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Julien Boast: Chief Executive
This year, that grand old theatrical dame, the Theatre Royal in Brighton, celebrates a very special birthday - her 200th anniversary.
She has packed a lot into those 200 years, and scrolling through the list of "greats" who have performed there reads like a history of the British theatre itself.
One of the ten oldest working theatres in the country, it was the Prince Regent, himself an enthusiastic theatregoer, who got the whole thing going when he granted her Royal Charter in 1807.
The very first actor to perform there was Charles Kemble, the most famous thespian of his day.
Since then, of course, the standard has not abated and John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward and Peggy Ashcroft are just a handful of the legends who have trodden her boards.
Julien Boast, 42, the theatre's chief executive, is in no doubt this illustrious legacy has a powerful effect on many who perform there.
"For me, all those great performances have soaked into these walls," he says, "and actors love the Theatre Royal stage for precisely the same reason.
"The person I always cite is Prunella Scales. Pru gave her first ever performance here in a production called The Matchmaker and whenever she returns, she always feels as though she's coming home."
Spend a few minutes with Boast and you realise he was born to run a theatre.
Charismatic, theatrical and very gregarious, I suspect he could easily have been an actor himself.
But he has the clout to back up his self-confidence and speaks with intelligence, fluency and great self-possession.
You sense he is going places and he knows that you know it.
He is also a consummate PR man. He talks repeatedly about building partnerships with other arts organisations and is careful not to criticise Brighton and Hove City Council, even though his theatre is one of the few on the South Coast which doesn't receive any public subsidy.
He doesn't let his troubles mar his sense of fun, however, and trades on humour and informality. When my tape cuts out, he says: "Do you mind if we stop for a pee break?"
But down to business. This will be a busy year for Boast and he has packed plenty of celebratory goodies into the coming months.
In April, Anthony Sher will star in Jean Paul Sarte's Kean, particularly appropriate because Edmund Kean, the greatest romantic actor of the 19th Century, performed many of his principal roles at the Theatre Royal, and in May, a major exhibition will open at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery charting the theatre's colourful history.
In June, as part of National Architecture Week, there'll be a chance for theatre lovers to go behind the scenes and, in November, the venue will play host to a spectacular gala night in true West End tradition.
What could top that? Well, as the grand finale, Boast plans to stage an extra-special panto (Cinderella), with specially commissioned sets and costumes by the internationally renowned stage designer, Terry Parsons.
But one of the projects closest to his heart is the launch of an oral history project called 200 Stories For 200 years, which will run in collaboration with The Argus and BBC Southern Counties Radio.
The aim is to collect stories from the countless people who have had links with the theatre over the decades - from actors and audiences to former staff and theatrical landladies. The best will be published or broadcast on June 27, the theatre's actual birthday.
Clearly, the Theatre Royal will be much in the spotlight, so isn't it a tad regrettable its entrance has never looked worse? (I refer to the continuing repaving programme in New Road instigated by the council).
Boast shifts in his seat. "Yes, but it will be all ready for our birthday. In fact, I understand they're ahead of schedule."
Yes, but wouldn't it have made more sense to have done it last year, so it would have been ready by January?
"Well, I think there have been all sorts of bureaucratic things which I can't possibly go into You'll understand,"
he says, flashing me an awkward smile.
"But they'll be south of the Colonnade Bar by March and the finished effect will be great because it will consolidate the cultural quarter."
Clearly running a theatre isn't all front-row seats and free ice-cream.
But then, Boast is well used to problems and was faced with two major headaches as soon as he was appointed - an ageing audience and a very aged building. He needed to do something fast - and he did.
Out went the Agatha Christies and in came one or two shows aimed at a more youthful audience.
In collaboration with the Brighton Festival, he staged a hip-hop musical called Slamdunk, which attracted a large, young black audience, and followed it up with The Rocky Horror Show, which is returning this year.
He believes the results speak for themselves.
"Five years on, we've dropped our average age by 15 years, so our typical theatre goer was a woman of 65 and now she's 50.
"She's a great lady to have because she brings her husband, her girlfriends and her kids at the weekend when they come back from university."
How on earth could he possibly know?
"Postcodes. They're very sophisticated marketing tools."
Nevertheless, he is wary about rebranding because he doesn't want to put off the old stalwarts who, after all, keep the theatre going. What he'd actually like is a healthy mix of young and old, although some of his schemes may well disenchant the old faithful.
Take his plans for the gods, the cheaper seats high up in the gallery. He would like to make this area more appealing to youngsters by ripping out the old plush seating and replacing it with "funkier" leather benches.
He'd also like to give the walls a different treatment to the rest of the auditorium, introducing more contemporary music and designer beers in that level's bar area.
If all this is giving you nightmares, however, don't worry - he hasn't, as yet, run any of it past the relevant conservation bodies.
One initiative designed to attract youngsters which does appear to have everyone's approval is the Bigger Brighton Storybook, a publicly funded venture which gives primary school children their first taste of the theatre.
But artistic endeavours are not the only claim on his time and he is also charged with giving the building some much-needed TLC. It may have bucketloads of period charm but for every picturesque gas light there's a wall of flaking paint.
To date, the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), which owns the theatre, has spent £1.5 million on repairs but Boast says it needs a further five or six million.
Two years ago, he anticipated the seating in the second circle would be replaced for the anniversary celebrations but he is now talking about another two and puts this down to unexpected building repairs.
But seating is just one item on his shopping list. The building has no air conditioning and is one of the few remaining hemp houses (a manual system for changing scenery) in the country. The cost of replacing the latter alone would be something in the region of a million.
With this in mind, the theatre's newly launched £200,000 restoration appeal seems like a drop in the ocean.
He tells me it's going well but what he doesn't mention is the introduction of a mandatory £1 surcharge on the cost of every ticket.
I tell him several people are very aggrieved about this and while they don't mind supporting the appeal per se, they would have liked to have been asked.
Doesn't it amount to a kind of stealth tax?
Boast looks uncomfortable but quickly rallies.
"We've followed the initiative of Sir Cameron Mackintosh who has done the same in a lot of West End theatres. We have to keep this building flourishing but it's extremely expensive to run and doesn't generate massive profits."
He adds he has been monitoring feedback to the new charge closely and there has been little negative response.
We move on to a less controversial topic, Theatre Royal Brighton Productions (TRBP), an ATG initiative which has re-established the theatre as a major producing house.
It was launched in February 2004 with The Holy Terror, a play by Simon Gray starring Simon Callow.
To my mind, it was not an auspicious start. Callow gave a dreadfully overblown performance (well, I would say that - I had a dreadful experience when I interviewed him) and the scenery fell over on the first night in front of a packed auditorium.
But Boast tells me the good citizens of Brighton really took to it and Callow was amazed at the warmth he received while walking to the theatre each day.
Since then, the Theatre Royal has produced five further shows - two pantomimes, Jack and the Beanstalk and Aladdin, two musicals, Sweeney Todd and The Rocky Horror Show, and The New Statesman - and several have toured around the country, even enjoying West End runs.
While they sound like sure-fire box-office hits, they don't strike me as particularly innovative productions but Boast prides himself on TRBP's approach, which he characterises as "big, bold, stripped out and contemporary".
The theatre has also forged relationships with several national companies, principally the Rambert Dance Company and the English Touring Theatre, which now present world premieres in Brighton.
And closer to home, the Brighton Festival (you heard it here first) is to become an associate company of the Theatre Royal, which will lead to "a greater depth of understanding".
With all this in mind, you might argue the theatre is enjoying a golden period but charismatic though Boast undoubtedly is, one shouldn't forget he does it all under the auspices of a much larger umbrella - ATG.
The group, run by Howard Panter and his wife Rosemary Squire, is one of the country's leading theatre and production businesses, and the second largest owner of theatres in both the West End and regionally.
Last year, it made a profit of almost £4 million and now intends to snap up theatres in Europe and America. So where does Brighton, which it bought in 1999, fit into the mix?
Well, says Boast, it's the oldest within the group and probably the best loved among the board's directors, of which he is one (there are 19 in all and they meet twice a year to pool ideas).
But if the Theatre Royal, for want of a better description, is part of a chain, how much autonomy does it enjoy?
Well, some. Yes, there's a centralised programming department which draws up an itinerary based on what plays are out there but if Boast doesn't perceive them to be Brighton products he can reject them.
And what is a Brighton product?
"It's a play or musical which has come straight from the West End or is about to go into the West End, or a show generated by us - either as a TRB production or as a close alliance with Rambert Dance or the Brighton Festival."
But getting the mix right is a constant challenge.
"We have a finite audience base so what you have to do each month is put on a musical, a piece of classic drama and a comedy. And within that, you have to occasionally stretch people and appeal to kids. It's all about juggling."
Boast's efforts appear to be paying off because only 40 per cent of the theatre's audience comes from Brighton and Hove. The remainder travels from the rest of the county and beyond.
"We buck the trend within the city because we're doing firsts."
But he has actors as well as theatregoers to please. He says it's all too easy for a theatre to acquire a bad reputation within the industry and that can have a catastrophic effect on its prosperity.
"If you have a fantastic actress who's scheduled to do Bath, Richmond, Brighton and Malvern, and Brighton is messing her around, she'll cross you off her list. It's really important that you look after your actors."
So what does that mean in practice?
Well, when Diana Quick toured in Mother Courage recently, Boast ensured there were fresh flowers and fruit in her dressing room. Other times, it might be a bottle of red wine.
He also makes a point of checking on actors before their show starts on opening night and takes time out to chat to them.
And then there are the extra challenges posed when a really big name is in town.
"When Joan Collins was with us, we had endless national Press ringing up to ask ghastly things. And you just go: No, I'm not interested.' "
Boast grew up in Southampton and plumped on a career in theatre after realising sciences weren't really his thing.
The eldest of three boys (the youngest is a half brother), his dad left when he was nine and he was brought up by his mother.
His love of drama was engendered through regular visits to local theatres and he later secured a place at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where he studied a stage management and technical course.
He started out as an assistant stage manager in rep, then became head of production at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, before turning his back on the theatre world to go into business as Director of Productions at Victor Mara, one of the largest scenery companies in London with a PR agency and production managing company attached.
This was to acquire commercial skills but some time after he became managing director the company went bust.
"September 11," he says by way of explanation.
"We did lots of work in America. But I wouldn't change that period for the world because it taught me to draw on inner resources. Going bust is a really horrible but interesting process."
It didn't appear to mar his career trajectory because Brighton was his next stop. Is he ambitious?
And where would he like to go next?
"There are enormous opportunities within ATG and who knows what they will be.
If an expansion comes within the group, I would like to keep the Theatre Royal. And quite often chief execs run two or three theatres within the portfolio.
"But Brighton is such a lovely place. You look at other places and you think: Can I commute?' It's the death to ambition. But yes, I am ambitious."
The theatre isn't the only thing which sustains him, however, and he welcomes the opportunity to switch off.
He is aided by his partner of eight years, Andrew, a former gynaecologist and obstetrician, who now works as a GP. He describes him as his rock.
"He's very different and a good balance. I'm big and loud and complicated; he's quieter.
I think he's gorgeous and he has the most wonderful smile in the world."
And what does he bring to the relationship?
"Madness. No one day is the same for him."
It seems Brighton should make the most of Boast because, ambitious as he is, he may not be around for much longer. But one thing seems certain. Wherever he lays his hat, it will always be in the theatre world.
"I know theatre frontwards, backwards, sidewards and upwards, and if anything is ever written on my tombstone it will be: He knew theatre; he was a great man in theatre; he adored theatre.' I believe passionately that theatre changes lives."
- We want to hear your stories about the Theatre Royal. Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and look out for our Theatre Royal 200th Anniversary supplement, free with The Argus on February 16.