Andrew Smaje interview: 'Hull Truck Theatre is a beacon that represents everything that's good about the city'
THERE is no denying it has been a bumpy road.
If it were the launch of a new show, teething problems, precarious finances and personality clashes among the premier players would have made the first night curtain-raiser a tense affair.
But after all the sound, fury and upheaval of Andrew Smaje's first two years in charge at Hull Truck, the Ferensway theatre's chief executive says it is finally hitting its stride – and he is cheerily optimistic about the future as the company celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Sitting in the foyer of the £15 million theatre, which still has the air of shiny newness that it opened with three years ago, Mr Smaje is brimming with excitement about the new season of drama, comedy, visiting stars and thrusting new talent he is about to bring to the city.
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Today, he is enthusing about the unfurling of a vast new banner for the theatre's new community play, City Of Light, and is keen to emphasise that Hull's cultural icon is now on a stable financial, as well as artistic, footing.
He is content with where the theatre finds itself in the present, he says, and increasingly excited about the years ahead.
"When I arrived I started a lot of things that were quite new and that I hoped would broaden the selection and flavour of what we offer at Truck," says the Bradford-raised theatre boss.
"And now I think that's bearing fruit.
"It's been great watching it grow, bringing in exciting new talent and also sending our shows out to other towns and theatres across the country, spreading the Truck name as they go."
With Truck productions such as Alan Bennett's Lady In The Van and Dennis Kelly's DNA winning acclaim nationally, Mr Smaje says there are "extremely encouraging" conversations taking place about what's happening in Hull across the cash-strapped country.
"This building was designed to be a beacon and have a broader artistic role for the whole region, to represent everything that's good about Hull," he says. "And I think we're achieving that. How often do you hear positive stories about Hull in the national press? Hull Truck is a positive story."
Much of the tension of the past two years has revolved around the departure of Truck icons such as John Godber, whose new version of Bouncers is being staged, tellingly, across town at Hull New Theatre next month.
But it has also seen the reintroduction and closer ties with the theatre's legendary founder Mike Bradwell, who has returned to Hull to stage shows for the first time in almost four decades, with the potential for more to come.
Mr Smaje openly admits he wanted to see a return of the "punk", cutting edge ethos that characterised Truck's early days, when it operated out of a dilapidated Coltman Street terrace house and caused controversy wherever it went.
He is also particularly proud of his initiatives to introduce emerging new talent to Truck with fledgling artists such as the Hull-based Middle Child and RashDash theatre companies taking their chance to perform at Truck.
He has also struck up a collaboration with Kilnsea playwright Tom Wells, who was recently named the nation's Most Promising Playwright by The Critics Circle and whose comedy The Kitchen Sink will debut in Ferensway in November.
Of course, critical acclaim doesn't pay the bills. Bums on seats and Arts Council grants do.
It was a little over a year ago that Mr Smaje issued a rallying cry to the people of Hull to support Truck after funding cuts and a drop in audience numbers.
In June last year, the Mail revealed soaring overheads, funding cuts and disappointing audiences had left the theatre facing a possible shortfall of £500,000 over the next four years.
In many ways Mr Smaje has been unlucky that his time at Truck, after arriving from the Ustinov theatre in Bath in 2010, has coincided with Government cuts and the deepest recession since the 1930s, meaning audiences don't have the cash to splash on tickets.
In its first year after moving into the new Ferensway building – before Mr Smaje arrived – Hull Truck made a loss of £250,000. In 2010, losses increased to £400,000.
While some observers raised an eyebrow over the staging of the darkly caustic Krapp's Last Tape – a play with excellent artistic pedigree but limited popular appeal – for a two-week engagement this April, in the theatre's main 450-seater auditorium, other shows have performed spectacularly well under Mr Smaje's stewardship.
More than 18,000 people flooded through the theatre doors to enjoy Truck's Christmas offerings, The Flint Street Nativity and The Elves And The Shoemaker, last year, while comedies such as Ballroom Blitz, by Hull playwright Dave Windass, proved an effective alternative to the European Football Championships earlier this summer, by packing them in.
The economic realities of running a theatre in 2012 are still a challenge, admits Mr Smaje, but by cutting Truck's cloth accordingly and staging shows people want to see, he is confident the theatre is now financially sound.
"The average audience now is slightly higher than it was in Spring Street," he says. "The audience hasn't changed that much, which in these economic conditions is a miracle.
"We've done the figures and less than 0.5 per cent of people who used to come to Spring Street now don't come to Ferensway.
"That means we've brought more than 99 per cent of the audience with us. Plus we have the new audience that never went to Spring Street.
"That gives us the confidence that we are giving people what they want.
"Of course, people like the familiar but they also like to experience new things too. My aim is to, by doing new things repeatedly well, to build that new audience. And I think we’re on the right track."