As his first play since taking over at Live Theatre opens, the artistic director tells Tracey Sinclair about his plans for building on the legacy and reputation of the new-writing venue and why accessibility will always be a priority
When Joe Douglas took over at Live Theatre in Newcastle, he replaced an artistic director in Max Roberts who had run the venue for 30 years. Roberts’ legacy is “extraordinary”, Douglas said at the time, and the Live’s reputation is “mighty”. It is his job to build on both. The 35-year-old former freelance director felt the new-writing venue was a “good fit artistically”. He says: “The stories it tells are so rooted in the history and culture of the city. It was that sense of popular, political, radical theatre that I love and want to champion and want to do myself.”
Having found the London theatre scene “impenetrable” after training in the capital, Douglas built a successful career in Scotland, including stints at the National Theatre of Scotland – “I basically followed John Tiffany around for two years” – and Dundee Rep, where his productions included an award-winning Death of a Salesman and a successful revival of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.
It has prepared him well for the role in Newcastle, where he took over in April. “There are real similarities I recognise, particularly from Glasgow and Dundee, in that sense of a post-industrial city, the politics of that and the way that brings people together.”
Founded in 1973 as a touring company and based on Newcastle’s Quayside since the early 1980s, Live Theatre flourished under Roberts’ tenure. Recent hits include long-time collaborator Lee Hall’s Olivier-winning Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour – a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland – and The Red Lion by Patrick Marber, which Roberts directed. This production – retooled from the original that played at the National Theatre – started at Live before transferring to the West End. Hall’s West End and Broadway hit The Pitmen Painters also premiered at Live. Actor Robson Green trained there, while Tim Healy, a star of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, was a founder member of the company.
Douglas continues: “The work that Live does has to have a really clear social and political raison d’etre. That sense of speaking to the moment, of taking a thorny issue by the horns and saying: ‘Okay, where are we on this?’ and exploring it from different angles is important to me, in terms of the stories we present.”
The first show he has directed since taking over is Clear White Light, which opened last week. Douglas sees the piece – a retelling of House of Usher that features songs by local hero Alan Hull, from the band Lindisfarne, and addresses NHS cuts – as a perfect example of what Live does well.
“I was attracted to it by the issues. The fact that it’s about mental health, and mental health provision,” he says. “I really enjoyed the way the music melded with the narrative. I love that it’s quite hard to categorise as a play. I like it when there’s something a bit different about a piece.”
With Clear White Light, he has already been working with the local community, engaging with people who work in the hospital where the story is set.
There is a focus on accessibility that Douglas is keen to foster. Live runs a number of programmes aimed at emerging writers – including young writers of colour – and independent theatremakers. These include sessions for local artists and open castings. “I love that we are able to offer opportunities for artists at all levels,” Douglas says.
Live’s talent development works on a “four-level basis”, the artistic director continues, ranging from the absolute beginners to “your Lee Halls and Shelagh Stephensons”. He adds: “The ambition is that we become a real developer of talent. Some of the writers we’re working with currently will end up having plays on at the National Theatre, or in the West End.”
This emphasis on accessibility extends to the audience and he wants people from the city to feel at home at the venue. “You get people who come because it feels like their local theatre. It’s about the informality of the space. You want people to be able to come in, sit down and make themselves at home,” he says.
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first theatre job?
Winding a winch backstage in Tom’s Midnight Garden at the Library Theatre in Manchester in 2001.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t be afraid.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Annie Castledine, RIP.
What is your best advice for auditions?
We want you to do your best. Always keep that in the back of your mind.
If you hadn’t been an artistic director, what would you have been?
A club singer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Wearing my wedding kilt on press night became a bit of a thing north of the border. I’ll probably bring that one down with me to Live Theatre.
“People come for different reasons. Some out of habit, some because they’re seven years old and their school has brought them. If that’s the entry point, that’s great. I want everyone in Newcastle to engage with it in some way, to connect with it.”
In a city well-served by theatre – with both Northern Stage and the Theatre Royal just up the road – it’s Live’s commitment to this kind of new writing that keeps it vital and enabled it to score recent coups such as the British premiere of Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints.
“It’s about great writing. Great new stories. The fact that they are really contemporary stories. It has to stem from the story. It has to stem from the writer, usually, at the heart of it. And that comes from our development of writers and encouraging them to express themselves and get to the heart of the stories that they want to tell,” Douglas says.
“Stories will always be… if not set in Newcastle, they’ll be drawn from that culture, the ones that we produce ourselves. They have to have that authentic ‘local-universal’ feel. And particularly be about working people. That’s what Live Theatre’s always been about. There’s no point taking on stories here that do anything else.”
Born: 1983, Manchester
Training: Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance
• The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, Dundee Rep (2015 and 2016)
• Death of a Salesman, Dundee Rep (2017)
• Death of a Salesman won three awards at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland 2017
• Educating Ronnie, which Douglas wrote and performed (2012)
• Letters Home (2014)
• The Red Shed by Mark Thomas (2016)
• Stand By, by Adam McNamara (2017)
Clear White Light runs until November 10