WHETHER in press night chic or visiting the Everyman building site in fluorescent safety gear, Deborah Aydon is one of those people who seems always in control.
Behind the closed door of her office at the Playhouse she may be secretly railing at the gods of government arts funding or sighing at her huge to-do list, but in public she appears entirely calm – the composed, witty yin to artistic director Gemma Bodinetz’s theatrically impassioned yang.
The perfect team, anyone who has witnessed the rise of the two sister theatres since the two women took over in 2003 would surely conclude.
Over the past nine years, they have returned to producing high quality in-house shows, launched the careers of exciting new Liverpool playwrights, expanded the youth theatre, tempted back celebrated alumni including Pete Postlethwaite, David Morrissey and Jonathan Pryce, cast Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra, begun a £28m Everyman rebuild, reopened the Playhouse Studio and toured work as far as the US and Australia.
Just this week, they announced that their Oscar-nominated co-production Ghost Stories will be opening at Moscow’s Yauza Palace.
Aydon’s love of theatre was not easily won. Born in Dundee, she moved to Oxfordshire at the age of three – a convenient location both for Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company and London’s West End.
As a teenager she was taken on regular theatre trips by her father, who had in turn seen his first shows at the Liverpool Playhouse while growing up in Chester.
It took a while for his passion to hook his daughter, but when he did it stuck firm.
“The play that really clicked for me was at the Royal Court, called Class Enemy, about a bunch of very rebellious school kids.
“I was 14 and a 19-year-old Phil Daniels was in it, who was my bad boy crush at the time. It knocked my socks off that something as visceral and political and sweary could be on a stage.”
In her final term at the University of Kent, with her French and Film Studies degree almost completed, Aydon visited the careers department where she picked up a leaflet that said “whatever you do don’t leave this until your final year”.
She completed a psychometric test that offered her job options including banking, accountancy, social work, air cabin crew and arts administration. The latter seemed the best fit.
“I did know there was such a thing,” she explains.
“When I was a kid my dad was very involved in the establishment of Chipping Norton Theatre, created by an amazing woman called Tamara Malcolm and her husband John in an old Salvation Army citadel.
“That’s where I got to see backstage and just sit and marvel at Tamara, who had been in Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was hugely exotic, grew up in Paris, trained at Rada and had landed like an alien spacecraft in this little Cotswold market town.
“I was 11 or 12 and I felt like I knew a secret that other people didn’t know.”
After graduation, she took a £2-per-hour job as a press and marketing officer for the Canterbury Festival where one of her tasks was to dress the city in posters, bunting and banners. It took her the entire summer to arrange and they all blew away in the 1987 hurricane a few days before the festival began.
Fast-forward 16 years, including an eight year spell as the Bush Theatre’s general manager, and, firmly ensconced in her role as executive producer of Dublin’s Rough Magic Theatre Company, Aydon saw an advertisement for the two positions of executive and artistic directors of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.
A rare opportunity to go into a theatre as a partnership was hard to pass up. She thought about who she would like to work with and contacted Bodinetz.
“We’d worked together at The Bush when she directed (Liverpool playwright) Helen Blakeman’s first play Caravan,” says Aydon.
“We got on well, liked the same theatre, made each other laugh and, although we hadn’t particularly kept in touch, we’d kept an eye on what each other was doing.
“I sent her an email saying ‘just wondering are you going for Liverpool’? And here we are.”
In their first week they realised Liverpool was no ordinary city. Sitting outside the Rodney Street restaurant Puschka with the theatres’ literary manager, Suzanne Bell, and a huge pile of scripts, they were accosted by a man who propped his bike against a lamp post before haranguing them about how the Everyman should be producing more work by Liverpool playwrights.
“I can’t imagine any other city where that would happen, where people would care enough to come and shout at you in the street,” says Aydon, 47. “It was terrifying but fantastic.
“Gemma’s phrase is ‘everything we do has to be a three-course meal’. The work we do has to entertain, be emotionally and intellectually engaging and it has to matter. This city’s been through such a lot and has such powerful personality and spirit that you can’t fail to acknowledge that in everything we do.
“Some of the work we’ve done that’s been the most satisfying has surprised us. Yellowman in our first season was a European premiere of a Pulitzer-winning play about internal racism in the black community of the Deep South in the 1960s, so very distant from a huge number of people in Liverpool, but because of its emotional directness and its humanity it connected absolutely with Liverpool audiences.
“That was really inspiring for us because it meant we could be really ambitious about the sort of work people would have an appetite for.”
Being executive director involves “probably everything that was on that careers advice slip” – raising funding, ensuring it is spent wisely, setting a standard for ambitious, quality work and creating a safe, inspiring environment for artists.
It also, it turns out, involves sponsored parachute jumping – Aydon’s contribution to the An Everyone for the Everyman fundraising campaign, launched this week.
“It’s one of the maddest and scariest things I’ll ever do in my life but if that’s not in the spirit of the Everyman then I don’t know what is,” she laughs. “I’m not phobic of heights, I only have the rational fear, but at 10,000ft it’s too high to be a height, it’s beyond heights, it’s something else entirely.
“I’ve sneakily always wanted to do it. My cousin was in the Red Devils and I’ve a bit of a fondness of the scarier fairground rides. It’s been a great way of getting people’s attention at meetings by saying ‘I’m going to be jumping out of a plane so what are you doing?’.”
Aydon will stay in her current post “for as long as I’m useful”. There is still much to be done – opening the new Everyman (the arrival of “cranecam” photographs of the building site on a Friday afternoon is a highlight of her week) followed by the redevelopment of the Playhouse to improve facilities backstage, in the auditorium and front of house as well as reopen the theatre’s original entrance.
“When we arrived the first thing we were sent was a big lever-arch file with a feasibility study – at the time the proposal was to abandon both sites and create a new combined theatre.
“I’m very glad we were able to decide both locations were not only viable but also really inspiring.”