Tuesday 24 July 2007

"Too much talk of 'going on journeys'..."

I’ve just come across this feature article from Time Out which interviews the raft of artistic directors newly appointed to various London theatres in the last six months or so. It’s an interesting feature and one which seems to raise more questions than it answers.

Firstly, it reminded me of how difficult it is to interview incoming artistic directors. I did a similar interview with Tim Roseman and Paul Robinson who had just been appointed as ADs of Theatre 503 for TheatreVoice back in January, and remember realising as the interview progressed that it was much easier to talk about concrete products and the ideas which surround those, than about future plans and "artistic direction". OK, that’s not wholly true. As an artistic director I would imagine it is enormously easy to wildly fantasise about what you’d like to do, but to actually describe plays which have yet to be created – well, that is the job of a playwright (unless it’s devised, or created via some other method, of which more later).

That said, I was struck by Jane Edwardes’s brutal honesty concerning her initial impressions of Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell (both of whom I know at one remove – i.e. I have friends who are friends with them, so I felt slightly, if unaccountably, defensive on their behalf). At the same time, I admired Edwardes for her honesty. It really isn't easy to say things like that in print, whatever people might say about critics. The problem which the Gate interview encountered was no doubt similar to the one which Tim, Paul and I came up against in January – that without having a bit of a track-record running Theatre 503 to discuss, speculating wildly can run the risk of soundly like woolly-minded posturing, mimsy babble, or worse, like pretentious or arrogant nonsense.

In the TheatreVoice interview, I was keen to avoid this happening to my hapless interviewees. It had been my idea to do the interview, so I was damned if I was going to make Tim and Paul sound like arses because I had chosen to do the interview before they had actually had a chance to direct a single play at their theatre. Of course, from a journalist's point of view a bit of bile at the beginning of a feature always adds a touch of spice to the thing. Why else run with the Gate first? And to be fair to Jane, she piles up the caveats pretty high after her initial attack, and lets the forthcoming work and past glories speak for themselves.

Which leads on to the next question: When did journalists start expecting great copy from artistic directors anyway? I suspect for most incoming ADs, especially those taking on their first building or company, there must be a good deal of nerves mixed in with the excitement and sense of possibility, so the most natural response when asked, "So, what are you going to do?" is probably to want to run away and hide until you’ve done it and then point and say, "that". But then theatre does attract some terrible show-offs.

Increasingly the model of a great artistic director, along with a capacity for the deft programming of exciting work, appears to be one who talks a good game - who has something of the showman about them. Two of the best current examples are Dominic Dromgoole and Nicolas Hytner. Dromgoole, in particular, is an expert self-publicist. Hell, he even generates copy from the launches of the Globe’s seasons - no mean feat when one considers the headline is always essentially "Globe to stage a selection of plays by Shakespeare". Meanwhile, Nicolas Hytner’s occasional broadsides, fauxs pas and off-the-cuff remarks are becoming a mainstay (not to mention a failsafe fallback in a quiet week) for arts journalism.

Before them Stephen Daldry’s term at the Court, and before it the Gate, was characterised as much by his charismatic presence as the work produced. Peter Hall was much the same in his heyday - always willing to take a position and generate a story. Even Dominic Cooke, by all accounts a more retiring sort, managed to whip up a flurry of interest with a well-aimed controversy about "satirising the middle classes" when he took over at the Court. Of course, all such pronouncements are the enemy of good sense, and trenchant pronouncements - while making for excellent reading - aren’t actually half so much use as the ability to negotiate and compromise. But then we seem to like our theatrical heroes dogmatic, and a certain amount of surety is par for the course as a director, just as a similarly hard-nosed attitude often makes for great writing.

The last thing the article highlighted for me was how much the theatre establishment - even at non-establishment venues like Theatre 503 - is still so totally wedded to the centrality of the written script to their mode of production. Sure, Dominic Cooke has already established a kind of laboratory scheme at the Royal Court to explore alternative methods of working - but by and large it is the idea if the writer which looms largest in all these interviews. The idea that a director can only be as good as the text they’re working on (or “for” as it seems to be here). It does all make me wish that just once in a while a few more of our directors would be a bit more, well, German about the whole thing. (Do check the link, there’s a brilliant anecdote about David Greig - about halfway down - which illustrates exactly what I mean).

Edit: Ben Yeoh's blog also has an entry looking at the Time Out piece, written from his unique vantage point of having just had his much praised translation staged at the Gate.

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