The British arts director Ruth Mackenzie has lost her job at one of France’s most prestigious theatres in a decision she described as “brutal and inexplicable”.
Mackenzie, who became the first female artistic director at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, was told her contract was being terminated with immediate effect on Friday.
The theatre refused to comment on her departure but French media reported a source as saying there had been a “managerial and financial problem” related to Mackenzie’s first season.
Mackenzie, a former director of Holland festival, Manchester international festival and Scottish Opera, and who was in charge of the official cultural programme for the 2012 London Olympics, was appointed by the theatre in 2017 but arrived as it closed for a £28.6m restoration. It reopened last September and she had a full season organised before it was forced to close six months later due to the coronavirus lockdown.
She had been interviewed by the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, who supported Mackenzie’s proposals to encourage less elite and more popular interest in the theatre, including taking workshops and productions into the city’s banlieues.
Mackenzie was appointed to work in tandem with Thomas Lauriot dit Prévost, the general director. The pair made no secret of their intention to take the theatre – until then best known for staging lavish Broadway musicals – in a different direction, reviving its reputation as a place of cultural innovation by turning it into what Lauriot dit Prévost called an “activist” theatre.
One of their first acts was to introduce a “Robin Hood scheme” for theatregoers and sponsors to buy extra tickets for those who could not afford them. The Châtelet offered 10,000 €10 (£8.90) tickets a year to the under-25s.
It is understood Lauriot dit Prévost will remain in his job.
Mackenzie told the Guardian: “I can’t believe it was done in such an unbelievably brutal way. A letter was sent to my lawyer terminating my contract and telling me I was to vacate my office, my email was being cut off and my salary stopped.
“There was a complaint about my management style oppressing a couple of junior members of the marketing team, but they got the union involved so an independent inquiry was carried out. The inquiry produced a 56-page report that explicitly stated there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.
“There were a few points raised, for example, that I didn’t say ‘bonjour’ to people every day, that my French is not good enough and that I didn’t attend a staff ceremony to turn on the Christmas lights, but nothing constituting a sackable offence. It recommended mediation and workshops, which of course I accepted.”
Mackenzie said she was “absolutely stunned” to discover that the theatre had sent emails to the press on Friday saying she was leaving her job immediately. “I thought talks were still going on and was told not to talk to the press. Then suddenly it’s all over the press.”
An unnamed source briefed French media that Mackenzie had been let go because of a “serious fault” including a “lack of recognition of the work of staff” and running up a €3m deficit. There is no suggestion of criminal wrongdoing.
The Châtelet refused to comment except to say the “source” was not a member of staff.
Mackenzie said: “There isn’t a cultural institution in the world that isn’t having financial problems right now, but that’s not my fault. I was brought in specifically to bring in a more diverse audience, which I succeeded in doing. That was the brief. I was the first woman artistic director and the first foreigner, and now I’ve been sacked.”
She added: “Yesterday the theatre was talking about coming to some honourable agreement; today I’m sacked and someone is spinning stories in the press designed to damage my reputation.”