Until three years ago, Battersea Arts Centre’s artistic director was working for the NHS. As he announces his first season at the south London venue, Tarek Iskander tells Lyn Gardner what theatre can learn about community engagement from his former employer and why those at the top need to cede power to bring about change
There are many routes into theatre, but few are as unusual as that taken by Tarek Iskander, the newish artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre, who has just unveiled his first season. It’s a heady mix of international collaboration, digital possibility and youth activism, which is all part of daily life – and indeed just the tip of the iceberg – at the former south London town hall with its strong history of political, social and artistic radicalism.
Until his mid-30s, Iskander was not what you might call passionate about theatre. A senior manager in the NHS, he would see a show maybe once a year and enjoy it, but it wasn’t important to him. But in 2005, his then partner heard that the Barbican was looking for extras to be part of the crowd for a large-scale staging of Julius Caesar starring Ralph Fiennes, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, directed by Deborah Warner. Iskander accompanied his girlfriend to the auditions to support her and ended up being cast himself. “She wasn’t cast, but I don’t think that was the reason we broke up,” he adds.
He may have lost a relationship, but it was the start of a love affair with theatre that over the past 10 years or so has been a roller-coaster ride. It led Iskander to co-found the Yard theatre with Jay Miller, before a stint at the Arts Council as head of theatre and his current job running Battersea Arts Centre. The venue is at the forefront of arts institutions that are questioning their purpose and mission and exploring how creativity can have an impact on individuals, the community and on wider public life. But he only finally gave up working in the NHS three years ago.
What was your first professional theatre job?
An extra in Julius Caesar at the Barbican in 2005.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My blind grandmother who started the first school for blind children in Egypt. My theatre influence is Purni Morell.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Only go for the things you really feel passionate about.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I would like to have been a poet. It may yet happen, although whether the world needs my poetry I don’t know.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
When I come into Battersea Arts Centre in the morning, I play two notes on the piano at the top of the stairs, one high and one low. If I do that, I think the day is going to be fantastic.
“Getting involved with theatre was a complete accident,” says Iskander, “but it changed my life. Watching all those actors up close and seeing how Warner worked was an unbelievable experience.” Pretty much on the spot he decided that he wanted to become a theatre director.
“It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t know what you don’t know. It is bliss. I walked into the Young Vic and said: ‘I have been watching Deborah Warner and I really think I can be a theatre director. Can you help me?’ Every career needs really generous people to say yes, and they said yes, and they helped me produce my first show.”
That show, Macbeth, created over 18 months in the evenings, was staged at Teatro Technis in Camden in 2006. There were only four people in the audience at the first performance. But good reviews and word of mouth ensured success and an extended run.
It was an auspicious beginning for this late-flowering theatre career, but the following decade was not easy, even though he directed shows at the Yard and the Unicorn. “I was constantly juggling earning a living. I always felt so behind everyone else. I had started so late that my peers were all so much younger than me. For a long time, I felt isolated. It was such a struggle to get every production on.”
After three years working at the Yard and unable to support himself, he threw in the towel and went back to working full-time in the NHS. But he so missed theatre that his partner, now his wife, suggested three years ago that he use their savings to take six months off and see whether this time he could make a go of it.
Within a month, he got a role at BAC as part of Up Next, an intervention developed by Artistic Directors of the Future, designed to hand over power and resources to black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee producers and artists, to gain practical leadership experience that comes with real influence attached. Two months later, he applied to become head of theatre at the Arts Council. He got the role. And then, last December, he was announced as David Jubb’s successor at Battersea Arts Centre.
It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind, but Iskander is far less concerned about consolidating his own power than in giving it away, something he believes all arts organisations need to do more if they are to be relevant and needed.
“Real change is never-ending, it is part of an evolving process. For much of my career I have felt like an outsider, and now I feel like the establishment. The question for people like me and others who are getting artistic director posts is how we ensure that we do not become the establishment,” he says.
“The responsibility is to fundamentally re-imagine what arts organisations can be and how they might operate. The advantage for someone like me is that nobody expects anything. Because people underestimate you, there is an opportunity to be mischievous. The pressure is off in some ways. But the responsibility for those of us who are now in these roles is to ensure that change continues and there is no going back. That means ceding power rather than protecting it. Once you have genuinely given power away it is very hard to take it back.”
Iskander was born in Sunderland and his family moved to Kuwait when he was five. They returned to the UK when he was 17 as they escaped the first Gulf War. If his background gives him a different perspective on theatre so too does his experience working as a manager in the NHS. The transferable skills from the latter have proved far more useful than the fact he has directed shows.
“The model and assumption that people who direct theatre are also the best people to run buildings would be high on my list of much-needed disruptions,” he says, before pointing out: “Being a theatre director is the least useful skill that I bring to the table in running Battersea Arts Centre. A lot of what I learned in the NHS is much more helpful. If you have directing experience it can give you a sympathy and empathy with what being an artist entails, but I think the ecology would be far healthier if it looked to producers and other people in other areas with transferable skills to run them.”
He also thinks it would be useful if artistic directors were appointed on fixed-term contracts.
‘Starting with the people is what the NHS does brilliantly – but cultural institutions are abysmal at being responsive’
Iskander reckons there is much that theatre could learn from the NHS. “In the arts we talk all the time about wanting to be relevant and what being relevant means. I worked for many years in hospitals where they are always relevant to absolutely everyone. Of course, it is very simple in medicine because everything is about the patient, so immediately you are starting with an individual person and their concerns and what matters to them.
“It is a way of thinking that is completely different from the cultural sector, which, at its worst, starts by saying: ‘This is our vision, this is what we are trying to do and want to achieve, so let’s see if we can engage people in doing that.’ Rather than starting with the people, which is what the NHS does brilliantly by necessity. The whole structure is set up to be responsive, and cultural institutions are absolutely abysmal at being responsive.”
He argues that the arts have to change by listening to what people need and want and what matters to them rather than creating missions and projects that people have to then fit into and with because it suits the theatre and its vision of itself.
“If you genuinely find out what matters to people you can then ask yourself as an organisation what resources do we have, what skills do we have that can contribute to those things that people say matter to them, rather than starting by saying these are things we are excited about and trying to find ways to make them important to other people,” he says.
“It’s a completely opposite way of starting. The NHS is brilliant at it and why people feel the NHS matters to them. It puts them at the centre, and I feel that is why people will fight for the NHS in a way that they wouldn’t ever fight for their cultural institutions. I genuinely want Battersea Arts Centre to matter to local people as much as their local hospital matters to them and I think that is possible if you change the way you are involved with them. They feel the NHS is for them and they feel a sense of ownership over it.”
But he believes a revolution is needed in the arts, and that requires those working within buildings and cultural institutions to rethink how they operate and communicate with those beyond their walls.
“We have to stop trying to force our opinions on others and start really listening and understanding and being open in a way that hasn’t happened before. We have to stop protecting things that don’t need protecting and stop operating on assumptions: how performance should work, what we do or do not value, what we think a cultural organisation does and should do.” He smiles: “What I really think is that we just need to start all over again with a fresh slate. Otherwise our theatres and arts buildings will just be irrelevant and empty.”
… Arts Council England
I loved being at the Arts Council. I felt very supported and I needed to be because I was an outsider. People working there are very knowledgeable and passionate. They really care, and it is a tough job trying to balance multiple demands and priorities. ACE can only be as radical as the people who work for it. If we as a sector throw our arms up when change is proposed, we will end up with a very conservative system. If we are vocal when radical things do happen and get behind them, then there will be change.
… national portfolio organisations
I am not a big fan of the NPO system. It creates winners and losers and division, and maybe some disruptive dismantlement of that and focus on bringing resources to independent artists would be welcome. I recognise that I am in a building that is an NPO – it wouldn’t be good news if we were not an NPO, but I still believe a more radical view is possible.
… Battersea Arts Centre
Everything extends from the architecture of the building, that it was once the town hall, and all the radical people who came through here like the suffragettes. Change is in its DNA. It makes you feel secure that you can keep adapting and respond to the world. Something solid will still be there for you to build on.
We have a responsibility to play to our strengths. BAC has always been a bit subversive and a bit mischievous. Maybe that allows us to push to places where other people might be a bit wary of going.
Bricks and mortar do matter and influence the way we think about ourselves, but really it boils down to people. The reason BAC’s values feel very alive is because of the people who work here, and who come here and internalise those values.
We are always looking for things that excite and inspire us and how we can support them. It’s not about owning them. We never feel the best ideas have to come from us – they come from other people. The less we are in control, the more exciting it is.
His first season is, he thinks, representative of what Battersea Arts Centre is trying to do. It includes shows such as Adam Lazarus’ slippery Daughter and Samira Elagoz’s Cock, Cock…Who’s There? – which were first seen in the UK at Edinburgh in 2018. Both throw down a challenge to audiences and speak to the here and now about the relationships between men and women. New Perspectives’ Jack McNamara is also working with disabled Belgian artist Thibault Delférière on a new trilogy – The Spirit – and Dreamthinkspeak is collaborating with Access All Areas in UnReal City, which will combine live performance, virtual and mixed reality to consider the cities of the future and whether we are losing our grip on reality.
Performance also rubs up against digital technology in Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, created with Kirsty Housley, in which the audience experiences the piece through both live action and Instagram on their phones. Analogue and digital combine in Autoreverse as artist Florencia Cordeu and Omar Elerian create an audio-visual experience exploring what it means to remember, inspired by a box of cassette tapes recorded by Cordeu’s Argentinian family when they fled the dictatorship. Jo Fong and Sonia Hughes bring their question-and-answer conversation piece Neither Here Nor There to Battersea, Sleepwalk Collective will premiere Swimming Pools and Lucy McCormick attempts to become an international pop sensation in her new piece.
Iskander is well aware that first seasons announced by new artistic directors always come under intense scrutiny, and points out that you can only really judge a body of work created over multiple years, but he is proud of it, particularly because none of the work is passive but genuinely challenges audiences. He says it reflects a lot of things that the whole team is passionate about. “It was a joint effort.”
At the season’s beating heart is another iteration of the Homegrown Festival, created by and for young people and with a global focus, and Coletiva Ocupação’s When It Breaks It Burns, in which 14 young people from Brazil reflect on their own stories about taking over and occupying their schools.
“It’s a co-created piece of activism and artistic expression by young people and it is very representative of what we are trying to do at Battersea,” says Iskander. “Having these young people from Brazil come here and meet young people from Wandsworth and from around the country will be a real creative exchange that fertilises and inspires.”
He argues that theatre must look to where the energy is coming from in the world today. “It is clear that is from youth activism. This new generation is not going to accept things the way they are and have long been. Theatre needs to learn from that because the tide is irresistible and if we don’t embrace change too, we will be swept away.”
‘BAC is not interested in art for art’s sake – but we are really interested in great art’
Iskander points to the fact that Battersea’s artistic programme cannot be separate from the rest of the building’s activity with local people and young people.
“The two have to be completely interlinked. They can’t sit in separate places. Fundamentally, we see ourselves as a hub for everyone’s creativity. The contentious thing to say is we are not a building that is interested in art for art’s sake, but we are really interested in great art. But I think everything we try to do and support is trying to deliver positive social change. It is a significant part of how we are programming so we are looking for the best ideas and best people we can find who together are trying to do something to change the world.
He continues: “We are less worried about ticket sales because we think our job is to take risks and if we do it properly, we will find audiences. A transaction is the least interesting kind of exchange. I am less interested in what BAC has to offer and more interested in what BAC has to learn from audiences and artists and everyone around us. That’s the only way forward.”
Born: 1973, Sunderland
• Qudz (2011) and Shiver (2012), Yard Theatre, London
• A Winter’s Tale, Batumi State Drama Theatre, Georgia (2015)
• Minotaur, Unicorn Theatre (2016)
Agent: Berlin Associates