Chris Lacey – chief Stables hand
Chris Lacey has been part of the ‘non-professional’ theatre scene around here since 1975. In those 42 years he’s been actor, director, manager and pretty much every other role it’s possible to be, on and off-stage. For the first eight years he was with the Bexhill Amateur Theatrical Society (BATS), before moving along the coast to The Stables, Hastings’s remarkable – and outstanding – theatre company. He is the fourth in HOT’s occasional series of people who help define what makes this town so special. Toby Sargent interviewed him.
It comes as no great surprise to learn that Chris Lacey – actor, director, manager and all-round doyen of The Stables theatre in the Old Town – was once in advertising, before making a successful career in teaching. He has the easy charm and quick wittedness of the ad man, coupled with the wisdom, patience and leadership skills of the teacher. His love of – and involvement with – the stage began much earlier, however.
“I was interested in the theatre from a very young age – I was in the National Youth Theatre in the 1960s. My proudest boast is that Helen Mirren used to do my make-up!” he laughs.
“I was involved in school productions and at university in East Anglia. Colin Callender was one of my contemporaries in the Drama Society there in the early 1970s. He went on to become managing director of HBO in the States, so it was a fertile place to be.
“My wife and I debated whether we should go into the theatre because we were so interested in it. In fact that’s how we met – I auditioned her at university.”
In the end he chose what must have seemed a safer path and went into advertising. But as with so many of the creative industries, then and now, timing is everything and Chris’s time in that high-octane business coincided with a recession. Nobody was buying anything so the ad men and women felt the pinch as companies’ marketing budgets were slashed.
So he went into teaching, training in Norfolk and then getting a first post down here at Hailsham School from 1975-83, then Homewood School in Tenterden as head of history 1983-91, then vice principal there from 1991-2000. At that point he was headhunted by Helenswood, who made him their deputy headteacher. They needed someone to write their bid to become a performing arts specialist school, something he had successfully done at Homewood.
“I had ten very happy years at Helenswood, but all the time there was this other life in parallel for both my wife and me – and our daughter – in amateur theatre,” he continues. Not that the expression ‘Am-Dram’ is one he has any time for: “We’re not amateurs, we’re non-professionals, and that’s an important distinction, because of the standard we get to.”
From BATS to The Stables
He cites Charity Wakefield and Darren Boyd as examples of successful TV and screen actors who started their careers in this way. For Chris the move from BATS to The Stables happened when he got a call in 1982 to join the cast of Outside Edge. From then on, he became a regular member of the performing company on stage as well as directing 34 different productions (so far).
“It’s a sort of second home these days. I’ve done a lot of acting here, but not so much recently as I find it harder to remember the lines. But teaching at a senior level meant that there was never enough time as I would have liked, and directing fitted more easily into the teaching schedule. Lots of my productions were at Christmas for that reason.”
In 2010 he retired from teaching. The profession’s loss was very much The Stables’s gain, with him becoming the company’s vice-chairman in 2011 and then chairman a year later.
Four actors and 120 parts
Over the years Chris has made a point of trying to stretch the range of productions being put on, using the wonderful Stables building to its best advantage. He mentions Peter Pan where one challenge was to get characters to fly. Then there was The 39 Steps, with just four actors – which was good news for the director – playing 120 parts between them, which was rather more challenging. In 2012 he directed three plays one after the other (The Winslow Boy, The 39 Steps and A Christmas Carol), and one can only marvel at the mental gymnastics required to keep all those balls in the air.
I asked Chris about the theatre’s broad strategy in an entertainment market where competition for an audience is ever more intense, while financial pressures – for both the company and its ticket-buying customers – are relentless.
“Three for the audience and one for ourselves”
“You plan to be successful, but a lot of it is luck,” he says. “We have a strategy here: three plays for the audience, and one for ourselves. We stole that idea from Jonathan Church at the Chichester, actually, and he stole it from Olivier.
“We knew One Man, Two Guvnors would make a lot of money and it did. And that subsidises other things along the line. Nell Gwynn in the autumn will make money, and we’re doing a lovely Christmas show, Tom’s Midnight Garden, and that will too. And in between we can do things that may not make as much, but who knows?”
Broadening the audience
But whatever formula a theatre company adopts, one constant is to ensure that the demographic for both company members and the paying public is constantly refreshed. I wrote earlier this month about the importance The Stables team attach to drawing in young people. The autumn 2017 production demonstrates this.
“So the idea is to broaden the audience with a range of titles and genres. There’s one we’re doing this autumn – Let the Right One In by Jack Thorne – which is about vampires. We’re doing it on Halloween and of course there’ll be a younger demographic for that.”
“That war generation with a deep sense of community”
“Non-professional theatre reached its peak in the 1950s,” he continues. “There was that war generation with a very deep sense of community – what we have to do now is to reinvent that, and show people that it’s fun to be here.”
So The Stables seems to me to be in very good hands. Entirely run by volunteers, it is a healthy business, albeit one with a business model that few can aspire to. And Chris is team captain, keeping the plates spinning and the volunteers doing a great job.
Chris himself talks about stepping down at some point but I can’t imagine there’ll be any shortage of people trying to persuade him not to do so.
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