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British theatre director Jonathan Church - described as a "great impresario" - has been appointed as the new artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company. It is the first time an international director has held the position.
The Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director succeeds Andrew Upton, who has held the role since 2008 (including five years as co-artistic director with Cate Blanchett).
Church, 48, is from a theatre family. His father, Tony Church, was the chief sound and lighting technician at the Nottingham Playhouse before a long career as a broadcaster with BBC Radio. His mother, Marielaine Douglas was an actor who played alongside Judi Dench at the Playhouse in the early '60s. As an 18-year-old, Church followed his father into theatre electrics and learned the ropes, working his way up through the ranks of stage management and directing.
"I've spent all my life in theatres," Church says. "I love the theatre's sense of family and the building and its audiences. My absolute passion and strength is getting a dialogue happening with the audience."
Church was the artistic director of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 2001-05, before taking over the reins at Chichester in 2006. In his tenure there, Church has turned around the theatre's fortunes, doubling its audience base. Of the 100 shows he produced for the Chichester, almost 50 have transferred to the West End and/or Broadway, and New York's BAM. Highlights have included Enron directed by Rupert Goold, The Judas Kiss with Rupert Everett and directed by Neil Armfield, Sweeney Todd with Michael Ball and Macbeth with Patrick Stewart.
He has a strong reputation in Britain with the critics. The Guardian's Michael Billington once wrote that Church had turned the struggling Chichester Festival Theatre into a "source of adventure", while The Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer described Church as a "great impresario and one of the nicest people in the business".
Church's name is not one that has been bandied about in speculation over the STC position. He was one of several international candidates in a headhunt directed by former Sydney Opera House chief executive Richard Evans.
But Church isn't a complete stranger to Australia. "Over the last few years, I've been fortunate enough to have made several connections," he says. "I had Yes, Prime Minister over there and I've been setting up next year's production of Singin' in the Rain for Australia. I've been travelling quite a lot in the past year and I've had a chance to see Australia's incredible acting talent."
Church is expected to be in Sydney as early as next month, and will commute from Chichester in 2016. "I'll be programming the 2017 season, so I have a year of learning about the STC and meeting all the artists, as well as overseeing Andrew's final season. Once I announce the 2017 season in September next year, I will be there full time."
In his previous appointments, Church has taken over the reins of struggling theatre companies and made a success of them. By contrast, the STC is already in a strong artistic and financial position, he says.
"STC is phenomenally vibrant. It's a great model for any international theatre company. The balance of English language repertoire, European and American work and the strength of investment in your own new writing is excellent," he says
Don't expect radical change, Church says. "I'm looking at growth and development in what already exists. I'm very excited to investigate what's going on in the Australian scene, in the other companies and in the commercial sector, too."
Church says he wants to continue bringing international artists to Australia to work with local artists, as well as promoting Australian-made theatre on the world stage.
"I think the heart of the STC has to be great Australian work made by great Australians," he says. "Andrew and Cate have done so much to increase the international profile of the company and I want to continue that. I think it's important for an organisation like the STC to put itself up against the best in the world."
The appointment of Jonathan Church catches just about everyone on the hop. Especially those who tuned into rumours that Sir Kenneth Branagh would be the next appointee.
Church is "old school" in that he came into theatre from the tradesman's entrance rather than as a drama school wunderkind. There is nothing he doesn't know about the workings of a theatre. He can, should it be necessary, even rewire one himself.
There is bound to be backlash against the appointment of an international director rather than a local one. But the Sydney Theatre Company is a large organisation, even by world standards, and is developing an increasingly high profile overseas with touring productions. This appointment could further catapult Australian theatre makers onto the world stage.
The industry can anticipate creative pairings with some of the best directors working today. Church has indicated he wants to bring some of the best theatrical minds in the world to Sydney to "rub up against" local talent.
He seems relaxed and affable, keen to meet with Sydney actors, designers, writers and directors. He can talk just about everyone's language and his credits reveal an eclectic taste running from challenging musical theatre, to the classics, to new work by young writers from a range of cultural backgrounds. He is particularly keen to hear Asian voices in the theatre.
Church may be an appointment out of the box. But it should be a very exciting one for this city.
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