Old buildings, new foundations

The third post in this short series of conversations looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN is with Vicky Featherstone: theatre-maker and artistic director of the Royal Court in London, although the bulk of our conversation was about the National Theatre of Scotland. Funnily enough, before she became artistic director of NTS, Vicky ran Paines Plough, a producing company that tours new plays, and yet in the entire time we spent together I didn’t think to ask her how she approached questions of audience engagement within that context – despite the fact that Paines Plough are now beginning their own Strategic Touring funded project, taking the Roundabout venue to Barnsley,Margate, Lincoln, Kendal, Cornwall, Stoke-on-Trent and Salford, where they hope to forge strong and lasting relationships.

M: What was the starting point for National Theatre of Scotland?

V: For me, it wasn’t at all about starting something new, but it felt very new for national theatres, in terms of how I’d observed national theatres behaving. When I think about a national theatre, it’s always about a big spectacle on big stages, that aims to impress and that we should be daunted by and admire, that we respect and go, they’re sort of heroes. I knew that in setting up the National Theatre of Scotland that was totally, totally, for so many reasons the wrong approach: just because personally I hate that anyway (she says, sitting at the Royal Court), it’s not what I believe theatre is, but also when I was at university – I went to Manchester university and in my second week someone gave me John McGrath’s book A Good Night Out and it completely transformed the way I thought about theatre. I hadn’t known anything about that before: I’d grown up in London, I’d gone to see shows at the Young Vic, at the National, so I hadn’t got to know about this kind of communication, this kind of theatre, it felt really right.

When I went to Scotland, I went thinking about that, and I went thinking what that was, and when I imagined how a national theatre would be effective in Scotland, I didn’t imagine it in terms of what would we put into theatres, I imagined it geographically. I thought: what is the geographic demographic of Scotland, how do I need to speak to those different people in different ways, and where are the places and what are the ways to do that? Of course, one of the ways to do that is [with] the communities that come around village halls or around those centres that they use for multi-purpose. That really excited me: I’m always obsessed with the fact that the architecture of a theatre can really define its brand, if you like, and actually that can be problematic; often when you run a building you’re having to persuade people that you’re not your architecture, so I was really excited about the fact that we could get people to come to spaces where they had a multitude of preconceptions about what the space was for, whether it was their school hall or car park or whatever. And within that programming, saying there are some things that feel totally right and have genuine integrity to be put into that conventional theatre architecture, because they were written for that, there is an audience for that and we want to do it.

And then the question for for me was: how do the audience then own that piece of theatre when it comes to them? How does it feel like it’s a piece of theatre which can do all the things that we want, like challenge and provoke, all those words that we use easily around theatre, but also mean something to them? I thought a lot about class in this: there’s a really interesting thing about class, often contemporary theatre (whatever that means) can feel even more class-alienating because of its – how would you describe it? – its intellectual endeavour or artistic context, than a piece of theatre which you have to pay £100 a ticket for in the West End. That really challenged me.

So for me what was really exciting was actually going back to story, which is something that I felt my conversations and the work that I did had kind of rejected. Story unifies people, whereas a fractured narrative or form doesn’t unify people, and if you are going to be taking work to people, they can have a difference of opinion but they need to be unified in some theatrical moments – and often some of my most amazing experiences in theatre, the audience have been totally not unified, and that’s exciting as well. So all of that was a really interesting thing, about what are the forms that you use that unify people.

Then there was this thing, which was so simple, about the ceilidh, and the other things that happen in those spaces. When I went to Scotland there was quite a lot of negativity towards traditional form, in music and storytelling, because it was felt that it had become old-fashioned: it felt a bit low down on the pecking order of what everyone wanted international theatre to look like. When I went to Scotland, people thought about [the 7:84 show] The Cheviot, The stag and the Black Black Oil nostalgically, but had rejected it, and suddenly it’s now part of the story again. It’s because we need those things, we need community and we need things to hold on to, and those things give us that sense of community.

The new conversation that I’ve been having at the Royal Court about that, is that in the late 90s and early 2000s we lived in such a time of horrific stability and plenty that theatre-makers felt like they wanted to smash that up, which is where I think we all became obsessed with breaking the form and pushing it and not knowing whether we wanted to break it. I feel we’re in a moment of shift, which was already happening in Scotland with what we were doing, which is: because everything is so fucked up – I mean this is really simplistic – I think we are craving a unity of feeling when we’re all together. Chris Goode talks about this amazingly. We used to not care, we used to think it was all right if the audience didn’t go with us because we felt what we were doing was our art, and now we feel that’s wilful and awful if we don’t take the audience with us. So for me this is all about the kind of work that you make: it takes the audience with you in order that you can then have a conversation with them at the end about it, so they haven’t been rejected and they haven’t been made angry by the act of the theatre itself. That still happens, but I feel I’ve really stopped, I don’t want the audience to be made angry by the act of a piece of theatre that they see: they can be really made angry by the ideas, but I need them to feel some kind of unity.

M: One of the basic things that keeps coming up in conversations about why people don’t go to the theatre is a sense that they shouldn’t have to come to it: it should come to them – and you were doing that.

V: Exactly, and also finding the right place for the right piece of theatre, that really excited me. It’s about context. In London, the context is often London itself, which is a massive thing, and it’s a thrilling thing, but it’s not quite enough, because London is much more varied than that. Whereas in Scotland I really was able to question and then think about the context that each piece of theatre grew from or was in, which was exactly that thing about taking it to people. And of course when you start having those conversations with the artists: someone like David Greig creating Prudencia Hart is a really good example, that was a piece that took four years to develop and it used such traditional forms of Scottish storytelling, theatre, music, all these things which 10 years before, five years before, were really unfashionable and would have been rejected – you get theatre-makers of that ability really giving a shit about that kind of storytelling and you put those things together and you end up with something that is an extraordinary piece of theatre for anybody, whatever your theatre-going history is. That’s when it becomes incredibly exciting.

I think the best work that we made while I was there were the pieces of work that felt unbelievable unique to us at that moment in time, that no one else could have done. There was a piece of work I did, it never quite hit, called Long Gone Lonesome, about a guy called Thomas Fraser: he’d lived on Shetland, he’d been a fisherman, and he’d been quite rejected by his community, but he was an amazing musician, he bought a reel-to-reel and recorded himself using all these weird techniques singing blues songs. He then died, his grandson found all the tapes and sent them to Nashville, they thought he was an American blues original – and he’d never left Shetland. So I made show about his life story with a group of traditional musicians from Orkney who’d also never really left Orkney, that ended with ceilidh, and the circuit of where we went to with that, going into those communities and the people that came, was really one of most amazing experiences of my life, because the people who are making the piece, you could see that even though they were articulating about someone else, it was also their story. The audience really reached out to that.

In our first and second years we created, we called it the Ensemble, this village hall touring circuit: for me it’s always really dangerous to say that a community is one community, because it’s not, so we split it in age, we took an ensemble and we took three pieces of work, we took a piece of work for adults, a piece of work for young people and a piece of work for children, into those village halls. What we were trying to do was have a conversation across all those different aspects of the community: I don’t mean post-show talks, but conversations with those different groups. It was really important to me, that if we’d gone somewhere, we’d really made an effort to engage with the variety of people. The other thing about young people that’s really interesting, in those communities, whatever they are, in my first year I met with a big group of young people in Aberdeenshire, in a rural community, and they said the big problem they have is everyone thinks they want to see work about being a teenager in a rural community. They’re like, please, we love hip-hop as much as anyone who lives in New York. It’s such an obvious thing to say but I really felt that people patronise them with theme and idea. So that was a massive part of what we were doing as well, was saying we should be trying to be as radical as we would be with anyone, or as up to date, or whatever, we shouldn’t patronise people with theme.

M: How deliberate were you about making conversations happen, especially in village halls – how long would they be open afterwards?

V: Well of course the whole thing about that is the social occasion. What’s really interesting about the economics of that, is that if a village hall was paying for you to go, they would also have the bar open from an hour and a half beforehand, people would turn up for drinks and to socialise, then there would be the show, and the bar would stay open afterwards and people could stay and socialise and talk about it. There’s a really interesting dual thing which is that having a piece of theatre there would mean they would also earn their money from the social side of what the space was doing, that was a really important factor. So often the reason conversations don’t go on in conventional theatres is because we can’t afford to keep the bar staff on – and it’s really interesting when you go into a more held community, where the ecosystem is much more symbiotic, and the environment enables that to happen. Therefore it’s been a good night out for everyone: for the people who run the bar, the village hall, for the theatre-makers, for the audience. I know I’m talking specifically rurally, but there’s so much to do with these structures: there was so much work that we took into council-run buildings and that so played against any of those conversations. When we took Black Watch on tour, it would often play in sports centres and the audience absolutely wanted to stay and talk afterwards, and the council’s security guards would chuck everyone out into a car park. That used to really upset me.

M: Touring these communities, did you have a sense that you were building on something existing, or building new foundations?

V: I think it depends: in the more imaginative rural communities we were definitely building on a row of bricks, but in the towns where the struggle to live was much harder or different in a way, it felt we were often starting from scratch, and that was quite a challenge. The big thing for us was trying not to parachute in with a show and not come back: it was about how much do we build and what do we do and how do we create long-term, meaningful relationships with these communities. The big thing I brought to the Royal Court from that is that we don’t do Theatre Local any more: that was the thing we did in Peckham, the Royal Court would take up residency in the Bussey Building for two to three months, really good work, it was such a great idea – but the problem I had was it was literally about the work, there were lots of workshops, and then it would go. The projects we’re now doing – there’s one in Tottenham, and one in Pimlico because it’s our neighbour and we’ve never had a relationship with them – are three-year projects, full-time, and about finding artists, ambassadors to engage with, about community, about this whole thing, without knowing what the outcome will be. We make lots of interventions, lots of different bits of things happening, and at some point we’ll make a big piece of theatre with those communities, whatever that is. That’s the big thing I’ve brought back: it has to be really long-term and it has to be constant, there have to be people there who are prepared to completely connect.

The projects we used to do in Scotland were called Transform, we did 16 of them while I was there: we’d spend a year in each community, funded by Scottish Power –

M: Was a year enough time?

V: No, but a year was all we could do because it was too expensive. In London it’s easy to do three years, we can go to Tottenham all the time, we can go four times a week, but it was too expensive at that point to do more. But it wasn’t a year and then we left: we would really prioritise going back, touring back to those places, we built up those relationships.

I think one of the reasons why in this country it feels really hard to build those foundations currently is – well, Elizabeth Freestone from Pentabus would say it’s NT Live. Because what’s happened is that she rings up a village hall and says, would you like my new show, and they say we can’t, we’re having x for less money than your theatre show – and it’ll sell out. I think that’s become a real issue in terms of the lack of live [experience], we’re training people out of it, in terms of what theatre is, and in terms of discussion and conversation with the audience. [Live theatre is] asking something of these audiences, as well as giving something we’re asking something of them, if people get trained out of that, that’s really hard.

As part of everything we’re doing in Tottenham, the Bernie Grant Centre said they’d like a piece of theatre, so we took Liberian Girl: 85% of the audience had never been to the theatre before, and what we realised after the first night is that they had to stay around to have a conversation. There was a real hunger to discuss it and think about it and meet the actors to talk about what it was like, and we had to respond.

I’m really fascinated by the class thing at the moment, because the point about a good night out is about working class theatre in terms of form, in terms of communicating with the audience. The work can challenge an audience but it would not work if it intimidated them or overcrushed them, so it’s a really fascinating thing about do you end up watering the art down in order for it to feel accessible to the people that you need to have the conversation with or not? I don’t know, I think it’s a really challenging thing. If defiantly not, are you up your own arse or going to the wrong people?

M: How much did you have to shift mindset coming to the Royal Court?

V: To begin with I found it really, really hard. I really questioned what I had gained for what I’d lost, in terms of the scale of the questions that I was able to ask and apply and affect. And then I thought, actually, it’s incredibly focusing to be able to be very singular, to really, really trust in the writer, and be able to ask: what is the voice of that artist and what do they need to do that. And that is an intellectual question, and the question in Scotland – although they were intellectual questions, there was actually more of a context of philosophical questions we were asking all the time. It’s really thrilling to be able to ask that singular question. And the thing that I’ve definitely brought is that we have the right to ask that question singularly, and we can’t expect that everyone will want to know the answer, but we also have a role to encourage people – a shit expression I’ve used is democratic intellectualism, which is shit, but I use it, it’s a thing about, we mustn’t be scared to be intellectual. Because we are in Britain, and what we need is to encourage people not to be scared to ask those questions.

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