Elyse Dodgson, in her own words: International Drama and the Royal Court
Monday, 1 October 2001
Voices Of The Royal Court
Interview by Mel Cooper, October 2001
Meet Elyse Dodgson, who talks to Mel Cooper about her work and her life in her office at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Doing international work; indeed, reviving the international work that had been a significant feature at the Royal Court, really began in 1989.
Elyse in the Court
The Royal Court has always been an international theatre of new writing. In the fifties we staged the first English productions of Brecht, Ionesco, Genet and others. At the turn of the century, we were doing the first Ibsens, Strindbergs, and Pirandellos. It’s a real tradition that goes back to the birth of modern drama. Athol Fugard and Wole Soyinka were also associated with the Court in their earliest days; and Beckett’s plays were even given here in French. Being an international theatre of new writing is not new for us.
I’ve been at the Royal Court for 16 years. I started out by running the Young Writers programme here, formerly called the Young People’s Theatre. We were fairly inward looking at the beginning, focussing on Britain and maybe Ireland, but very much looking at our own society and our own communities. The Young People’s Theatre at that time had moved down to the Portobello Road and we were very involved in the North Kensington Community.
I believe that it is no coincidence that in 1989 we started to look outward again, if you think of all the events that happened around then. It seems easy to see how that could happen. That’s when we started to use some of the programmes we were doing with young people in our local young people’s theatre and made a commitment to trying to develop that kind of work further afield.
Our first step was to begin our international summer school in that year. The aim was to use some of the methodologies of developing new plays that we had worked on locally but now with young writers outside Britain.
Of course, we didn’t have any funding. We did it on a prayer and we did it because most of the people we had were English language speakers. We didn’t have the concept at that time that you could work in translation.
At the start we had some very interesting young American and Australian writers but they had to pay for themselves. It was almost seen by the Royal Court at the very start as a way to generate some income. This was not at all how I wanted it to be. But this was also the year we closed the Theatre Upstairs because we just didn’t have enough subsidy to run it. So it was at a time when we wondered how we would be able to do it. Yet we knew from the start that we wanted to generate a programme that went beyond Britain for its materials and people.
Max Stafford-Clark was the director of the Royal Court at the time, and obviously it had his full backing despite it feeling risky. But as the director of the Young People’s Theatre I saw that we had put some very interesting programmes in place and had years of experience in generating programmes for new writers that would clearly be applicable. There was a lot of demand coming from outside Britain that just couldn’t be answered in any other way. I thought it was time we responded to that demand, and my colleagues agreed.
We did it all very slowly. We started with this summer school that we had for only four weeks every year. It took about four years before we could consider expanding the programme.
In 1993, we realized that not only did we want to develop the summer school to be truly international and not be just for people who had English as their mother tongue, but we also felt it should be the springboard for more developmental work for new writing.
Expanding the Work
This again, was dependent on our Artistic Director and came with the appointment of Stephen Daldry as the successor to Max Stafford-Clark. Stephen is a great internationalist. He saw that this programme had huge potential and we weren’t even beginning to tap it. So in that year we approached the British Council for support who were very responsive. They supported about a dozen writers to come from all sorts of places. Britain was also president of the European Union that year, so we got European sponsorship too. All in all, in 1993 we managed to have our very first International Residency that was truly international and where no one had to pay to come.
For the first time ever, we had to have translators around. Of course for the programme here in London we felt it necessary for the writers to have a basic understanding of English because all the workshops, seminars and tutorials are done in English. But always it’s been the belief that people must write – must create – in their mother tongue. So this is how we began to work with translators.
We got a lot of surprises and had lots to learn. We realized that you could find the best translator in the world for other kinds of text; but that for a theatre translator you needed to have someone who knew the language of theatre as well as the language they were translating.
On Being Pioneers
I always say it was pioneering; and we are still pioneering. We’re still moving into languages for which it’s sometimes very difficult to get the right translators. Our original languages were French, German, and Spanish. And we managed to find some wonderful translators for those.
As a result of this residency people who worked with us in London say, “But we also want to develop a project in our own country.” That was quite organic. It came from directors and writers who were here and saw how the Royal Court operated. They wanted to find ways of creating a new theatre-writing culture in their own countries.
Our first collaboration abroad was with Germany. We had a long-term exchange that started with the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin in 1993. This collaboration is still growing and developing. As most of the team we were working with moved to the Schaubühne, that has now become our partner in Germany.
As a result of all this, we’re doing a play this year from the Schaubühne. It’s almost more than a collaboration. It’s a partnership really. And they’ve done so many Royal Court plays in the last two years – Far Away, 4.48 Psychosis. They have access to our work quite early on as we also do to their work. Roland Schimmelpfennig was one of their dramaturgs. I went to the Schaubühne one day and they said to me: “Roland’s just written a new play and we think it’s great. In fact, we think it’s a Royal Court play.” I said fine and commissioned a translation of it within a week.
The Royal Court is now very famous in Berlin. The Royal Court writers are probably some of the most prominent writers today in Germany. That is our longest exchange so far and gives you an idea of how the cross-fertilisation can work and where it can all get to.
But early on, once we got started down that track, we realized there was a great demand for development work in countries that lacked a theatre-writing culture. One of the first collaborations of that sort came from Uganda.
On Being Pioneers
There’s a very strong national theatre there that was built in the 1950s before Idi Amin but probably hadn’t had a coat of paint since then. What we discovered was there was a huge tradition of playwriting very much centred around Makerere University and Kampala. Idi Amin killed – murdered – a whole generation of playwrights in the 1970s. The director of the national theatre was murdered. This new generation we came upon had the myths and legends of the older generation, of the generation of their parents, but that generation was dead. There were no living playwrights.
There are 400 theatre companies in the whole of Uganda. They do a lot of dancing and drumming and improvisation, but an interest in and commitment to new writing remains strong. So we started the first workshop in 1996 and we kept coming back.
These are long-term projects. I don’t think we could or should consider a project abroad that we didn’t see as having long-term implications and possibilities.
We need huge continuity and reciprocity. 12 plays emerged from Uganda after the first two years of work. As a result of this, they created a festival of new writing which is now an annual event. They have a network called the National Playwriting Network that was created out of this group, and still meets regularly at the National Theatre at Kampala. The writers are constantly working for it. The Royal Court commissioned a play, by Charles Mulekwa. The final draft has still to be delivered; but it is a proper commission and it brings our work in Uganda full circle.
For me, doing this work is a great privilege. I didn’t start travelling like this and going to all these countries until February 1996.
That was when I went to Uganda for the first time and I’ve been seven or eight times now.
What makes it so special is that you don’t go as a tourist; you’re there for work and for a purpose. You get to know the people as colleagues and co-workers.
The joy is also, of course, that by now seven or eight Ugandans have come to London as part of our residency; and they’ve appeared in London as part of the LIFT festival. Three have come back – last summer.
So the impact works both ways. One effect it has on me is that I often feel that I spend my whole life saying good-bye to people whom I love. But the brilliant thing is that I now have the confidence to know that these projects really are long term and that we meet again and again.
It’s a very peripatetic job. I’ve been to India recently; and to Brazil. I was in Siberia in December, 2000 – and Dominic Cooke, my colleague, has just gone again this December, 2001. The Uganda model is being applied and is growing.
Basically the play development programmes tend to take place where there is a need of theatre practitioners to stimulate and develop a playwrighting culture. The exchanges take place in other countries where theatres don’t believe that the development work is so necessary, but where the idea of cultural exchange is exciting and stimulating for its own sake. In some countries, we do both.
Developing a Theatre-Writing Culture
We always say that in Britain in 1956 there was no new writing, not until there was the Royal Court. So if we could do it, you can do it anywhere else, as long as you find people who are devoted to the work.
West End theatre practitioners of that era wrote some plays that were very fine; but in 1956 playwrights like that were not reflecting the concerns of all levels and sections of society – and that was something the English Stage Company at the Royal Court was founded to do. After Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, there was a great flow of plays in this country.
I truly believe that it was because of the Royal Court that the UK became such a lively place for contemporary work in the theatre. Now there are other new writing theatres, thank goodness, that generate this work as well. But in those days it was the determination of George Devine and his team to start a new theatre-writing culture that made all the difference.
Of course, originally, the company did mix it – did do productions of the great plays of the past too. The 1956 season at the Royal Court famously had Look Back in Anger and also The Country Wife in a trend-setting production that also helped bring some fine actors to public attention.
But from the late 1970s when Max Stafford Clark took over we did a classic only every once in a while, to see how the new work was measuring up to the classics. Now we do our own classics – we staged Ionesco’s The Chairs, which had first been done early on in the life of the English Stage Company; this time in a co-production with Complicité and we recently held a Pinter season. The beauty of this building is that we are always open to ideas, and mixing things, and collaborations of all kinds.
The best thing about these international workshops and projects is that we really do develop them in collaboration with the individual artists with whom we are working. There’s no standard project or approach.
Often it’s the case that I will go out and meet the theatre people who are interested; and find out their specific needs before I prepare just how we’ll work together. I did a mad trip to Brazil in March 2000 to research the possibilities.
Setting Up in Brazil
I visited six cities in 12 days. Some people I met joked that the British Council were trying to see if it could kill me. It’s a very big country.
I saw a lot of airports. I was on nine internal flights. And I came back with a real sense of a very vibrant theatre culture. I came back knowing what a great desire there was of writers in Brazil to develop their work. I also found that it is very much a director’s theatre culture in Brazil.
While out there, I located three of the six places where I felt there were real centres for the work. In the end there wasn’t enough finance to pay for one of them, so we’ve concentrated on Sao Paulo, which is an incredible city with huge problems and huge energy; and Salvador in the Northeast that has a very different culture of its own. It’s about 85 per cent black and was the former capital of Brazil.
So we have two groups going in Brazil. The group in Salvador are much younger and the others in Sao Paulo are more established playwrights. It gives us quite a range of things to achieve.
In Salvador we work with a theatre called Villa Velha, as our base. They’re a very active theatre, very political, very involved in new work; and they, with the university, advertised the project and got writers to apply. We chose 12 playwrights to work with for two weeks. We want the opportunity for people who’ve never written before to take part – as we do here with our young people’s theatre. So we had a special day for them.
My most memorable day in Salvador? We were just told a lot of young people, average age 16, would turn up; it was a Saturday morning; and there were about 40 of them from some of the roughest and most difficult neighbourhoods who’ve had some association with the theatre. They all came absolutely on time, absolutely ready to go. We had to do the workshop in Portuguese – we had brilliant translators.
Sometimes we just have to respond to something that is happening at the moment and I was completely amazed that they had had a police strike in Salvador in July; and everyone locked themselves in their houses. It was a complete nightmare for a lot of people. After a day or two people realized they could go looting, go and do anything. These 16-year-olds wrote some incredible things about their experiences of that day when the police went on strike, things that even more experienced directors and writers didn’t know about. So now they are developing their own short scenes about the police strike.
The long term writer’s group had until 31 January 2002 to complete the first drafts of their plays. Our Portuguese readers then have to look at them and write reports and comment on them; and we’ll do some rough translations too; and then we’ll go back for a second workshop in April 2002 to develop those plays further.
We will definitely do a week of Brazilian readings in which we choose perhaps five of the plays, and have proper translations done, and then present them in the Theatre Upstairs. As well as that, there is an opportunity to pick up one of the plays to do; or other theatres might come in and discover a play.
Other Places, Other Plays
This is what happened with the Russian play we are doing in the current season. In the Russian project – after two years of work with playwrights in Moscow and Novosibirsk – we got to the stage where we chose five of the writers. We did a week of readings – with proper translations commissioned – and the play Plasticine by Vassily Sigarev was chosen for production. Vassily as a 24-year-old writer – a member of our “new writing” collaboration.
We also have an exchange with A.S.K. theatre projects in Los Angeles. They have supported our play development project there since 1993. So regularly we’ll do a week of readings of new American plays through that scheme and our playwrights will go to Los Angeles. We are finding more and more writers from the States are just submitting their work to the Royal Court before they submit them to theatres in the States. That’s what happened with one of our young U.S. writers, Rebecca Gilman, who is quite well established now and who just had a big hit in London with us with her new play, Boy Gets Girl.
Another one of our writers, Christopher Shinn, was chosen for our young writers festival here. He sent in a play unsolicited, and we’ve now done two of his plays. Now everyone in the States is saying he is the next hot young writer. American writers are now keen to make approaches to the Royal Court. We’re becoming a kind of conduit for developing writers from all over the world.
India is another huge country – we seem to be focusing at the moment on three large countries, India, Brazil and Russia.
In India we developed a relationship with one of the writers who came on our international residency. His parents have a theatre company in Bangalore. The language of the Urban Indian is English. It was not our intention to work in English, but this theatre does work in it, and some great Indian literature was written in English. Many people have English as a first language in India. So we did a workshop in English with 13 playwrights. We all lived together in the Christian Ecumenical Centre in Bangalore, which was quite an experience, for two weeks.
The writers were asked to submit first drafts of new plays in May. The Indian experience was like no other. 13 out of 13 writers submitted. Usually you think 60 per cent will submit. They were all interesting; but we chose nine playwrights in the end.
But in India specifically they all said “It’s great to have all these plays – but we have no directors to put them on.” The directors have a very different kind of culture in India and they’re not used to working with playwrights or developing new work. So they asked us if the next workshop could link the new plays with a group of directors.
Therefore we did a week with nine directors, seven from India and two from Bangladesh, who came to Bangalore. We worked for a week on how you direct a new play, on how to work with the writers, analysing the text. At the end of the week, we had a script meeting like the Royal Court Script Meetings. The directors talked about the nine plays. We then narrowed it down to a choice of three plays, and everyone got one of their choices. In the second week we brought the writers in – nine writers, seven from India and two from Sri Lanka.
And there was this wonderful moment when I had tears in my eyes. The playwrights came in to meet the directors for the first time; and the directors stood up and applauded. I think that’s just not an experience you get, to have that value put on new writing.
The directors said “We never knew there were so many writers in India”. Now they have until the beginning of January to do the final drafts of these plays. The company we started with in Bangalore are going to do a festival of these plays in June. And personally I hope some of these plays will make their way to the Royal Court too.
We often start a workshop in most countries by saying: “What are the big subjects for you in your society?” In a country as vast as India, we started in English but we want to do the next workshop in Mumbai and plan a series of workshops that will be regional and in the local languages.
These should have the distinctively different flavours of those regions. We started with a more general workshop in Bangalore and people had similar backgrounds in it. I think that will change drastically as we branch out in India. We’re working with theatre people from Pune. I didn’t know that they have a theatre writing tradition that goes back to the 1840s and that they have one of the most established languages for theatre writing in India. I feel like a woman with a mission!
A Long Way from Brighton Beach – Memories
I was born and grew up in New York. I came to Britain in 1966 to go to drama school, something I had long dreamed of. On my very first day in London I came here to the Royal Court. I sat up in the “gods” and saw The Knack, in revival.
The Royal Court already had a great deal of meaning to me. I knew before I came over to London that this was the first place I wanted to see. It was ten years on from 1956 and this was the most exciting place in the English-speaking world.
It took me 20 years to work here. I started as an actress. I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and then I was in an early fringe company called the Brighton Combination, one of the very first alternative theatres in the 1960s; we did a lot of political work and our writer in residence was Howard Brenton. We also worked with people like David Hare. I also got married and when my children were born I began teaching drama.
I taught in inner city schools, some very rough, and loved it. Drama was often the only subject that appealed to the young people there. I always believed in it as a learning method but also was strict about it being something you could really be excellent in.
I did a project in 1981 in my school in Vauxhall with mostly young Afro-Carribbean women from Brixton. It was called Motherland. It was an oral testimony project. I got funding by the then Inner London Education Authority. It was based on interviews with the young women’s mothers on their migration from the Caribbean in the 1950s.
It took a year to do. The girls interviewed their mothers and turned it into a play. This became a kind of phenomenon. It was done in the Oval House in 1981 and then made into a video that schools used, and there was a book; and it had a lot of coverage at the time.
A Job at the Royal Court
While it was on, Max Stafford-Clark from the Royal Court came to see it. I was very excited about him coming. Shortly afterwards the job of director of the Young People’s Theatre was advertised. I went for it; and he said to me in my interview “What have you seen at the Royal Court?” He had all the posters up from the plays of the last 15 or 20 years at the Royal Court and I looked and said: “Everything” – so I got the job. I’ve never really left since – that was in 1985. But that was to run the Young People’s Theatre. I left briefly in 1991 (for seven months) and came back as Associate Director (Education).
But my job was changing because we started the summer school and international residencies. As we started to take off with the projects – and there were so many of them around the world – there were so many things and aspects emerging. The British Council began to recognize that this was something besides Shakespeare that people really had expertise at and that was useful to take abroad. The workload became too enormous.
Then Stephen Daldry one day in the beginning of 1996 said to me “You can’t do both any more. Which one do you prefer to do?” I said “International.” I thought I had had 20 fantastic years of working with young people but this was still working with young people.
A Theatre Like No Other
People actually say what makes the Royal Court like no other theatre is this insight we have into worlds we don’t know about. It has also given us the most amazing respect all over the world. In 1994 I tried to get people interested in all the Royal Court plays in Germany and no one was interested. Now there are dozens of productions of Royal Court plays all over the world. The figure is really high.
Now there is a strong dimension of being an international theatre. But you have to develop your audiences. When we did the first International Playwrights season in 1997, there were empty seats. When we did it two years later, the last season before this one, you could not get a ticket. People were queuing up even to see the Russian readings on a Saturday afternoon. There really has been in just a few years a growth of an incredible interest. The interest from the audiences is really taking off as it is from the critics as well.
But I must conclude with one other anecdote.
Dominic Cooke just went to Siberia to meet Vassily Sigarev, the Russian writer whose play he is directing in our current International Playwrights season. On his way back he stopped off in Moscow where we’ve been working since 1999 with writers. They’ve been feeling completely liberated. There’s a huge, fantastic theatrical tradition in Russia but there has been no emphasis on new writing for years, or at any rate in recent years, by the established theatre troupes. In post-Perestroika theatre none existed before this group called “New Writing” developed in Moscow along with our collaboration. They’ve now found a basement space that they are going to try to make into a mini Royal Court and they’re in the process of raising money for it themselves.
It’s the results of work like that that really give me heart – and that make me totally convinced that for me, at least, I am in the right place being part of the Royal Court family.
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