An Interview with Dan Bates, CEO of Sheffield Theatres
It’s not everyday you hear of a Chief Executive stepping away from the office to go on a three month sabbatical around Asia. But Dan Bates, CEO of Sheffield Theatres Trust, has done precisely that, having just completed the first leg of his trip in Singapore and spending the last three weeks finding out exactly what life is like at the Esplanade, attending production and operation meetings daily, and of course, attending various shows to get an idea of the local arts scene.
Choosing the far East is by far an interesting decision over more common collaborators in Europe. But Dan has good reason for coming here instead. He explains: “Back in Sheffield, we talked a little about the impact Brexit was going to have on the UK and our working relationship with Europe. In Sheffield, we’ve been seeing a growing population of Asians coming to the city to learn and stay on to work, as well as some significant Chinese investments in the city. So we thought Asia would be a great place to turn our sights to for potential partnerships.”
On his trip, Dan will be continuing his journey with trips to Hong Kong, Taiwan, multiple cities in China, South Korea and even Australia to forge new cultural links and meet with industry leaders before returning to Sheffield in June. Dan first came to the Esplanade while on a short break last March, meeting Esplanade CEO Benson Puah who opened the entire facility to him. Impressed, Dan sought for an opportunity to return, and Benson gave him the thumbs up. One year later, Dan is back to embark on his first sabbatical in 30 years. Says Dan: “The Esplanade is so committed to giving a unique quality experience to its visitors. Benson has such strong attention to detail, and it’s very inspiring just listening to him. There’s a lot more opportunity and significance to what happens here, and the way the Esplanade runs is very well planned and strategic, with each decision made to serve an intended impact.”
Dan specifically scheduled his visit to coincide with the 2018 Huayi Festival, giving him an opportunity to attend the festival in its entirety. Says Dan: “I came in with the preconceived notion that a Chinese festival would be more traditional and focus on historical works. But I was blown away by all the contemporary, cutting edge works with this year’s festival. Each show was really hard hitting, and amazed me with the sheer diversity of audiences they catered to.”
Sheffield Theatres is immensely committed to bringing in audiences from all walks of life each year, constantly bringing in the best touring works and creating stellar, new theatre. With 12 productions playing across their three venues each year, there are often 3-4 that are regional or even world premieres. Recently, they’ve even exported two new productions to London, with The York Realist on at the Donmar Warehouse, and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre, which was nominated for five Olivier Awards at the beginning of March. In addition, Sheffield Theatres will be presenting their very first Chinese show in Sheffield in May – Yellow Earth Theatre’s Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok.
Says Dan: “There’s a real sense of pride in creating new work, and Sheffield Theatres is all about raising theatre to the highest possible standard. Touring companies love coming to Sheffield because we’ve got highly skilled staff used to producing work with care and attention and not simply unloading and putting up the show. Sheffield itself is incredibly proud of us, and we have a dedicated core audience who will come and see most things.”
Sheffield is also committed to keeping prices affordable and accessible for their visitors, from offering discounted tickets to 16-26 year olds, to even running the Ignite scheme that allows anyone in the region studying drama to attend shows for free. Says Dan: “Our biggest asset is our audience, and we try not to get what we do wrong, considering they’ve placed so much trust in us. Only about 550,000 people live in Sheffield city, and a lot of audience members actually travel quite a long way to watch our shows, like booking a train in the morning to catch a matinee before heading back in the evening.”
Other efforts to engage the public include Sheffield Theatres’ community and school programmes, including the intergenerational Sheffield People’s Theatre, where interested members of the public come together to put on a production each year. Dan explains: “These members are all treated like professional actors, working with a professional team and rehearsing since April before finally performing in July. And with that, not only do they get a chance to perform on stage, we even get a hundred new ambassadors for the organisation.”
He continues: “I remember that I caught the theatre bug when we were taken on school visits. Walking around the Esplanade, you see throngs of children running around the venue almost daily, and to have that kind of commitment and energy just made me say to Benson ‘This is why we do it, isn’t it?'”
In the span of just three weeks, Dan has managed to extend his network all across Singapore. Besides the Esplanade, Dan has also been busy meeting companies like the Singapore Repertory Theatre, Pangdemonium, the National Arts Council and the British Council. Says Dan: “One of the big aims of this sabbatical is about opening doors and finding the right people to collaborate with. Taiwan for example, does a season at Edinburgh, and they could quite easily stop off at Sheffield on the way back. Part of the joy of collaboration is not knowing quite how it will turn out, and I’m very excited about going back to Sheffield and figuring out the next steps.”
Before leaving for Hong Kong, Dan concludes: “I’m going to miss coming out of these office doors and seeing the bay, it’s not quite the same as seeing the back of Marks and Spencer’s from my desk at Sheffield. I didn’t expect to have strong feelings so quickly about leaving, and I’m unbelievably lucky and privileged to have gotten a chance to work with the Esplanade.”
And like Dan, we can’t wait to see what the future holds as he takes his newfound knowledge and experiences back to the UK, and in the years to come, develop countless more exciting collaborations with the new ground he’s broken in venturing across Asia.
To find out more about Sheffield Theatres, visit their website here