It's eight o'clock on an overcast October morning in the concrete tundra of London's South Bank as Genista McIntosh slips through the silent stage door of the Royal National Theatre (RNT). There's still an hour remaining before the telephones begin to ring in earnest and meetings gather in the wings. So McIntosh seizes the chance of a rare moment of quiet to study the previous day's box-office figures, to catch up with her correspondence and to bone up on some Young Vic paperwork before an imminent board meeting. Apart from a brief spell as agent, McIntosh has worked exclusively in the subsidised arts sector since 1972, latterly taking only a few sips from the poisoned chalice belonging to the chief executive of the Royal Opera House before gratefully reclaiming her post as the RNT's executive director, a position she has occupied since 1990.
In her early fifties, she is the divorced mother of Alexander (22) and Flora (19) and she adds to her RNT portfolio membership of the boards of the Young Vic, the Theatre Museum and the Sadler's Wells Trust. A fellow of the RSA, she chairs the South East London Common Purpose and has recently been appointed to the board of NESTA - the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. If there is a British arts establishment, McIntosh is its reigning queen and is often labelled in a piece of easy journalese that makes her wince 'the most powerful woman in the British theatre'.
Gradually the National stirs from its Thames-side torpor. Today there are both matinee and evening performances of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Lyttelton and of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, an adaptation of the novel by Salman Rushdie, in the Cottesloe.
The Olivier, the largest of the RNT's three auditoria is dark since Oklahoma! climbed into its surrey with a fringe on the top and departed for an eventual West End run. An inevitably fraught production week is now in train for the new production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra with Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren in the title roles and so Ancient Egypt and Imperial Rome are being recreated where only recently the corn was as high as an elephant's eye. Director Sean Mathias has confessed that he's 48 hours behind schedule and there's already been a clash with Katie Morrow-Smith, head of costume - the tensions caused mainly by the absence of the costume designer on an overrunning opera in Belgium. Trevor Nunn, the National's artistic director, is in the early stages of rehearsal of his production of Pinter's Betrayal, while in the West End the National is represented by the long-running An Inspector Calls at the Garrick and Patrick Marber's Closer in its final month at the Lyric. The revival of Oh What A Lovely War is days away from closure at the Roundhouse while Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, another South Bank original, will open shortly at the Haymarket.
McIntosh oversees an annual RNT expenditure of £30 million, offset by its £11.5-million public subsidy and the £19 million it raises from the box office, its trading activities and its increasingly vital fundraising schemes. She employs a staff of approximately 800, ranging from theatrical knights to programme-sellers, from barmen to booksellers, from sound engineers to security men. All this world's a stage and there are myriad dramas played out each day in every corner of this building.
9.30: The coffee cups are handed round as the members of the management planning meeting stream into the McIntosh office for their weekly encounter.
She takes the chair, faced by Lew Hodges, the softly spoken head of finance and IT, by Maggie Whitlum, the no-nonsense general manager whose extensive brief embraces everything that happens in the building away from the stage, by down-to-earth David Roberts, whose technical department takes care of everything on the stage except the acting, by Bernie McDermott, the affable head of development and by Vivien Wallace, the sharp-tongued head of public affairs. The presence of Padraig Cusack, head of planning, is promised but fails to materialise. Scarcely have they launched into the first hot topic - a petition protesting against the cancellation of the Christmas party (in which Trevor Nunn is cast as Scrooge) - than an expectant face appears at the door. It is Mark Dakin, the Lyttelton's production manager, who seems concerned that McIntosh has company. She promises to find a space to see him in the afternoon and returns to the subject of Christmas. It appears that there has been an agreed policy decision to alternate the adults' Christmas party with an event designed for the children and she urges that they hold to that decision while tracking down the source of the discontent and responding to it. Whitlum then updates the meeting on the state of negotiations with BECTU (Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union), the third union alongside Equity and the MU (musicians' union) which the RNT recognises, as another three-year agreement is slowly hammered out. There is talk of the EU's working time directive, which has recently passed into law, and its likely impact in an industry where long hours are regularly worked in order to get a show on the stage. Concern is raised over an article in the previous day's Guardian relating to the RNT's annual report which featured a grim-faced McIntosh and an imaginative headline, 'National in dire cash straits despite packed audiences'. Wallace dismisses the whole affair as 'the tiniest blip' and speculates that the journalist who wrote the story was taking advantage of the absence of the Guardian's arts correspondent to do a bit of wave-making poaching. McIntosh explains that she'd felt the hack concerned had been disappointed by the lack of crisis in the figures.
'Journalists simply aren't interested in good or neutral news: "It was a very small earthquake and nobody died". I tried very hard to kill that story but ...'
There is a last-minute reference to muttering in the ranks over the allocation of complimentary preview tickets. Who is entitled to what and why? McIntosh tries once again to reach the nub of the issue. 'It may be time for a review she says before making the sage observation, born of more than 25 years' experience of large organisations. 'Sometimes dogs are best left sleeping. Anomalies and contradictions are the stuff of life.'
12.00: Only 75 minutes have elapsed since their last meeting but as midday is reached Whitlum and Hodges are back in McIntosh's office for the weekly gathering of the three most senior RNT executives. Hodges, whose Whispering Bob Harris tones grow even more sotto voce whenever he feels he has bad news to impart, comes armed with a basketful of cans of worms. In his role as head of finance, he has to act occasionally as the theatre's law enforcer whenever the proper procedures have been neglected.
Hodges complains about events at the Studio, the RNT's development hothouse where actors, writers, directors, designers can hone their skills away from the public gaze. In the current turnover of staff, some people have been offered freelance contracts (Schedule D) with no reference to the personnel department. Some positions have been advertised within the RNT, other appointments appear to have been made in camera. Whitlum supports her colleague's general thesis: 'It may be creating a paper trail but it's very difficult to get managers to abide by the rules if other senior managers fail to do so.'
McIntosh prefers to opt for the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory, citing poor communications rather than anything more sinister, apropos recruitment policy at the Studio. In reply to Hodges' repeated expressions of anxiety, she decides on a general rather than an individual rap over the knuckles.
The discussion moves onto embrace the current travails of the engineering department. The National has recently concluded a £42-million refurbishment programme, and engineering has borne the brunt of the clearing-up process.
All support services throughout the building - from paperclip provision to personnel - seem to be sagging under the weight of the rest of the organisation's expectations. Here McIntosh moves into overdrive.
'We need to be clear about what we want to achieve. There's a whole raft of factors affecting how people work and extra burdens are being placed on those who are already under pressure. Do we have the right people doing the jobs that have to be done? There's been a sudden influx of new technological aids but what is the point of putting in a fancy new telephone system if nobody knows how to maintain it? We can't go on stretching this piece of elastic.'
From the businesslike optimism of the 9.30 meeting McIntosh is now showing signs of stir-craziness. There are reports on the ongoing discussions with the Contributions Agency over likely reclaiming of Class 1 National Insurance and Hodges has his eye on a vacant office to house a project scheduled to run until the end of February and she agrees to his taking temporary possession. At 1.35, a dejected McIntosh asks feelingly, 'Is that it?' and she joins Sarah Collins, her PA, to examine what has appeared in her message book since the start of the working day. It's a mixed bag.
There's an actress to be mollified who feels aggrieved that the director blatantly preferred her rival in a head-to-head for a part in the forthcoming revival of Peter Pan, and the stage-door staff are grumbling about their exclusion from the complimentary preview ticket scheme. Vivien Wallace wants clearance to extend a consultant's contract, Lyn Haill, head of publications, has booked herself in for a 5pm appointment, and would McIntosh be available to be a member of the audience for a special 50th anniversary of Any Questions, the Radio 4 veteran she enjoys both as listener and participant? Perhaps most urgent is a cri de coeur from the company of Cleo, Camping Emmanuelle and Dick, the critically acclaimed comedy which takes us behind the scenes of four Carry On epics. Spirits are low because the actors have learnt that the show will close on 16 January rather than on 13 March, the date when their contracts expire. McIntosh explains that the extra eight weeks is to cover a projected provincial tour prior to a mooted West End transfer. The waters are further muddied by the non-availability of Geoffrey Hutchings, already committed to another project, when he stepped into the role of Sid James in the wake of the departure of the first actor cast in the role. McIntosh undertakes to liaise with Roger Chapman, the RNT's head of touring, and with Thelma Holt, the prospective West End producer of the show, to make the future a little clearer. At 1.50 she makes her way down two floors to a bustling canteen and chews reflectively on a sandwich.
14.30: The action now moves to the much larger conference room for the fortnightly briefing meeting and participants drift into the assembly in various states of excitement. The indefatigable Whitlum and Hodges put in another appearance, followed by Roberts and Wallace from this morning's first meeting. But there are also ample new faces: Jack Bradley, literary manager, Wendy Spon of casting, Jenny Harris, head of education, Diane Benjamin, contracts manager, Clare O'Brien of development, Roger Chapman, head of touring, Sue Higginson of the Studio, and Padraig Cusack, head of planning (and yet another member of that theatrical family), happily restored to us since his absence from the management planning meeting.
McIntosh sits at the head of the table, dutifully taking notes as each participant makes his or her contribution. Bradley gives details of the latest playwrights to be given attachments to the Studio, Spon reports on casting for Peter Pan, Oklahoma! and The Forest (more anon) and adds that approaches are now being made to actors to join the resident company Nunn is hoping to form.
Diane Benjamin has news of the tortuous negotiations surrounding the Broadway transfer of Closer which involves haggling over the cast. Both British and American Equity take a dim view of actors encroaching on others' patches and generally only those accorded 'star' status will be allowed to perform on foreign territory. An upbeat Jenny Harris tells of the imminent stellar launch of National Connections, a young people's theatre initiative, there is news of the Studio's forum, On speaking a classical text, for which a wily Sue Higginson has organised a heavyweight line-up of Sir Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, the RSC's Adrian Noble and scholar/director John Barton by claiming to each one that the other three are already committed. There is less good news, however, from Liverpool where a co-production between the RNT and the Everyman Theatre has been coldly received by the locals. McIntosh briskly winds up the meeting.
15.40: Mark Dakin, the morning interloper, is already waiting outside McIntosh's office, flanked by the colleagues he has brought for moral support. Within minutes of taking his seat, he launches into a catalogue of woes. Beset at every side with demands on his time with tours, transfers and the festive season holiday entitlement to be factored into the Lyttelton production office timetable, Dakin was already nearing the end of his tether. Now the designer, William Dudley, renowned for the ingenuity of his work, has unveiled a model of his set for The Forest, the 19th-century Russian classic by Ostrovsky which Anthony Page is directing for a February opening. Not only is Dudley's design likely to cost £350,000 - three times the budget figure - but the empire furniture that he has specified needs to be sourced and ordered within a week and the painters will be unable to handle the work until early December. Everywhere Dakin looks there are horrendous problems. McIntosh raises an imperious hand and staunches the flow of complaints.
'Let's stop this now,' she commands. 'There's no way we're going to spend money on Bill Dudley's train set. Let's tackle this elephant by breaking it down into little bits. We'll do it in stages. First of all, we have to decide who speaks to Bill and what do they tell him? Forget Closer and The Invention of Love - it's up to the commercial producers to supply the resource. We have to get things in the right order.' Calmly and methodically she summarises the priorities facing Dakin. She observes wryly that 'even on a bad day' Page is unlikely to be surprised to hear of the National's reluctance to spend £350,000 on the design of his production. Dakin, morale visibly lifting after he has unburdened himself, silently digests McIntosh's exhortations. 'Then perhaps I should have that conversation with Bill.' The crisis is passed - normal service has now resumed.
The postponement of her scheduled meeting with the Studio's Higginson enables McIntosh to make a rare foray away from her office. At 4.45. she takes a peep into the Olivier where a lighting technician, surrounded by a bank of computer screens, sits patiently awaiting instruction. She watches as another piece of Antony and Cleopatra's spectacular set is slotted into position and then she reluctantly returns to her desk.
As promised Lyn Haill looks in to check the roster of RNT employees whose names are now printed in the National's programmes - a laudable innovation but a task which is surely a logistical nightmare. Vivien Wallace wins her approval for her consultant's contract and Roberts rings to summarise the meeting with Dakin.
It is now 5.30 and as darkness steals across the river, McIntosh switches on her desk-lamp and in this pool of light she looks out of her window and gazes at the serenely flowing waters of the Thames - an invaluable aid, she says, to concentration and reflection. She ponders on the day's events. It had, she declares, been very disappointing. Why? 'There's been an unusually high proportion of nitty-gritty problems. Normally I'd expect two a week - not five in a single day. It's also been most unusual in that I've largely stayed in my office and I dislike feeling that I've been pinned to my desk. Days like this one leave me no thinking time.'
Other senior figures in arts administration have been recruited from outside the industry and have accordingly performed with differing degrees of success, often handicapped by the insiders' prejudice against the layman.
But McIntosh, steeped in 25 years of the performing arts, can engage with temperamental actors and egomaniac directors on an equal footing.
'The actors and directors, writers and designers are not employees of the National Theatre and you can't try to manage them. You have to strike a balance. The strictness with which we police our budgets - and the board watches production costs with a particularly beady eye - has to be tempered with the need to support the relationship between our production managers and the visiting director/designer. I often deliberately cast myself as the villain of the piece in order to give them both someone to blame.
When people come to work at the National, they bring their aspirations for what they want to achieve and we must remember that they can make or break the theatre's reputation.'
Like all organisations of comparable size that embrace such a diversity of operations, the RNT seems addicted to meetings - McIntosh has 11 permanently inscribed in her diary. 'The one thing I have learnt is that information will only be permeated throughout the building if it is endlessly repeated. At the National we try to work in a fairly collaborative way and to an extent we act in these meetings as a sounding board for each other.
Our management structure is pretty flat and I'm surrounded by people who are highly motivated and who are capable of exercising personal autonomy.
So nine out of 10 of the problems which come through my door will be solved by the people who bring them. They don't need me to offer anything other than an endorsement. In my opinion that is the best kind of management, one which gives other people the power to do things themselves.'
Does McIntosh have an overriding strategy? 'When I first came into the theatre, organisations such as the National, the RSC and the Royal Court were seen as touchstones of the culture. Now what we're battling against is not simply a decline in funding but sheer indifference and a lack of consensus as to what we are for. Theatre has always had the ability to re-invent itself. It has changed as society has changed and it is up to us to try and grapple with that change.'
18.55: With a call to daughter Flora to establish who is on supper duty that evening, McIntosh shuffles her papers and prepares to leave for the day. Over the tannoy, stage management gives the half-hour call, which perversely signifies 35 minutes to the start of the shows. On the Lyttelton stage, 1930s Edinburgh awaits another arrival of Miss Brodie in her prime while in the Cottesloe Haroun prepares to set sail on his sea of stories once again. And the foyers hum with the kind of life they have attracted since Lasdun's building opened in 1976. Why must the show go on? Noel Coward once asked rhetorically. McIntosh and her colleagues still believe they know the answer.