My West London Life

Rachel Tackley, Creative Director of Riverside Studios


Kate-Lois Elliott interviews Rachel Tackley, Creative Director of Riverside Studios

Do you work in West London?

Yes, I am the new Creative Director of Riverside Studios in Hammersmith.

Do you have any favourite haunts in the area?

Well, I have to say Riverside Studios don’t I, but also happens to be true!

I love watching the world go by along the Thames Path from our cafe, people running, cycling, walking dogs, pushing prams, and stopping by for a coffee. It has a real sense of community.

Where are your favourite places to see live performance in West London?

When I was a student, I used to come to Riverside all the time – it was hugely inspirational, and achingly trendy! It inspired me to work in theatre.

I used to live in Shepherds bush, so am also a big fan of The Bush theatre, both ‘back in the day’ when it was a room above a pub, and now in its fabulous new building.

You’ve had a pretty amazing career, from your time as the executive director of Chichester Festival Theatre to touring all over the country with English Touring Theatre for eight years. What have been your highlights?

I have been so lucky, not only to have produced shows all over the world (Antarctica is still left to conquer!) but to have been in the company of so many fabulous people, on and off stage. I remember when I was touring in Northern India and the small rural theatre we were performing in lost all electricity in a monsoon, ruined the props and soaked most of the costumes – we still did a show with all the audience holding candles – it was beautiful on every level, not just because of the candlelight but because everyone came together to make it happen.

Who would you love to work with again?

I worked with Sharon D Clarke on Caroline, or Change, firstly in Chichester, then in the West End. I must have missed a thousand heartbeats when listening to her sing.

I would love to work with Roger McGough again, totally adore that man. He translated three Moliere plays that I produced with Liverpool theatres. He is a genius, made me laugh like a drain. He wrote me a poem when I left, imagine that, your own personal Roger McGough.

There are literally hundreds of people I would love to work with again, producers, directors, writers, creative artists, performers, stage managers, technical crew, marketing managers, fundraisers, finance managers…. and there are only two people on my ‘Over My Dead Body’ list, so that’s not a bad ratio is it?

Your Christmas season is full of good vibe shows (exactly what we need this right now) but it also defies convention by putting aside traditional, easy-to-sell pantomimes for Drag Races and female comics, why was this choice important to you and your team?

Diversity of approach, of audiences, of productions is hugely important to me and has absolutely influenced my choices. At the same time there was so much going on in my head… It is my first season at Riverside, so I wanted to be hugely ambitious, I wanted there to be something for everyone, and I wanted everyone to come and have fun, to forget their troubles and leave with a spring in their step.

How much did you have to focus on safety restrictions, cast numbers etc when programming the season?

Safety has been our number one priority and has influenced everything. We have ditched fixed seating in favour of tables and chairs, to give everyone more room and allow social distancing but still create a festive atmosphere. Our cinemas, bar and kitchen have been open over the summer, so we have had an opportunity to fine-tune our covid protocols to keep our staff, artists and audience safe.

Audience numbers have to be restricted as well, has this had an impact on budget? What do you think will happen to the theatres who rely on selling out in order to keep going?

Our new, cabaret style of seating restricts numbers to less than 40% of our previous capacity, so some of our productions are necessarily light on their feet. But others definitely fit into the ‘go large or go home’ category! Some of the performances will be live-streamed, which will help with the budget and allow for a bigger “at home” audience, but it is all extremely risky.

Riverside Studios is a not-for-profit organisation operating without regular public funding. We are doing all we can to get audiences back as soon as possible. We have been fortunate to have been awarded Cultural Recovery funds from the Government. Without it I really don’t think many of us would still be here. It’s going to be tough for many cultural organisations for a long while to come but we are a resilient lot.

This year has been incredibly testing for us all, but to the arts in particular, what are your hopes for the industry moving forward from 2020?

It has been a truly terrible year and it is vital that, as an industry, we learn from the disasters of 2020. I am confident that we will build back a better, more inclusive industry, one that is more relevant and accessible and at Riverside we are totally embracing this opportunity. I am really excited about the possibilities, of new voices, of opening up our spaces to new artists with new stories to tell. Riverside has always been the home of the new and the adventurous, and the future is about being both again and again.

What do you think the impact will the long term effects of the pandemic have on touring theatre, and what could the gains and losses will be?

OK, that’s a hard one. I am not sure I feel qualified to answer, but I know lots of producers who are keen to get back out on tour once we can make sense of the finances/numbers. I think it depends on scale, big (musical) productions that need to perform to packed houses will have to wait a while longer I expect, but smaller productions and work that already exists, will undoubtedly be first off the block. Sadly I think it will be a while before we see new work emerging as the risks are too great for companies to take.

Why is it important to keep live arts thriving?

The arts play a vital part in our society, they encourage us to see things from different perspectives, to recognize other people’s views which in turn develops tolerance and empathy. The arts add to the well-being of local communities and they create a space for collective togetherness and help us to see ourselves in the world and understand what it means to be human.

The arts encouraging critical thinking, a vital part of everyday life and work.
There is a great Steve jobs quote:

“It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that arts play a huge part in helping us reach our full potential

This argument doesn’t work for everyone of course, but the economic one is fairly convincing. Last year the West End alone returned £133m to the treasury and the Government puts the economic contribution of the wider ‘cultural sector’ at £34 billion.

Go on, tell us about your lockdown routine? Is it any different from the first time round?

I am trying not to eat and drink quite so much this time round! I am mindful of how much more difficult it is to get out and exercise when the sun isn’t shining, so I am working hard to summon up the enthusiasm…. I am lucky to have two dogs who make sure that I get out for a walk every day.

What’s next for Riverside Studios?

The future of Riverside Studios s all about our audience. I want to make sure that we are at the heart of our community, creating work that reflects its diversity and touches people’s lives. We have a fabulous opportunity with our new, digitally hard-wired/enhanced building, to produce and distribute work all over the world as well as embrace the opportunities that new technology offers our industry. But crucially Riverside’s reputation as a home for world leading artists won’t change.

Do you have anything else happening/close to your heart that you’d like to tell us about?

I am really missing competitive rowing. It’s my passion. I have rowed past Riverside Studios several times during race events! Until lockdown I rowed as part of a crew, but have been rowing in a single since, which mostly terrifies me. I miss the exhilaration and the companionship, it’s what gets me out of bed at the weekends.

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