As former controller of Radio 4 and the first woman to run BBC News, Helen Boaden has extensive leadership experience in creative organisations. Now there’s a new addition to her breathtaking CV: chair of the board of trustees at York Theatre Royal. 

Boaden’s appointment is a prestigious step for the city centre theatre, one of oldest in the UK, which produces its own work, often in collaboration with other exceptional companies as well as welcoming some of the country’s finest touring productions. Meanwhile, Boaden will be continuing with various other roles, among them advisory board member at both the Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Recently, she sat on the Council of the Royal Academy of Arts and has just stepped down as chair of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Helen Boaden. Photo courtesy of York Theatre Royal.

Theatre has long been close to her heart, ever since her family took her to shows when she was young.

“I love any live performance,” she says. “We didn’t go to the theatre very often when I was a child because it was too expensive, but we did go enough for me to know I loved it. My parents took me to see ballet and we used to sit in the gods. I didn’t realise how unusual that was, and how good it was of them, to expand the horizons of their children. And so I’ve always had a feeling for live theatre.”

And for York, too, because her father was born and brought up in the city, and she visited relatives regularly. “So Rowntree Park, the walls, the Minster, the Shambles, they were all part of my childhood, they were part of my emotional and physical landscape since before I could talk.”

The family also visited the Yorkshire coast regularly, so that Scarborough, Whitby, Filey and Saltburn were part of her world, and why she gravitated naturally to the Stephen Joseph Theatre. In fact, she and her husband have a house in Scarborough as well as London. But though Boaden has done a great deal of live broadcasting, and is no stranger to making speeches in front of an audience, her only stage appearance as an actor was in a school production of Webster’s The White Devil. This was reviewed by the Times Educational Supplement and included the line: “The voluptuous Helen Boaden was totally in control of her role.” She laughs that “they wouldn’t dare to say that now”.

She has a truly eclectic taste in theatre, from “intelligent musicals – I love Sondheim” to anything that’s unusual or challenging. “I’m very open and interested. I think that’s what the arts can give you, without being pretentious. They can pique your interest, your curiosity.”

Theatre: stronger together

Acknowledging that theatres are experiencing an extremely bumpy time, especially since Covid, Boaden aims to work with the new chief executive, Paul Crewes, to stabilise, build new partnerships and “to make events at the Theatre Royal something that you really don’t want to miss. There’s nothing quite like somebody saying, you really must go and see this.”

The collaborative experiments with regional theatres where, for example, the SJT is sharing productions with Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, Bolton Octagon and Hull Truck, happened on Boaden’s watch at Scarborough. “That’s a way of making the creativity and the money work much better. Strong creative partnerships for productions that can move around.”

York Theatre Royal. Photo by Tom Arber.

Crewes, she says, brings a great set of creative relationships with him, all with a vast experience of theatre.

“You can offer a range of shows that people will be curious to see, a fantastic live experience, be it dance or musicals, serious or not so serious theatre, and they will say, oh I might give that a chance. It’s got to be pitched right, it’s got to be a great experience from the moment you walk through the door. Going to the theatre is much more than just what’s on the stage.” 

In the case of York Theatre Royal, this includes a strong sense of history. The building, owned by the York Conservation Trust, contains architecture from the Medieval, Georgian and Victorian periods, as well as a landmark modernist foyer. It was on this site in 1734 that Thomas Keregan established the city’s first permanent theatre, a tennis court conversion in Mint Yard. A subsequent manager, Tate Wilkinson, obtained a Royal patent for £500 (an exorbitant sum in those days) in 1769, the third patent to be granted to a provincial theatre. This legalised the operation and gave the theatre its new name.

York Theatre Royal. Photo by ®Hufton+Crow.

In 1994, the auditorium was completely refurbished and a specially designed chandelier was installed. A temporary studio space was opened in the old paint workshop beside the main house stage and is now a permanent home to many new, emerging and small-scale productions. Today, the resident Youth Theatre has more than 300 young people aged five to 19 engaging with all aspects of theatre and performing. And, in 2015, the theatre underwent a £5 million redevelopment including re-tiered seating in the stalls and a flattening of the raked stage. Front-of-house areas were redesigned to create a new, welcoming box office and café areas with seating in a glass-fronted colonnade, and access was improved throughout the foyer.

Boaden says: “I have seen first-hand the impact that York Theatre Royal has both locally and nationally and I’m looking forward to working with trustees and staff as we embark on the next chapter in the life of this important and historic theatre.”

Crewes, who took up his post only a few months ago, has welcomed her appointment. “The wealth of experience that Helen brings is invaluable to us and will bring fresh perspective as we explore and redefine our work for the future, reimagining ourselves artistically and financially as a producing theatre at the heart of our community.”

By Eileen Jones

Main image by Alex Holland