Douglas Rintoul: 'Change at the New Wolsey Theatre will be evolution not a revolution'
- Credit: Will Green Photography
When the New Wolsey Theatre reopens in September with the regional premiere of the hit West End musical, Kinky Boots, there will be a new creative hand on the helm for the first time in 22 years.
Although, chief executive Douglas Rintoul only arrived at the Ipswich theatre in June, taking over from the long-standing duo of Sarah Holmes and Pete Rowe, he already feels at home because it’s a venue he knows well.
Born in Bury St Edmunds and raised in Colchester, Doug Rintoul started his theatre-going by visiting the original Wolsey Theatre in 1990 as a student studying both GCSE and A Level drama and later, as a young trainee director, was given some of his first jobs by the New Wolsey’s artistic director Pete Rowe.
The New Wolsey has a performance space that he loves and can’t wait to explore on a more regular basis. While, to some, he may be regarded as an Essex boy, growing up in Colchester and coming to the Ipswich playhouse from The Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, he nevertheless, has strong Suffolk roots.
His grandfather was born in Woodbridge, his mother was born and raised in Trimley St Martin, and he spent many summers playing in the rural splendour of Thorndon, near Diss, where his maternal grandparents eventually settled.
“I grew up forging a close bond with my grandparents and have plenty of fond memories of spending what seemed to be endless hot summers with them, just playing in the countryside, which I really enjoyed," Douglas says.
"He [his grandfather] worked as a prison officer, but his real passion was gardening and he grew everything from carrots and potatoes to apples, grapes and pears. He also used to teach Borstal Boys (as he called them) boxing and I used to go down and watch him at work. If that wasn’t enough, after he retired he became the only traffic warden in Diss and he became something of a local celebrity.
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“The local newspaper ran a weekly comic strip about the ducks on the mere and the various characters in the town who would meet there and my grandfather was a regular character in this comic strip for years.”
But, it was the Wolsey Theatre’s role in developing his love for drama that has provided some of the strongest memories.
“My relationship with this theatre started in 1990 when I first started to come and see shows here. I did drama at GCSE and A level in Colchester before going onto Birmingham to do drama at university. When I graduated I did some directing on the fringe and did some admin work for touring company Complicité, while also doing some directing work on the side, before landing a place on the Regional Theatre’s Young Directors Scheme.
“I was at the Salisbury Playhouse for two years and that’s where I met Pete for the first time and he offered me a job here directing Private Lives. I have to admit that as a young director I never really wanted to direct Coward. I thought it was terribly old fashioned and I wanted to do new, exciting, contemporary work but I have to say I loved it. It is a brilliantly constructed play. The writing is beautiful and you just have to make it work.”
What is refreshing talking to Doug is that he is completely honest about his mistakes and volunteers self-deprecating tales about his less than wonderful moments as well as his successes.
“Early on I directed a not-very-good production of Travels With My Aunt. I got too serious with it and forgot that its quite funny in places. I just missed out the humour. It’s a classic young director mistake, you spend too much time trying to find out what it is all about while not realising that by trying to ‘develop it’ you are just buggering it up. Looking back I think I learnt a lot from that.”
Doug got to know Pete and Sarah much better when he founded his own company Transport and it became an associate company at The New Wolsey, and seven years ago when he joined the Queen’s Theatre as artistic director he immediately contacted his mentors to set up a co-production scheme. The first play they produced together was Made in Dagenham.
Doug believes that the local theatre has a responsibility to not only talk to its audiences but to produce work that reflects the world that the audience knows. The reason he wanted to stage Made In Dagenham was that the subject of the play - women car workers striking for equal pay in the 1960s - was that it had huge local relevance.
“Growing up in Colchester, I became passionate about theatre through GCSE drama and we used to come to the Wolsey to see great plays and I was always thrilled by the range of work on offer. I didn’t come from a theatre-going family. I was introduced to theatre through school and, for me, theatre as an industry has a huge responsibility to make sure young people are introduced to live performance particularly now it is coming off the curriculum.
“I feel a huge responsibility personally to do something about that. I am in a position where I can introduce young people to one of the most engaging and basic forms of entertainment – storytelling. It’s the modern equivalent of sitting round the camp fire. Its power lies in allowing a group of people to come together and experience something as a collective.
He pauses for a couple of seconds, thinking, and then adds: “It’s exhilarating. It allows them to engage their imagination and in this digital 24/7 world it’s wonderful to come to a space where we can switch our phones off for a couple of hours and share in something magical.”
Asking Doug how the New Wolsey will change, he reassures audiences that it will be evolution rather than revolution. “Pete and Sarah have been overseeing a constant evolution so I doubt if people will see much change.
“The New Wolsey now is vastly different to what it was when Pete and Sarah took over but nobody took any notice because they were always introducing small changes all the time and that approach will continue.
“There will still be musicals and actor-musician musicals because that’s a very big thing for this theatre and a big part of my own work. I really understand the power of that work and how it appeals to a whole range of audiences. It is a wonderful demonstration of the craft of the actor and it’s also so theatrical – it can only happen in a theatre. As soon as it appears on screen, it’s immediately something different.
“The audience can get swept up in the live performance. As actors you can’t ignore that the audience isn’t there. It’s a communal experience, an intimate experience, especially in that auditorium and that’s why I wanted the job because I love that auditorium. It’s a wonderful space because as an audience you’re up close and yet you can still do work of scale. My production of Made In Dagenham which played here had 21 actors in it and it fitted perfectly on that stage. The New Wolsey stage never limits you, it allows you to be imaginative in how you make that space work.”
Doug notes that different audiences have different demands, and his job is to try and satisfy everyone’s wishes and the only way to do that is to speak to audiences and develop relationships.
“I am looking at new audiences, but I’m also just as interested in the audiences that we have lost over the years. The interesting thing is, and it’s also true of the Queen’s Theatre as well, is that there is an audience who used to come but have got out of the habit and there is also a new audience looking to come here. The pandemic has shown us quite clearly that we can’t rely on the same booking patterns to sustain us, the world has change and we must change with it.
“So once again we are investigating and trying to find out what our audiences are and what do they want? It’s hard and frightening and we have to be clever.”
Building on his work at Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch he is keen to develop a co-producing network both within East Anglia – as they did with Birds and Bees last season – and also work with similar-sized venues nationally. “Because I was a freelancer for 15 years, I have good contacts with regional producers across the UK and hopefully we can develop those further.
“We are already talking to Salisbury, The Octagon, Bolton, The Watermill, Hull Truck and we will keep working with the Queens Theatre in Hornchurch but in addition we are in the process of developing a strong production base locally in collaboration with Norwich Theatres and the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds.
“We are committed to supporting local talent and we are looking to present plays that are about the region. It’s not always easy because you have to find a narrative that speaks to both Suffolk and Norfolk audiences but even within Suffolk the things that concern people on the coast don’t always relate to people living in the countryside around Bury.
“So, a lot of thought is going into these productions and by pooling our resources we can make it the best that it can be and have it seen by as many people as possible.”
For Doug, it is clear that communication is key – so much so that he will be sometimes sacrifice the opportunity to direct in order to keep the admin wheels turning and to be an active participant in the development of community projects, theatre-in-education, creative development, youth theatre, writer’s workshops and the building of partnerships with other theatres.
“I enjoy supporting new talent. It’s a really nourishing thing and it’s something I want to continue here and create a network of freelancers first based in Ipswich and then expand it outwards into Suffolk and Norfolk, so we have an idea of what skills and talents are out there so we can use them and also develop them further. There will be a call-out quite soon to an online networking event so not only we get to know about them, but they have an opportunity to meet each other. Suffolk is quite a large county, and I would imagine that being a creative freelancer here can be quite isolating.
“I will direct but I won’t direct everything. It’s a tricky one because I have taken on two people’s jobs. Pete and Sarah were taken on as a unique team and the whole structure of the organisation is built around that unique couple, so it is bound to change.
“I like knowing what is going on and I like shaping the season and building relationships between the theatre and the outside world.
“However, I can’t do everything, so I need to work out how best is my time to be used. For example the regional premiere of Kinky Boots is the first show of the autumn season and I’m not directing it because I need to fully focused on getting to know the theatre, the people who work here and how everything works when the theatre is open and running at full capacity.
“So, Tim Jackson, the choreographer on Made in Dagenham, is directing our opening production which will be a regional premiere – the first time a professional production of the show has been staged since it has come off the West End. It opens on September 1 and says that the New Wolsey is here, it’s open and is producing exciting work for everyone to enjoy.”