In just four years, Neil Constable has turned Shakespeare’s Globe into a £21m operation, taken the theatre’s work to Broadway for the first time, and realised the vision of founder Sam Wanamaker by overseeing completion of an indoor Jacobean-style playhouse. Here, he talks about enabling change, boardroom challenges and international expansion
London’s Bankside is abuzz with people on the morning of my first visit to Shakespeare’s Globe – the reconstruction of an Elizabethan open-air theatre – and as I make my way towards the entrance through throngs of tourists pausing to take pictures in the sunshine, I, too, am struck by this astonishing feat of architecture. The brainchild of the late US actor and director Sam Wanamaker, the theatre is a replica of the original Globe, where many of the Bard’s plays were first performed and which burnt down in 1613. The new site opened in 1997, four years after Wanamaker’s death.
“There isn’t a stretch of real estate anywhere else in the world that has such a strong cultural draw,” says the Globe’s chief executive, Neil Constable, who is eagerly waiting for me in the lobby. “We’re part of the South Bank’s cultural trail – the National Theatre, Tate Modern, the Globe. And we now attract one million visitors every year.”
Constable emanates warmth – and his enthusiasm for the Globe is immediately apparent as he ushers me towards the backstage doors, and into the outdoor theatre, where a cast of actors is rehearsing scenes from The Comedy of Errors. We stand, momentarily, in the groundling pit, where theatregoers can enjoy plays, he explains, for as little as a fiver. “You’d be surprised, but people are more than happy to stand for three hours to watch a play because it’s a unique experience and they feel part of what’s going on.”
Before joining Shakespeare’s Globe in 2010, Constable spent 25 years working in the theatre industry. He cut his teeth as a stage manager and moved to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987 where he worked for 16 years in various positions before taking up the role of executive director of the Almeida in 2003. Since taking over at the Globe, Constable has grown turnover to £21m, and last year achieved a surplus of £3.7m, which, he’s keen to stress, is not a profit. “It’s about reinvesting back into the organisation and our next stages of development.”
Arguably, his biggest achievement is overseeing completion of the indoor, candlelit Jacobean-style theatre – the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – 16 years after the Globe first opened its doors. “The board didn’t fully agree, but I managed to persuade them enough to feel confident that we would get enough support and that it would be a net contributor financially and artistically.”
Based on a copy of plans that were found in the 1960s in Worcester College, Oxford, which are believed to have been drawn by master architect Inigo Jones’s protégé John Webb in the mid-1600s, the playhouse, says Constable, has enabled the Globe to operate year-round. “When I joined, my vision was to bring more support in terms of business and strategic planning to an organisation moving through its teenage years to become slightly more mature,” he recalls. “It seemed obvious that the indoor theatre should be built next because that provided the opportunity for year-round performances and a way for people to engage with us in a different way.”
There are 150 full-time staff working at the Globe but there were tensions, says Constable, between various departments when he arrived. “My aim was to unify the organisation. Resources were scarce and there hadn’t been any investment in staff to help enable them to do their work. I wanted to create an environment where everyone could flourish.”
Moving away from institutional memory, reflects Constable, was one of the biggest challenges he faced on becoming chief executive. “We needed to stop worrying what Sam would think. It was important that the choices I was making reflected his original vision but I also didn’t want to be frightened about making decisions. Sadly Sam died in 1993 so he never saw the theatre finished, but he set out a very clear blueprint of what should be achieved in his lifetime and beyond, and we’re trying to still follow that, but my role is to focus on the financial envelope and create a strategy around his original vision.”
Part of the problem, he explains, is that the Globe is not subsidised. “The Arts Council gives a significant amount of funding to a wide range of theatre companies, but we don’t have anything like that and, as a result, my decision-making had to become a lot clearer, and considerably tighter. On the upside, it provides the opportunity for innovation.”
When asked whether it was difficult to enable change in an organisation that had only ever had one other chief executive, Constable says the key was transparency: “If your staff feel you’re going to stay for the longer term and you’re not a turnaround king or queen, and you don’t favour one group of people above another, then change is absolutely possible. The board has also been very supportive – they are a group of voluntary trustees who have fiduciary responsibility for the health of the organisation so they need to be engaged, and they are confident and believe in what I am trying to achieve.”
One of the main drivers for the Globe’s growth in the past year has been the organisation’s offering overseas. “Last year, for the first time in the Globe’s history, people got the chance to see our work on Broadway. We had a competitive season with Ethan Hawke in Macbeth and Orlando Bloom in Romeo and Juliet. All the investors got their money back, plus a profit, and each night we played to nearly a full house (98 per cent). The shows went down tremendously well because we presented the work in a way the language was understandable – the Americans who came to watch relished it.”
Constable’s continued focus on the Globe’s overseas work has helped to drive a large international profile. “We have taken shows all over the world, including China and Russia. We currently have a global tour of Hamlet taking place and in the last four months we have visited 52 countries. We’ve worked on productions in hundreds of different languages – from a Japanese Coriolanus to the Merry Wives of Windsor performed in Swahili.”
The Globe also has four international centres, in Germany, the US, Canada and New Zealand, but the organisation is also building relationships with other countries. “We are working with a team in Brazil who want to build a Globe theatre outside Belo Horizonte. They want to use it to perform Shakespeare, but also street theatre and circus performances. It’s the first time we are going to potentially sell our intellectual property to another organisation on the far side of the world.”
“The indoor playhouse was always part of the dream,” adds Constable. “The shell of the building went up in 1997 so it’s been sitting there to be fitted out, but prior to my arrival the organisation hadn’t had time to work out how to deliver a construction project without closing the site.”
Master craftsman Peter McCurdy, whose company also built the Globe, led the building of the playhouse, which opened last year. “He’s a world-renowned, ‘rock-star carpenter’ and we were fortunate that he was also available to work on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.”
Constable’s role was project champion, which included raising funds to build the theatre and creating a business plan to ensure its success. “We had reserves of £1.8m but there was still a significant shortfall in funding,” he recalls. “We needed to raise £7.5m altogether but I was turned down for statutory funding so we did two things – we created a public campaign and we engaged with major philanthropists and supporters of the arts. We sold seats in the playhouse, which had the donor’s name on, for £3,000 each, and we received significant seven-figure gifts from the US. We had a marvellous anonymous benefactor who gave us £1.5m of match funding, which became more than £3m with Gift Aid. There were only two caveats; that he or she remained anonymous and the theatre was called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.”
The one difficulty with raising finance was paying tax: “We had to give George Osborne £1.2m because it wasn’t a new build – it was a fit-out of an original. It was quite hard explaining our VAT liability to investors,” explains Constable.
Since opening earlier this year, nearly 140,000 tickets have been sold for productions or events in the playhouse, which is lit solely by candlelight and uses 130 candles for every performance. “We are the biggest users of beeswax candles in the country. Beeswax is imported from Asia to support the candle manufacturers. It’s a new budget line for us – having candle technicians,” he adds.
What about health and safety? “It was difficult, but my role as chief executive was to balance the risk. We have made sure that if there is a fire we can get everyone out safely and that the playhouse doesn’t set alight to the Globe, our key asset. There is strong fire separation, but the wood used to build the playhouse – green oak – could have a flamethrower held to it for half an hour and it would only char. It’s very safe.”
Constable leads an executive team that includes artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, who, he says, has played a crucial role for Shakespeare’s Globe over the past 10 years. “Dominic is the one who puts together the programme of work and leads us artistically. He has done a fantastic job, but he is leaving the organisation so I am responsible for leading the trustees and finding a new artistic director. It’s one of the biggest decisions a board of any arts organisation will make – people like me are replaceable, but with an artistic director you make a conscious choice about their taste and work.”
His own role, he adds, is to enable and support his employees to do their best. “My leadership style has developed through years of managing actors on the shop floor. If you’ve been someone who has run productions then you have a really clear idea of what you need in the grander scheme of things for an arts organisation to flourish.”
International travel is also routine for Constable, who says he has spent more than six weeks in the air since taking up his role. “I sit on the UK and the US board so spend a lot of time travelling. We need an American charity to process any US donations so having a board in the States is crucial – to have a group of ambassadors on the other side of the pond is fantastic. They support the shows and the education work, and help people to engage with us on the ground. We are also part of the Shakespeare Theatre Association in the US – there are 120 organisations altogether – and it’s something I’m very proud of.”
How does he handle boardroom disputes? “I look to my chairman, Lord Falconer. He was former lord chancellor and a lawyer. There are obviously going to be things that won’t achieve consensus, especially because we have such different representatives sitting on the board. For example, we have Laurie Maguire, professor of English at Magdalen College, Oxford, facing Bruce Carnegie-Brown, chairman of Aon UK.”
Constable, a governor of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, says he urges his executive team to try to find time to sit as non-executive directors on other boards. “It’s good to do as well as your day-to-day role because you start thinking in a different way and can see, as an outsider, what a company is not doing – this, in turn, helps you achieve better results in your own organisation.”
When it comes to seeking guidance it’s useful, he says, to have an independent critical friend. “I don’t think people realise how lonely a chief executive’s role can be,” he admits. “Quite often you’re travelling on your own, representing the organisation on your own, and making decisions on your own. Luckily, I have someone to turn to – James Sargent, who was a visiting professor when I trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the RSC’s head of touring – he’s always there for me.”
It appears Constable’s determination to continue driving growth is resolute, with several big projects in the pipeline for next year. “We’re planning to build a library and research facility, launch and distribute Globe TV internationally, and develop our next business plan. When I arrived I wanted to say what the organisation would look like in 2016 and there are already a number of ticks alongside that, so now it’s shifting the focus to how it will look in 2021, and ensuring the relevance of Shakespeare continues. Sam didn’t know the internet was going to be invented when he first set out on his mission to get the Globe built, and we now have to think about the digital side of the business and how people will be engaging with us in the next five to 10 years.”
With so much to focus on, it’s hard to believe that Constable ever finds time to relax. “What other people enjoy as a pastime is part of my work. I’m out four or five nights a week, meeting donors and watching productions. There is no discernible line between my work and my social life, and it’s a privileged position.”
Today is one of those rare occasions when Constable is not travelling. We make our way into the playhouse – full of flickering candlelight and dancing shadows – and he steps up onto the stage for our photo shoot: he stands relaxed, a man clearly at ease in the theatre. For Constable, it truly seems that all his world’s the stage.