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‘We were involved in decisions’: Chris Grady pays tribute to influential theatre manager Gordon Stratford

Once in a while I have found myself in the right place, at the right time, supported by the right colleagues, and encouraged by the right boss to make stuff happen. Never was that truer than arriving in the disused bank building beside the construction site of Plymouth Theatre Royal in September 1981. I was hired by the general manager/CEO of the theatre, Gordon Stratford, and for 40 years I have used, and passed on the wisdom he taught. Sadly yesterday he died. He caught the pesky virus and very quickly, and as I understand it from his daughter very painlessly, passed away with children Beccy and Mich having been there to show their love when he was in hospital. [Unsurprisingly for an old West End company manager, he had made detailed lists of how to deal with stuff, which his family are steadily working through.]

His career was quietly important. Without him The Meadow Players which was the producing company at Oxford Playhouse would not have produced 18 years of major classic plays, tours and West End transfers. [The very first book on theatre administration which I bought was by Elizabeth Sweeting, the venue manager of the Playhouse, who had the next door office to Frank Hauser (artistic director) and Gordon.]

I suspect without him Nottingham Playhouse under Richard Eyre would have been a poorer place. Without him modern day arts marketing would have taken even more years to be recognised as he worked with Glyn Robbins in Nottingham. And without him Plymouth Theatre Royal would not have been such an extraordinary place to work, and have opened despite many of the Council’s best attempts to bungle the finances. He delivered show after show to the people of Plymouth and, with his trusty marketing department empowered by his leadership, made the theatre a beacon for Devon and Cornwall.

What made him special for me, as a boss, was his passion for the theatre, his quick understanding of potential audiences, and his willingness to give his marketing team the chance to challenge him on proposed prices, deals, and even show choices.  You’d know he was on his way down the corridor by the cigar smell, and then he’d pop into the office and say “Glyndebourne Opera, La Cenerentola and a new Oliver Knussen piece, how will that sell ?” and then wander onward to see other departments and deal with other challenges.  We’d settle down and predict what we thought the shows would do. What prices to charge, what discounts, what % capacity. I’d head back to his office with a predicted weekly take. He’d compare it to his costs, and think about the numbers. We were involved in decisions.

Sometimes he completely overruled us. Another day, another cigar trail: “Ben Vereen, tap dancer, you know the one, American, just playing Plymouth and the Albert Hall, how will that sell?” As he left we went who ? No internet to look at, no one in our office had heard of him, I don’t think any of us had even heard of Pippin. I went back saying it won’t sell, no one has heard of him. He told us we were wrong and just watch. It was a complete sell-out. People travelled from all over the UK to see this Broadway legend. He was amazing, Gordon was right.

I went to an early TMA (now UKTheatre) conference at Harrogate in 1982 and there was a big gathering of publicity people from theatres all over the UK.  The speaker asked who in the room felt they had an influence on programming and pricing. I put my hand up – of course.  I was the only person in the room with my hand up. No other publicity or marketing person in any other theatre felt that their Chief Exec gave them that influence. Gordon did.

So thank you Gordon for kickstarting my love of marketing. I went from you to Edinburgh International Festival, leaving behind a glorious team of in house and district publicity assistants, to lead on the marketing of the 1984 Edinburgh Festival.  That was the start of many involvements with the City, and now I live once again in an EH postcode and love continuing to work with different aspects of the festival.   And then in 1987 I became a General Manager myself at Buxton Opera House. I was chosen the Board told me because they were impressed by the marketing we did to make Plymouth work in those early days.  There I spent 5 years trying to put into practice what I had seen Gordon do so well.  We took risks. We aimed for excellent partnerships. And the marketing team were really important.  [ I also continued my love/hate relationships with early box office computer systems, having also been given the unenviable additional task by Gordon of overseeing the installation and support for one of the first BOCS system in the UK].

I’m sorry we didn’t stay in touch more in later years.  I’m glad I could be there at the funeral of his beloved Jan Bailey in 2016 who was his PA in Plymouth and then lifelong partner.  Jan wasn’t meant to die first, but she did. And the last few years he has been supported wonderfully by his family. I never did spend the time I wanted with him going through his amazing archives. I will pull down some of my Plymouth files and have a look.

Thank you Gordon.  And may I raise a glass to all the quietly important theatre managers, executives, whatever title, who day in day out lead teams of people to make theatres beacons for their community.  You were one of the best.

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from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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