that is really important in this day and age. I talked quite a lot about that in the interviews. I think historically the idea might be to shy away from those kind of conversations.”

Jo very much represents the ordinary Northampton theatre goer but is also very switched on to the key role Royal & Derngate will play in helping the community retain a sense of itself over the next couple of years, while local government is reorganised.

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“The political situation was really timely in terms of thinking about what an important role this organisation needs to play. I was able to be impassioned about our County and understanding that actually yes, there are huge amounts of challenges but actually there are huge opportunities as well on the way. I described it through the interview phase as a bit of the perfect storm.

“What might be perceived as negative is actually about how arts and culture could be the thing to emerge out the other side as really changing the face of the town and being the thing that people are proud of.

“The lovely thing that I feel through all my relationships is a real pride in this place. On the back of Kinky Boots last season – to see a town get behind a show like that. Tailgating behind the story and the history and all those things we’ve got such extraordinary support not just people wanting to come and see the show but wanting to help us promote it, willing to talk about their stories, wanting to be engaged with their own families because it’s a special moment. You want to capture a bit of that and help people in Northampton find that as they go through what’s going to be quite challenging times.”

There is also a real sense of urgency from Jo about getting the message out about the huge variety of work produced and on offer from Royal & Derngate and attracting audiences to what might be new experiences for them.

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A new season ticket has just been launched that packages The Full Monty with a selection of other less mainstream events, offering theatre goers the chance to experiment in an affordable way.

But Jo is also a big fan of theatre herself and is a great advocate for the magic of the live entertainment experience.

She said: “I think it’s that thing with theatre – actors talk about it a lot – the fact that it is unique to that point in time and that experience that you’re having with that audience that night. It’s never the same. So however much you repeat it night after night something will change so you have that shared experience that moment. You can never repeat that.

“I saw The Woman in Black as a student in London and had no concept that live theatre could be as frightening as a movie. I was proper chilled to the bone and that was an early theatre experience that really stuck with me and there’s a lot of people having that first theatre experience with us.”

Being part of the organisation that is putting on a show does not stop Jo enjoying it as a straightforward audience goer – if anything the fact that she has seen productions develop from the earliest stages, script selection, casting, first read throughs – heightens the excitement, and the nerves.

“The first time you see it in full with all of the elements together it’s a proper jangling of nerves when it comes to a Made in Northampton production, even though you’re not acting in it,” she explained.

“You know, if you’re a marketing assistant or you’re a front of house member, actually you’ve seen it evolve in your venue and you’ve been serving coffee to that lead actor every day. Actually you’re in it with them.

Jo Gordon by Jez Smith

Jo Gordon by Jez Smith

“I found lots of excuses to be a punter. I’ve got lots of guilty pleasures when it comes to theatre as well. I think I saw the panto five times by the end of the four weeks.”

Jo is really keen to bring the whole family of Royal & Derngate workers to the forefront more.

“I think people may well come and see The Worst Witch and not necessarily know that actually every stitch of those costumes has been done in our wardrobe, which is in St John’s Car Park. You know, this is what the reality is like: it’s three of our brilliant wardrobe teams creating every bit of that. But the fact that you walk around the back to the yard and actually the workshop is there and they are building these epic sets – an extraordinarily talented team and these sets of then go on to tour around 15 venues in the country. There’s something around that, the kind of the people that are doing it and we need to tell those stories so that people people do have a different understanding.”

There are often blogs or videos from Royal & Derngate around different aspects of productions but Jo seems open to the idea of a more comprehensive behind the scenes look at what goes on. She is a fan of fly on the wall documentaries and is enthusiastic to share the special feel of working in the entertainment industry with the public.

She said: “I had a new team member joined today who came from a non-theatre background and actually just walking around the building through those workshops into the arts team office with the props from the last 15 productions all hanging around. There is something really unique about that.”

Funding is a critical issue for any chief executive but a lot of people will be surprised to learn that only 14 per cent of Royal & Derngate’s income is from grants. County Council funding has dried up due to its ongoing financial crisis but Northampton Borough Council and the Arts Council still have a big input.

Jo sees the organisation’s charitable status as a key factor – forging partnerships to do work that benefits sections of the community and attracts funding that way. Diversifying into other forms of entertainment such as the cinemas has also been an important part of maintaining the funding levels needed. Jo’s predecessor was particularly good at making that work.

“I think that’s what I’ve learned from watching Martin. It’s that ‘not standing still’ thing and looking for what the next idea, my next partnership might be. His head for strategic partnerships is like no one else I’ve ever worked with. Yes that’s going to happen. But if we talk to them the right point and have the right idea and actually that’s what we’ve got in this business. We’ve got such extraordinary ideas and brilliant people.”

One area where Royal & Derngate is hoping to break new ground is developing musical theatre for mid-scale venues around the size of the Royal auditorium.

Jo said: “Musicals is a thing that it’s notoriously hard to do. And you’ll notice by what we put on The Royal stage, musicals don’t really sit there apart from Christmas because actually the scale of them in terms of the numbers of people, the work that’s needed to get something from an idea through a research and development phase to being production-ready is extraordinary – the amount of time to involve creatives and stuff through that process.”

Arts Council Funding has been secured to find new ways of ‘incubating’ muscial theatre projects and hopefully allow a new strand of productions to come forward.

The extent to which the wider entertainment industry’s eyes are on Northampton is reflected in the fact that Royal & Derngate will be hosting one of the biggest musical theatre conferences in the country next year, an event that is usually resolutely London-based.

“What I’m excited about is having an impact, how might we be in a year’s time celebrating the town centre and how can we evolve to play an even greater part in that – like Bristol, which is a cultural city with four theatres. I think there’s real potential for it to become even greater and I see us touching the lives of more people, having relevance to even more people and that’s not just about the shows staged in this theatre but what we’re doing to reach out,” said Jo.

Recent Made in Northampton productions have included world premieres of The Lovely Bones and The Worst Witch, the latter now heading out on tour for the next six months. Highlights of Royal & Derngate’s programme in the coming year include the UK premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho, Mike Poulton’s new version of Ibsen’s Ghosts and August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. For more information call 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk.

All pictures by Dave Ikin unless credited otherwise.

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