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Wils Wilson: ‘I enjoy drawing out the quirkiness a space can offer’

Wils Wilson. Photo: Simon Murphy Wils Wilson. Photo: Simon Murphy

Just outside Edinburgh, about a 40-minute drive if the traffic’s good, you’ll find the Fala Flow moor – 800 acres of mossy wetland with a glassy, low-lying loch at its centre. It’s home, in the winter, to a vast flock of pink-footed geese, some 2,400 in total, and provides a nesting ground for thousands more breeding birds: curlews, dunlins, redshanks. It’s lush in the summer, perfect peat beneath the green surface, but in colder months, it’s moody and harsh: Scotland as a picture postcard.

It’s Wils Wilson’s job to bring all of that into the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s rehearsal room this August. The 46-year-old is directing the opening show of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival: Wind Resistance, a song-cycle-cum-gig by local folk musician Karine Polwart and a hymn to Fala Flow. The question is: how?

As Wilson says: “You can’t bring the actual place – especially something as wild as a moor – into the theatre.”

Wils Wilson (right), with Karine Polwart
Wils Wilson (right), with Karine Polwart

She’s there as we speak – or near enough. Behind Wilson, in the Skype window on my laptop screen, is the bluest of blue skies. Beneath it: fresh green trees and dry stone walls. Her team is rehearsing in an artist’s studio on Fala Flow’s edge, and, as Wilson walks around the site, smartphone in hand, trying to cling to a Wi-Fi connection, trills of birdsong ping out of my speakers – natural and digital, distant but present. “It’s perfect here,” she says. “The fact that we’re not in the theatre, with all its strange conventions, really helps.”

Fala Flow holds a special significance for Polwart. She’s lived her entire adult life within its reach, and, says Wilson, “talks about the moor in terms of sanctuary and refuge”. Her blog, about the show’s progress, conjures “bog cotton” and “glittering wood moss”, but also the moor’s long and complicated history: wind turbines, grouse farms and protection policies. “There are loads of layers to what the moor is in the show – almost like plunging a cylinder into ice to read the history of the water.” All of that is being compacted, like so much peat, into a series of songs.

Polwart, then, will be our route to Fala Flow. “We’re following her down into the moor, rather than actually being there,” Wilson explains. “It’s all seen through her experience of it, so the setting is kind of Karine’s working studio. It’s like putting her head on stage, as if she’s doing an investigation into the moor.” The aim is to bring individual elements, significant items and sensory states, into the room: “Things like the mosses and the birds, the sounds, the sense of space and the light are all really vital to the content.”

Place has always been central to Wilson’s work. She spent a decade making site-specific performance and installation art as one half of Wilson and Wilson. Founded in 1997, the company consolidated a creative partnership with Louise Ann Wilson (no relation), a Linbury Prize finalist with “a huge sense for place”. If site-specific work has since solidified, it owes its beginnings to female artists: Deborah Wilson, Geraldine Pilgrim, Wilson and Wilson.

Wils Wilson with Karine Polwart and at Fala Flow
Wilson with Karine Polwart at Fala Flow. Photo: Sandy Butler

Setting the company up was a leap in the dark for Wilson, then 27: “Do I stay in London or do I go and make work somewhere that means something to me?” It took her back to her home town, Huddersfield, to transform two dilapidated terraced houses into historical sites, unearthing the past through objects and words in House. “These collapsing walls breathe and speak,” wrote The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner, “tell stories, weep tears, pulsate with anger, yield up its secrets.” Thereafter, Wilson and Wilson made street tours of Sheffield, reopened a Watford department store and breathed art into Yorkshire’s Mulgrave Woods.

There’s a politics to this work. Freed from institutional settings, art is accessible in a different way, engages with the world in a different way. Moving into mainstream theatre, back towards institutions, Wilson has brought that with her. She staged David Greig’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart in pubs and working-men’s clubs: a raucous knees-up of a show with wee drams and folk singalongs. In Praxis Made Perfect, for National Theatre Wales, she turned a Neon Neon gig into grand, gaudy political theatre in a Cardiff warehouse. Even in traditional spaces, she tries to disrupt the theatrical event. Gastronauts turned the Royal Court Upstairs, London, into a theatrical restaurant.

“The space and the connection with an audience go completely hand in hand. The fact that your audience are sitting in a strange configuration, you rewrite their connection to and their relationship with what they’re seeing.” The impulse goes back beyond Wilson and Wilson to her first shows in pub theatres on the London fringe. “They’re not theatres, they’re rooms. I really enjoyed using all their quirkiness, drawing out what those spaces already offered.”

Again, it’s political. “My work is always, I think, looking for a kind of democracy.”

Trace that back to school, where theatre was formative for Wilson. At her Huddersfield comp, theatre meant “being able to do things and talk about things that weren’t on the cards elsewhere in that environment”. She adds: “I enjoyed the subversion of theatre and I think I still do: the way it’s just off the norm.”

Q&A: Wils Wilson

What was your first non-theatre job? A Saturday job in the lighting department at BHS in Huddersfield. I reckoned I’d lucked out.

What was your first professional theatre job? My first actual paid directing job was at Bolton Octagon for Lawrence Till when he was artistic director there. He was brilliant at taking a chance on emerging directors. I recently heard from Vicky Featherstone that he gave her her first directing job, too. A wonderful man.

What’s your next job? Moving house.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That it takes time. The whole thing takes time. And that’s a good thing.

Who or what was your biggest influence? That’s so difficult – there are so many incredible people and inspiring things. But if I find I am stuck or confused, I take myself out for a long walk across Midgley Moor, just a stone’s throw from where I live.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Be curious. Be there, really there.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? If I had less itchy feet, maybe a cellist – I still love to play but can’t devote enough time to it to ever get off my own personal plateau. Or maybe I’d have got started earlier and had a bigger family…

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Superstitions are so tempting, but I aspire to be a rationalist, so no. Or that’s what I’d like to believe.

In a streamed school, with pupils separated by ability, theatre crossed social barriers. “People that struggled academically would be amazing at acting or lighting. I loved that,” says Wilson. For a top-set sort such as herself, “theatre was a way out of the good-girl mould”.

If she took the good-girl’s route to the University of Oxford, to read English, Wilson also deviated from it. A year travelling took her to Louisana – “the deep, deep south” – to work in a tiny theatre, turning her hand to anything: “I was a carpenter, a lighting designer and a sound designer – very much learning technically, which has always been really useful. It’s helped me to build teams.”

Her approach remains collaborative and hands-on; inventive because it’s pragmatic. “With Wils, you end up with a show no one else would come up with,” says Grieg, who appointed her a Lyceum associate. “She doesn’t turn up with the answers, so she arrives at new answers.”

Next June, Greig has got her directing Peter Handke’s wordless piece The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other; a community cast will criss-cross his town square. Her problem is the theatre itself – her first space with stalls and a circle. “The architecture is riven with class,” she frets. “The simple fact of the King’s seat – the one seat where everything looks perfect.” Her challenge is to deconstruct that, to democratise it, and, to do so, she’s sought inspiration from Europe – grand old theatres that defy their inbuilt hierarchies. “If you sit in those theatres, they don’t feel anything other than totally democratic and totally engaged.”

Really, it’s not about space, but audiences – “a body of people who share the same thing”. Site-specific work makes you “think through every moment of your audience’s journey, what their experience was. That’s always in there – even if they are just sitting down”.

You can’t separate a show from its frame – and the frame changes how and what we see. That was Wilson and Wilson’s central tenet and it has stayed with Wilson ever since. “We always used to say that you give people a new pair of glasses to see the world through – even if it’s only for a moment. Seeing strangers and places in a different way. That’s something I always come back to.”

CV: Wils Wilson

Born: 1969, Huddersfield
Training: “There wasn’t much formal training for directors when I started out. I would say my most important training was assisting other directors – including Katie Mitchell and Bill Bryden – and spending a lot of time with actors.”
Landmark productions: House (1998), The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, National Theatre of Scotland (2011), Praxis Makes Perfect, National Theatre Wales (2013), I Want My Hat Back, National Theatre (2015)
Awards: Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland for Gobbo (2006), CATS for Home-Shetland (2006), Herald Angel award for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (2011), CATS for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (2011), Welsh Theatre Critics award for best director for Praxis Makes Perfect (2014)
Agent: Rachel Taylor, Casarotto Ramsay

Wind Resistance runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, August 6-21