Philip Howard, the longest-serving artistic director of the Traverse, may have announced his departure date, but he’s determined to go out on a high with a series of ambitious new projects. He shares his vision with Steve Cramer.
As Philip Howard walked towards my booth in the far corner of the Traverse bar, I was reminded somehow, not for the first time, of an Englishman abroad, at least in that sense that we foreigners are taught to think of them. There’s something undemonstrative, self-effacing, almost buttoned down in his manner, which creates an unconscious need in those before him to somehow draw him out. Yet, it quickly emerges in conversation that Howard needs none of this. He remains a quietly self confident man, with a genuine warmth that he allows to seep out by ration through a look, phrase or gesture. He’s articulate and specific with a verbal register that moves smoothly from the technocratic phrase to an artistic discourse and on to an expletive without missing a beat, seeming to relish the effect that the juxtaposition creates on the listener.
Now the longest serving artistic director of the Trav by two years, Howard recently formalised his leaving date as the end of 2007. It will seem strange to think of the building without him. His presence has created a particular ‘big play’ ethos at the Traverse, taking the company much further down the line of less whimsical experiment and more major productions than his predecessor Ian Brown. Howard clearly lives his job, and few artistic directors could be said to have set themselves on such a course of total dedication to a theatre.
Recently, though, there has been press criticism of what has been perceived as a relative conservatism in the Traverse’s own shows, the grumbling not entirely assuaged by a strong Festival showing. So the new project at the Traverse, Cubed, which certainly marks a change of direction, might be seen as a response to such criticism. A month long mini-festival of events, it’s the kind of jamboree we’ve come to expect from The Arches, incorporating as it does three new plays, a hatful of readings, the appearance of a couple of invited young companies, exhibitions and music, everything buzzing along in the same building. Yet this controlled explosion of creativity is not, as you might think, a leap in response to the needle of criticism, but a long planned project, according to Howard.
I remind him of the freewheeling Traverse of the mid -80s, when we both experienced it for the first time. In the old Grassmarket building, there was a constant rush of small scale work, some of which proved marking points in the history of Scottish theatre, and some of which flopped on a scale unimaginable to the Trav today. Is this a return to that old style?
‘I can see exactly why it looks a return to the radical in the true sense, to the Traverse of all those years ago. Really, though it’s what we see as a response to changing times. But this has been a program that we started planning two years ago. It’s taken two years to raise the extra money to do it. It’s a more medium term response than something immediate.’
On the presentation of three new plays, to be worked in repertory by the same four actors, a colossal task presents itself for director Lorne Campbell, but with a recent precedent for success in the Citizens’ Little Bit of Ruff season a couple of years back, there’s also reason for optimism.
Again, Howard points up the practicality of such a project: ‘We have a remit, in the new building to produce new work, but also there’s a pressure for these to be big totemic shows, which, while they won’t always have big sets, always have big production values. This is a way of saying we’re still committed to that, but of getting kind of rougher work in front of audiences, because we can’t keep saying to our writers, “Listen, until you write the perfect play, when we’ll give you a full production, until then, we’re going to keep you on the back burner.” So getting this work on is actually a way of fulfilling a pretty unsexy, pragmatic brief.’
As to his critics, Howard is surprisingly candid about the recent, and past history of the Traverse. ‘I’m afraid whichever period people might have picked out as a golden age of playwriting, might not have been as good as everyone said it was. Similarly, I think the plays we’ve done over the past eighteen months that have received certainly more criticism in some quarters, were not as bad as they’ve been made out to be. I do understand that commentators have the job of monitoring these developments and interpreting cycles, and I can’t grudge the fact that people feel this way, because I didn’t say to them, when they were raving about the work for eight years on the trot, “Well you’re talking rubbish because it’s not that good.” But we do need the column inches that the commentators give us, so I don’t resent it when things don’t go our way.’
What clearly emerges from the conversation is Howard’s desire to expand the vocabulary of what is called new writing. ‘It’s important to us to show that writing is not just that picture of the artist in the garret with the leaky radiator and fevered imagination, that Coleridge idea of the vision in the bleak hours of dawn, it’s about accepting that writing is produced in many different ways.’
Cubed is bound to attract admirers of alternative forms of theatre, but Howard, as ever, diverges a little from the stock call for a youthful audience, and seems to suggest something more radical. ‘Because people are terrified of using the word “class”, they often mistake the youth thing for a class thing. I’m much more interested in getting people who are not put off by ticket prices or the shape of the theatre to come than what age they are. Maybe there’s a role for capturing that underground market. But I’m afraid, it’s less about those sorts of audiences than simply doing other kinds of work. We have to be artist led and this is about being more diverse, and the work continuing to enrich itself.’
Highway Diner are certainly the most adventurous and accomplished young company of the current generation in Scotland, so their appearance at Cubed is bound to create a stir. Their new devised piece is based on JG Ballard’s novel The Atrocity Exhibition, a piece with a good deal to say about modern consumer society.
Christopher Morgan, a member of the strictly democratic devising company explains the starting point.
‘The central character is a doctor. He believes the way he sees the world and all its chaos is somehow his fault, but actually what’s going on is that the media has become so entrenched in his head that he can‚t really grasp reality anymore. From this premise, we’re launched into a succession of the kinds of issues that are banished to the Lifestyle sections of our broadsheets, but which are actually supremely political.’
‘There’s a lot about how to change your life in the media now. But what it implies is a change of your mind and your body, and replacing what’s individual about you with something more acceptable to a market. These days its quite the norm to get plastic surgery, whereas only ten years ago it was quite unusual. We look at the way that surgery becomes a kind of addiction - we need more and more of it, and it’s easier to buy, so we get more in debt,’ explains Kelly Crow, another member of the company. The ideological point is clear, and it comes from a company in their mid 20s, who are able - almost uniquely in today’s theatre - to address their own generation, as Morgan points out: ‘We’re the generation after Generation X. We’re just bored, not bored for a reason. There’s this whole self help generation that’s sprung up, but the reasons for looking into ourselves have become extremely dubious, particularly politically.’
7hings, or Seven Things I Daren’t Express is a musical outfit with ambition. Recognising the key role of music in so much contemporary theatre, these musicians set out to create a new way of looking at both. The members of this group are all experienced in making music for the theatre, but sought means of escaping the usual pattern, where a director commissions a musician to provide sounds for a show effectively after the fact, where the music must conform to the show. With their work this process is reversed.
‘We’ve always thought of theatre as having a musical structure. What I mean is I’ve always applied ideas like counterpoint, a musical structure to dramatic scenes. There is a parallel there. There are also ideas like tempo which is so important to theatre. So we’ve always started with the musical element in a theatre piece rather than narrative,’ explains Gerard [SURNAME TO BE ADDED HERE], the curator of this music theatre festival.
There is definitely a performance in the offing here, rather than a gig, but the music is the real star. ‘This gives you the freedom to change more as you go along, it gives you a psychological freedom. You can do anything with music in a theatrical production. It’s like the soundtrack to the Gus Van Sant film Elephant, where there’s a scene with a bunch of students walking down the corridor, pretty ordinary, but the sound, which mixes Beethoven, with the sound of a basketball, and station announcements and other stuff makes it ambiguous and alarming.’ Expect more of a felt experience of narrative rather than a conventional story, and you won’t be disappointed.
For fans of the more conventional idea of new writing, this presentation of three short plays might be the ticket. But even here, the Traverse’s usual house rules have gone out the window. The three pieces will be presented in repertory using the same three actors (in one case there’ll be a fourth) to present them in double and triple bills. The monumental task of directing all three has been placed in the hands of Lorne Campbell, who seems truly exhilarated by the prospect.
One of the plays, Morna Pearson’s Distracted has, before it has received a full staging, already been the recipient of an award, in the shape of the Rod Hall prize, a gong presented to young writers jointly by the late Mr Hall’s agency and English company Paines Plough. It tells the story of an autistic boy living on a Morayshire trailor park, whose fantasies are projected onto his fellow residents, and seem increasingly to blur the borderlines between imagination and reality. Meanwhile Iain F MacLeod’s version of French writer David Lescot’s play, Broke tells the story of a bankrupt man and his state-appointed liquidator. The third piece is David Priestley’s White Point, a play dealing with the discontents and glass ceilings facing folk in their late 20s, set in a shared flat.
The whole experience of the three plays is recommended by Campbell. ‘By doing these plays with four actors, you’re always seeing a play in the context of another play, you’re putting the actors at the centre of it; it gives the writers a feeling that they’re always supported by something‚’ he says. ‘These are all plays with narratives, all plays with laughs; if we get it right you should be able to sit down and enjoy. They deal with heavy subjects, they’re all plays about leaving and being left, they’re all plays about how we seek happiness, and they’re all plays about transition and the need to change. But they’re all very entertaining. And the longest is only an hour and five minutes.’