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The show must go on: an interview with Kate Varah

Kate Varah | ©CameronSlaterPhotography

6 min read

National Theatre executive director Kate Varah is fiercely proud of the institution and the levelling up opportunities it offers for the country. However, with a series of economic challenges on the horizon following Covid, she tells Nadine Batchelor-Hunt she’s concerned about the “headwinds” it is facing.

National treasures like Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, and Dame Helen Mirren are among those to have graced the National Theatre’s stage in the decades since its founding – with the Queen Consort its patron.

Also known as the Royal National Theatre, the NT was established by Laurence Olivier in 1963 and has since become central to the United Kingdom’s performing arts landscape – fortunately surviving the pandemic lockdowns, which hit the sector hard.

“The general picture is: we came out of Covid having survived, which is the first joy,” says 46-year-old executive director Kate Varah from her office overlooking the Thames, the relief in her voice palpable. “It was incredibly tough, but we were hugely helped and sustained by the government support during that period. So, I think the first thing is that there's gratitude.”

However, despite the worst of the pandemic having passed, Varah – who joined the NT in 2022 – says the theatre still faces financial difficulties, with footfall still not back to pre-pandemic levels.

“The headwinds of the cost of living crisis are hugely impactful,” she singles out as a reason for the lack of recovery in numbers – with rising energy bills also putting pressure on the NT’s purse strings. The bill for 2023/24 is expected to hit £3.3m.

And, while proudly sharing that the NT produces almost all of its sets and costumes onsite – with the theatres boasting their own welders, set builders, and seamstresses – Varah stresses this presents its own financial problems as inflation runs at 10.5 per cent.

“We've got our materials that are impacted from an inflationary perspective and supply chains really disrupted,” she says. “And that is a really big impact here, because we're the largest factory in central London.”

Varah says government support of the theatre continues to be vital given the state of the economy, and expresses support for the reintroduction of some of the previous Covid schemes.

“Short term, extending some of the reliefs that were put in place during Covid, like tax relief would be hugely significant,” says Varah. “It allows us to continue to be entrepreneurial… if you have that additional tax relief, then you're able to put on a production that you might not otherwise have put on the scale that you might not have done before.”

If you have a classroom of kids who are leaving a sixth form, I could give every single one of them a job in this theatre

“It’s not just money into a hole,” she adds, “it's actually something that is actively encouraging… growth and activity.”

On the subject of the economy, Varah is keen to highlight that much of the theatre’s work also aligns with the government’s aspirations and policies for levelling up: the NT operates in 71 of 109 levelling up areas, reaching 85 per cent of UK state secondary schools.

“We specifically go to those areas that are the hardest to reach, that have the least provision ­– and we make sure that we properly engage the kids there,’ says Varah passionately. “And if you do that, then they're going to come here, and they're going to feel a million dollars – because they're going to walk in, they're going to own the place, they're going to understand that this is for them.”

And Varah says the opportunities the NT offers spread beyond performing on stage, describing the building as a “village” with a combination of different trades and professions.

“If you have a classroom of kids who are leaving a sixth form, I could give every single one of them a job in this theatre,” she says proudly. “We have marketers, we have digital innovators, we have carpenters, welders, seamstresses, we have technicians, we have lawyers, we have accountants… it's a village of extraordinary talents. And I would love for us to be able to open it up to every kid in every classroom so that they really understand if they don't like acting on stage, that's okay. Because 5 per cent of people in this building do that.”

Within the outreach work the NT provides are technician training sessions for 14-18-year-olds in Greater Manchester and Nottingham – and playwriting workshops in Stoke-on-Trent, Trowbridge, Doncaster, and Sunderland. Speaking about this work, Varah laments a £850,000 cut to the NT’s annual subsidy from Arts Council England (ACE) for 2023/26.

“The basic fact is that losing that, that almost a million pounds subsidy, has meant that we've had to stop one of our primary school programmes across the country,” she says sadly. “So, it has had an impact.”

When it comes to other forms of support, Varah says the enthusiasm of the NT’s patron, the Queen Consort, has been “fantastic” – sharing she is regularly spotted at the NT and supportive of its work.

“Having that kind of support, patronage, the visibility it gives and brings[SB1] … there are some people who come here that wouldn't if they didn't hear about us through the channels that we can reach through [as a result],” says Varah happily.

I cannot overstate how fundamental state support of the arts is

Varah is keen to emphasise the international potential and reach of the NT, too; domestically, 700 UK cinemas already provide NT live content.

“If we want to continue to attract world-class artists onto our stages, we've got to have a building that is fully kitted out and technically brilliant,” she says, highlighting that the maintenance of the enormous, brutalist NT building overlooking the river Thames is immense. “To encourage them to come here, so that they don't go to the European opera houses – as wonderful as they are – so that they want to come here.”

And when it comes to the topic of global impact, Varah says one of the key ways the NT has promoted its work and global reach has been through streaming and distribution of recordings of performances.

“It’s fantastic, and I think it’s something we’re really proud of: the NT was always ahead in digital innovation terms because of NT Live, which has been going for, I think 10 years, and that goes to cinemas all around the world,” said Varah. “That was a sort of established thing pre-Covid, so we were capturing our content, sharing it in that way. We are a global brand, which is amazing. During Covid, we developed this streaming service called National Theatre At Home – and it's been phenomenally well received.”

As the interview draws to a close, Varah returns again to the importance of capital investment – and the role it plays in ensuring the future of institutions like the NT.

“I cannot overstate how fundamental state support of the arts is,” Varah stresses. “And we cannot move away from the model where our big and small arts organisations across the country are supported by a forward-looking, enlightened government.”

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