When the heads of both the Royal National Theatre and Royal Opera House raised concerns about having the world “Royal” in their titles, it seemed the world of stage could be turning away from its association with the monarchy for fear of putting off new younger audiences.
Not any more, it seems.
News of a private meeting between the Duchess of Sussex and Rufus Norris, the artistic director of the National Theatre, has inspired hopes that the Duchess may take on a patronage in the theatre world, in a boost for the industry’s drive for inclusion.
Doing so would mix the Duchess’ former career as an actress with her new role as a working royal, with directors saying her background could help bring in diverse new communities to arts organisations.
Norris, who has been the director of the National Theatre since 2015, is a staunch advocate for broadening theatre audiences, pledging to increase diversity on stage and off as well as promising a 50-50 gender balance.
The Duchess has twice undertaken public engagements relating to the theatre in the last month: attending the Royal Variety Performance with her husband, and making a solo visit to a care home for retired actors.
In the new year, she is due to announce her patronages, expected to name a number of organisations she will build a lifelong relationship with.
At least one will be handed over to her by the Queen, it has been reported. Palace aides have previously emphasised how the Duchess has been at work behind the scenes, claiming she has been undertaking numerous and regular private meetings to establish how she could best make a difference to charities in Britain and the Commonwealth.
Last week, the official record of the Royal Family’s work reported: “The Duchess of Sussex today received Mr Rufus Norris (Artistic Director, the National Theatre).”
She is also known to have met with representative from the Campaign for Female Education, which works to empower young women in Africa, and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.
The Duchess of Cambridge already holds patronages in the visual arts, at the V&A and National Portrait Gallery, while the Prince of Wales is the patron of the Georgian Theatre Royal, the Mariinsky Theatre Trust, the Theatre Royal Bath and Unicorn Theatre for Children.
The Queen herself is patron of the Royal National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
“This country is still very class divided and anything that adds to that perception, that this place is not open to everybody, could be a downfall,” he said. “I fear that for some people that [the ‘Royal’ prefix] adds to that perception.”
Alex Beard, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House, shared similar sentiments in September, telling a newspaper that the “royals are by definition 'other'” and that the use of the word could be “a bit off-putting”.
Alex Clifton, artistic director of Storyhouse, which the Duchess of Sussex visited with the Queen during a visit to Chester in June, said yesterday that “any arts organisations would really benefit from having her on board as an advocate”.
“As an artist and actor herself, she understands the practice and can speak with authority,” he said. “She’s an accessible, dynamic, modern-facing presence: it’s impossible to overstate the impact that someone with her authority can have on people’s lives.
“As an industry we speak very easily and confidently to existing audiences. The challenge is to reach new, more diverse, more traditionally marginalised communities.
“The Duchess provides extraordinary leverage into a massive range of communities. She’s a really powerful voice and can help any theatre achieve more of its mission, in terms of telling stories to as many and as broad a range of people as possible.”
A spokesman for the National Theatre said they would not comment on private meetings.