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(This is a lightly edited transcript of the interview; to view the whole interview, please click image above)
Stephen Carruthers: Good Afternoon. I’m Stephen Carruthers from the Dundee University Review of the Arts and I’m here with Joe Douglas, the Associate Artistic Director of Dundee Rep Theatre.
Joe Douglas: Hello.
SC: Joe, you joined the Rep last year having already directed a number of plays with them, including the smash hit revival of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. To kick off, what do you love about theatre?
JD: (Laughs) Well, that’s a question! I love audiences. I love the moment when they come in to the theatre. This is our set for Monstrous Bodies: Chasing Mary Shelley down Peep o’ Day Lane which is on until May 6th – it’s now April 16th – so book your tickets! I love the moments like we have tonight, which is a press night. We’ve got the press coming from Scotland and from all over the UK. It’s really exciting to have a new play like this on a stage, saying something to a roomful of strangers, in the dark. That’s what I love about theatre. I love the fact that you can put people together and they hear this thing, they see this live event and it changes them.
SC: You studied directing at Rose Bruford College. How did that happen?
JD: I thought I wanted to be an actor. Because, like a lot of people who want to work in theatre, you think, “Ah”, and you see… [the actors on stage] you can actually respond to. But then I found this course. Sadly, it no longer exists. It’s a real shame actually. It was an undergraduate directing course. There’s now only one of those left in the UK at Drama Centre in London. Most directing courses are only done at Masters level now. While, to some extent, this does make sense… I do think that having no undergraduate director training is a real tragedy, actually, because it was an extraordinary course. I graduated from it. Tom Sutherland who’s now running a theatre in Charring Cross in London, graduated from it. Elizabeth Newman who’s running the Bolton Octagon – she graduated from it. Lots of artistic directors come out of it.
It was quite a short-lived course. It lasted from the nineties to the mid-noughties; that was it. And it was an extraordinary time. There was a small campus in Kent – on the London-Kent border really. In UKIP country, let’s say, and BNP once upon a time, so that dichotomy was quite interesting. But you were kind of isolated from the world. You were able to play… It was quite a safe space to work out who you were as an artist, what kind of theatre you were in to. It was quite a progressive campus in terms of its range of influences too. Lots of European theatre. There was a European theatre course and an American theatre course there. These sort of courses don’t exist in other institutions, you know? To have these things all together in one place, people getting drunk together, talking influences, it was an extraordinary place to train. And it meant that after three years, I had directed four professional level shows. If you’re a student and you go to a university, it’s great, the qualifications are fantastic. But you’re not going to have had a Production Manager, you’re not going to have had a Lighting Designer who is actually training in Lighting Design. That’s what I got. We were all students, we were all getting our professional level training together and so I was able to learn, I think, much earlier than I would otherwise have been able to, what it is to be a professional Director.
SC: That sounds fantastic. One thing that you took away from that course… what influenced your directing style?
JD: Two people, I would say… It’d be Colin Ellwood who was the Programme Director – who was just extraordinary. I was on the phone to him the other day actually, having a really long chat. Philosophically, he’s an extraordinary man, and he’s an extraordinary dramaturg and an extraordinary teacher. The other one would be would be Annie Castleldine, who sadly died last year. She was, I would say, one of British theatre’s geniuses. But she was undervalued and underappreciated. People were scared of her, particularly in the eighties and nineties. I wasn’t there so I don’t know. But in my experience of her, as a peripatetic tutor, she was extraordinary. She taught the power of theatre, the political importance of theatre, and yes, she taught us Brecht as well.
SC: Then you got a place on the ITV Theatre Directors scheme.
JD: Yes, the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme (RYTDS). I got picked by Vicky Featherstone [then artistic director of the National Theatre Scotland] which was amazing. That’s where I wanted to go, I wanted to be in Glasgow …I wanted to be in Scotland, learning all about Scottish theatre. Yes, I had a bit of a silver spoon in my mouth because I was given this opportunity at the National Theatre, just as it was forming, at a really exciting time, just post-Black Watch. I was assisting John Tiffany just as he’s kind of going like that [gestures upward trajectory] as well, you know? So it was a really extraordinary time. 2007 to 2009 was a really formative period for me. They gave me a Dennis Kelly play to direct which toured the Highlands and Islands. We got to do the world premiere of that and, you know, all these amazing opportunities, which I think I’m fighting to try and instil elsewhere now, where I can. But if anything, I look now at the opportunities available and I think there are much less of them than there were ten years ago. People should be fighting really hard for these opportunities for Directors…
SC: …to hold on to them…
JD: Yes. To hold on to them and to develop them because it is the Directors and the writers, who in particular, I would argue, are the people who are going to instigate new ideas and new work. They are the ones saying “I want to do this”, “I want to do that”, you know? If you’re not a writer or Director yourself, you need someone who is going to take that step forward and do that thing.
SC: What do you think was the most exciting thing that you were able to do then that you’re maybe less able to do now?
JD: Well, really specifically, do the Regional Young Theatre Directors’ Scheme in Scotland. You can’t now, because it’s funded by the Arts Council England and we don’t have an equivalent scheme for young Scottish Directors… I just get obsessed about that.
SC: Moving on to your time as Associate Artistic Director here. Tell us about the Rep. What makes the Rep special?
JD: It’s family. It always has been since the Ensemble was founded. It was one of the first theatres in Scotland that I came to, because the National, of course, doesn’t have a theatre. And, yes, it was extraordinary because of the longevity of the people, the relationships they have formed. People come back, people leave. Someone has just walked in [to the auditorium] who used to work here, hasn’t for a while, but is now back again! It’s that sense of the technicians, the staff, as well as the performers who all give meaning to that word “ensemble”. And who all know what that means. It means give and take – like in a family. And that’s why it’s special.
Also I’d say, it is this auditorium. This auditorium is just amazing. The relationship you can have [with audiences] here. For this play we’ve built out over the first few seats to come into the audience a bit more, just as we did with Cheviot. Acoustically, it’s not my favourite auditorium but there’s nowhere I know quite like it otherwise. It’s just the relationship with the audience visually. It’s my favourite auditorium. Because of the proximity and because of the relationship from the side of the stage to this amount of people.
SC: I’d like to talk now about the season that you’ve been in charge of. You started off with a revival of Cheviot which had already been a big success. What was it like to re-visit that?
JD: I thought it was great! We had to make one big change which was we didn’t have people sitting at tables on the stage. That was a shame in a way, but what was great about it was that we were able to create a touring version – one that kept the ethos, I think, of what we’d made the year before. It is, I hope, an homage to the original play and the original production to take it out across the country, to massive theatres. Of all the places we took it to, the one that surprised me, and I know the cast will say the same, is Aberdeen, His Majesty’s [Theatre]. Obviously, we knew it would be very pertinent there with the global downturn in oil price and with all of the repercussions and the real pain that people were feeling as a result of that. But the audience response was incredible. It was so personal. Donald Trump was personal. We put Donald Trump in the play this year, as well. It comes up, “Make Balmeddie Great Again” projected above the stage, and they just loved it. I have never actually felt that eruption apart from at a football match. That sense of “wah” and the flames coming up. They were angry and that was really exciting. It gave a moment for venting that. What you want, of course, is for that to translate into action. Maybe it has, I don’t know. We’ll see. We’re going into a general election campaign.
SC: But you felt that touring around Scotland was…
JD: Touring around Scotland was important. We are hoping, and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn, to take it out another small-scale tour, to some of those venues that the original went to. I think that play needs to be heard in those communities in more direct ways so that they don’t have to come to Inverness, to Aberdeen, to Glasgow to experience it.
SC: Since the New Year, it’s been the Stars and Stripes season here at the Rep. What was the thinking behind that? Obviously, you have already mentioned Donald Trump.
JD: Well, Donald Trump, yes he sort of started it. I wanted to do Death of a Salesman. I wanted to do it particularly because I wanted to see Billy Mack play Willy Loman and then as I was thinking around it, the rest of the ensemble cast itself really beautifully. Sorting out Billy Mack’s role, we started thinking about Irene’s Linda and then when I started thinking about Ewan’s Biff it all unfolded really naturally from there. It’s a play I’ve wanted to do for nearly twenty years… from when I first found it. It’s extraordinary. I’ve always wanted to explore it in a way which breaks the naturalism of it. I’ve only ever seen more naturalistic productions of it and that’s always frustrated me. So we started with that and then we’ve got this, Monstrous Bodies, which is very much set in Dundee but goes in to the issues coming out of America. And we’re finishing off with the Brecht play, [The Resistible rise of] Arturo Ui, set in Chicago. Sort of a gangster story. And all of those stories, I think, speak very much to Donald Trump and to his Administration. To the influence of the troubling kind of rhetoric that has shifted to the right, to fascist rhetoric, I would argue, in some quarters. Not quite yet here but, you know, things are brewing and the political rhetoric has shifted. And that’s scary, actually, I think.
SC: … Daily Mail headlines…
JD: Well, you know, you start thinking about the Daily Mail, and I think theatre has to respond. It’s something Vicky Featherstone taught me when I was at the National Theatre of Scotland. Programme as late as you can to stand the best chance of being relevant. And it’s true. We woke up the morning after Donald Trump had been made President and I was reading Arturo Ui and I was like, “Yes, this.” And our Production Manager at the time, Nils Den Hertog, said, “You know what play we need to do?” and I was like, “I’m reading it!” and we both had this exact same moment. And, for me, as an Artistic Director, you have to respond to that. If you’re just going to sit there and say, “I want to do this play blah blah…” you limit yourself. You have to build a sense of consensus and take people with you. And as soon as you start hearing the same things from other parts of the organisation, you go, “Hmm. Maybe that is the right play.”
Then the American theme really started to serve itself and it has proved quite exciting. I hope people will think the same about this one [Monstrous Bodies] because it is a play that speaks absolutely against Trump’s quotes made on a video tape twenty years ago. And then it’s a very defiant play and its development process has been led by women, which is still so, so uncommon, actually, in theatre, despite our liberal ethos. It’s a show that talks about those initial founding values of liberty in America and asks, what does liberty mean? That’s what Americans are supposed to ask themselves every single day because it’s their founding values. Until I went to America a lot with Black Watch, I never really understood their notion of freedom which is very different from ours. It’s about personal freedom. “I am free to carry guns to protect my things”, “I am free to do this and you are free to do that and then we’re both free.” But for me, that freedom is about isolationism and individualism. To me, freedom’s something else and it’s about a more collective approach.
SC: How has it been, working on a new piece of writing, and working with Poorboy?
JD: Very exciting… it’s Sandy Thompson’s baby, she’s been driving it forward. Along with the extraordinary designer Natasha Jenkins, the extraordinary Assistant Director, Jen Bates, the extraordinary choreographer, Emma Jayne Park, all the creative team, all the women particularly. Of course the men have done their bit as well, they are absolutely a part of it but – and I don’t know if they would agree – but I think it has been led by this sort of vanguard [of women] which has been amazing. I’ve only inputted as an Artistic Director, I guess, from the outside, supporting. I describe myself, jokingly, as a theatre support bra. I’m there to help it grow, and add my thoughts in wherever it feels appropriate. Because it’s their show. It should be their vision that’s expressed. You get this clash of different styles in the piece and I think that’s part of the joy of it.
SC: And the play that you are directing, Arturo Ui, you mentioned a little bit about it before. What’s going to be your take on the play?
JD: Very directly, it’s about Hitler’s rise to power. It shows step by step how he did it through this story of Chicago gangsters. It’s all written in verse –beautiful verse, which has been adapted, by the Scottish playwright, Alistair Beaton, who is not often performed up here. He’s quite big down south and he’s extremely skilled. It’ll be a bit Chevioty, I guess, in the way that Cheviot was a bit Brechtian. One informs the other. It is the first Brecht play I’ve directed. I think it’s one of his most accessible. It was never performed during his lifetime actually, so, it’s quite a late play, and as a result it feels like one which is very coherent. Obviously it follows a narrative which is true but he’s dramatized it really succinctly. There’s an amazing scene where Hitler goes to visit an actor to talks to him about his performance – not Hitler, Arturo Ui – and that is something that Hitler used to do. There’s this sense of the performance and the performativity which I hope to explore. There’ll be live music. We’ve invited the brilliant performer, Brian O’Sullivan to join us for this one. It’s the first time he’s performed here. He’s a brilliant pianist and he’s also going to be the Musical Director and he’s also going to play Arturo Ui. I like that idea of people dancing to Arturo Ui’s tune. And that honky tonk kind of jazzy piano, together with the music which the rest of the ensemble will play, will really influence the show.
SC: That sounds incredible. You’re also taking the play out into the community…
JD: It’ll be on tour. It’ll also be on stage here. We’re going to perform it on the stage with a reduced capacity. So if you want to see it, I suggest booking soon because there’ll only be a hundred and twenty seats a night. That’s because of the staging – it’s in traverse, so the audience sit on either side [of the action]. That’s to do with the politics of it. It’s to do with the oppositional stories that take place in the play. That’s why we chose to stage it this way. It’s really important for the actual piece that it’s staged like that so that’s how it’ll be in all the community centres and village halls that we visit as well.
SC: So do you think that’s another important part of the Rep’s ethos. The community tour.
JD: Totally! Every theatre needs to be rooted in its community. What’s the point of it otherwise?
SC: We’ll have to be wrapping up soon but, I would like to talk about your future. You wrote and starred in the play, Educating Ronnie. Have you any plans to write any more yourself?
JD: It’s funny. I’ve got an idea brewing I would quite like to write. It would also be about economics, I guess. The way that that one was about … economics or my lack thereof. So yes, I think I have got an idea for another show that I would like to perform. And as I’m finishing up here after a season working on a full-time basis, I’m hoping actually – one of the things I’m hoping for amidst two children – is to try and explore writing and performing my own work a little bit more. So yes, I guess having directed quite a lot over this last year, it will be quite nice to be able to look at a different side of my practice to try and see if there’s more work to be done there.
SC: But you’re going to be continuing freelance directing
JD: Absolutely, yes.
SC: What projects are you planning?
JD: Imminently, I’ve got a play coming up at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh this year. It’s called Stand By. It’s by Adam McNamara who’s from Dundee. He’s was a police officer who is now an actor, and he has also written this extraordinary play. Because he was a cop himself, it’s got this great authenticity of voice, and that’s going to be on at the Fringe. It’s also doing a Scottish tour. You might just see it at Dundee Rep as well in the autumn. I’m quite excited about that one because we’re doing something with headphones… earpieces in that show. So the audience are all going to be given a single ear piece and the radio transmissions from the narrative are going to be carried through there. It’s going to really mess with people’s sense of sound. I think that might never have been done so I’m quite excited because… you don’t often get to do something which is new. I’m pretty sure it’s never been done.
SC: How do you feel about the future of theatre in Scotland, generally? I mean, what’s good about it? What needs to be done differently?
JD: Jackie Wylie [appointed as the artistic director for the National Theatre Scotland in October] gives me hope. I think as an appointment from within the Scottish Theatre culture –that’s very exciting. As someone who has championed different forms, that’s exciting. As a young woman, particularly, running our National Theatre – that’s exciting.
I’d also say that there are lots of smaller, younger companies that are coming through. I have had some of the younger directors assisting me here, and I think they are making exciting work. I look at Jo Rush and Amy Gilmartin who are running Urban Fox. They’ve got a young company that has lots of younger artists. I think what we do need to look at is how we support the artists who have been left in that gap that the [closure of] the Arches has left in Glasgow. Because there was a real home, a real hotbed of young artists coming together to make work of all different forms. A new version of that place doesn’t exist yet. But I hope with Jackie at our National Theatre, we can find that place and hopefully it’ll reach across the country.
SC: I can see lots of people gathering so… my final question. I always ask the students that I teach a magic wand question – if they could do anything, what would it be? In relation to theatre, if you could cast any play, stage anything, put it on wherever you like…?
JD: Oh my gosh… I’ll give away a programming secret. I would stage a massive promenade show at Hampden about the history of Scottish football, starring Eric Cantona.
SC: What more can you say? Thank you very much, Joe Douglas.
JD: Thank you.