Graduate of the Month: Damian Cruden

With the festive season in full swing, our December Graduate of the Month is someone steeped in theatre and pantomime oh yes he is!

Damian Cruden has enjoyed incredible longevity at York Theatre Royal and shows no signs of slowing, as Mark Good finds out.

Damian Cruden is like the cat that got the cream. There’s a freshness and enthusiasm to the way he chats about his work which may give the impression he has just landed his dream job. As artistic director of York Theatre Royal, Cruden certainly occupies a role that he loves and has done for 20 years.

It’s the festive season and Cruden is in the midst of rehearsals for pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk, with around 50,000 people expected to flock through the theatre’s doors. The Scot is co-directing with Berwick Kaler, who is in his 39th year as panto dame. “Berwick’s longevity is fabulous,” says Cruden. “He is a proper ”˜bloke in a frock’ dame, a style harking back to the likes of Stanley Baxter.

“Panto is a massive part of what we do here. It’s about people going to the show on dark winter nights to be entertained and uplifted.”

York Theatre Royal’s role in the community is one which Cruden takes very seriously. As artistic director, he sets the tone for the programming of the organisation, which is one of the country’s leading producing theatres. Of great importance to the theatre’s output are its collaborations with members of the wider community, on and off stage. “Our community artists are vital,” Cruden explains. “It’s about ensuring that there is a great deal of respect for our public in everything we do, building a culture of inclusion rather than being isolated in an ivory tower.

“Our work has to be diverse. People need to know there is something there of which they can take ownership. Culture that is owned is vital compared to culture that is bought or given to someone.”

Two decades at one institution is impressive, without doubt. What has kept Cruden coming back for more during his tenure? “I’ve been trying to get it right,” is the wry response. “At the end of my third year here, people were asking me where I was going next but there was much to do.

“When I arrived, there was only one performance space. It was a case of five shows a year plus panto. The audience was pretty old, there was no youth theatre and no education team.”

Gradually, and in spite of the copious financial pressures faced by organisations across the performing arts, Damian has helped ensure the various pieces of the jigsaw have fallen into place. Now York Theatre Royal entertains more than 200,000 people each year. It is home to one of the largest youth theatre groups in the country. In April 2016, the building reopened after a £6 million redevelopment with a new roof, an extended and re-modelled front of house area plus a refurbished and redecorated main auditorium.

There have been many artistic highlights too. Cruden’s 2008 production of the Railway Children, began life at the National Railway Museum before transferring to London and Toronto in front of more than 150,000 people.

York Theatre Royal has come a long way since 1997 and that is in no small part down to its artistic director, a proud Glaswegian who graduated from what was the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1986 with a BA Dramatic Arts.

“I had a great time at the RSAMD,” Cruden reflected. We had the annexe just off Byres Road we were one of the last years before it all moved up to Renfrew Street.

“The staff, people like Pete de Souza and Grace Matchett, cared about young people. It was a world that was about people being professional and working together and I have taken that with me throughout my career. I was not a born actor but I think I knew fairly early on I wanted to be a director. I worked hard at it and would take shows to the Edinburgh Festival. The building recognised that and I was given the support to turn that dream into a reality.

“It was sociable too. There were good people and special friendships, many of which last to this day. I’m very proud of the fact I went to the RSAMD. It still feels like part of my DNA.”

Positions followed at the Tron, TAG Theatre Company and Scottish Youth Theatre before relocating to England. Damian became co-artistic director at the Liverpool Everyman Youth Theatre then associate director at Hull Truck Theatre before accepting his current position in York. It’s a career he wouldn’t change for the world.

“For me, it’s a privilege to be an artist. It is about telling stories and raising issues that may be designed to challenge and provoke or simply make people happy.

“Art becomes something that people want and need in their lives. I have been lucky to work with so many fantastic artists and companies.

“I’m so privileged to have had this job for 20 years. York is a beautiful city. There is so much variety and that is definitely part of what has made me enjoy it so much. I’m a lucky sod.”

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