by Mark Fisher
"Every single page of this book is enhanced by Mark Fisher’s lifelong enthusiasm for, and commitment to, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the greatest arts festival in the world."
Kath M Mainland
Chief executive, Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society
New NTS director looks forward to artistic freedom in Scotland
LAURIE SANSOM is to become the second ever artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland. He leaves the Royal and Derngate in Northampton in March 2013 to replace founder director Vicky Featherstone, who is taking over London's Royal Court. theatreSCOTLAND quizzed him on his plans.
What balance will you strike between directing plays and running an organisation? Over its first six years, the National Theatre of Scotland has become a bigger thing. How comfortable are you dealing with politicians and all the staff you have, as well as putting shows on?
The great freeing thing is there isn't a building to worry about. As artistic director of a regional theatre, so much of your time is about how the building is operating – and, of course, it's about filling 1200 seats in the Derngate, 500 seats in the Royal virtually every night of the year. There's also a lot of political engagement locally when you're running a regional theatre. It's slightly different when it's a national theatre in Scotland, particularly at this point in time, and no doubt there'll be a lot of conversations where we're negotiating what the strategic role of the company is. Partly, that's about maintaining the apolitical nature of the company in terms of not having a particular viewpoint on, say, independence, and at the same time, being a very active forum for Scottish artists wanting to express views and explore imaginatively what national identity means. That's going to be something Scottish artists and writers are going to want to engage with in various ways over the next 18 months or so.
The word "national" isn't an issue in the National Theatre in London, but as soon as you set up something called the National Theatre of Scotland, the national question is a live one . . .
It's also because it's relatively young. I don't think anyone thinks the National in London has any remit other than to produce work of the highest quality. In Scotland, there is a different kind of pressure and you have to shoulder that pressure lightly, because ultimately we're there to facilitate what artists want to make and what they want to speak about. If those things happen to be questions of national identity, then the company needs to reflect that, but there's also an argument for making work because there's an artistic passion behind it and that doesn't necessarily mean it's got Scottishness brandished all over it. The danger in me not being Scottish is programming a season that's too self-consciously aware of its Scottishness, rather than following what the artistic needs are of audiences. It's going to be fascinating once I move up to Glasgow in March, to really get the lay of the land and talk to people running arts organisations and companies, and writers, about what their needs are.
There are actually three contentious words in the phrase "National Theatre of Scotland" and one of them is "theatre". Vicky Featherstone has been fantastic about saying the definition of theatre is up for grabs. Is that something you respond to?
Absolutely. That's one of the exciting things about the theatre-without-walls policy. I really think the role is the most exciting in UK theatre because of the breadth of work that the company can encompass without being a slave to its building. Out of necessity, to serve a country like Scotland, you're making work for such a wide range of audiences and in such a wide range of localities that unless you stretch the boundary and constantly view what and where theatre can be, you're not going to serve different audiences and communities well enough. [Pictured above right: Sansom's production of The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie Pic: Toby Farrow.]
The National Theatre of Scotland was initially conceived as a producing body, so the artistic director would have been more like a festival director, but Vicky Featherstone came in and said she was an artist and needed to be putting on work herself. Have you got a sense of how much you personally will be directing?
I, certainly, wouldn't have taken the job if I wasn't directing a good body of work every season. First and foremost, I'm a theatre artist. Some theatre artists who also have the sensibility about facilitating and developing other artists – which has always been important to me – are the best leaders for those companies. If you're regularly directing and in the room, you understand from the inside out. It's the best way to work out who the exciting theatre artists are and get to know the actors who are working in Scotland. For me, the two things are inextricably linked. I couldn't imagine myself doing it any other way.
Do you have a sense about when we would see your first production?
I don't think it's going to be until 2014. Vicky has programmed almost up to the end of 2013, which is great because I wouldn't claim to have any in-depth knowledge of the Scottish theatre sector and it means I'll have plenty of time to go and have conversations with artists and writers and get a sense of what the possibilities are. It's going to be lots of conversations and lots of travelling in the first four or five months.
I don't know if it's coincidence or design, but your career has gone from Scarborough to Northampton and now to Scotland. On a Guardian blog, you wrote that "the industry is London-centric". Do you like being out of the centre of things?
Yes, absolutely. I find there are fantastic advantages to the hotbed approach of so much work going on in London, but there are disadvantages as well. It doesn't suit me as well as it might suit other people. I love being able to dip in and do a show at the National or in the West End, but being part of a theatre-making community, which is all about the work, is particularly important to me. You develop a dialogue with an audience over a period of time. What I've been doing in Northampton is to create seasons of work where plays and projects can have conversations with each other. That's just how I think. I create by putting things alongside each other and seeing what bounces off them, using certain projects to inspire artists to respond, and joining up what the youth theatre are doing and what the community work is with what may be seen as the main-house programme. You can't do that when it's all about the glamorous opening night in London where you're performing to other people in the industry. So the NTS feels like a really good fit. I suppose 20 years working in regional theatre around the UK is not an accident. It suits my sensibility.
Also, there's a need for a lot of London theatre to be produced to within an inch of its life, so it has a glossy competence which sometimes hides a lack of deep thinking or of real engagement with the world around it, and I've got very little patience with it. I've seen work that has been lauded that leaves me cold even though it has been produced so well. It becomes a necessity in London, when work is being compared all the time, and work at the Donmar, the Almeida, the National and the Court are all being looked at in one week by the critics. If you don't produce it with a sheen of competence . . . sometimes the rough and ready, the loose end and the delicate are more interesting.
I think there's a popular tradition in Scotland and in a lot of regional theatres in the UK that changes the relationship. If you're not directly talking about something that is of interest and you’re not communicating it effectively, those audiences just will not come. It's a much more honest relationship when the audience responds to what the artists are wanting to explore.
Vicky Featherstone arrived with a Paines Plough/new writing background, you've had a lot of success with classics – where do your own tastes lie?
Before Northampton, I was at Scarborough doing only new writing, so what's brilliant is being able to combine both of those interests. At Northampton, one of the ways of bringing writers into the building has been to invite them to adapt a classic play. So we do The Bacchae (left, pic: Robert Day), but actually, it's a new play; we do Frankenstein, but actually, it's a new play. Being able to marry the two things and do the most exciting new writing coming out of the company and reinvent classic plays, that's particularly exciting for me as a director. I think it's also important for a national theatre to be representing and playing to as broad a reach of audience as possible. My programming might be a bit more eclectic, I'm not sure yet, but I feel there could be a growth of bigger shows in the larger theatres that have a longer life, as well as making sure we're still representing the most cutting-edge new writing. ©2012
Interiors, Vanishing Point, on tour, Oct 26–28
Outbreak! Warcry, Ayr Town Hall, Oct 27, 28, 31, Nov 2
Princess for a Day, A Play, a Pie and a Pint, Oran Mor, Glasgow, Oct 29–Nov 3
Harold & Maude, Theatre Jezebel/Glasgay, Tron, Glasgow, Oct 30–Nov 3
Glasgow Girls, NTS/Theatre Royal Stratford East/Pachamama/Citizens/Merrigong, Citizens, Glasgow, Oct 31–Nov 17
Iron, Firebrand, on tour, Oct 31–Nov 10
Epic (part one), Cumbernauld Theatre, Nov 1–3
The Artist Man and the Mother Woman, Traverse, Edinburgh, Nov 1–17
LAST CHANCE TO SEE
Casablanca: The Gin Joint Cut, Gilded Balloon/Tron, on tour, until Oct 29
Lifeguard, NTS, Govanhill Baths, Oct 5–27
Demons, A Play, a Pie and a Pint, Oran Mor, Glasgow, Oct 22–27
The Guid Sisters, King's, Glasgow, NTS/Royal Lyceum, Oct 22–27
The Cabinet, Cumbernauld Theatre, Oct 25–27
23 October 2012 The Guardian
By William Shakespeare. A Royal Lyceum Theatre review.
22 October 2012 The Guardian
By Ella Hickson. A Grid Iron review.
16 October 2012 The Guardian
By Linda McLean. A Magnetic North review.
10 October 2012 The Guardian
By Adrian Howells. An NTS/Arches/Govanhill Baths Community Trust review
3 October 2012 The Guardian
By Euripides/Mike Bartlett. A Citizens/Headlong/Watford Palace review.
26 September 2012 The Guardian
By Michel Tremblay. A Royal Lyceum/NTS review.
18 September 2012 The Guardian
Adapted by Peter Arnott. An HMT review.