Going Places: Deborah Sawyerr

Going Places: Deborah Sawyerr

The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin - Theatre Royal Stratford East-  Photo by Scott Rylander

In Autumn 2016 Deborah Sawyerr left The Bush Theatre to become Executive Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East. We chatted to Deborah about how she’s settling in, the ups and downs of her new role, and how they are working to make Theatre Royal Stratford East a place where audiences can say, “There is something there for me.”

Date Published: 10 April 2017
Deborah Sawyerr

What did you enjoy most about your first day?

My first day at Stratford East as Executive Director was on 31 October – which was also the first day of panto rehearsals! I sat in on their first read through and it was great fun. I haven’t worked on a panto in ages a so it was a really nice way to start my new job.

Before moving into General Management, you worked in Stage Management. How has do that background helped you with running a venue?

I’d been a Deputy Stage Manager and then Stage Manager at Theatre Royal Stratford East back in the 1990s so understanding what happens on-stage has made a huge difference to my whole career - knowing how the challenges of the technical and stage management teams and the successes. Understanding what is going on and having a full knowledge of onstage processes is invaluable and it is an excuse to get involved on stage!

You’ve worked with many different organisations, from Production Manager at Nottingham Playhouse, to Executive Director at Talawa, to General Manager at the Bush as well as with touring theatres such as Graeae. What do are the differences between working with companies and working for a venue?

When you are with a company you are asking permission to present work in venues and so you are working within their way of working. Whereas when you are working in a building it is about you welcoming people and making them want to come back to your building.

As a result of having worked for companies as well as venues, now when we have visiting companies, we try our best to help them feel that the house is theirs as much as it is ours. It is about that welcome - keeping people wanting to come back. That goes for audiences, companies, actors, technical staff and creatives… anybody who comes through the doors. This is your house too; you should feel as at home here as we do. You are part of Theatre Royal Stratford East and are part of what we present. 

What’s been your best career move so far?

I originally trained as a primary school teacher but in my third year of teaching I decided to take an evening class in Camden in Stage Management. I didn’t intend to leave teaching – I just thought it would be a hobby that in theory had no homework (that went out of the window in the first week!) By the time I graduated from my 2 years’ stage management course, I had my first job lined up, going to the Edinburgh Festival that summer,  as Stage Manager on 4 different shows over the month.

Theatre Royal Stratford East is renowned for the diversity and inclusivity of its programming and engaging with local audiences. What do you see as the key to its success and how do you and your team achieve this?

It is fully embedded in the ethos of the company. It is about the programming we choose, the people who come in to work with us and the people who work here. We want to be the theatre where people say, “This is for us, here is where we see ourselves reflected on stage”. Diversity runs completely through the organisation at every single level - at junior levels, casual levels, technical levels and senior / executive levels. It is very much part of our programme. We want people to feel “There is something here for me.”

What are the biggest challenges in your new role?

Every day is a challenge! Every day is something new. Not being able to predict what might happen.

Being a relatively new parent whilst taking on a very time demanding role is a challenge.

But the biggest challenge is time. Finding the time to get everything done and feeling that you are giving everything you need to do the best time that it needs isn’t easy. I use my experience and an almost military precision to manage it all! That is where my Stage Management and DSM work really comes into play because organisation and getting things prepared and ready is vital.

And of course, trying to be on top of finances and fundraising keeps every Executive Director up at night.

What is your favourite thing about your new role?

Working with Kerry Michael (Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East) and the artistic department on creating a programme is great; meeting other theatre makers, finding out what we can do together and then fitting the jigsaw puzzle together is great fun. Working collaboratively with other people is the thing I like most.

What are you most excited about?

We’ve got loads coming up at that is really, really exciting. There is stage premiere of Room by Emma Donahue; The Who’s Tommy which is part of the Ramps on the Moon project; we’ve got a production of Summer in London by Ricky Beadle-Blair on over the summer; and of course, being back in a building means that we start on panto in about a month’s time, so Rapunzel and all that will entail is really exciting and really fun!


The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin  at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo: Scott Rylander
Photo: Scott Rylander
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