As part of the Edinburgh International Festival the Royal Court was invited to present a series of rehearsed readings by playwrights from Chile, China, Cuba, Lebanon, Palestine and Ukraine under the theme of New and Now. Broadway Baby’s Theatre Editor, Liam Rees, caught up with director and curator Elyse Dodgson to discuss the Royal Court’s international work, the challenges of producing said work, and the changing face of British theatre.
John Tiffany is one of our most successful directors and he’s spent the past two days working with a young Cuban writer who’s only 25 years old
You are the International Director at the Royal Court. It’s a very broad term, what does it involve?
It was very hard to get that term. I used to be called ‘Associate Director (International)’ and then I’ve had various titles. But what I really do is I have a small department of three people and we do international play development, taking those right up to performance all over the world.
And what drew you to international work in the first place?
Well I’ve been at the Royal Court for 32 years. It wasn’t so much about being drawn in, it almost happened by accident. I guess I’ve always been a nomadic, internationalist soul – because my family were immigrants to the United States and then I left and came to England, so the idea of moving and thinking of things in not just one location is built into me. But basically I started out acting and then I began to teach drama and as a result of the work I did with schools and the education program [at the Royal Court] it came into our thinking that the work we were doing with young people could be done internationally and that’s really how it started.
Quite a natural progression then?
Yes, it was during the 1980s when the Arts Council had cut back on a lot of funding and we all had to come up with ideas about how to extend our finances really. And actually you could’ve said it’s quite cynical, you know, the idea of expanding internationally, but it very soon became something very different, totally non-profit and really about extending the work.
What was your thought process when you were curating the the New and Now season at the EIF?
When the British Council first talked about it, I think it was basically that we would look at work that we’d done that embodies change, conflict and societies where things were falling apart really and trying to heal them. My first temptation was a kind of greatest-hits thing, plays that really marked changes in our time, and we could’ve chosen many, really brilliant plays that people know. And then we just thought, it’s great people know those plays, but work that’s not been seen before really excited us.
And where do you find all these writers, how do these relationships develop in the first place?
Well it’s a very long process. I think one of the most important principles of doing this sort of work is that it’s long term and continuous and that you build up relationships over the years. Every single writer who’s here over this week [at the EIF] has been in a previous program or even currently, in the case of China, part of a program we’re running at the moment.
What are some of the challenges of producing international work?
I think the biggest challenge is working in translation. No one has to speak in English to take part in our programs. [You have to] find the best translation for our audiences and sometimes there isn’t one. Maybe you need to use surtitles in order to hear the language. And with some languages we’ve been more successful than others because we’ve worked with translators who are theatre practitioners.
Are there any plays that you think were real standout gamechangers?
Oh yes! Right from the beginning we produced Marius von Mayenburg’s Fireface which I thought was very challenging in form and he’s one of the major playwrights in Germany now. His work has been so influential on British writers. Some of the Russian work has had an incredible impact including Vassily Sigarev and Plasticine – I’m going back to the early 2000s, all his work is incredible. I think so many of our writers are now significant writers in their own countries: Juan Mayorga, Rafael Spregelburd from Argentina. I’ve mentioned only men but there are women: Anupama Chandrasekhar from India is now the writer in residence at the National Theatre. Natal’ya [Vorozhbit], whose play [Bad Roads] we’ve seen yesterday, she started working with us in 2004. So they’re relationships. We’re doing a Syrian play by Liwaa Yazji in our new season, we’ve worked with Syrian playwrights since 2006 and we’ve seen them through so many changes.
Why do you feel international work is important?
Well I think it gives us a perspective that we can’t get anywhere else. Many leading journalists will say that they need us, in a way, to keep those stories alive and when we started working with the actors on Natal’ya’s play on the war in Ukraine they all said, Why don’t we know about this? Why don’t we know these stories. We need to tell them.
While Bad Roads is having a full-length production, what else is there in store for the International department?
Well Guillermo Calderon, who’s in this week, we’re doing his new play that he’s developed with us called B and that’s in the theatre downstairs at the end of September. The Syrian play called Goats by Liwaa Yazji will also be done in the Theatre Downstairs.
Usually, if I’m honest, I’m happy to have an average of one or two international plays over the course of one year, but to have three in one season is absolutely fantastic.
There does seem to be a real fan-base now for international work, especially from European theatre directors. What do you think of that?
Some of them are absolutely brilliant but we’re a new-writing theatre and I wonder – I’m probably going to be quite controversial – but I wonder just how political the work really is, how insightful it is. I know it’s fabulous to watch, and sometimes they can be works of genius, but they do have that ‘genius cult’ with young people following them, which is not so much about the ideas in the play but the ‘concept’. But I am just such a new-writing person, and I really love the kind of directors who have the vision to support what the writer is trying to say but can also make it exciting.
For example, John Tiffany is one of our most successful directors and he’s spent the past two days working with a young Cuban writer who’s only 25 years old. He’s just finished some major productions but will just sit at the table with that writer and find out what she wants to say. And to me that’s the most glorious experience you can have between a writer and director.
And finally, what do you feel are some of the greatest challenges to British theatre currently?
Well I’m very old but you can’t have that attitude of ‘I’ve seen it all before’ because it’s always different each time. We’ve reached the stage where we’re asking questions about who can make theatre and who can make certain kinds of theatre. Can you write a play about Syria if you’re not Syrian? I’ve spoken to many writers outside of this country who are sort of plagued by these questions. And of course I say ‘Of course, what is a writer [to do] if not to use their own absolute empathy and imagination’ – but how you do that with integrity and depth is the huge challenge. It’s interesting because I was talking to Marius von Mayenburg and he said, in Germany, no one seems to value playwriting anymore. Everybody is sort of telling their story but they’re not sort-of permitted to tell anyone else’s story and that can be quite worrying really. There are some incredible verbatim projects I’m proud to have been a part of like Lola’s [Arias] play, MINEFIELD which is one of the best pieces of international theatre you could see. So you need both of them, it’s not either/or.