Stuart Macbeth talks to the chief executive of Oxford Playhouse about her first year

Oxford Playhouse chief executive Louise Chantal, who took up her post last September, reflects: “My first year has gone in a flash but now I can hardly remember life before the Playhouse.

“On my first day we had a breakfast meeting and I had to make a speech. I was shaking with nerves. A few weeks later I said to someone that I had been a right mess. ‘Oh no,’ they replied. ‘You looked quite human!’.”

Louise had previously worked extensively as a producer and director at the Edinburgh Festival, Soho Theatre, and at the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad. But she was no stranger to the theatre on Beaumont Street.

Louise was born in Bradford and began to help out with lighting and design on school productions at the local grammar school. Her interest in theatre blossomed at Oxford when she won a place at Lincoln College to read English.

“I didn’t get much academic work done,” she reveals, “I was producing about six plays a term by the end of my first year.”

Louise was at Oxford from 1987 to 1991, a period which coincided with the seven-year closure of the Oxford Playhouse, although students were occasionally allowed to open the theatre for productions.

“Apart from very rare exceptions we had to put plays on in rooms,” she tells me, “the biggest space available for us to use were the Newman Rooms on St Aldates which we would hire from the Catholic Chaplaincy. To do the lighting we would have to run everything off two 13 amp plugs. It wasn’t ideal.”

After months of avid participation Louise was elected president of Oxford University Dramatic Society. Towards the end of her second year an unexpected phone call came through the porters’ lodge at Lincoln.

“Cameron Mackintosh, who of course I hadn’t heard of before that time, was planning to donate money to the university towards student theatre. Quite rightly, he didn’t want to do so until he had consulted us and asked where we thought the money could be best spent.

“I was one of three people from OUDS who went to his house in Newbury on a Saturday afternoon. I came back and took the next year off, working with the university on setting up a structure for theatre. The result was that I became the first University of Oxford drama officer. I remember flying out to Japan with OUDS as part of our world tour. I had never been on an aeroplane before.”

As drama officer Louise raised the money necessary to open the Burton Taylor Theatre to the public.

“Previously it had only been open to students, but I was determined to put on theatre for real people.”

A decade of working in arts marketing followed Oxford, before Louise decided to concentrate on producing and directing.

She won no fewer than nine Fringe First awards as a producer at Edinburgh Festival, where she also worked as programmes director before moving on to produce in London in 2010.

And now Oxford.

“I’m honoured to be back,” she says humbly. “I first came here as I student and I care a lot about it. In my very first week as CEO we had the National Theatre of Scotland in with A Time O’ Strife. John Kazek who was in the play had also been in As You Like It back in 1989 when I was selling tickets in the Playhouse box office!

“On opening night I was standing in the foyer with him, and his children for whom I had babysat. It felt as though I hadn’t been away for 24 years.”

As for what we can expect from her, the decision to produce work has been a decisive part of Louise’s first year, The Tempest last month being a moot point and the first production the Playhouse has been involved in for seven years, excluding the annual pantomime.

“The production was very brave and ridiculously pretty,” she beams. “The designs and music were just beautiful. Producing has been a popular decision with staff. Producing means we can create ownership of our own work. That is the lifeblood of a great theatre.”

Louise also plans to introduce a Playhouse-produced family show over the summer months to rival the annual pantomime and is unapologetic about reaching out to a wider audience.

“The programme at the Oxford Playhouse is very good. We put on a good range from the very best theatre in the country. But I don’t just want to put on radical, iconoclastic, internecine theatre. We are also going to do things like Jeeves and Wooster.

“We’re going to stage the variety of shows which our audience want because we’re here to serve them and ensure they keep coming back. I want people in Oxford to feel the theatre is for them.”

The most popular event in the Playhouse calendar is, of course, the annual pantomime and this year’s Aladdin will be no exception.

Thousands of tickets are already sold for the production which will feature stalwart theatre veteran Nigel Betts in the role of Widow Twankey.

New panto director Steve Marmion is set to replace Peter Duncan after “nine brilliant years”.

“Steve Marmion has previously directed pantomime at the Lyric Hammersmith and is a real panto nerd,” Louise enthuses. “He is obsessed about the history, derivation and development of panto.

“Aladdin will be a traditional panto for the 21st century, set in Oxford with a solid cast who reflect the audience we serve. The panto is a great example of theatre as a collective experience in an increasingly isolated world. It’s a place we can all go to together.”

Summing up her first year, Louise says it has been “the best year of my life”.

She adds: “Running a theatre and being able to lead around 100 staff is about the most fun you could ever have! I don’t see this job as a stepping stone to anywhere else.

“My aim is for the Oxford Playhouse to become a world-leading, beacon theatre.”