Back in 2010, Chris Honer and the Library Theatre had to migrate because Manchester’s Central Library was closing for a colossal refurbishment. This had been the company’s home for more than 50 years. Now, with a new HOME being purpose-built for their civil partnership with Cornerhouse, and after more than 25 years at the helm, Chris is stepping down as artistic director.
“I’m carrying on working as a director,” he tells me, “but I’m just stepping down from the Library.” We sit in Cornerhouse on Oxford Road. Chris’ office is somewhere in the building. He affectionately calls it a “cupboard” and I assume that space is the reason why we are not sitting in it. The last four years for the Library have been defined by the lack of a permanent office; the lack of a home. But this episode is coming to a close.
“Going into this period we were very nervous.” This is no surprise. Without a space of their own, the company had to rely on their relationships with other venues. Additionally, this theatrical roaming was a test of their audience who had to travel with them. “We had no idea whether people would come to see us, but actually most of them did come with us and also we picked up new audience at the Lowry.”
The Lowry has been a key venue for the Library during its nomadic period. It has played host to three Library productions a year: one in the spring; one in the autumn; and one over Christmas. The last of these was Wanted! Robin Hood which recently ended a successful six-week winter run in the Quays theatre. “The Christmas production at the Library theatre had become something really special to us because it’s not really what any other theatre around here does which is a play as opposed to a pantomime…we were glad that the Lowry welcomed that.”
Of course, this has not just been a one-way relationship with the Lowry. In turn, the Library theatre has brought a variety of imaginative productions to the repertoire at Salford Quays and with these plays new audiences have followed.
The partnership has also had a wider impact on Manchester’s theatre scene. Over the past few years, the Lowry studio has held the Library’s re:play festival. Chris pioneered re:play as a means of supporting and promoting Manchester’s flowering fringe scene.
“Suddenly there was a great burgeoning of [fringe] work and some of it was really very good. We set up re:play as a response to what we could see was beginning to happen and we thought that this work, the best of this work, needed a showcase.” The emerging local talent behind these fringe productions, which were mostly born in pub theatres, benefits greatly from the opportunity to perform on a stage in one of the region’s largest theatre complexes. This is largely the result of the relationship that has been built between the Library and the Lowry which may not have occurred had it not been for the company’s recent deracination.
Most inventive and technically challenging of all the Library theatre’s nomadic projects has been their work in authentic, non-theatre spaces. Utilising Manchester’s neglected mills and office spaces, the company has produced three of these site-specific productions: the first being an adaptation of Dickens’ Hard Times directed by Chris, then Jackie Kay’s Manchester Lines, and finally Polly Wiseman’s Manchester Sound: The Massacre. Through these sorts of productions, which embrace the lack of a traditional or permanent venue, it is as if Chris has intentionally re-rooted the company in the city.
“There was thinking that it would really good to do stuff which related to Manchester’s past and also present.” So by engaging with the physical geography of the city through performance, the Library theatre has redefined its place in Manchester’s history.
In 2015 the Library Theatre Company brand will be reimagined; the company will be reincarnated for HOME by the new artistic director, Walter Meierjohann. Chris reflects on the last four years as a time when “we sort of kept everything hot for the new building”. True, but he is being modest. He can certainly take pride in more than just being able to “keep the company together when at times there has been great pressure on funding”. Chris has re-rooted the company in Manchester’s past and present, while also ensuring that the Library, in whatever incarnation, has a bright future.
We can only hope that the new-look company remembers these roots. For the new theatre’s longevity, an open-armed approach to the city and to the city’s existing venues is essential. It is this attitude that has enabled the creativity and communality characteristic of the Library’s recent past. Whatever he does next on the Manchester theatre scene, this will be Chris Honer’s legacy at the Library. Astonishing, really, seeing as he has been working out of a cupboard.
Photos of Chris Honer by Chris Payne
The Seagull, Chris Honer’s last show as artistic director of The Library, will be performed at The Lowry, Salford from February 21 to March 8, 2014. For more information, click here http://www.librarytheatre.com/event/the-seagull or here http://www.thelowry.com/event/the-seagull