Rob Edwards meets the arbiter of taste and talent at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Barely a square inch of paintwork is visible behind the traffic of tour promotions and artwork on the walls of James Barber’s office. The veteran artistic director of the Yvonne Arnaud is as much a part of the architecture today as the bare concrete pillars supporting Guildford’s cherished riverside theatre.
With drafts of the new programme lay open at his desk, James – a man who has committed over three decades to producing and commissioning at the theatre – greets me in a hasty, bassy voice. Occupying his present role since 1991, following predecessors Laurier Lister and Val May, James started out at the YA as a humble graduate assistant, sweeping floors and making tea. Since climbing to the dizzy heights of director, he has steered the theatre through thick and thin, as the theatrical dame – with its distinctive post-war curved walls of panelled glass approaches her demi-centenary.
“It’s about balancing popular stuff on stage, that hopefully brings in the pennies, with occasionally doing something you know will have a minority appeal, but is worth a go,” James explains. “People get bored if you do Coward, Wilde and Shaw every week.”
A scan of the programme confirms as much. A summer revival of the 60s comic hit, The Private Ear & The Public Eye (Aug 29-Sept 7) is followed by the autumn release of a brand new show, The Duck House, a comic take on the MP’s expenses scandal (Oct 23-Nov 2) that stars Ben Miller. “It isn’t particularly controversial,” says James, “it’s just very, very funny.”
Furthermore, the spirit of repertory theatre still lives on at the Arnaud. “We do create, produce, finance and put on our own original work here, and then we take the shows on tour to other theatres,” he says. “That helps to pay for what we do here.”
“Although we are a charitable trust, we’re also a business. We have to make sure at the end of each year we’ve broken even. Lovely if you make a little bit, but disastrous if you lose too much.”
Is the Surrey theatre scene a hot bed of diva drama? “No! There’s a very good relationship,” he says. “We’re not really in competition because we’re in different places. We share experiences and we moan and laugh about the same things. We’re all in it together, after all.”
Named after the French-born actress who made her home in the Guildford area, the theatre’s site was donated by the borough council, who contributed £20,000 towards the cost, the rest being raised by public donations through the Yvonne Arnaud Trust.
“It was built to provide drama of the highest standard for the local community,” he says. “Through drama, there was a certain responsibility to promote education in the area.”
No more is this in evidence than at the Mill Studio, the YA’s little sister, which opened in 1993, where more than 400 young people take part in drama activities every week.
“There’s something very exciting about getting two or three actors into a school environment with a bunch of kids,” he says.
James is a local boy, born in Guildford and raised in Cranleigh. Following a stint at school in Leatherhead he worked for six months on the stage crew at the local theatre, then called The Thorndike, under the directorship of much-admired Hazel Vincent Wallace.
Barber remained out of the spotlight when he moved on to study at the London Academy of Dramatic Art, where he enrolled on a stage management course. Surprisingly, acting was never in the script. “I can’t act at all! Hate it. Hate it,” he says.
He has come a long way since those days. With 150,000 people per year packing its auditoriums, the Yvonne Arnaud has flourished under James’s management, despite rough economic seas. A rewarding endeavour no doubt.
“I don’t find management the most rewarding part. I love it when we can produce shows of our own. My job in that situation is to be an enabler.
“You’re not there to tell the actors where to stand or to tell the director how to direct. But you’re there to put it all together and then, hopefully, let it fly. That’s the job.”