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Theatre du Chatelet artistic director Ruth Mackenzie: ‘The UK doesn’t realise that culture binds communities together’

Ruth Mackenzie. Photo: Helene Pambrun Ruth Mackenzie. Photo: Helene Pambrun

Highly experienced festival director Ruth Mackenzie is jointly taking the helm of Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet. She tells Eleanor Turney how the venue embraces the citizens of the French capital, about her plans to continue its legacy of radical experimentation and why cultivating the right ethos is vital to attract the biggest names

Ruth Mackenzie is on her way to Heathrow, which is typical: she is programming international work for her last Holland Festival as artistic director and forging connections for her new post at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

“How lucky am I?” she asks. “I’ve got the opportunity to work with the most exciting artists in the world.”

Chatelet is currently closed for major building works – everything from the plumbing to the electrics to the facade is getting some TLC. This means that Mackenzie’s first show (a revival of Robert Carsen’s popular 2015 production of Singin’ in the Rain) will be off-site. Chatelet has a reputation for musicals, forged by previous artistic director Jean-Luc Choplin.

“Jean-Luc brought Sondheim to Paris for the first time, and did musicals at a level of quality that matched the opera house that Chatelet was before it became a theatre. So we thought: where do we go after Jean-Luc?

“The answer is to keep doing musicals, because they reach hundreds of thousands of people. But we’ve got to innovate as well. We hope to find the next generation of innovation.”

Ruth Mackenzie (top); Dan Burton in Theatre du Chatelet’s Singin’ in the Rain at the Grand Palais

Chatelet has an astonishing history, and Mackenzie wants to continue in the same tradition of radical experimentation, while maintaining the theatre’s track record for big musicals: “Chatelet opened in 1862 and it has always tried to find new ways of working. In the 20th century, it was the home of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Cocteau and Ravel. Picasso painted scenery – it was the place to be.

“It’s where Pina Bausch would come, where Robert Wilson did his Ring Cycle, where Einstein on the Beach happened, where Merce Cunningham worked – all these revolutionary artists. I’m a huge believer in picking up on the tradition of revolution and innovation.”

Starting with Singin’ in the Rain may seem like a safe choice, but with the theatre closed, an ambitious new home has been found: “We’re putting it on in the Grand Palais, an enormous 19th-century greenhouse at the bottom of the Champs-Elysees, into which we have to build a 2,500-seat theatre. It’s going to have proper rain – you’ve got to have rain – and it needs to reproduce a pretty high-tech, complicated and beautiful show. It’s an absolute baptism of fire.”

Mackenzie’s career has been a series of such baptisms, from being special adviser to culture secretaries, to serving as director of the London 2012 Festival, via stints at Chichester Festival Theatre, Arts Council England, Nottingham Playhouse, Manchester International Festival and Scottish Opera. While getting started at Chatelet, she recently curated an artistic programme for CityLab Paris, Mike Bloomberg’s summit for mayors and city leaders from around the world.

“We had Elizabeth Streb’s Extreme Action Group open the conference at 9am in the Continental Hotel – a more unsuitable place would have been hard to find, but it was incredible. We also did a concert with West African musicians who live in Paris at the Musee d’Orsay, and we did extracts from Singin’ in the Rain at the Musee Picasso.

“That mix of artists was a great calling card for what we want to do and for what Paris has to offer – here are the people who show you what it’s like to live in Paris today.”

About half of Chatelet’s budget comes directly from the city of Paris, and Mackenzie is keen to make Chatelet a place where everyone in the city feels welcome: “The last interview for this job was with the mayor herself, which is significant. I can’t think of many other cities where the mayor would do the interviews for this kind of job. But it’s Paris, and the theatre is a big deal.


Q&A: Ruth Mackenzie

What was your first non-theatre job? I was an au pair in Paris after I left school. I did a course in French civilisation at the same time at the Sorbonne, but learnt more French from the children I looked after as the Sorbonne was on strike for most of the time. 

What was your first job in theatre/the arts? My first job after university was working as the editor’s assistant for Time Out – a brilliant job.

What is your next job? I hope we can do 10 years at Chatelet, so I’m not thinking beyond that. 

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? No one ever said: never accept no for an answer, never censor your ambitions, aim as high as you can dream, it is always possible to find the partners and the ways to make the impossible possible – but that’s what I tell anybody who asks.

Who or what is your biggest influence? I could give you a list of inspirational artists, but the honest answer would be the colleagues I work with now.

If you hadn’t been an artistic director, what would you have done? You work in the arts because you have to – I fell in love with the arts when I was at school and that was that. But for me, the arts is about trying to change the world, so if I couldn’t work in the arts I would have had to go into politics, which I have also loved since my school days. 

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I love doing personal first-night cards, but that isn’t unusual. I respect the superstitions of the theatre, of course, but in truth the three times I have worked on productions of Macbeth, I have never really believed in avoiding the word ‘Macbeth’ and nothing bad has happened yet.

“Our pitch was that since every single person in Paris is paying for the theatre, every single person in Paris should feel that it is their theatre. Chatelet has always had a record of developing new art forms to engage with audiences, from the 19th century, when it developed a new form of operetta for ordinary working people, to the sensational innovations of Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso in the 20th century, to the recent successes of Jean-Luc Choplin.

“We are building on great traditions when we say we want everybody in Paris to feel Chatelet is theirs – we are keen to invent the next chapter of working with our local communities to develop art forms that use the expertise of many Parisians in a rich mix of forms from around the world.

“We [Mackenzie and Thomas Lauriot dit Prevost] applied for this job together, and we’ve had six months developing our values: the first of those is community and the second is finding extraordinary artists who want to go on adventures.”

Prevost is French and worked at Chatelet until 2013, before moving to La Monnaie in Brussels. He and Mackenzie met while working on Monkey: Journey to the West for Manchester International Festival in 2007, which was co-produced by Chatelet.

Although Mackenzie won’t reveal any programming plans for when the building reopens in autumn 2019, she’s clearly busy: “In 2018, we have the chance to begin work with partners all over Paris, develop ideas and talent, explore new ways of working, try out work with new audiences in local community venues. We will announce opportunities for local people to get involved in early 2018.

Elizabeth Streb’s Extreme Action Group performing at CityLab Paris. Photo: Melanie Leigh Wilbur
Elizabeth Streb’s Extreme Action Group performing at CityLab Paris. Photo: Melanie Leigh Wilbur

“Plus, we hope to have a couple of pop-up surprises in 2018 and 2019. You start by thinking about the communities that you’re there to serve, communities who don’t yet make full use of the joy, inspiration and provocation that the arts can offer.”

When Mackenzie helmed the London 2012 Festival, her pitch to artists was ‘this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, you have the world listening to you’. But, she says: “Now it turns out to be a twice-in-a-lifetime chance, because Paris has just won the Olympic Games for 2024. So I’m thrilled about that.

“The thing that’s frustrating about doing the Olympics is that you get to the end and then you understand what you should have done. When you’re running a theatre or an opera house or a festival, you can learn from your mistakes. You get to the end of London 2012 and think, ‘Damn, I’m never going to get a chance to apply this wisdom that I have now acquired.’

“The International Olympic Committee requires all Olympic cities to include a cultural programme but with seven years to go, understandably nothing is yet in place. The Mayor of Paris’ office has been consulting with cultural and community leaders for over a year. I have already had informal discussions with cultural colleagues. What I really look forward to is having time to explore and invent and try out things, and prepare to get Paris 2024 to be even better than London 2012.”

The Olympics in Paris will obviously be a very different prospect from the London 2012 Games, and I ask Mackenzie what the other differences are between the two cities. “The UK still doesn’t understand that culture is the glue that binds your community together, that makes a successful, thriving city. I think Paris – and Amsterdam – understand that.”

Mackenzie has worked with international artists at every turn, and shows no signs of slowing down. “When I was at Nottingham Playhouse, we wanted to invite Peter Brook, the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg, Robert Lepage and Nederlands Dans Theater, and everybody thought we were mad.

“But I discovered that if you say, ‘We’d love to co-commission you, we admire you – please come to Nottingham,’ people will say yes. And once you’ve had Peter Brook, you can say to others, ‘Well, Peter Brook came, couldn’t you come, too?’ Once you realise that it’s possible to work with the best in the world, why would you ever stop?”

Profile: Theatre Du Chatelet

Artistic director: Ruth Mackenzie
General director: Thomas Lauriot dit Prevost
Board chairman: Sebastien Bazin
Founded: 1862
Location: Paris, France
Capacity: 2,008
Audience (2015-16): approximately 300,000 
Staff: 130
Turnover (2015-16): approximately €30 million (£26.9 million)
Funding: City of Paris – approximately 50% of budget
Key contact: Edouard Dagher, press officer, edagher@chatelet-theatre.com

Ruth Mackenzie: ‘A festival should be a place for everyone to go a bit wild’

CV: Ruth Mackenzie

Born: London, 1957
Training: Newnham College, Cambridge
Major festivals worked on: Manchester International Festival, Holland Festival, Vienna Festival, London 2012 Festival
Major theatres worked at: Southbank Centre, Nottingham Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre, Scottish Opera
Awards: Peter Brook Empty Space Special Achievement Award (2012)
Agent: None

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