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A player of many roles takes the lead in theatre

SHEFFIELD-born Chris Monks will step into the formidable shoes of Alan Ayckbourn as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough next month.

Although his track record as a director and writer of exciting productions in the round fits neatly into the parameters of the SJT stage, he nevertheless might not seem the obvious choice to succeed the doyen of English contemporary theatre, partly because of his unorthodox career path towards running one of the most influential regional theatres.

With his background in working-class Sheffield, it is the equivalent of the apprentice rising to managing director.

"I grew up in a family from the Darnall and Attercliffe area who had worked in steelworks and on the railways for generations and I was the first to do further education," he says.

"I went to Thornbridge Grammar which was a fabulous place for the arts. I had a charismatic music teacher, James Kirkwood, and Terry Gifford (the poet) was my English teacher.

"That was where I discovered a love of languages but I got sidetracked into music," explains Monks, who went to study woodwind and jazz composition at the Leeds College of Music.

Although reluctant to be a performer, he ended up playing sax in working men's clubs. "That's how I paid my way through college, apart from a stint in the parks department in Sheffield cutting grass and planting wallflowers," he recalls.

"When I finished college I carried on as a performer and got into a folk band which toured the country but I became disillusioned living in a van with a bunch of other guys."

After packing it in and back home living with his mum and dad, he found himself at a loss as to what to do next.

The solution came when some people he knew from Sheffield Youth Theatre put him touch with a youth theatre in Manchester who got him to write music for their productions.

That marked a move to the west side of the Pennines, where he stayed for most of his career until now.

The move into working in the theatre came when he spotted an advert for a job as a driver at Manchester's Royal Exchange. "I spent the next six months learning about theatre through the stage crew, in between driving to London and back to pick up props. It was a real apprenticeship."

In turn that led to being taken on as an assistant stage manager. "It was 1977 and the time when Albert Finney, Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron were there, that class of actor," he recalls.

Before long Monks' musical abilities came to the fore, first working with Tom Courtenay in a show where he was required to learn to play music, and eventually he was to score more than 50 productions for the Royal Exchange.

When he was promoted to the theatre's stage manager, he was still taking on music commissions. "Basically I never went home," reflects Monks.

Eventually realising he had taken on too much, he took the decision to go freelance.

This led him to writing the songs for Trafford Tanzi, for Contact Theatre, Manchester, working first with Toyah Wilcox and later in New York with Debbie Harry and Andy Kaufman.

Also in the early 1980s he was musical director on Lennon (and appeared on stage as Brian Epstein) for the Everyman, Liverpool, which later transferred to the West End, New York and Australia.

"They were what established me really," he says. "It was important that I was able to show I could work with actors."

The move into directing came after he helped found the Arden School of Theatre in Manchester.

As a way of engaging with 30 19-year-olds he came up with the idea of setting Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado on a cricket field, which a few years later he reworked in a professional production at the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme. It was the first of many music theatre adaptations which have been an essential part of the company's repertoire and made his reputation.

His first professional production as a director was actually Music Hall at the Bolton Octagon in 1990 and he also directed for D'O'yly Carte Opera (The Count of Luxembourg), The Belgrade, Coventry (Romeo and Juliet), and Salisbury Playhouse (Blues in the Night).

He began to branch out into a broad range of productions. He has also written for the stage, most recently Don Giovanni which completed a trilogy of Mozart adaptations at the Vic, alongside The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro.

Monks admits to being both daunted and excited at the challenge of being only the third artistic director in the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (after the founder and Ayckbourn).

"I haven't had a regular paid job since being stage manager at the Royal Exchange," he says, "but I have wanted to run a company for a long time.

"I covered for maternity leave at the Vic and that give me the taste for it. One of the things I have always been good at is motivating and inspiring people."

Monks, who still has family in Sheffield, has moved from his Cheshire home to the Scarborough area with his partner Jan Birkett, the actress who played Billy Elliot's mother (seen as a ghost) in the movie.

As he prepares his first season as artistic director this summer, he says one of his priorities is to engage the local community.

"I am an unashamed popularist," he says. "I want to get people through the doors. Theatre belongs to everyone and we should never lose sight of that."

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