The history of the Royal Exchange Theatre is as dramatic as the productions on stage. 

Since 1976 we have opened our doors to the imaginations of theatre makers in this country and beyond.

Few people know that the Great Hall was once even Greater - in fact, it was twice the size. Tipped as the ‘largest room in the world’, this colossal space was one of the world’s centres for cotton trade until the Second World War, when the building took a direct hit during the Manchester blitz. Reduced in size but not stature, the Hall was repaired and saw continued trade until 1968: if you look up, you can still see the original trading board with the day’s closing figures.


Threatened with demolition and lying unused and empty, the Royal Exchange building finally looked set for a brighter future when a theatre company took up residence in 1973. Under five artistic directors - Braham Murray, Casper Wrede, Michael Elliott, Richard Negri and James Maxwell, and soon joined by Greg Hersov - the Royal Exchange Theatre Company was officially founded in 1976, along with the largest in-the-round theatre space in the country.

It may look like a lunar space craft, but the seven-sided theatre module really is a feat of engineering. Weighing in at 150 tonnes, the module is far too heavy to be supported by the floor of the Great Hall, but a stroll around the theatre soon reveals the solution: the module is “suspended” from four of the Hall’s enormous columns, leaving only the ground-floor seating and stage area to rest on the floor.


World War II was not the last time the building was to be damaged by an explosion. In 1996 an IRA bomb was detonated less than fifty metres away from the Royal Exchange building. The resulting explosion devastated the building, and it would take two years, a lot of fundraising, and over 32 million pounds from the National Lottery to repair the damage. During this time the Royal Exchange Theatre Company could be found performing in an indoor market building in Castlefield. 

Re-opened in 1998 by Prince Edward, the refurbished Theatre opened with a production of Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes, the same play that had been running when the bomb went off.

Over the years the Exchange has welcomed some of the finest actors in the UK to its stage, from Albert Finney, Leo McKern and Tom Courtenay in the Theatre’s early days through successive generations including Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Robert Lindsay, to figures such as Maxine Peake and Cush Jumbo. It has also had a reputation for spotting young actors before they become household names. Both Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant appeared at the Royal Exchange Theatre long before they made it to the silver screen.


In 2008, Sarah Frankcom was appointed Artistic Director, becoming the Royal Exchange Theatre’s first sole Artistic Director in 2014 on the departure of Greg HersovBraham Murray stepped down as Founding Artistic Director in 2012 after 36 years with the company. In February 2019, Sarah announced she was stepping down as Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange Theatre to take up a new post as Director at the prestigious drama school LAMDA. Her last day was 31 October 2019.

On 1 November 2019, Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise started as joint Artistic Directors. Bryony and Roy joined Executive Director Stephen Freeman to complete the leadership team for this award-winning theatre. Together they assumed the role of Chief Executive. Read more about the Artistic Team.


Maxine Peake, Associate Artist


Playing the title role in our 2014 production of HAMLET, Maxine has previously performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre in MISS JULIE, THE CHILDREN'S HOUR and RUTHERFORD & SON. For HAMLET, she was reunited with Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom following the huge success of THE MASQUE OF ANARCHY for the Manchester International Festival 2013. Her many TV credits include SILK, THE VILLAGE (for which she was BAFTA nominated), RED RIDING and SEE NO EVIL. Maxine was also BAFTA nominated for her performance in HANCOCK AND JOAN.

Chris Thorpe, Associate Artist


Writer and performer Chris Thorpe is a founder member of Unlimited Theatre and a member of Third Angel, a company fuelled by original and contemporary performance. Chris’ play for the Royal Exchange, THERE HAS POSSIBLY BEEN AN INCIDENT, was selected for the Berlin Stuckemarkt 2014. Other recent work includes I WISH I WAS LONELY, a collaboration with poet Hannah Jane Walker, HANNAH for Unicorn Theatre, Third Angel's WHAT I HEARD ABOUT THE WORLD, and CONFIRMATION, a collaboration with Rachel Chavkin. He plays guitar in Lucy Ellinson's #TORYCORE.

Amanda Dalton, Associate Artist

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Amanda is a writer, theatre-maker and facilitator with a strong track record in bringing artists, audiences and communities together through innovative theatre projects. Until summer 2017, she was the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Director of Engagement, leading and developing our creative learning and participation work over 18 years. Her original plays and adaptations for the Exchange include SECRET HEART, DOG BOY, STRAWGIRL, POWDER MONKEY and, most recently, the award winning NOTHING which she created with and for the theatre’s Young Company. As a poet, she has published two pamphlets and two collections with Bloodaxe Books (HOW TO DISAPPEAR and STRAY). She writes extensively for BBC Radio 4, and for BBC Radio 3 she has made radical re-visionings of the silent films THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI and NOSFERATU. She is also a Visiting Teaching Fellow in the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University. 

RashDash, Associate Artists

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RASHDASH is Abbi Greenland, Becky Wilkie and Helen Goalen. We are a company of performers, musicians and makers. We work with music, dance and theatre because we believe this can speak to an audience in the most rich, delicious, complex way. We make radical, often feminist work, that speaks to the feeling body as well as the thinking brain. Recent projects include THE DARKEST CORNERS (a large scale, outdoor, headphone show for Transform Festival 2017), TWO MAN SHOW (made with Northern Stage and Soho Theatre, Fringe First Winner 2016), SNOW WHITE & ROSE RED (a Christmas show for Cambridge Junction in 2015 and Battersea Arts Centre in 2017), WE WANT YOU TO WATCH (by RashDash and Alice Birch, National Theatre and UK Tour, 2015).