Becoming the artistic director of any well-known theatre is always a tough gig. With Josie Rourke only one season into her tenure at the Donmar, Vicky Featherstone replacing Dominic Cooke as the first female AD of the Royal Court, and Greg Doran finally shouldering the seriously heavy mantle at the RSC, this autumn will see some keen critical attention focused on the UK’s new generation of theatrical leaders.
Could Indhu Rubasingham have one of the hardest tasks of them all? Because he new AD of Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre isn’t just having to stamp her own mark on a venue dominated by the 28-reign of Nicolas Kent, whose focus on producing political work such as The Colour of Justice, a tribunal play based on the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and The Riots, last year’s verbatim work by Gillian Slovo, has given the Tricycle a reputation out of all proportion to its 240-seat capacity. She is also having to deal with a £350,000 reduction in funding, a result of simultaneous cuts from the Arts Council, the London councils and Brent council last year that led Kent to resign in protest.
“The reason I’m interested in all of this,” Rubasingham, unfailingly warm and prone to laughter, explains, “is not out of a political agenda or fulfilling an arts council brief. It’s because it comes from my personal experience.” Recently awarded the Arts & Culture Award at the Asian Women of Achievement Awards for astounding achievements in theatre, a common theme in her career so far has been a commitment to increasing diversity. She sees the Tricycle – situated in Brent, London’s most diverse borough – as an ideal nexus for this ambition. “There’s a real need to address these issues which I’ve been doing in my freelance work. It’s not just that I’ve taken this job and been inspired by that position. It’s the reason I went into theatre in the first place.”
Her first season, opening in October, is a bold stake in the ground. Kicking off with the premiere of Red Velvet, a new play by Lolita Chakrabarti featuring TV star Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge, she will then introduce the Tricycle’s first ever family show, The Arabian Nights, “a global adventure sweeping through Persia, Arabia, India and Asia.” 2013 will see One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, Don Evans’ comedy about racial tensions in1970s America, performed by Eclipse Theatre Company, the nation’s only black-led touring company. Finally, March will bring Paper Dolls, a new play with music about Filipino transvestites. Obviously.
“I feel my first season is quite risky”, she laughs. “I’m very proud of it in that I don’t think I’ve compromised my artistic vision for the season, so whether people like what I do or don’t, it won’t because I haven’t followed my own heart.” This is important to Rubasingham. She is experimenting with a number of ways to get the local community involved with shaping the theatre, including raising its social media profile, putting ideas boxes in the foyer and creating an ambassadors group for Arabian Nights. Brent residents get concessionary rates and she is keen above all “to make people feel the theatre is for them.” But she is equally adamant that her work won’t be dictated or diluted by chasing the approval of certain communities. “First and foremost I am an artist, so the work has to be of quality, interesting and engaging. I’m not interested in doing low quality work just because it might bring in an audience.”
Born in Sheffield to Sri Lankan parents and brought up in Macclesfield, Rubasingham was always desperate to move to the capital. “I think from being a teenager stuck in a small, very culturally undiverse town, I just needed to get out of there as soon as possible. When you grow up in a very white area, particularly a rural area - and also were talking about a good 20 years ago now - if you walk into a pub there's a curiosity or an awareness of being different, while what was lovely about when I first came to London was that there wasn’t that sensibility. Anything goes. It was incredibly refreshing.”
She quickly discovered her vocation in theatre, following a teenage stint of work experience for Nottingham Playhouse with a drama postgrad in London before scooping a bursary from the Arts Council to be assistant director at the Theatre Royal at Stratford East. However, it quickly became clear there was much to do. “I did feel theatre was alien to me,” she admits. “Why wasn’t I seeing stories that reflected people like me?” And so she commenced to carve a frankly magnificent path through Britain’s theatre landscape, holding Associate Director posts at The Gate Theatre, Birmingham Rep, and the Young Vic, directing the Pulitzer Prize winning Ruined at the Almeida Theatre, and promoting new and global work from unheard voices and communities every step of the way.
She does believe that she is part of a wider movement already having success in changing the white, old middle-class theatre hegemony. “I just did a play called Belong at the Royal Court and I think there’s a really interesting audience there. I think the National has changed incredibly, especially with its Travelex season; there is really a different audience. I remember when I was much younger, going to the National and being incredibly intimidated, but you don’t now get that feeling at all. The Theatre Royal at Stratford East is really embedded in its local community. I think there are different models you can look to and aspire to. I try to be a bit of a magpie and get ideas from all of them.”
But what about that great hole in the finances? How is that impacting on her work? “There’s a lot of stuff I’ve got ideas for and people I want to work with. The biggest challenge is going to be fundraising. If people do like what I do, then hopefully they’ll buy into it and help me continue because some of my plans are quite ambitious, especially the international work and collaborations, and the finances needed for that are obviously higher.” But she is honest that she is currently feeling her way. “I want to preface everything I’m saying with a reminder that I’m right at the beginning of this journey. I hope I can remain optimistic and idealistic throughout, as opposed to becoming jaded and beaten down by the obstacles!”
Surely, if there’s anyone capable of give the tricycle a new set of wheels, it is this idealistic, ambitious woman with a personal investment in making London’s theatre better reflect London’s people. If she can find some time to sleep, that is.
This article originally appeared in London Calling