HLN meets…Natalie Ibu
Beginning her debut season as Northern Stage’s Artistic Director amid a global pandemic, Natalie Ibu was presented with a challenge none of her predecessors faced. But not only has she risen to it exceptionally – her ambition to reinvigorate the relevancy, integrity and accessibility of the North East’s theatrical scene remains unchanged.
Occasionally, in this line of work, we at HLN find ourselves in ‘pinch me’ moments.
Often this is down to excitement: meeting some of the most passionate people in the North East, discovering the secrets of their successes and being privy to peeks behind the scenes will do that to you. At other times, these outer-body kind of experiences come from the unexpected or the downright bizarre. Sitting in a small, working man’s pub in Blyth in the middle of a weekday, listening to Shania Twain while waiting for a troupe of thespians to show up was a little of both.
We’d been wanting to nab a chat with Natalie Ibu, Northern Stage’s illustrious new Artistic Director and Joint Chief Executive, for a while. In order to do that, we’d been invited to join Natalie, her creative team and the newest cast to tread the boards at Newcastle’s most relevant theatre on location.
Now we know what you’re thinking: isn’t it film crews who go on location? Is that a thing in theatre? All we know is, now it is.
When we do chat to Natalie, we find out that the thinking behind the trip out from behind the curtain is for research purposes: so that her cast are able to perform stories about the people and places here in the North East with honesty, integrity and dignity. And it seems this will be what characterises Natalie’s tenure at Northern Stage.
The London’s Royal Court alumni and former Chief Executive of tiata fahodzi – the only Black-led theatre company committed solely to producing new work in the UK – seems to know a thing or two about reflecting the experiences that are really lived by the people who really live them. And so Northern Stage, already exemplary in their commitment to their local community here in the North East, seems like the perfect fit.
And Natalie’s directorial debut for Northern Stage appears to be a quintessential example of what we can expect from her; Road is set to explore how issues of race, class and gender collide within a working-class North East community. We caught up with Natalie to find out a little more…
Why was Jim Cartwright’s Road the play you wanted to begin your Northern Stage career with?
Road was a play that I first discovered at university, when I was 20 – so 17 years ago, now! I remember seeing it as being this transformative moment which, having the ambition to be a director, helped me put into words the ‘why’ and the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of my ambition. But it also helped me find a language for the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.
What was it about the play that resonated with you?
There was something about how unapologetic, vivid and messy it was – in this play, people vomit, there’s blood, there’s sex, there’s drink, there’s talk of snot, it is completely full of the mess of life! I fell in love with it. I remember using that play for interviews to discuss hypothetical projects, and I’d always get the job but never the chance to put on the play. And so, having inspired me to become an artistic director and run a building like this since I was 17, it’s a real privilege to finally direct Road, especially in a venue like Northern Stage.
Why is now the right time for a play like Road?
The first paragraph of this play is our narrator, Scullery, welcoming an audience to a road and basically saying: this road is yours tonight; come with me as we meet the people who live here. And it just felt like this perfect symmetry, this perfect collision of stories that I was desperate to tell and also of where we are in time, as a society – as a place, as a region, as a city and as a building. With Road, we’re wanting to say: come back to us and come with us – this place is yours.
Why are audiences so important to theatres?
There’s some research by the UCL Division of Psychological and Language Sciences that shows that sitting in an audience watching a live theatre performance together can synchronise our heartbeats, even with people we don’t know. That’s what is so special about theatre – it connects us. We literally live together, in the auditorium. Audiences are literally our heartbeat. They’re certainly why I do what I do.
Your version of Road is still going to be set in the ‘80s. Why is it still relevant to us now?
At the heart of this play is a community whose industry, income and life blood has been erased and they’re trying to survive. There’s a generation who are grieving what has gone, grieving their identity as workers, and another generation of young people who feel betrayed and robbed of their future. I think about the generation who are graduating into a pandemic now and the ways in which they’ve been robbed of the future as they understood it. So, there’s that correlation.
Road is also about what it is to be neglected by the government; what it is to feel abandoned, left to struggle and suffer. And we know that there have always been experiences of oppression and poverty in Britain, and some of those have come to the forefront because of the pandemic. The Food Bank lines, the Marcus Rashford campaign, the knowledge that our children were going hungry without free school meals. And so, there is a correlation, I think, to the way in which the working classes are being treated – or not treated, and forgotten about – which is, unfortunately, the same. It’s that same wilful neglect.
Road is about community and resilience and I think, despite all I’ve said around the day-to-day ‘graft’ that is in Road, it’s also about people living together, finding humour in what’s hard, and looking out for each other. And I think, post-pandemic, we have all become really aware of our communities and our neighbours.
How did the casting process work?
It felt really important to me that this piece of work looked like the North East. As someone not from the North East myself, I felt like the region was telling itself a lie about who it was. That it had presented itself as – and other people had told me it was – a region which doesn’t have cultural or ethnic diversity.
Now, I’m speaking of Newcastle specifically, but that hasn’t been my experience of it. When I first arrived, I was surprised by how many people of colour there are here. And, having looked into the history of the region, I’ve also discovered that communities of colour have been in this place for years. There were black miners here in the North East in the ‘80s, for example. So, I really wanted to create a show that expanded our understanding of who we are. That had people of colour as part of the Northern canon.
So, we’ve cast five people of colour and five white actors. It also felt really important to me that there were North East actors in this, as I want to be making work with artists from this region. We did open auditions to start with, and then we worked with a casting director to make sure that we were looking really thoroughly. And we’ve got a really amazing ensemble.
And Road has a female-led production team, too?
Yes! We have a female lighting designer, a female set designer, a female movement director, a female assistant director, a female intimacy director. It has always been important to me that, particularly when so many stories are centred around the male experience – and Road is one of them – if we’re going to perform those plays then it’s balanced by women makers. That the female lens is applied to it.
How challenging is that?
Well, there are also women in the play and, because it’s set in the ‘80s, there were some challenges in that. It’s dated in the way that it talks about women and their bodies and that will require particular sensitivity. I’m heavily aware about what it means to do a piece of work from a very particular time, politic and approach to consent, today, in 2021 – where it’s not condoned, appropriate or acceptable. So, we need to treat that side of things with care.
Do you think there’s a responsibility that falls on theatre to reflect society honestly, in order to affect change?
I guess my feeling is, replication is not enough to create change. That, definitely, we need authenticity and integrity. But I think there also needs to be interrogation.
For example: there are two girls in Road who, as soon as they leave their house, are cat-called by Scullery. The play tells us they ‘giggle’. Women ‘giggle’ quite a lot in this play and I’ve been thinking about how laughter is often used to diffuse, how it’s used as a shield. So, you can read that stage direction and think: oh, the cat-calling of a 50-year-old man to them at 16 or 17 just doesn’t register. But I think our responsibility as artists is to give those characters a fullness – which means that they will still giggle in the play, but we need to think about what happens first: do they look at each other first and then decide to laugh? What’s the quality of that laughter? That’s the kind of subtle way of reinterrogating those abuses and ideas that I’m talking about.
So theatre could (and should) be used to empower, without changing a play necessarily?
Activism and change comes in so many different forms: it’s in the plays we choose to tell; who’s in the room – how many females are working on the project, how we cast it – but also I think there has to be perspective. I think theatre is at its best when it gives us possibilities. Simply replicating feels devoid of possibilities.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve experienced on your journey to become an Artistic Director?
Any challenges that I’ve had as a woman have been made more intense by being a black woman, specifically. On one hand, you can’t be it if you can’t see it. Simply knowing that it was possible for me was a challenge. To articulate a thing that you don’t know exists for you or that you can’t see takes courage.
However, I am a black Scottish woman and an only child: I’m used to being the only one! And so, that was helpful. I didn’t grow up in London where there are lots of black people, so I didn’t look at theatre and go: oh, this is a place where I don’t exist. I looked and thought: oh yeah, that looks like my road! That’s not a thing to celebrate, but it is the truth for me.
What are you most hoping to achieve as Artistic Director of Northern Stage?
I want theatre to become part of this region’s every day. I want it to be relevant and I want people here to feel a relationship to Northern Stage. I want the theatre to continue to feel welcoming and like it’s for everyone. My dream would be that a group of friends come to Northern Stage before they go out to a club. I’ve not been out clubbing in Newcastle yet, so I can’t even reference which club! But I’d love for theatre to become a real part of our cultural lives here.