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I Want Your Job: Theatre Royal Drury Lane Manager  
Theatre Manager Rupert Bielby talks us through how he came to run the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane

How long have you been here?
I’ve been involved in this role for 11 years next month.

What does your role entail on a day-to-day basis?

It’s very varied – right across the board really, because this building is quite diverse and we do a lot of additional business as well as the main core of the theatre work. Obviously the main core of the business is the production itself but in addition to that we do all the extra hospitality business, run the restaurant, we do theatre tours to the public twice a day Monday to Saturday, lots of daytime functions like conferences, lunches – right across the board really, it’s a combination of theatre and all these extra things. It’s a bit like running a hotel or an exhibition centre as well…

How did you get involved in the theatre – what’s your background?
My background originally was bars, pubs, restaurants and catering in Canterbury, in Kent. I did that for some two, three, four years. I worked for a brewery called Shepherd Neame, one of the oldest independent breweries in the country, based in Faversham. While I was working in Canterbury for Shepherd Neame, the council closed the old Marlowe Theatre and had purchased the Odeon Cinema, which they refurbished and opened as the new Marlowe Theatre. They advertised for someone to run the bars and catering there, which I went and did. And while I was there I got more interested in the general management of theatres and slowly but surely went into that. I came up to London in 1988 and worked at the Prince Edward Theatre, running the bars, catering, front of house and merchandising operations – that was my first job in London. It was at the end of Chess, the musical.

So you came from a business background rather than a theatrical one?
Yes, I love the building and the whole atmosphere and environment, but I’m not desperately theatrical myself – I don’t know if that’s the thing to say in this job! But to be honest I think that helps to a certain point, because it’s a big operation and you need sometimes to focus more on the operational side of it. Basically I like doing the job I’m doing, but being in a theatre makes it so much better than being in, say, a shopping centre or a multiplex cinema that was only built yesterday.

What kind of hours do you have to work?
I do a lot of varied hours, it’s shifts mainly. There’s always a manager in at 9am and then we finish on a normal show just after 11pm, but there is a big team – I have quite a lot of management colleagues, so we do it on a rota system. There’s always two of us when there’s a show on and then the rest is rota’d throughout the day from 9am-6pm, or 10am-7pm, or maybe 2-11pm – everyone does a different shift, we try and all share it around between us.

Do you miss having a 9-5 job?
No, not at all, I’ve never done a 9-5 job in my life, I’m not sure how I’d cope!

Have you ever wanted to tread the boards yourself?
No, I did a bit at school for a laugh but I wasn’t the best actor in the world, I could do a bit of comedy – I used to get all the character parts, the daft parts!

What other departments do you work most closely with?

Obviously my role is to be responsible for the theatre-based staff, so that encompasses the front of house team, that’s the ushers and usherettes, the sales kiosk staff – which is about 40 people. Then we have a team of bar staff and restaurant staff which amounts to about another 15 or 16 people, and obviously there’s the electrics department, the box office… they’re who I manage on a day-to-day basis, but then having mentioned all the hospitality stuff we do here, we also work very closely with the hospitality department at Really Useful Theatres, so we deliver a service from that point of view as well.

How closely do you work with the cast of the shows?

The nearest I get to be involved with the actors is as a sort of Hotel Manager would. We’ve got a large dressing room with a lot of space backstage which is good in a building the size of this one. So we can accommodate large casts and large orchestras… I’m always having to be on top of the carpets, the decorating, does the shower work?, does the door lock properly? and all that sort of health and safety and maintenance. Making sure they’re happy, and we’re looking after them! Because the producer is a client, the most important client we have, so we have to look after their staff, the cast and company.

What do you like most about your job?
The variety of it – it’s constantly different. I like people – that’s the most time consuming but the most enjoyable part of my job, it’s taken up both with colleagues and staff members, and obviously the patrons who come in who are the most important part of our business.

And what do you like least?
My least favourite part… sometimes it can be the hours, you can find yourself doing a 13 or 14-hour day sometimes, but that doesn’t happen too regularly. I would almost say the same as is most favourite! The people – the staff and the public – are sometimes also what’s most difficult, not that it’s not enjoyable, but there’s always the personnel issues or the customer issues that cause you some time and occasionally headache and difficulties!

If somebody wanted to get involved in theatre management, what would you advise them to do?

Well, a certain amount of qualifications helps these days, especially if it’s in a commercial West End theatre such as this – because nowadays there’s a lot of finance to look after, spreadsheets to interpret and understand, reports to produce, etc – but more important than that is experience, definitely. Get out into a public-facing environment, whether it be in retail or catering or something similar, and then try and work in a theatre, front of house – see how it goes and how you get on with the public and how you react – it’s a personality thing as much as anything.

Would you recommend it as a career choice?
Yes, definitely. I think you have to be careful because of the hours – because it’s not a 9-5 Monday – Friday job, therefore you find maybe a lot of people who aren’t married or who don’t have large families. Not exclusively, but it’s not all that family friendly.


Posted on: 15th December 2009

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