Born in 1972, Laurie Sansom served as a director in training at Arts Council England from 1996 to 1997. From 2002 to 2006 he worked as associate director of Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, and from 2006 to 2012 he served as artistic director for the Royal and Derngate Theatre of Northampton. Building on the success of his predecessor, Rupert Goold, he helped make the Royal and Derngate Theatre the “Most Exciting Theatre in Britain” (selected by the Guardian). In March of 2013 he took over the position as the second artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland.
Among his noted productions are Hedda Gabler
, Spring Storm
, Beyond the Horizon
among others. For his production of Beyond the Horizon
, Sansom won the 2010 TMA award for Best Director.
National Theatre of Scotland (NTS)
|The United Kingdom (UK) is a nation made up of the four countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Under the “Devolution” policy (granting of powers from the national government to Scotland and Wales) of Prime Minister Tony Blair, a National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) was created for the first time in February of 2006, in the form of a theatre without its own permanent theatre facility. The Theatre’s first artistic director, Vicky Featherstone (current artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre), proposed a “Theatre Without Walls” policy and had the new work Home performed simultaneously at 10 non-theatre venues around Scotland. From that point onward, NTS has actively presented a number of works dealing with Scottish identity, including old and new historical dramas and political dramas. As the country approached the Scottish independence referendum (Sept. 18, 2014), NTS took an active role in the debate surrounding the independence issue by launching a Five Minute Theatre series in June, which eventually saw performances held in 200 locations around Scotland. In this interview, Laurie Sansom, who assumed the post of the second NTS artistic director in March of 2013, talks about the challenges of NTS and issues such as the political role of a national theatre.
Interviewer: Kyoko Iwasaki [journalist]
In March 2013, you were appointed the director of the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS). The first program to be organized under your direction has just started from the beginning of this year; the theme for 2014 is ‘Dear Scotland.’ Apparently, this theme is linked to the referendum for Scottish independence that is going to happen on 18 September (this interview was done in mid-August). How do you see your responsibilities of being a director of national theatre, when the independence of the state is seriously at stake for the first time in three hundred years?
From the day I arrived at the office, any decision that I made was clearly going to be looked at through the prism of the referendum, irrespective of what I did. Even if I had decided to organize a programme that was completely irrelevant to the event, everyone would have looked at it, one way or another, as some kind of a comment on the referendum. Being the director of a national theatre company at these historic moments—when every decision instantly becomes a commentary on the status quo—is, indeed, a significant responsibility and also a wonderful opportunity. For me, theatre is arguably the best form of art in which you can explore individual psychology against the bigger socio-political context. That is why I have decided to willingly utilize this emergent political context of being the eve of the referendum, organize it under the coherent theme of ‘Dear Scotland,’ and program performances that could effectively prompt the artists and the audiences to delve deep into the issue of national identity. I got especially interested in looking at this issue through the scope of different historic moments.
‘Dear Scotland’ is not only the annual theme of the company, but is the title of a performance that was presented this April and May in Edinburgh. In this performance, which took place in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, twenty contemporary writers representing Scotland wrote short monologues inspired by the portraits exhibited at the venue.
Yes, for this performance, twenty writers selected by the company wrote a five-minute monologue that they wanted to voice through the historic figures in Scotland, such as Sir Walter Scott (most notably known for The Waverly Novels
) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
). Then, the actors stood in front of the exhibited portraits and recited these monologues. The audience strolled along the Gallery to attend the twenty monologue performances one by one. The interesting thing about this performance was that the audience did not conceive the orally told histories as only histories in the past, but also as voices of the present. The voices of the historic figures, writers, and actors kind of all jostled together to create something that has resonances for the audience to think about issues around their own identity and cultural history.
The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know Five Minute Theatre Show, was a collection of five-minute mini theatres, which was presented this June at venues all over Scotland, England and also on the websites. The focus of this performance, in which anyone can freely participate to present a short performance regarding the Scottish referendum, was also about addressing multiple voices rather than delivering a unitary voice. It is clear that NTS is aiming at diversity rather than unity when it comes to the referendum.
If a national theatre company adheres to one political viewpoint and trumpets that to the audience, without doubt that company has become an apparatus for political propaganda. Theatre is indeed a political art form, but that does not mean that as a company we should maintain a singular voice. Rather, our mission lies in creating opportunities for artists to express their distinct and passionately held beliefs. It is important to note that the theatre company being political and the artists being political are two totally different concepts—not many people understand this, so I want to be clear with this point. Having said that, a national theatre does not necessarily have an obligation to slavishly present a balanced viewpoint. That is something that BBC has the responsibility to do, and not us [laughs]. So, for instance, when you see the James Plays (James I, James II, and James III
) that is now being presented at the Edinburgh International Festival and is also going to be shown at the National Theatre in London, you can quite clearly see the playwright Rona Munro’s political standpoint. Nevertheless, that does not reduce the play to being a piece of propaganda, because more than that, it is a very well written human drama. So what we are tying to do until the referendum is not to create works that adhere to one political opinion, but to make art that changes notions and challenges preconceived ideas about Scotland.
If there is anything such as ‘preconceived ideas about Scotland,’ what exactly are they? What are those ideas about? Could you elaborate a little?
As an Englishman, I do feel I have to be very careful when answering these kinds of questions. I should be careful not to make easy generalization or assumptions about Scottish identity, since I do not have an unrestricted right to do so like Scots. However, if we focus the topic to the theatre, I could say that there is definitely something unique in the DNA of Scottish theatre. One thing is that they enjoy laughing at themselves and self-deprecating certain traits. But, at the same time, many people are frustrated about this fact. So, when a national theatre tries to draw a portrait of the state, it is better not to reduce it to a stereotypical picture, but to imagine the picture being as complex as possible. Those simplistic ideas may not be accurate, and besides, they are passed on often through popular culture; for instance, the movie Braveheart
(a movie taking the hero who fought for the Scottish independence as the protagonist), but also equally from nineteenth century novels by [Sir] Walter Scott. Many of the cultural attributes, which we now immediately associate with Scottish identity were created by his novels. So we should remind ourselves that, to begin with, many of the preconceived ideas about Scotland are constructs created after modernism. And, we as a national theatre have the obligation of not being caught by these stereotypical visions but to see the contemporary state of Scotland with honest and unclouded eyes.
I’d like to ask several questions on the general principles of NTS. When your predecessor, Vicky Featherstone, was appointed as the founding director of the company in 2006, she, NTS and the executive board resolved to pursue an artistic vision of being a ‘theatre without walls,’ with no new theatre building and permanent company of actors. How has this model been kept and has it changed in any way over the years?
There are several meanings to ‘theatre without walls.’ The most obvious one, that we don’t have a building, is the most boring interpretation [laughs]. When I was offered the position of artistic director in NTS, I said to myself, I should really think about this self-imposed task of being a theatre without boundaries, and questioned what kind of borders actually exist at the moment. Through this process, I came up with the idea of breaking down two specific kinds of boundaries.
First is the wall that might exist within the creators. Historically speaking, Scotland is famous for doing quite a lot of cross-genre artworks. So, in pieces like Black Watch
(a documentary theatre consisted of interviews with Iraq soldiers) and Let the Right One In
(based on Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist’s horror novel that later became a movie), which has now transferred to the West End, I decided to tap into this historical trait and combine together the aesthetics of choreography, text and visual theatre on stage. In other words, I wanted to demolish the barriers that exist between different art genres in order to create a theatre that is truly interdisciplinary.
Second is the wall that may exist within the audience. We should dismantle those big walls that might be intimidating the audience from coming to theatres. Now, I am not only talking about reducing psychological burdens, but also suggesting that we should reject the physical distance that might be shunning the audiences. That is why we try to bring our productions directly to their doorsteps and warmly invite them to come visit us. Another thing we should consider is reducing those economical burdens that are keeping the audience away from theatres. Historically, in Scotland, there is the tradition of 50p tickets; so most people think that theatre is supposed to be there not for elites but rather for everyone. So, it is very important for us to accomplish inexpensive ticket prices. Further, I sometimes think, ‘Can we do this for free?’ If we want to show the production to a specific type of audience, and if they do not have the luxury to pay the prices, then I strongly believe that we owe responsibility to them for realizing a free performance.
In order to show a performance for free, obviously, you do need to have an ample amount of budget supporting the institution. Could you provide us with an outline of the annual budget of NTS?
We roughly get four million pounds per annum from the British government. That constitutes about seventy percent of the income and the rest is made up of ticket sales and grants from trusted foundations of various colors of background. Unlike every other company in Scotland who are funded by Creative Scotland (an executive non-department public body of the Scottish Government brought into being in 2010 by inheriting the functions of Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council), we are in the lucky position to be directly funded by the government. It is very arms’ length as a relationship. We also have shared goals about what we are meant to achieve, but those goals are about practical matters, for instance, how many people get to see the work, and where the work was performed; and nothing about what type of works we make. The government will never interfere with that; it is pretty sacred. So, we wouldn’t think twice about making a piece of work that harshly criticizes the on-going government if we felt the necessity to do so.
Demographically, what kind of people, in terms of, age, occupation and ethnicity, make up the NTS audience? Which groups of people prefer to come to NTS performances regularly?
The interesting thing is that we cannot generalize about our audience as this and that types of people. Partially due to the fact that our company is not located at a specific venue in a specific town, the demography of the audience drastically differs from one performance to another. For instance, when we presented a performance called Ménage a Trois
last year, in which the artist performed on crutches, around sixty percent of the audiences were disabled people. Or, when we premiered Let the Right One In
at a town called Dundee, we realized that sixty percent of the audiences were first time visitors of NTS. Perhaps because the play is based on a cult vampire movie, and perhaps because the main characters of the play are children, families and people who prefer entertainment came to see the show. What’s really clear is that the demography of the audience is very much determined by the work we make.
Our slogan in terms of audience development is ‘artist-led but audience-focused.’ So, what does this mean? It largely means that after we get excited about the artist’s vision and decide to develop that idea, we seriously discuss where the suitable audience for that production exists and where we should go. That is, we decide to bring the artwork to a venue where disabled people are more accessible, or present the piece at a town where many families reside. However, we sometimes go the other way around. Sometimes we begin by having the desire to serve a certain group of audience. Then, afterwards, we start thinking about the artwork that is suitable for them. At the time, we are developing a whole strand of works for Gaelic-speaking people. We are now starting the creative process by researching what is the most urgent topic for the Gaelic-speaking Scots at the moment. So this is a very good example of the latter case, in which the project starts from the different end: from addressing a certain audience.
Changing the subject, it was propounded through some media that your predecessor, Vicky Featherstone, resigned from the post because she felt that there is an intractable problem for leading the NTS as an English person. You happen to be also English. Do you feel any difficulties in managing a national theatre in Scotland?
First of all, I want to clarify that the main reason why she resigned from the post does not have much to do with what you’ve just mentioned. However, I should say that there were times when she found that there were some difficulties. And, there were some criticisms on my appointment also, which, blissfully, I wasn’t aware of. I joined the team feeling that I am fully welcomed by the people. I think that these kinds of criticisms come from the so-called loud minorities, that is, the small but vocal group of cultural commentators who have the right to talk about these things. However, from my view, I think that these people are asking the wrong question. Taking into account that there is the Equal Opportunity and the Anti-Discrimination Law in the U.K, it will be illegal if the position is not given to the best candidate irrespective of his or her nationality, ethnicity or gender. So the alternative question that we should be asking is, why is it that there are not many Scottish candidates when it comes to deciding these top positions in the art industry. Is it because, for some reason, a ladder for climbing up to these top jobs is missing for the cultural leaders in Scotland? If that is the case, what should be done to reform it? I think that asking these questions is much more productive, rather than just criticizing why is a non-Scot leading the organization. If these questions are seriously discussed and treated, hopefully, there will be a host of Scottish candidates from the local community when I leave the position.
Then I should ask a question from the opposite perspective. Why is it that you, as an Englishman, willingly decided to make Scotland your cultural home?
It is very important as an artist to work at a place where you feel you could make the best contribution to the society. And, in my case, that place just happened to be different from where I grew up. Besides, I’ve never worked at my hometown in Kent. First, I spent four years in Scarborough, Yorkshire, working at the Stephen Joseph Theatre as an associate director of Alan Ayckbourn. Then, for the next seven years, I was in North Hampton, serving as an artistic director at the Royal and Derngate Theatre. Also, apart from these jobs, I’ve spent my entire career directing all over the country. It is just that I have always decided my creative home according to where I could very much feel at home.
Can you tell me why you feel at home in Scotland as an artist?
One element is that I like this country’s passion in politics. Recently, in a restaurant in Edinburgh, I saw this family that was having a heated debate about the referendum over dinner, and it was so exciting to listen to them because parents and their children apparently had a different opinion. Then the other element I like is that there is not much hierarchy, professionally or socially in this country. That’s something I feel very uncomfortable with in London. In London, you are made to feel either part of the club or not part of the club, depending on whether or not you come from the elite background. This is very different in Scotland. Here, there is a true sense of collaboration and support among the artists. There is also a healthy amount of very direct and honest criticism, unlike London. These elements really appeal to me and that is why, as an artist, I feel very at home in this country.
It is a bit surprising to hear that you do not feel comfortable in an elite community. After all, you are a graduate of Cambridge, and so if you wish, you can be considered a member of the club.
Yes, I have graduated from Cambridge, but that does not mean that I prefer elitism. In terms of my background, I come from a lower-middle class family in a non-affluent community. I am the first generation of my family to go to a university. So, yes, I went to Cambridge, but I was very out of place there. I was surrounded with all these public school boys and girls talking about rugby and boating. Since I was the first person from the local school ever to go to Oxbridge, everyday was a cultural shock. I had a wonderful time there. It’s a beautiful place to stay for a few years. But if you talk about my background, I’m much more comfortable with an easy-going and friendly sort of attitude, rather than being part of these hierarchical structures.
I’d like to continue talking about your background. Going back to the beginning, why did you get interested in theatre in the first place and decide to make a career out of it?
I think what struck me most when I was young was the way in which theatre can put you in someone else’s shoes, and make you emphasize with people so unlike yourself. In my view, this is what makes theatre essentially political. It educates you to think from a more objective and critical standpoint. I still remember when I persuaded my parents and went to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
on my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday. My drama teacher at that time was quite worried and reminded me by saying, “You do know that it is quite serious, don’t you?’ [laughs]. I don’t know why I got it into my head, but I had to see it. Maybe it was because I was reading the novels of Virginia Woolf as a teenager and thought it had something to do with her. And so, I went to the Young Vic to see the performance with much enthusiasm. I was in the very front row, and it was Patrick Stewart as George and Billie Wittelaw playing Martha. Simply, I was entirely blown away by being in that room with those people; feeling like I was in the room with them, and feeling their pain and the destructive behavior that they were throwing out at each other. I just wanted to know how you could magically do that! I thought that theatre is the only place where you could feel the others feelings so alive, and at that moment I clearly decided that I wanted to be part of it. It was a big catalyst for me.
It’s interesting to know that a teenage lad was moved by a play dealing with a devastated couple in middle-age crisis.
I know! But, I think that is exactly what I mean. Theatre makes you understand other people’s emotions. Further, it prompts our analysis on the shared humanity. Why do we make these decisions? Why do we behave in a certain way? We go along in the everyday life, quite frequently betraying ourselves, as these things are largely unknown to us. We don’t delve deep into our minds in the everyday, because we somehow know that what we find at the bottom is our vulnerabilities. But, all good theatre, one way or another, provides an analysis on vulnerability; and, it also reminds us that vulnerability is common to all humanity. That is why when we go to a theatre, the feeling of loneliness and solitude is alleviated, and we feel more comfortable being part of a bigger society. Whatever the context, whether the play deals with the royalties in fifteenth century Scotland, a middle-age couple living in 1960s American academia, or working class people living in current Liverpool, everyone loves and suffers more or less in the same way. So, after all, we are not much different—you think. And, temporarily you forget about your solitude.
Did you ever feel that you wanted to form your own company after graduating from the University?
Actually, I did have my own company called the Flesh and Blood Theatre Group, when I was in the University—and, yes, I know that the name is really cheesy [laughs]. But we were lucky enough to have Fiona Shaw as our patron, and presented shows like Bacchae, Blood Wedding
and many musicals. One of our most successful works, Growing Up
, which is a musical that we created from scratch, was even presented at the National Theatre Student Drama Festival and we received unbelievably invaluable advice from professional people. Largely, it was about what didn’t work. But for me, that was the starting point of my career, understanding the fundamental things of what theatre really is about. For ages, acting was throwing on costumes and pretending to be someone else. But suddenly you realize that acting is not at all about these things, but much more simple and also difficult. I just wanted to learn more about these things on the job, and so I decided to start working as a freelance director immediately. For seven years, I freelanced, working with numerous regional theatres. It was sometimes difficult because I was doing jobs that I would never have willingly done myself. But because I went through this procedure, I got to realize more clearly my strong and weak points. Then one day in Scarborough, I was asked to direct three little two-hander plays at a restaurant at lunch times. I only did it because the director had pulled out of the job at last minute. Then, after I somehow struggled through these plays, Alan Ayckbourn asked me if I wanted to work as an associate. Alan was a very generous artist, and at Scarborough I really learnt all the basics of the craft. We did about twenty new plays in about four years. So every day, you just had to be there, rehearse, and develop the plays like a craftsman without ever having much time to think about responsibilities and difficulties. It was amazing.
You were inspired by the work of Edward Albee as a teenager; you’ve directed Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding as a university student; and, you’ve worked as an associate director of Alan Ayckbourn—obviously you are drawn to works of legendary playwrights. Do you think that, as a director of NTS, it is more important to nurture good playwrights rather than talented directors?
No, I don’t think so. I think they are both important to us. Yes, it’s true that Scotland is known more for nurturing great playwrights more than directors, but our company has always made work by considering the director as the leading artist, and selected the writers as their collaborators. However, I do think that we must always be able to serve great writers by providing them a creative home. David Greig, David Harrower, Linda McClean, Kieran Hurley—they are all great Scottish playwrights. And, I want them to know that whenever they have written a new play, they could come to us and we will do our best to put it on stage. At the same time, we are also very keen on developing young writers. For instance, The Scottish Enlightenment Project is one of those attempts. It is a project in which several fifteen-minute work-in-progress pieces will be presented on the eve of the referendum.
From Lord Byron to Irving Welsh, Scotland has always produced countless talented writers. Why do you think so many amazing writers come out of this land?
To begin with, the Scots inherit this delightfully exuberant and robust sense of language. Also, the colloquial language of Scots is both vulgar and poetic at the same time. Vulgar in the sense that it’s of the people, and, yet it has its own in-build lyricism. When these two elements come together, it creates brilliant dramatic writing. You can see it in the language of Rona Munro in the James Plays
. Her plays are both foul-mouthed and sublimely poetic at the same time. I think that this quality is classic in Scottish writing.
However, before the twentieth century, there is not much of a theatrical tradition in Scotland. This is largely due to religion as the Calvinists expelled theatres. However, as a backlash to this suppression, theatre got very exciting and flourished after the twentieth century. And, it produced a host of modern classics like A Wholly Healthy Glasgow
by Iain Heggy and Knives in Hens
by David Harrower, just to mention a few. Perhaps, the reason why theatre flourished so rapidly in Scotland is because people of this land adore discussions, conversations, debates and all other spoken language cultures. When you get on the train in Scotland, a conversation with the neighbor will organically begin, which is very unlikely to happen in a tube in London. Maybe because speaking to each other is so part and parcel of the Scottish culture, the oral culture of theatre has also become widely popular in this country.
Also, it is important to note that theatre like the Traverse has contributed a great deal in developing the contemporary Scottish theatre scene. When a theatre like the Traverse is physically there, and when they clearly say that they are keen on presenting plays by living writers, it implements the idea within young writers that, one day, they want their shows to be presented at that
NTS has quite extensively toured around foreign countries as a company. Dragon, which was co-produced with Vox Motus and Tianjin People’s Art Theatre was presented at Tianjin, China. David Greig’s Dunsinane, which deals with a story after Macbeth’s death has traveled to many regional theatres as well as to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Moscow. Also, Black Watch, one of the most well known plays of the company, has toured around extensively in the U.K and the U.S. Could you tell me how NTS is trying to balance creating international projects and nurturing local talents.
Being successful in local participatory works and developing a show that stands up to international quality is actually not a contradictory vision. For instance, we once created a show called Jump
with young teenage boys who dropped out from schools in Glasgow. In this show we combined together the physical vocabulary of Parkour (an urban sport in which running, jumping, climbing and all other acrobatic movements are combined together to move through the cityscape in a different way) and the story of growing up in Glasgow. This performance ended up with great acclaim, and now we are invited to develop the same project with Jamaican and Australian youngsters. As this case attests, a local participatory artwork could develop into an international project. In short, if the authenticity of the idea and quality of the artwork is there, the project will be successful, locally and globally.
Are you preparing any project that will appeal to both local and global audiences with regards to the referendum?
Last year, I went on a research trip to Montreal and Barcelona. The reason why I chose these two cities as my destination is quite obvious. It is because both Quebec and Catalonia are aiming to become independent countries from Canada and Spain, respectively. Based on my research, I have decided to continue on with the independence debates by inviting Quebecois and Catalonian artists to Scotland on the week of the referendum. And we will be developing the project from the common question of whether or not we should become an independent state of not. Then in 2015, we are going to spend some time in Montreal, Barcelona and Glasgow, all working together to explore more on the ideas about identity, boundary and nation states. This is another good example of a project being local and global at the same time. By seriously considering the local issues of Scotland, we simultaneously end up in realizing which international networks we should be developing out of necessity.
Depending on the result of the referendum, the future of Scotland will be drastically different. Could you tell me how NTS is preparing for this potential social upheaval?
Whatever the result, the decision is clearly going to be a quite close call. So, I really hope that it doesn’t create a cultural division afterwards. In the most recent Quebecois referendum, which took place in 1995, 50.6% of the people voted against independence and they maintained as being part of Canada. But, because the call was so close, from immediately afterwards, the land was divided into two parties and almost half of the citizens had to live feeling depressed for quite a long time. I hope that the same situation would not happen here in Scotland. In my view, this is quite unlikely. I think that whatever the result, the Scots will be moving forward strongly towards the future. What’s been brilliant about these debates is that through the discussions, the Scots gained a growing confidence in what they are good at and understood more about their individual attributes and qualities. For this reason, the referendum has already done so much good for the country. NTS would like to carry on developing these stimulating conversations also after the referendum, and would like to continue on deepening the thoughts related to this land.
I guess creatively stimulating days will continue on in Scotland, also after 2014.
Yes, and to develop those creative environments in Scotland is our task. In order to realize this, it is first and foremost important to provide chances to artists. Playwrights, directors, set designers and all other theatre artists should be given ample time and space to develop their crafts. This, for me, is the key job for our organization, because all artworks, international dialogues, and possibilities of the future are created through the artists’ visions. In order to achieve this goal, we are creating a Creativity Centre in the near future, which will be consisted of four rehearsal rooms, offices and spaces for artists to do development. This venue should play a key role in bringing NTS’ creativity to the next level. I think that if the first phase of NTS was about revolution, my directorial term will be about ‘evolution.’ I hope that productions created through this Centre, will open up thrillingly unexpected pathways for the company in the future.