Alumni Stories - National Theatre

Pianist playing in firth hall
Lisa Burger
BMus Music
Co-founder and director of Renew Culture Ltd, Lisa Burger studied music at Sheffield before going on to work in the National Theatre, where she was joint chief executive. We asked Lisa about her best memories from Sheffield, her 20-year career in theatre and what advice she would give to herself at graduation.

How do you think your time studying at Sheffield shaped your career now?

Being at Sheffield University was one of the most glorious things that I did, both the friends that I met at Sheffield and the confidence it gave me to be who I am. Whilst I was at Sheffield I got a grant to go to Sudan after I graduated. I spent three months there looking at ethnomusicology and that really opened my eyes in so many ways to bigger horizons and the opportunity to do things a long way beyond Sheffield.

What are some of your best memories from being at Sheffield? 

The music department at Sheffield was absolutely glorious, we were up in Tapton. There were wonderful music staff and great students that I got to know. We had a fabulous concert down in Firth Hall, there was a big Steinway there, it was a crazy piece of electronic music. We were calling it electronic music then which sort of dates me horribly, but that was such fun.

One of the standouts for me was when we did Beethoven No. 9 in Firth Hall. At the time I was playing the piccolo,for any music students they’ll know there’s a very irritating point towards the end when the piccolo gets to soar over everybody else. Although you have to sit there for a very long time not playing at all, I just felt I was in utter heaven surrounded by the chorus of the university and this fabulous orchestral sound.

Following on from that, looking back at your time in Sheffield and in your professional life, is there a moment you look back on now, that as a student you wouldn’t believe had happened? 

I would say that most of what's happened in my career professionally has rather surprised me. If I go back to myself as a graduate in 1983, I absolutely couldn't have imagined that almost 40 years later I would just be stepping down as chief executive of the National Theatre. I think that's the great thing about life, it’s constantly surprising and I think there is something about the curiosity that one can have about what’s next that can keep you going on down different pathways.

I’d never been to Sheffield before I came up for my undergraduate interview and I remember thinking that it was just so interesting. Being in a different part of the country, meeting different people, different ways of looking at things, and I think it’s that curiosity that has kept me going.

View of fargate

What are some of your fondest memories from working in the theatre industry?

One that is particularly strong was when we had Sondheim’s Follies on, we had a big band on for it at the National Theatre. You'd have the soloists there singing their hearts out, the band playing. The audience was absolutely moved, gasping, applauding and that’s a real tingle feeling to think that I’d had a part in making all of that happen.

Equally I have some fantastic memories about going into schools, we did a touring production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. We went to a  secondary school in Wolverhampton, where a lot of the young people there had never seen live theatre.

Watching other people have that first experience of theatre was hugely rewarding to me.

What advice would you give to someone who is unsure about starting a career in the theatre industry?

I was completely unsure. I knew I wanted to work in the arts and I needed to start earning some money and for me. I also  knew I needed to do a professional qualification so I became a trainee accountant. Eventually I qualified as just an accountant and it absolutely kept my options open. So it’s not going to be something that works for everybody but I would say don’t be fearful. I feel that working in theatre has been a very zigzag career where my love and wanting to work within the industry has absolutely been rewarded. 

If you had to go back and give yourself advice at graduation, what would you say to yourself?

 Stay curious, be determined and believe it will work out in the end. 

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