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Promises To Keep, And Miles To Go

NOTBAd has been preparing for the departure of Miles Gregory, Chief Executive and Artistic Director, from The Maltings Theatre for a few months now and as such we have had time to get used to the idea – whole days can go by without us dropping to our knees sobbing and beseeching a cruel god.   We don’t think we’re alone here.

Then admit, yes, we probably are.  But the announcement when it came in August shocked everyone.  After all, The Maltings had just been awarded a massive 316% increase in funding from Arts Council England at a time other venues were having their funding slashed.  A buzz palpably emanated from the place that for once had nothing to do with a dodgy strip lighting.  It made no sense for Gregory to leave now.   It would be like getting just what you wanted for Christmas then leaving it in the box un-played with.  Why?

To answer this question, NOTBAd scored an interview with Gregory at his riverside home thus combining two of our very favourite things – gossip and secretly checking out somebody’s bathroom cabinet.  Over coffee it soon becomes clear that Gregory’s decision to leave The Maltings at its moment of triumph isn’t as shocking as you would think.  Indeed, the more you get to know Gregory and what motivates him, the more you realise that his resignation was only ever a matter of time. 

Now, New Zealander Miles Gregory has always cut something of a controversial figure ever since arriving at The Maltings Theatre in 2008, what with his frankly-my-dear tailoring and I-don’t-give-a-damn waxed moustache.   There’s no equivocation with regard to Gregory – you either love him or loathe him.  He has been accused of arrogance and smugness as many times as visionary and brilliant.  He is prepared to make decisions without extensive consultation, has impossibly high expectations from staff and friends alike, and is openly proud of his achievements.  Let’s face it, he could severely get on your nerves.

But that would be to make a snap judgment. 

Sure, we can see how it would happen.  Gregory is one of those rare people possessed of extraordinary self-belief, the product perhaps of being a privately educated only child.  Put simply, he has a personality-type that makes a lot of us… well, feel a bit rubbish about ourselves really, what with all our timid self-doubt and exhausting self-deprecation.  Unpleasant feelings such as these can often lead to wilful misunderstanding.

So,  what makes Gregory tick?  At the age of seventeen, he left New Zealand to study for a degree in Modern History at Durham University, going straight on to gain his MFA in Staging Shakespeare at Exeter University, then his doctorate in Shakespeare in Performance at Bristol, and subsequent roles as artistic director/producer variously for British Touring Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, and Bristol Shakespeare Festival.    When questioned why, when his inclination was so obvious, he had bothered taking Modern History at all, Gregory smiles and shrugs.  “At the time I felt English would have been a cop out.  As an idealistic student, I didn’t feel it had credibility.  It wasn’t enough of a challenge.” 

And there’s the nub.  Gregory is a man who likes a challenge, a man who – by his own admission – does his best work under pressure.  If things are running too smoothly he  admits he will deliberately increase the pressure – either leaving things to the very last minute or upping the degree of difficulty.  No doubt the very fact that The Maltings had been diagnosed as dead in the water with a ‘DNR’ sign round its neck is what attracted Gregory to it in the first place.  Gregory didn’t take on The Maltings from a purely altruistic standpoint.  No.  Here was something hard, something difficult, and therefore worth doing.  His reward was the personal satisfaction of rising to, and meeting, the challenge.

When Gregory first arrived at The Maltings he was likened to a grenade being thrown in a window while the doors were held shut.  Less a new broom, more a one-man scorched earth policy.  As job descriptions evolved, heads rolled and there was upset, and – Gregory claims – unfounded accusations of bullying and intimidation.  All credit to the Board of Trustees who held their nerve under enemy fire.  Perhaps, some people have argued, if Gregory had employed a more softly, softly approach – had refrained from such gung-ho recklessness – the transition period would have been less painful. 

Recklessness?  Surely an inaccurate description, suggesting lack of thought or care for the consequences of an action.  Gregory knew exactly what he needed to do to get the theatre to where he needed it to be.   The results have borne this out.  He thinks both short and long-term; he’s both a details and a big picture man.  However, he admits to basing most decisions on a well-developed intuition and NOTBAd suspects any problems may have arisen because of his failure to appreciate the need sometimes to show his working to others. 

This naturally begs the question of whether Gregory is a control freak.  He thinks about this for a while and then frankly admits, “I like to lead but, no, I don’t think I am a control freak.  I trust everyone to do their job.  They don’t need me breathing down their necks.”  He expresses genuine admiration and warmth for the staff who remained and who “stepped up to the plate”, undertaking duties  beyond their job description and working over their hours to turn the fortunes of The Maltings around; partaking in a shared experience.

Miles Gregory and some of The Maltings' Team

Miles with some of The Maltings' team

And here is a side of Gregory that the public doesn’t get to see.  Sentimentality.  It seems so at odds with his front of house persona and being, if not controlling, certainly in control. 

His labyrinthine home  stands testament to this side of him.  His parents – his mother a successful fashion designer, his English father a leading broadcaster for the erstwhile NZBC – bought it derelict as a holiday home many years ago.  While the Georgian house holds many happy memories for Gregory including long hours spent renovating with his father, hosting parties and nursing student hangovers, it has also been busy creating new ones as a wonderful family home he now shares with his theatrical tailor wife, Bob, pregnant with their second child, and Nancy, their eighteen-month-old daughter.  The house exudes history, not only  from the fabric of the building, but from the contents.  Eclectic second-hand furniture, antiques, fly-speckled prints, textured fabrics, painted floors – it all comes together as an unashamed present linking to a nostalgic past, and Gregory is loath to leave it.

In light of this, it comes as less of a surprise to learn that Gregory demonstrates a level of self-awareness not usually  found in someone so driven and forward focused.   On more than one occasion he stops to consider an uncomfortable question before answering; taking his time not so much to prepare a careful reply but rather to inwardly check the truth of that reply before he gives it.   For instance, we asked how he felt when The Trip magazine ran an article referring to him as smug. “I don’t think I am smug,” he says at length.  “I’m proud of what we’ve achieved as a team, as we should be.  Why not?  We’ve all worked bloody hard.” 

A question of wilful misunderstanding, then?  Gregory believes so, admitting the comment irritated him and going on to say that he continually refers to a strong sense of ethics and an inner moral compass; that he is always prepared to listen to another point of view, to hear other ways of doing things.

Happy to listen, but carry on doing it his way regardless?  “No, not at all.  I’ve been known to take on board someone else’s suggestion.”  Then adds archly, “Provided I think it right.”

So we’re back to that question of control again, and muse if he viewed his role at The Maltings as a natural expansion of his experience as a director, someone who pulls all the strings.  Was he never tempted to go into acting?  “Actors are too passive,” Gregory states, true to form.  “I would never make a good actor anyway.  I couldn’t take it seriously enough.”  NOTBAd ponders whether this is down to those with strong self-identity having trouble with the absolute surrender required to convincingly become someone else.

But Gregory’s self-awareness serves him well – he knows what he’s good at and what he’s not.  He enjoys being a leader, a trail-blazer, he’s happy to take people with him on the journey, to ring the changes.   He has that Antipodean sense of can-do optimism completely at odds with the Eeyore conservative tendencies of us Brits;  asking how something can be done, rather than whether it should.  It is this openness to possibility that has paved the way to achieving so much in such a relatively short space of time.    Indeed, it was this openness to possibility that led him to becoming The Maltings’ Chief Executive and Artistic Director in the first place, a career move registering as not so much as a blip on Gregory’s radar when he relocated to Berwick with Bob full-time.  Like speeding tickets and extra-marital sex, it just sort of happened.

Gregory, expecting to find work as a lecturer either in Edinburgh or Newcastle and still under contract to Shakespeare’s Globe in London, in the interim volunteered his services to the Board of Trustees at The Maltings.   Realising how parlous things had become for the theatre, he offered his skills pro bono for a two month consultancy period at the end of which the Board was presented with a fifty-page report outlining exactly what problems they faced and possible solutions.  Needless to say, they offered him the job as Chief Executive.  After negotiating his release with Shakespeare’s Globe, Gregory accepted.  The rest is history.

But what exactly had gone wrong with The Maltings?  How had things got so desperate?

Gregory cites three main issues: programming, the building itself and artistic leadership.  The theatre had been putting on an average of 2.4 performances a week, with lacklustre tribute acts featuring heavily.  Compare that with 11–14 performances a week of top quality theatre, music and dance that currently run and it is easy to see why the venue had been haemorrhaging money.   To be fair – and Gregory is never less than scrupulously fair – this 2.4 strategy had worked for a number of years, but ticket sales had fallen away as people sought something new.   In a well-meant yet undeniably naive bid to save money, management had failed to invest and diversify, unwittingly hastening the theatre to within a whisker of closure.

If Gregory regrets anything it’s that not all the pre-existing staff shared his inner vision.  It was, he says, never his intention to lose people on the way.  He had hoped to share an adventure, never expecting from them anything he wasn’t prepared to put in himself.   To prove this, one of his first acts as Chief Executive was to pick up a paintbrush.  He reasoned the refurbishment of the building would create a buzz of excitement and be seen as a vanguard of deeper change to come.  And it worked.  To see such a rapid transformation must have acted as an enormous morale boost for disheartened staff, and for the public instilled confidence and renewed belief in the venue.

Since Gregory and his team first wielded their paintbrushes, the rise and rise of The Maltings’ fortunes has been well documented in the local and national press, and trumpeted on the theatre’s website:  once selling a mere 23,000 tickets a year it now sells almost 50,000; box office income for the year ending 31st March 2011 is 44% higher than the previous twelve months.  Income from ticket sales has increased by 96%.  Box office income has increased from £98,000 to £289,000 last financial year.  Total income (excluding state funding) has increased by 53% on the previous year, 179% since 2008 despite a reduction in annual state funding.  All achieved with the same level of staffing.

The figures are impressive.  But now suddenly Berwick has so much more to lose, and there is alarm in several quarters that Gregory’s departure could trigger a back slide.

Gregory is adamant this won’t be the case.  “For a start,” he explains, “The Maltings building itself can never go back to how it was.  The refurbishment programme has ensured it is now an entirely different and more diverse building containing two theatres instead of one, and with a regional if not national reputation.”  Secondly, he reminds us of the Arts Council investment and how they will be necessarily keen to keep things on track.   Thirdly, he has every confidence his replacement (currently a closely guarded secret) will continue the innovation he and his team started.  And finally, Gregory has absolute confidence in the Board of Trustees, who he says have worked extremely hard over the last few years towards improving the theatre.  “None of the changes we have made would have been possible without the support of the Board, particularly our Chairman, Maurice Ward.  He’s been a real mentor to me.”

But this doesn’t mean there is room for complacency. The venue is only just breaking even after inheriting a £50,000 annual deficit three years ago and suffering from cut-backs in national state funding.  Momentum must be maintained, and Gregory believes a bright future is assured for The Maltings provided those in charge are not afraid to keep changing and adapting, staying fresh, vital and relevant.  Personally, he would like to see the theatre move towards working with theatre companies to produce its own touring productions.

The future of The Maltings appears on a sure-footing, but what about that of Gregory?  The idea of him taking on the family fashion business in New Zealand had been mooted for as long as he can remember, and the time has now come to stand by promises.  He’s excited by the prospect, looking forward to working in the private sector where the directive is simpler and there are fewer agencies involved in any decision-making process. The past three years may have been mentally and emotionally exhausting, but Gregory is already open to the new opportunities heading his way, as keen as ever on the journey and typically less concerned about the destination.

So, here we are.  At the end of Miles Gregory’s three year tenure.  What would he say are the achievements of which he is most proud?

Gregory becomes animated.  “Providing platforms for local people to express themselves creatively.”  This flies in the face of allegations that Gregory has neglected community theatre in the course of reviving The Maltings, claims Gregory dismisses as “pretty damn inaccurate”.  This is the only point in the interview that Gregory is visibly annoyed.  He is proud that under his stewardship The Maltings now supports six new community theatre companies, regularly encourages new writing and is the first provincial venue in the country to regularly programme a derelict building in the town as a venue for site-specific performance; all this in addition to the community theatre projects that ran under the theatre’s previous incarnation.  This places it firmly in the heart of the town, a position of responsibility that Gregory has been happy to take on.

“I have huge affection for the town of Berwick and many fond memories of the fifteen years we’ve called the town home.  I see what I have done as a way of repaying the town’s hospitality to my family and I over the years and to show my affection and gratitude.”

Gregory must have caught NOTBAd’s possibly sardonic expression.  He checks himself.  “And because of the challenge, naturally.”

Bon voyage, Miles and Bob.

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