The artistic director of Boundless Theatre – formerly known as Company of Angels – speaks to Catherine Love about dramaturgy, telling stories and the challenge of making theatre for teenagers. You can read the article online here.
When did you first get into theatre? Was there a show that particularly inspired you?
I was taken on a school trip to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest at the Barbican in London and it was incredible watching a really highly theatrical version of that play. I remember being taken to this huge, quite fortress-like building, right down into the Pit, and watching this expressive, playful, beautifully designed show and being really in awe of it. That definitely whetted my appetite for theatre. I am indebted to teachers and family for supporting and recognising that early interest. I grew up in a working-class family and so we weren’t at the theatre every single week, and yet my parents were very smart to see that I was interested and they found whatever opportunity they could to put me in front of work. I felt my eyes were opened in those important teenage years to everything that theatre could be.
At what point did you decide which role you wanted to take on in the theatremaking process?
Acting was the first thing that I started thinking I wanted to do and I went through a couple of years of applying to a whole host of drama schools. In the second year of applying, I got down to the final rounds at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and they said to me: “We think you should take a year off and come back to us.” So I put in a very late application to the University of Manchester to study drama and ended up going there for three and a half years. And actually very quickly I started becoming really interested in writing and directing and making. I then decided to apply to Central School of Speech and Drama to their MA in advanced theatre practice as a director. I was one of two directors, and there were some writers, there were some puppeteers, there were some designers and some performers. That process was chaotic and there was some good work and some bad work, but really it was about learning the ropes of telling stories. By that point I knew that it was directing and making work that was my main interest.
You’ve since worked as a dramaturg with both HighTide Festival and London’s Bush Theatre. Dramaturgy remains something of a confused and contested term in the UK. What does it mean to you?
Within the practice of dramaturgy there are very different philosophies and approaches. Are you there to support early research and to develop an academic sounding board for a writer? Are you there as a deviser or co-creator? Within that definition there are many sub-definitions. Specifically referencing the Bush, it was about creating a full-time artistic position within that team. What Madani [Younis – the Bush’s artistic director] identified was a need to support many different kinds of artist. During my time at the Bush we were commissioning straight plays and working with writers from pitch through to production; we were also supporting companies and artists like Caroline Horton, who make their work in a variety of different ways. What was important for the Bush was that there was somebody who could sit within the producing team. For me, dramaturgy is a supportive but also an artistic role. It is another pair of eyes, it is a valve on an artistic process, it is somebody who can be the audience, it’s somebody who can ask why, what and what if as often as possible. I think if I were to reduce everything down to its simplest, it is somebody who questions a narrative, a piece of storytelling.
What brought you to Boundless Theatre and what direction would you like to take the company in over the next few years?
It was the opportunity to be really rigorous and interrogate what a teenage audience at the theatre in this country needs. Working with this company, you have 15 years of doing that work and fighting for young people both as artists and participants, but also crucially as audiences. That was the early hook for me. But the company wasn’t necessarily finding the largest audiences all of the time. So it’s about working with a number of really exciting large producing theatres to ask that question of what does theatre need to look like, what does it need to do, what are the stories we need to tell to engage a young audience. I think it’s an exciting moment to be doing that. The world has shifted, the world is in some form of chaos, and young people are not oblivious to that at all. And yet most theatre for young audiences will strive to simplify the world or perhaps sometimes not even engage with the world head on. I think if we get our job right over the years, the work should feel highly relevant to young people and should slightly terrify parents or teachers. And yet if we can be sophisticated about it, that is part of the point; it’s about forging a conversation.
Tell me about your new show Natives. Does that embody your ambitions for the company?
Natives is the beginning for us as a company. It’s making a piece of work that is uncompromising and putting three teenagers on stage. The play just asks this question of what change can young people bring about for themselves, whether that’s a small, personal change or whether that’s the biggest political change. There is a great pressure on young people to grow up, there is great pressure on young people economically and socially in this country, and so the play kicks around those ideas, but it also does it in a celebratory way.
CV: Rob Drummer
Born: 1987, Ashford, Middlesex
Training: Central School of Speech and Drama
Career highlights: The Train Driver, Hampstead Theatre, London (2010), Flora, Theatre503, London (2011), Perish, HighTide Festival, (2012), Eisteddfod, Latitude Festival (2012), Sense, Company of Angels (2013)
Agent: Dan Usztan, United Agents
Natives runs at Southwark Playhouse, London from March 29 – April 22.